Stop hitting snooze! There is a better way to wake up early and get to your 8AM class on time.
Sure, it takes discipline to become accustomed to a new habit (some studies show that it takes an average of 66 days to get into a new habit), but waking up earlier is worth it.
I know you probably want to stay under your covers until the sun is high in the sky, but maybe you’ll change your mind after reading this article. It turns out that those who wake up earlier are more successful in life than their sleepy counterparts.
This post will give you the tools you need to take control of your sleeping schedule and become more successful. I even talked to a professor at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine and found out some shocking truths about waking up early.
Waking Up Early Can Improve Your GPA
If you identify as a night owl, the dark hours might be the time of day that you shine your brightest. So why bother changing your groovy rhythm and waking up early at all?
Well, do you want to improve your GPA? Waking up early might be the answer. A study by researchers at the University of North Texas observed the connection between the sleeping habits and grades of 824 undergrads.
The results were stunning.
On average, students who were morning people had GPAs that were a full point higher than the night owl students.
One simple reason for this phenomenon could be that the early risers are more likely to make their 8 AM classes. Fewer absences and tardies means fewer missed assignments and a higher GPA. Perhaps, in this context, the early bird really does get the worm.
A second reason may be that early risers are more productive. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, biologist Christoph Randler reveals the results of a survey of 367 university students, which found that morning people tend to be more proactive than their night owl counterparts.
Being proactive helps you to accomplish your to-do list more efficiently, which leads to higher productivity and success. It’s good to be proactive.
Getting Enough Sleep Is Important for Your Brain
Early risers may also be more successful in life because they have better sleep habits overall. Not only does waking up early improve academic performance, but so does getting enough sleep to begin with. A study published in the Journal of School Health showed a correlation between inadequate sleep and poor school performance. Apparently not getting enough sleep is bad for your grades.
Even more concerning is a recent study by Penn Medicine that correlates a lack of sleep with a loss of neurons. Scientists deprived some poor, little mice of sleep and forced them to stay up watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver (well… maybe that wasn’t their exact method). They found that the sleep-deprived mice suffered from a decrease in neurons in their brains. These neurons are essential for alertness and cognition.
What’s worse, “catching up on sleep”—say, on Saturday mornings—doesn’t rebuild these lost neurons. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. A lifetime of sleep deprivation could ultimately lead to cognitive problems down the road.
Maybe there is some credence to the 18th century proverb “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” In study after study, getting enough sleep and waking up early have been shown to directly affect your health and success.
Now that I’ve established why waking up early and getting enough sleep are important, let’s talk about some of the ways that you can actually accomplish this.
How to Wake Up Early: Quit Drinking Coffee
I know you’re thinking, “Armed with my Venti Skinny Vanilla Latte from Starbucks, I have no problem waking up in the morning.”
Well, my friend, I’m about to ruin your day (and your coffee), and for that I apologize.
I’m a coffee lover too.
However, I’ve noticed something funny about coffee. Besides its addictive qualities—the siren–like appeal of its aroma and its delicious flavor—when I get into a coffee habit, I have a harder time waking up in the mornings. The snooze button becomes my best friend.
Despite my affection for all things coffee bean, I have successfully weaned myself from the stuff. Guess what? Without coffee, I discovered that I don’t even have to set an alarm to wake up. My body just wakes up naturally at 7:30 AM.
I know that when it comes to your beloved coffee, you don’t want to believe me. My own experience certainly isn’t enough to persuade any coffee lover to give up his cup of joe.
With this in mind, I reached out to Quentin Regestein, M.D., associate psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and associate professor at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine. He has a scientific opinion or two… or three… of his own on the problem of coffee.
Here’s what Dr. Regestein had to say about the coffee phenomenon:
Me: Hello, Dr. Regestein, thanks for talking to me today. I’m excited to share your information with our readers.
Dr. R.: It’s my pleasure! Principled information makes the world a better place.
Me: Ha, yes! I like that. So, is there any scientific basis to the idea that drinking coffee can actually make it harder to wake up in the morning?
Dr. R.: Absolutely, yes. In fact, a pharmacologist named Avram Goldstein went through some Stamford graduate student dormitories about 45 years ago, asking residents how much coffee they drank and how sleepy they felt upon arising in the morning. The more they drank, the sleepier they became.
Me: But why? Isn’t coffee a stimulant?
Dr. R.: Yes, but here’s why it makes sense. First of all, caffeine has a 12-20 hour duration of action in our plasma, so the coffee you drink at breakfast can potentially disturb your sleep that night.
Me: And a disturbed night’s sleep would make you less refreshed in the morning.
Dr. R.: Exactly. Let me give you an example of how caffeine can affect a person.
Dr. R: A 36-year-old psychiatrist with insomnia liberated herself from all possible insomnia provocateurs, including irregular arising times, exciting evening events, bedroom TV viewing, her troublesome boyfriend, stimulating meds, etc. Allexcept for a single cup of coffee with breakfast. I shrugged and suggested, well, maybe there’s a chance that this is the problem; it won’t hurt to quit it.
She quit that one cup of coffee and slept soundly thereafter. I could hardly believe this until I met others who were also supersensitive to caffeine, like the lady who lay in bed totally alert after lights out having taken a spoonful of chocolate ice cream.
Me: Wow! That’s incredible. Just one cup of coffee or one spoon of chocolate ice cream can mess with a person’s sleep cycle that badly?
Dr. R: Some people are very sensitive to caffeine. Add to this the problem of the caffeine withdrawal effect.
Me: What’s that?
Dr. R: Coffee and tea give us a nice warm feeling and increase alertness, but like Newton said, everything that goes up must come down. Caffeine’s boost is followed by caffeine’s bust, leading us to take another dose. Using caffeine represents the eternal human hope to get something for nothing.
Me: So caffeine creates a sort of dependence then?
Dr. R: Absolutely. That’s why more than 80% of American adults use caffeine. And people frequently walk around with a coffee cup in their hands or keep a large container of Coke on their desk. Coffee is something like the second most traded of the world’s commodities, just after oil.
Me: And if you don’t take another dose, then you probably just get sleepier, right?
Dr. R: Right. Caffeine withdrawal can induce great lethargy. I have seen people incapacitated for weeks after abrupt discontinuation.
Me: So, if a person wants to try going caffeine free, how can he do so?
Dr. R: Caffeine should be withdrawn slowly, gradually replacing coffee or tea with increasing proportions of the decaffeinated alternative. Thereafter, these alternatives should be discontinued. Brim and Sanka, for instance, contain small percentages of caffeine. Restaurant decaf may contain about 14% caffeine.
Me: And what should a person expect, energy-wise, if he gets off of caffeine?
Dr. R: Caffeine-free living means no rapid boost, but no rebound bust. The average alertness level is likely raised, although a galaxy of individual factors influences this.
Me: And it will be easier to wake up in the morning?
Dr. R: Yes, this will be true for many people.
Me: But not everyone?
Dr. R: Individuals vary. One’s own optimal behavioral cocktail is best found through caring enough to pay attention.
So there you have it. If you are having difficulty falling asleep at night and/or waking up in the mornings, coffee may just be the culprit. Consider taking Dr. Regestein’s advice and weaning yourself off of coffee today… right after you finish your latte.
Ditching coffee isn’t the only answer to becoming an early bird. There are some other factors you might consider.
How to Wake Up Early: The Problem with Modern Living
Now, don’t worry—I’m not about to tell you to give up on electric lighting and do your homework by candlelight with a quill pen. However, if you are having issues with waking up in the morning, it could be a problem with our modern lifestyles.
Have you ever noticed that it is much more difficult to wake up in the middle of winter when it’s still dark out?
I think nearly everyone has this problem, and it stems from our natural biology conflicting with our unnatural habits.
I asked Dr. Regestein about this, and here’s what he had to say:
Me: So, I think part of the reason students have a hard time waking up in the morning is because they have a hard time going to bed at a decent hour. What do you think?
Dr. R.: Yes, adolescent students face the effects of the electric light, late night TV, college dorm life, late library hours, parties, and even professors’ office hours (at least some at MIT) that begin at midnight.
Me: What’s the result of all that?
Dr. R: All these forces worsen the tendency for younger people’s internal physiological days to be longer than 24 hours. As the days go by, they would like to get up later and later and later. The average bedtime for computer science majors at MIT is around 4 a.m.
Me: I can’t remember the last time I stayed up until 4 a.m. That can’t be healthy!
Dr. R: No, it’s not healthy. Late sleep hours often cause sleep deprivation as timed morning obligations force a person to get up.
Me: Is there such a thing as a “night-person?”
Dr. R: Yes, but constitutional night people are a neglected social minority in the day-dominant work schedule. Their mismatch with the way the earth goes round may explain why they have more mood disorders. Nevertheless, they too can comfortably get with society’s normal rhythm.
Me: So, what is behind this issue? Do we blame the electric light?
Dr. R.: These timing problems were not known even for some years after the electric light was invented. College surveys from c. 1915 reveal that college students slept an average of 8.5 hours a night, which lies on a continuum of gradually declining sleep hours from birth through old age.
Me: That’s really interesting. I take it that today’s students don’t get nearly that much sleep.
Dr. R: No, it’s practically impossible for them to do so.
Me: Is there anything that a student can do to try to get on a more regular sleeping schedule?
Dr. R: Yes … regular arising timed into bright light at the identical clock time 365 days a year blows away all circadian rhythm disorders, except for jet lag (long story).
Me: Even if a student wakes up at the same time every morning, I bet she’ll have a tough time going to sleep at night with all of the stimulants of student life.
Dr. R: Indeed. Night living does not fit our physiological design. We are vision-dominant creatures, destined to prosper in the sunlight and sleep in the dark.
Me: What are the long-term effects of this?
Dr. R: Violating this routine imposes a health cost insufficiently felt to change behavior (except to take another cup of coffee). However, it affects our body rhythms, hormonal, electrolyte, neural, cardiovascular, etc., which are organized within an integrated temporal structure. Ultimately, industrial man pays a price for overriding this arrangement.
So now that you can blame our modern lifestyles for your inability to wake up on time in the morning, let’s talk about some steps beyond quitting coffee that will help you to learn to be an early riser.
Beyond Quitting Coffee: Six Steps You Can Take to Wake Up Earlier
So here’s the reality. Our lifestyles are not healthy or natural—and the quality and quantity of our sleep are bound to suffer. While you probably can’t resolve every issue with your hectic student lifestyle, here are some actionable steps you can take to try to start waking up earlier and set yourself up for success.
1. Wake up at the same time every day, 365 days per year. This doesn’t mean that you have to go to bed at the same time every night, but it does mean you have to forego long, luxurious Saturday sleep-ins. This is a hard fact if you want to master the art of becoming a “morning person” and getting all the benefits of this lifestyle.
This method has been tested and written about by motivational speaker Steve Pavlina, who writes, “Go to bed only when you’re too sleepy to stay up, and get up at a fixed time every morning.” He also says, “I recommend getting up at the same time for 30 days straight to lock in the habit.” After you’ve trained yourself in the habit of waking up at the same time every day, you may occasionally sleep in, but on most days you won’t feel the need.
2. Try using an alarm clock with a light feature. Dr. Regestein says that waking up to full light is important. By using a clock with a light feature, your body has the opportunity to wake up to light, even in the dead of winter. This will make rising in the early morning easier since our brains recognize light as a signal to wake up.
3. Adjust Your Internal Clock Slowly. If you’ve been barely rolling out of bed at 7:45AM to make your class, don’t try to immediately force yourself to be up and at ’em at 6AM. For the first morning, get up at 7:30 AM, the following morning at 7:15, then 7:00, etc. until you’ve hit your goal of waking up at 6 AM.
In severe cases of circadian sleep disorder (a condition that occurs when your body clock does not align with your schedule), some doctors recommend a more drastic method of chronotherapy. Rather than trying to wind your internal clock backward (as described above), they encourage you to wind it forward! This means you would go to bed three hours later each day until you have taken your body all the way around the clock and set it to the appropriate schedule.
For example, if you normally go to sleep at 12AM, but want to go to sleep at 9PM, you would first start by going to sleep at 3AM, then 6AM, than 9AM, etc., until you achieve your goal of a 9PM bed time. This method probably should be used only under a doctor’s supervision, and you’ll need to take some time off of your responsibilities since it is disruptive.
4. Try taking Omega fatty acids at bedtime. Scientists at the University of Oxford undertook a study of 362 children and found that supplementing their diets with Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids (found in algae and fish oil supplements as well as in nuts, olive oil, and fish) improved their ability to fall asleep and get more restful sleep.
5. Eat breakfast. Dr. Regestein says eating breakfast every morning increases morning alertness. Eating a high fiber, high protein breakfast will wake you up a lot more than eating a sugary or fatty breakfast. So choose fruit and eggs over Fruit Loops and bacon if you can.
6. Exercise regularly. A study at Northwestern University of 11 insomniacs found that participants who regularly exercised eventually slept an average of 1.25 hours longer each night than their non-exercising counterparts. The study indicated that improvement in sleep occurred over time, not immediately upon beginning an exercise routine. Have patience, grasshopper! Exercise will slowly improve your sleep and your physique.
How to Wake Up Early: Track Your Sleeping Habits
Here is one more tip to help you learn how to wake up early. I’ve been successfully using the Sleep Cycle app to become a better morning person. The app tracks and reports data based on your sleeping patterns.
To use the app, turn it on before you go to bed (make sure your phone is plugged in), set the alarm, and place it face down under your sheet right next to your pillow. While you’re sleeping, it will track your motions and record how soundly you sleep all night long. Here’s a screenshot from a night’s rest:
The crests of the graph show the times during the night when I was closer to waking, and the troughs show the times when I was in a deep sleep.
Below the graph, you’ll see the exact time you entered and left the bed, a rating of your quality of sleep (based on how much of the night you spent in a deep sleep), and your total time in bed.
At the bottom, you’ll see a summary of how many nights you’ve tracked, how much total time you have spent in bed, and your average time in bed. Lucky me—I get an average of 8.5 hours in bed a night.
While this is pretty interesting, there is some debate on the accuracy of Sleep Cycle. Even so, there are two things about it that I find to be really helpful. One is knowing how long you’re sleeping at night. For example, if you find that you are only logging 4 and 5-hour nights, you’ll be able recognize that you need to do something to adjust your schedule and get more sleep.
The second helpful thing is the built-in alarm clock. It works a bit differently than a standard alarm clock.
If you want to wake up at 7:30, you would set the alarm to go off between 7:00 and 7:30. The app will be on the ready during this half hour period and start ringing (in a nice, melodious tone) when your body is naturally closer to being “awake.” This morning, my alarm started ringing at around 7:21. Yesterday, it went off around 7:15.
The idea is that the alarm will wake you at the optimal time during that half hour window and improve your alertness from the moment of waking. In general, I hate alarm clocks. I really do. The calm melody of this alarm, however, keeps me from feeling like I’ve been violently shaken awake by an annoying polar bear. I find that I do wake up feeling more alert and ready when I use this alarm.
If you’re struggling with waking up on time for class in the morning, but you don’t want to download some pesky app, you may just choose to go the old-fashioned route and chart your sleeping habits on paper.
This is the chart used by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. It can give you a clue as to what might be getting between you and feeling refreshed in the morning. (Click to zoom in).
This chart takes into account your overall habits, including your alcohol and caffeine consumption, how often you exercise, which days you go to work and school, which days you are off, and any medication you might be taking.
By tracking your daily habits, you can finally pinpoint what may be causing any sleepless nights. You might find a direct connection to your caffeine or alcohol consumption or just the stress of your schedule.
In any case, armed with knowledge, you can begin to take steps to improve your sleeping habits and start getting up earlier.
Final Thoughts on How to Wake Up Early
No two people are exactly alike, and there is no magic bullet that will help you learn to wake up early.
What we do know is that early risers tend to be more successful in life. If you’re looking to make some self-improvements, managing your sleep schedule more effectively is a great place to start. You may find that the answer to improving your grades isn’t about staying up all night cramming for a test, but about getting better sleep.
Evaluate your habits and see if making adjustments to your lifestyle can help you improve both your sleeping and waking life.
*Cover Image by Artur Mikołajewski (Creative Commons License)