Have you ever heard the Benjamin Franklin quote, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise"? Mr. Franklin was right about many things, but he was wrong (or only half right) about this one.
Mr. Franklin was famous for his productivity, which he maintained by getting up each day at 5:00am. He also went to bed promptly at 10:00pm, no matter what.
If the Franklin schedule works for you, that's great! You're likely to be a "morning lark," someone with an early chronotype--a biologically hard-wired propensity to sleep early in the evening and wake early in the morning. Your boss probably likes you, and you're at less risk for health problems like diabetes and psychiatric problems like depression.
But what if you have a "night owl" chronotype that is just as biologically hard-wired? Should you force yourself to go to bed at 10:00pm? Should you have your feet on the ground by 5:00am?
Going to bed too early can be problematic. I've had many patients who may not have ever developed chronic insomnia if they had simply listened to their own bodies. Instead, they thought they should go to bed early in order to "be on a better schedule" or "have better sleep hygiene," only to end up laying there, sleepless and frustrated because their brains were wide awake and restless. They thought this meant that there was something wrong with their sleep biology, which increased their sleep performance anxiety (yes, that is a thing!), which then made it even harder to fall asleep...and so began a vicious cycle that became chronic insomnia.
Getting up too early might be detrimental too. Waking up significantly earlier than your body’s natural propensity can deprive you of rapid eye movement (or "REM") sleep, which mostly occurs in last few hours of a full night’s sleep. REM is important for memory consolidation, sexual functioning, and other health processes. This REM deprivation is especially likely to happen if you are a night owl who flip-flops between waking up early on weekdays and sleeping in on weekends.
So what’s an owl to do?
Ideally, try to negotiate a schedule with your work place, school, and family members that allows you to keep a sleep-wake schedule close to your preferred one. Of course, this is a luxury most of us can’t pull off while living in a society designed for morning larks! Here’s what else you can do:
1. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep…don't go to bed until you're sleepy.
Don't force your body to sleep before it's ready, simply because you think "it's about time" or because your spouse is in bed. But that doesn't mean you should be up playing videogames all night just because you don't want to go to bed! (I'm looking at you, millennials). Your body needs a fair chance to wind down and give you natural sleepy cues. Start winding down in the evening, put away the screens, and go to bed when you feel your eyes get droopy (or you've read the same sentence in your book about 3 times without understanding it). If you're falling asleep within just a few minutes, you're probably sleep-deprived. In that case, try winding down a earlier at night.
2. If you must become more of a morning person, get lots of sunlight first thing in the morning.
Light is the single most powerful Zeitgeber (meaning "time giver") for your body clock. The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN, i.e., the central clock in the brain) receives direct input from the retina about how much light there is in the environment. The SCN then tunes itself accordingly. If you give yourself plenty of bright light first thing in the morning, you will help your SCN to tell time accurately. You can also help by turning off bright screens in the evening. Over the course of a few days, your body clock will actually become more like a morning lark's.
3. Keep the same sleep-wake schedule every day.
I know, I know...this is the hardest one, especially for night owls who can afford to finally give in to their natural rhythms on weekends. But this creates "social jetlag," a disruption to your body clock that will make Monday mornings even more miserable, and can also negatively affect other physical and mental functions like mood, metabolism, and cognitive function. Don't confuse your SCN! It works very hard to stay on track.
So let's work smart in addition to working hard. Instead of fighting against your chronotype, get to know it. If needed, gently ask it to shift by giving it clear and consistent cues.
Although Mr. Franklin's advice only applies to half of the population, he was absolutely right about the importance of having a consistent routine. It’s okay to cherry pick his words of wisdom! Good luck, owls.