I’ve never been a morning person. So when my husband Nathan and I got a dog several years ago, I had it all worked out: Lexie would wake us at 6:30 every morning, eager to hit the dog run, and I’d hop out of bed, ready to start the day.
In reality, Lexie discovered at a young age that heaven is a queen-sized bed and a warm duvet. Lexie, it turns out, is my spirit animal.
“Morning people make up only a small portion of the population,” says sleep expert Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of The Power of When. And it’s not easy to join their ranks. I’d have to “hack” my circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells your body when to wake and sleep. See, unlike those early risers, I never really feel rested. I struggle to fall asleep and even more so to stay that way, often waking up several times throughout the night, startled by a noisy neighbor or worried about something I need to do the next day.
In other words, without a major intervention – light therapy, melatonin – I’ll never be the girl skipping to 6 a.m. yoga. But Breus assures me that, if I stay disciplined, I can at least snag a few stress-free minutes with Nathan and Lex each morning.
First, I need to improve my sleep. Consistency is key, he says: I have to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. (11 p.m. and 7 a.m., I decide.) I also need to get 15 minutes of sunlight during the day – it helps reset your internal clock, Breus explains – and cut out caffeine by roughly 2 p.m. and alcohol by around 8. (I’m not a drinker, coffee or otherwise, or else I’d probably quit this experiment before it begins.) And finally, an hour before bed, I need to power down my devices and the TV, since blue light can disrupt your body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
The Sunday night after my conversation with Breus, I start winding down at 10 p.m. A half an hour later I’m in bed with a book, but instead of reading, my mind is racing with all the stuff I could be doing if I weren’t trying so hard to relax. I ask Nathan to double check that I set the alarm on my phone – three alarms, actually, since it usually takes a few tries to get me up – and lay down, dreading the morning ahead.
When the third alarm goes off, I nudge Nathan and tell him he should shower first. As soon as the water turns on, I drift back to sleep, floating in and out of consciousness for close to an hour. (I’m weak, okay?) When I’m finally out the door, I time my commute carefully to make sure I get 15 minutes of sunlight on the way to work. By the time I come home, it’ll be dark.
Later in the evening, after I’ve brushed my teeth and washed my face, I unbox one of the alarm clocks I’m testing this week. Sense ($150; amazon.com) is so smart. The orb-shaped alarm clock sits on your nightstand and connects via Bluetooth to a tracker on your pillow. Together, they monitor your movement during the night and wake you up when you’re in your lightest stage of sleep, up to 30 minutes before your chosen time.
Setting the clock up cuts into my device-free time – I forgot that Sense is linked with an app – but it’s so pretty that I don’t even care. I turn off the lights at exactly 11 p.m., anxious to see how I’ll feel in the morning.
Sense goes off at about 6:50, and I’m surprisingly alert. I wave my hand over the orb to silence the alarm, and grab my phone to see how I slept last night. It’s even worse than I thought. According to the data Sense collected, I slept soundly for only about four hours. Four hours. I remember now that our cat Maddy kept sneezing during the night. I set a reminder in my phone to call the vet, put the phone back on the nightstand, and close my eyes for a few minutes. The next thing I know, it’s 7:30.
I’m at my desk mid-afternoon, snacking on a piece of leftover Halloween candy, when I realize that the problem isn’t waking up. It’s getting out of bed. (Seconds later, I also remember that the chocolate I’m munching on contains caffeine. Hmph.) I decide to bring out the big guns tonight: Clocky ($40; amazon.com), a wheeled alarm clock that runs away.
At home, Nathan insists on leaving Clocky on the floor next to the bed. It can jump from the nightstand – or any surface up to three feet high – but we live on the top floor of our apartment building, and he doesn’t want to disturb the neighbors. I read a few chapters of my book and turn in for the night.
Clocky rolls toward our dresser at 7 a.m., and I frantically chase it down, banging my knee on the footboard of the bed, and finally collapsing on the floor in front of our closet. Lexie and Nathan are awake now, too. She’s growling at the foot of the bed, fur hiked, and he’s on his phone, presumably emailing a divorce attorney. One thing’s for sure, though: I’m awake. We spend the rest of the morning getting ready and playing with Lex.
I’ve done so well sticking with Breus’ advice – until tonight. The Cubs and Indians are playing extra innings in the final game of the World Series, and I can’t not watch. When we finally head to bed, it’s nearly 1:30 in the morning. I plug in a wake-up light from Philips ($170; philips.com), and set it for the usual 7 a.m. It gradually lights your bedroom, starting 30 minutes before the alarm, which experts say decreases levels of melatonin so you wake up naturally. Here’s hoping.
I wake up to the sound of birds chirping and realize it’s the alarm clock. Our bedroom is bathed in a soft glow. I reach for my phone and scroll through the morning’s headlines. Nathan’s starting to stir now, too. “This is different,” he says. I’m not sure if he means me or the clock – I’m perfectly awake when I should be exhausted, so it could really go either way. I stay in bed with Lex while he showers and then hop up and get ready for work, feeling surprisingly rested.
Tonight, I’m determined to do everything by the book. No Halloween candy. No late-night TV. When it’s time to get ready for bed, I set an alarm on my phone for 7:10 a.m. and leave it in the bathroom. The wake-up light worked, but I need that Clocky-like push to actually get out of bed, instead of laying there awake, scrolling through Twitter. Lex and I curl up in bed with a book, and pretty soon I’m ready to pass out.
When the birds start chirping again at 7 a.m., I’m wide awake. Lexie is curled up in the crook of my knees. I reach down and pet her for a few minutes and then climb out of bed, eager to get to the alarm in the bathroom before it can go off. When I return to put my phone on top of the dresser and grab a change of clothes, she’s sitting at the end of the bed, looking somewhat betrayed by this whole thing. I promise to make it up to her later, and I do when I’m able to join her and Nathan on their walk. Because I’m somewhat of a morning person now. And it feels good.