Can you will yourself to be a morning person?
Share on Linkedin
There are reasons why the early bird catches the worm. (Thinkstock)

Like many people, Dennis Breier can’t fit his workday into just eight hours.

For years the Chicago-based wealth manager would squeeze in extra time late at night — from about 22:00 to 01:00 — to answer email and finish the day’s projects. He’d go to bed at 01:30 and wake up at 07:30.

But with four children under the age of 5 at home, Brier began to find it increasingly difficult to work late at night. If he could start earlier, he thought, maybe he could not only regain some of that lost productivity, but be more successful too.

“Successful people wake up at dawn, basically,” he said. “I wanted to try that. After working all day, I didn’t want to want to work at night anymore.”

A 2008 report from the University of Texas found that students who wake up early have an average grade point average of 3.5 versus 2.5 for people who go to bed late. That same year, a professor at Heidelberg, Germany’s University of Education found that early risers — people who wake up between 05:00 and 06:00 — are more proactive than their late night colleagues; they’re better at anticipating problems and many get better jobs. Other studies have found that while night owls are more creative and often smarter, morning people are more optimistic and conscientious.

Many successful CEOs also say they are early risers. Jeff Immelt, General Electric’s CEO and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey wake up at 05:30. PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi and Apple CEO Tim Cook get up at about 04:30. Vittorio Colao, Vodafone Group’s CEO, is up by 06:00. The list goes on.

In theory, then, a night owl who transforms into a morning person should be more successful. But, can you actually will yourself — or train yourself — to become a morning person? 

The big experiment

George Burgess, the 22-year-old London-based chief executive of Gojimo, a company that has developed an app to help students study for exams, has tried and failed to become a morning person.

He went at the task in earnest, believing he could be more productive if he woke up earlier. Bedtime was usually between midnight and 02:00, but if he could shift his shuteye up to two to four hours, Burgess thought, he could wake up at 06:00 instead of his usual — after 08:00. 

It worked well at first. Burgess started his experiment after one jet-lagged trip from London to Stanford, California in the US, where he was attending university. The time difference helped him wake up early. He started going to bed at 22:00 every night after that.

With the help of an alarm clock, Burgess would wake up at 06:00, take a shower, grab a coffee and sit at his desk. The results were what he had hoped for: he felt refreshed and found that he could accomplish more in the morning.

“It was a great time to get stuff done,” he said. “There’s hardly anything going on around you, so it’s easy to get some heavy duty work out of the way early.”

But after a couple of weeks, the routine got more and more difficult to maintain.

When a night out with friends or a work-related event kept him up past his bedtime, he found it nearly impossible to get up the next morning. It was also hard to wake up when he had nothing pressing to do. If he didn’t have a meeting or a class at 09:00, he’d sleep longer. Even scheduling workouts at 07:00 didn’t help.

“I was waking up feeling shattered and tired for a lot of the day,” he said. He gave up after five weeks.

Ways to wake up

Most people can’t simply switch wake up and bed times, because their bodies won’t allow them to. Our circadian rhythm is controlled by a tiny area in our brains, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, said Dr Nathaniel Watson, co-director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Centre and incoming president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

This video is no longer available

This video is no longer available

How circadian rhythms affect you

This area of the brain has an incredible hold over our sleeping patterns because it controls the genetic component of our circadian rhythms.  While other factors, such as age and lifestyle, can determine when we wake up, about 50% our sleeping patterns are determined by our genes.

Many people just can’t go to sleep until their natural rhythms tell them it’s bedtime. Unfortunately, that rhythm doesn’t always suit the nine to five workday.

“The workday starts earlier then these people would want,” said Watson. “Then they get sleep deprived and that makes it even more difficult to wake up.”

It is possible to successfully shift one’s sleeping patterns but it just takes a lot of work, said Watson. If you want to wake up early, you have to fight your own DNA.

To have a chance to win the battle, you need to do a few key things. The first is simple: let light into your room in the morning and keep light out at night.

“Light exposure is the most important thing by far,” said Watson. “It affects the circadian rhythm (your internal clock) the most. It’s way more powerful than any melatonin or medication that you can take.”

Natural light is sufficient, but that can be hard to come by in winter months, when the sun rises later.

Watson suggests buying a light box that produces 20,000 lux — a measurement of light — and keeping it across from you for 15 minutes in the morning. You can also keep a “dawn simulator” — a lamp that comes on gradually — by your bedside.

While Breier doesn’t have a special light to help him get up, he does put his smartphone, which doubles as his alarm, across the room. When it rings at 04:30, he’s forced to get out of bed to shut it off. He goes directly into the shower after that, which helps him fight off the morning grogginess.

Sleep strategies

Waking up earlier is only half of the battle — you also need to go to bed early. For night owls, falling asleep earlier than usual can be difficult.

First of all, no coffee after 14:00, stop exercising at least four hours before bedtime and eat a larger lunch, but a lighter breakfast and dinner, said Dr Kenny Pang, a Singapore-based ear, nose and throat doctor, who specializes in sleep disorders.

The bedroom also needs to be as dark as possible, which means putting away smartphones and shutting of the television at least an hour before bedtime, Pang said.

This last point is crucial, added Watson. Technology is a big driver of insomnia these days because mobile phones, tablets and television screens emit light in a blue wavelength, which is a powerful stimulant.

“What you’re doing right before you go to bed is blasting your brain with these blue wavelengths,” he said. “You’re telling your body it’s time to be awake and that’s not the message you want to send.”

While it’s possible to fall asleep early, not everyone will be able to do it. Some people suffer from sleeping disorders — they won’t be able to shift their wake up and bed times without medical help — and others won’t be able to handle this regular routine.

People sleep best when the body knows sleep is coming. Becoming a morning person can only work if you wake up and go to bed early every day of the week, said Watson.

Yes, that means staying up late every weekend could be a problem.

“It’s called social jetlag,” said Watson. “If you go to bed later on a Sunday night, but have to wake up early on Monday then you could see a real (negative) effect on your performance.”

For Breier, getting to sleep early was challenging at first, but he makes sure that when he goes to bed at 22:00, the TV is off and his phone is far away from him, so he doesn’t get distracted.

It takes him about 30 minutes to fall asleep, but if he’s having trouble he’ll read something related to his line of work.

“It’s not that it’s boring,” he said. “It’s the act of reading that makes me tired.”

Not worth it?

Despite what the research says about early birds, Pang cautions people against making this shift. The best sleep, he said, is from 23:00 and 07:00 no matter who you are. Pang said it’s more important to get eight hours of shuteye than to wake up early.

If you don’t get those eight hours — and you probably won’t be if you’re waking up at 05:00 — then you’ll need to catch up at some point.

“No one wakes up by themselves at 5,” said Pang. “You’re going to end up sleeping more on the weekends or even during the day.”

For now, Breier’s sleep experiment is working. He’s been doing it for six months and while he misses staying up late to watch TV, he does find that he’s much more productive than he used to be.

He does most of his emailing before his kids wake up at about 06:30, which means he can start meeting with clients and continue building his business as soon as he gets into the office.

“My business is better for it,” he said. “I’m much more organized than before. My efficiency during the day is 100 times better and my home life is better too. By the time I get home I’m tired of working and I can spend time with my kids.”

Follow BBC Capital on Twitter @BBC_Capital or join the conversation about this or any other Capital story on Facebook: BBC Capital on Facebook.

Around the BBC