If you are, or ever have been, someone who wakes up early, ready for your workout or morning meditation, then you know about the bliss afforded by fresh daylight. If you're not in on the secret, here's the scoop: Despite the relentless pace and demands of our lives, the early morning hours belong to you. They're sacred. If you want to sleep through them, by all means do—especially if you're a teenager, but we'll get to that. For the rest of us, this window of time can provide the rare, relatively undisturbed opportunity to think, work, plan, and play—helping us to meet our goals, rather than chase them.
While morning chaos leaves so many of us frazzled and spent before the workday's even begun, highly successful types put this period to precious use—to brainstorm, for example, or exercise, writes author Laura Vanderkam in her new book, What the Most Successful People do Before Breakfast. "Learning to use our mornings well is, in our distracted world, what separates achievement from madness. Before the rest of the world is eating breakfast, the most successful people have already scored daily victories that are advancing them toward the lives they want."
Studies have found that early risers feel more in control of their lives. Makes sense. We've all planned after-work activities that elude us; it's easy to put off time at the gym after a long day, when we're tired and still have to deal with daily demands like tending to a relative or running an errand before stores close. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that those who exercise in the morning have been found to be more consistent.
But if nothing else, being a morning person is practical. Most of the world opens for business by 9 a.m. If that's when you need to be at work, staying up until the wee hours won't get you the seven to nine hours of sleep you need. Even if you do have a flexible work schedule, it's tough to sleep in when everyone else is up and at 'em. As James Maas, author of Sleep for Success! and former chair of Cornell University's psychology department, puts it: "If you're trying to sleep 'til 10 or 11, good luck; not gonna happen. The phone's going to ring. The kids have to go to school." You get the idea.
Our sleep schedules follow the circadian rhythm, a 24-hour energy cycle that revolves around light and temperature, explains Atlanta-based psychiatrist Tracey Marks, author of Master Your Sleep. "It's better for us to be morning people because that's how our bodies were designed," says Marks. "We are supposed to be awake when it's light outside and asleep when its dark outside."
These rules don't apply to teenagers, whose growth hormones have them operating on an entirely different plane of behavior. "The teenage brain is set to go to sleep at 3 a.m. and wake up at 11 in the morning," says Maas, who's been helping some of the country's most prestigious prep schools delay the start of the school day for increased academic and athletic performance.
Still, both youth and adults who consider themselves morning people report being happier and healthier than their late-sleeping peers, according to a recent study published in Emotion, a journal of the American Psychological Association.
If you tend to get your groove on at night, blame genetics. "Whether you're an owl or a lark is kind of passed on by Mom and Dad," says Maas. The challenge for many people boils down to staying up too late and irregular sleep schedules, leading to insufficient sleep, Maas says. However, such habits can be adjusted—and you too can join the land of the larks.
Both Maas and Marks swear by light therapy. That means exposure to sunlight, or a light box that mimics it, when you want to wake up. Throw open the curtains if you want to wake up with the sun, or use a light box to shift your schedule. Within the first hour of waking, you'll want to angle the box 45 degrees from you for a period of 15 minutes to announce to your brain that it's morning, says Maas. You can do this while you're getting ready or eating breakfast.
Forging new habits requires consistency. Start by setting a regular bedtime. "You've got to anchor the morning wake-up, and then count back the eight hours," Maas says. That goes for weekends, too. "You don't have two biological clocks."