A Stanford sleep medicine doctor insists that anyone can learn how to wake up earlier—and feel good about it.
As an undergraduate student majoring in biology at the University of Puerto Rico, Rafael Pelayo worked three jobs to pay his way through school. To accommodate his employers, he took 7 a.m. classes, getting up at 5:30 in the morning and using his commute time to study.
When he was a medical student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y. four years later, classes started later in the day. Like most of his peers, Pelayo found that he often pulled all-nighters, taking short breaks around midnight to decompress with his friends.
Today, Pelayo is a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a leading expert in the field of sleep medicine (his 2020 book is called How to Sleep). But . . . is he a morning person or a night owl?
The answer, it turns out, is that it doesn’t matter.
“We all have genetic tendencies toward being a morning person or being an evening person,” explains Pelayo, who came to Stanford in 1993 as a fellow to work with the late William Dement, who was known as the “father of sleep medicine,” and continues to teach the popular undergraduate course Dement created, now called Dement’s Sleep and Dreams. “But your tendencies are not your destiny.”
Biology does play a role in our sleep patterns, Pelayo points out. This is especially true for teenagers, who tend to go to bed later and sleep much deeper as they transition into adulthood, and for older people, who are generally light sleepers.
“Sleep is inherently a dangerous thing to do, so in a tribe of people, it makes sense that some people are more alert at some times than others,” he says.
To accommodate the realities of teen biology, Pelayo testified in support of a California law that passed in 2019. It requires middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., respectively.
But adolescence aside, sleep habits are more adaptable than we think. And although there is nothing inherently unhealthy with being late to bed and late to rise, Pelayo says, a sort of chronic jet lag can crop up when night owls need to conform to society’s standard schedule and expectations.
So, for those of us who would like to wake up earlier to get a jump start on the day (or, heck, just to get to work on time) and who don’t have a sleep disorder that requires treatment, Pelayo offers some tangible tips:
First, pick your ideal wake-up time.
“I ask my patients, if you could wave a magic wand and fall asleep easily and wake up feeling refreshed, what schedule would you like to be on?” he explains.
Pelayo addresses his patients’ waking times first, he says, because “it’s easier to lock in a wake-up time than to force a sleep time”—which, he notes, is different than a bedtime. “Bedtime is what time you get into bed,” he explains. “The sleep time is the totality of all time spent sleeping in that bed until you get out of it.”
Many people assume that the time they wake up depends on the time they fall asleep, which seems logical, he says. But in reality, “the brain is trying to predict dawn and dusk at all times.”
That mechanism—governed by so-called clock genes, which regulate our circadian rhythms—exists across the animal kingdom, even in flies.
“We don’t have a lot of similarities with a fly,” Pelayo says. “But flies need to know what time it is too.”
Then, set a bedtime.
Once you set a preferred wake-up time, determine how many hours of sleep you want and then work backward to arrive at your bedtime. General guidelines are that adults should sleep between 7 and 9 hours, and you’ll want to personalize that so that you wake up feeling refreshed, not tired, Pelayo says.
After you’ve done the math, don’t let yourself get under the covers until the appropriate bedtime, even if you just want to lie down already.
“If you hold your breath, you will take a deeper breath when you start breathing again,” Pelayo explains. “The less you sleep, the more your body will want to sleep.”
Don’t hit snooze.
Snoozing seems wonderful in the moment, but the sleep we fall back into after our alarm goes off apparently isn’t worth the time it takes to enjoy it.
“You’re trading dreaming time for light sleep,” Pelayo says. “That’s a bad deal.”
Instead of giving yourself those nine “extra” minutes of snooze (or 18—we see you), get up when your alarm goes off at your chosen time, Pelayo says, even if it means you have to keep the clock across the room to do so.
Find something fun to do.
Most of us need a reason to get out of bed earlier than we absolutely must; otherwise, we’ll just sleep until the last possible minute.
“When I was an undergraduate student, I was a morning person because I was motivated,” Pelayo says. “You have to find that incentive.”
Pelayo recommends rewarding yourself by doing something you enjoy—ideally something that exposes your body to light, such as going for a walk. But even playing a video game will work.
“Make it something you want to do, to increase your motivation,” he says. And to raise the stakes, don’t let yourself do that one thing at any other time of the day.
If you wake up in the middle of the night, that’s fine. In fact, everyone does, Pelayo says. One of Dement’s earliest findings was that people wake up every hour and a half or so, an evolutionary practice left over from when we needed to do so to keep ourselves safe.
Usually, we don’t even realize we’re awake, but anyone who has ever lain in bed at night obsessively going over tomorrow’s to-do list knows that’s not always the case.
Still, “waking is not the problem,” Pelayo says. “It’s being upset about it.”
Making a change in our sleep takes practice, Pelayo says—at least six weeks of consistently waking up at the hour we’ve chosen. In the clinic, he and his colleagues combine circadian, homeostatic, and behavioral techniques, and it’s the last of these—adopting a new habit—that takes the longest time to change.
“People do things for three to four days and they say, ‘Oh, it didn’t work,’” he says. “But our brain isn’t meant to have big shifts like that so quickly. You’re manipulating a system for predicting the Earth’s rotation.”
What a load of s***. For extreme night owl chronotypes, trying to force yourself to be a morning person is a recipe for absolute misery and 3 hours of sleep a night for the rest of the attempt.
Written by fascist morning people.
I have found waking up to dawn simulation (set to gradually turns on the lights over the course of 20 minutes before a specified time) works more effectively than an alarm clock and makes me feel a lot less groggy. An alarm clock jolts you awake in a way that nature doesn’t, and I suspect it doesn’t give the brain adequate notice to stop what it’s doing when you sleep.
Totally agree with cacarr. I got up at 5:30 every morning of the world for 25 years and was miserable. Dragged through morning, perked up in afternoon, wide awake in evening, and struggled to put myself to bed when I was finally feeling energized. At last I’m retired and get 8 hr between 2 and 11 am. Life is good at last and I’m learning not to be consumed with guilt for my “irregular” circadian rhythm. Stop blaming people for being themselves.
Was exhausted trying to adapt to an artificial societal construct of ‘work hours’. Worked for many decades and never got used to getting up in the morning early. I am a night owl naturally and remain as such till this moment. No amount of trying to change my sleep pattern behavior manages to stay. I always revert back to my night owl tendencies within a couple of weeks nowadays. A friend of mine who has gone to a sleep clinic says that her sleep doctor told her that our chronotypes are absolute. They are unable to be changed in any permanent way. How you were born is how you will remain. It certainly seems to be the case with anybody that I know who is a night owl and tries to change their awake times.
I was able to change my sleep but I always fall back to my night self. The problem is that you have to give yourself 10 hours or more of sleep time to start. I did a lot more than these steps too. I had to end my work 2hours before bed, took a shower, turned the lights down, watched one show then went to bed. If not sleepy, I read a comic book to not make me want read and read. If I wasn’t getting sleepy, I’d just lay down and relax with my eyes closed. No pressure. Then I’d sleep. The mornings 8 don’t like to jump up. It’s emotionally and physically painful. I set the coffee to go off and pet my cats, then I was able to get dressed, eat breakfast and go. If I spend too much time before leaving I end up getting tired and want to go back to bed. In the end, I started waking up before the alarm. It was great.
people in the comments be saying that it’s impossible to change your sleep schedule, but as someone who used to go to bed at 4:30 and now wakes up at 4:30, I can confidently say that changing your sleep schedule is not only possible but it’s actually pretty easy
As you post at 4am, shalom. Thanks for the worthless lie of a comment.
I would be interested to know how many people have found that their love of reading in bed at night is a factor – and maybe the MAIN factor- in their sleep pattern. I don’t like to “turn off” my mind whether I’m reading fiction where each chapter ends with a cliffhanger or thought-provoking nonfiction and this late night reading has been an overall negative in my performance in school and work from oversleeping, tardiness and morning grogginess. After retirement when there were no curbs on my indulgence, I found my sleep habits became extreme where I slept most of the day and read all night which led to isolation and depression (we need sun to make vitamin D the lack of which is a factor in depression) and letting down family members who needed me. Now, at 72, I have been an early riser for 3 years and I love fall7ng asleep in velvety darkness and waking up with the sun eager to engage in life. What changed? I hit bottom due to a financial crisis and the only way to avoid homelessness was to be up and at ’em when attorneys and courts and banks were open – and that meant daytime and often early morning meetings. I changed my sleep pattern to what works best for me and that now means giving my brain and entire endocrine system the combination of darkness and daylight it needs for optimum performance and mental health
To all the people saying this is BS; did you read the article!? The dr said very specifically that it’s okay to be a night owl and actually very detrimental to force yourself into an unnatural routine. But sometimes life requires you to wake up early so the last bit were just suggestions on how you can more easily accomplish this. No propaganda here if you read the full article and actually comprehend what’s being said. Lol