The Myth of the Morning Person

It’s too prevalent a concept. It’s infected offices and workspaces the world over.

Buried among all the mugs that proclaim “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee,” and memes about “hoping this email finds you well,” you hear a consistent refrain: “I’m just not a morning person.”

Those morning people are the winners, we tell ourselves. They’ve got it all figured out. Or, worse yet, they were just born that way.

There might be one in your own life. They likely have made sure you were aware.

“There’s so much time in the morning,” they humblebrag, “if you just get up at 5am.”

“It’s so quiet and peaceful!”

They might tell you about how they can fit in a workout and a high-protein breakfast in that time. Or a meditation session and a tranquil pour-over coffee ritual.

And we night owls are forced to roll out of bed grumpy, hair messy, and be late to work—and then we’re useless at work for the first couple hours, until we’ve finally managed to wake up (or have enough coffee).

It just doesn’t make sense though.

To us relatively “normal people,” it can almost feel like “morning people” are Bigfoot—legend has it they’re out there, but it’s only a legend. These people who, we imagine, burst from their beds at 6:00 AM with the grace and energy of a Disney princess, ready to take on the day—where are they?

The truth is, they’re far more rare than you think. The vast majority of people? They’re tired in the morning. It takes a minute—or an hour—for them to wake up too.

And these fabled morning people? Either they’re all at the same SoulCycle class without us, or they exist in far fewer numbers than we think. Maybe they’re even as uncommon as those people who love to brag that they “only need four or five hours of sleep” to be perfectly ready for the day—a tribe of people that sleep expert Matthew Walker has asserted represent a “credibly near-zero percentage of the population.”

But the legend of the morning person is a powerful one—and their standard is a difficult one to aspire to.

So until we find where all these morning people are hiding, here’s how to be as productive as one—without having to become one.

The deck is stacked against you

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Waking up earlier and making the most of that time involves more than simply adjusting your alarm clock. Factors like the time of year, human biology, and your genetics all contribute to whether you feel energetic in the morning or not.

Thanks to extensive sleep research, we now understand that everyone experiences a pattern of energy peaks and dips throughout the day, known as circadian rhythms.

As defined by the National Sleep Foundation, circadian rhythms are the “24-hour internal clocks that regulate the alternating periods of sleepiness and alertness.” While each individual’s rhythm may vary slightly, most people generally follow a similar cycle. For instance:

  • 6:30-7 am: Transition from sleep to alertness.
  • 10-11 am: Peak in memory, alertness, and concentration.
  • 2-3 pm: Dip in energy levels (the afternoon slump).
  • 4-6 pm: Renewed energy and focus.
  • 9–11 pm: Return to sleep mode, with melatonin secretion aiding in sleep.

However, even if you align with this typical circadian rhythm, there are still instances during the day where you might find yourself battling against your body’s natural inclinations (like trying to focus when you’re naturally inclined to rest).

This cycle can be difficult to manage within your own daily routine. But why are some people operating on a completely different rhythm than yours?

Okay, so maybe they’re real

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There’s a phenomenon in biology called “chronotypes”—it basically means that human beings fall into different variations in circadian rhythms that dictate when we sleep, and as a result the times we naturally feel more alert.

In a comprehensive study involving over 300,000 individuals, Dr. Roenneberg, a renowned chronobiologist, discovered that the most prevalent chronotype corresponds to individuals who typically sleep from around midnight to 8 am.

Interestingly, 31% of people naturally tend to hit the hay earlier, whereas 56% are inclined towards later bedtimes.

For those working a standard 9-5 schedule, this implies that a significant portion—69% to be precise—are rousing themselves from slumber before their bodies are fully primed, consequently having to navigate through work during their non-optimal hours.

Apparently, up to 80% of people have working schedules that clash with their internal clocks. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/24/well/mind/work-schedule-hours-sleep-productivity-chronotype-night-owls.html

Find out which type you are

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You might not even truly know which type you are, but you should endeavor to find out: aligning your work with your body’s natural rhythms can significantly enhance productivity and make it easier to avoid distractions.

Here are three methods to discover your chronotype:

  1. Take the Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ): This 19-question survey assesses your chronotype by asking about your ideal bedtime, wake-up time, reliance on alarms, and alertness levels throughout the day.
  2. Utilize Daniel Pink’s 3-question test: In his book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing,” Pink suggests a simpler test. By determining your midpoint between your sleep and wake times on days without obligations, you can categorize yourself as a lark (early riser), owl (night owl), or “third bird” (in-between).
  3. Employ personal data to unveil your “Productivity Curve”: Instead of relying solely on self-reporting, tracking your productivity and activity data provides a more accurate understanding of your energy levels throughout the day. Techniques like Laura Vanderkam’s time log, where you record activities every 15 or 30 minutes, offer insight into your actual behavior compared to your stated preferences.

Or, you can use a tool like RescueTime that automatically observes how you spend your time and logs it for you.

RescueTime shows you exactly where your time goes, when you’re most productive, and when you’re most distracted.

Using RescueTime helps you avoid your natural biases. It also makes it easier to pick up on some of your more nuanced tendencies during the day.

What you can do right now to cope

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“This is all well and good,” you’re probably saying, “but most of us have day jobs—and bosses that aren’t exactly designing work hours by chronotype.”

That’s true. You likely don’t have a great amount of flexibility over your work day.

But there are things we can do.

  1. Sync Your Peak Productivity Hours with Your Most Important Task: Regardless of whether your natural rhythm matches your daily schedule, there are likely some hours where they intersect. The advantage of utilizing these peak hours is significant—you can accomplish more in two focused hours than many do in an entire day. Research shows that, on average, people only have about two hours and forty-eight minutes of truly productive time each day. As Alex Pang, author of “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less,” points out, dedicating a solid two hours to a task often yields superior results compared to spreading the same effort over ten hours filled with distractions. Aligning your most productive hours with critical tasks is a key component of the Time Blocking strategy, which you can learn more about in our comprehensive guide.
  2. Maintain Consistent Wake-Up Times, Even on Weekends: While it may be tempting to sleep in on weekends to compensate for early weekday mornings, our bodies don’t differentiate between weekdays and weekends. Oversleeping on Saturdays can lead to Monday morning grogginess akin to jetlag. The key is to minimize deviations from your weekday wake-up routine, aiming for consistency even on weekends.
  3. Ease Into Mornings with the RISEUP Method: If you’re not naturally inclined toward mornings, the idea of a morning routine might seem daunting. However, adopting the RISEUP acronym can make mornings more manageable:
    • Refrain from hitting the snooze button.
    • Increase activity levels during the first hour.
    • Take a shower or wash your face.
    • Expose yourself to natural light.
    • Listen to upbeat music.
    • Connect with a friend.
    • Incorporating these elements—activity, social interaction, and exposure to light—can help kickstart your day on a positive note.
  4. Schedule Breaks According to the Ultradian Rhythm: In addition to circadian rhythms and chronotypes, our energy levels are influenced by ultradian rhythms—roughly 90 to 120-minute cycles of alertness followed by the need for a break. Regardless of your natural inclination toward mornings or evenings, incorporating regular breaks can help sustain energy levels throughout the day. If time is tight, consider the benefits of microbreaks.
  5. Bridge the Gap Between Morning and Night People: When navigating work dynamics with colleagues who have different energy peaks, establishing mutual understanding and respect is crucial. Time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders offers some practical tips:
    • Establish clear ground rules for collaborative tasks, scheduling meetings during times when both early birds and night owls are typically alert.
    • Communicate openly about your energy levels and preferences, suggesting alternative meeting times or adjusting expectations as needed.
    • Recognize and accommodate each other’s unique needs, acknowledging that no one chronotype is inherently superior to another.

It’s hard but progress is possible

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It’s like fighting with your hands are tied behind your back but with a bevy of secret strategies in your head. You might still be a bit disadvantaged by the archaic daylight-savings-esque strictures of the modern world around you, but you still know how best to deal.

The clock runs most of our days. But following your energy is always a better strategy than sticking to an arbitrary daily schedule.

Use one of the methods above to understand your chronotype and then create a day that works with your energy. Even if you’re not a morning person, you can still get all the productivity benefits with a few small tweaks to your day.

It’ll never be a lost cause; it’s a process. And it’s one you’re in control of.

Good luck out there. Get some sleep.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

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