If you look at your phone hours after your family has gone to bed, realize it’s 1 a.m. and you still aren’t tired, you might consider yourself a “night owl.” Conversely, if you are first to wake and have already done all the dishes, knocked out a work project, or completed your exercise routine for the day as the sun has barely risen, you might be a “morning person.” But what if you want to switch? Maybe you have a new work schedule demanding the opposite from your body. Or maybe you are convinced that the opposite schedule is healthier for you. Experts weigh in on if it can be done and share some tips on how to make it happen.
What makes someone a morning or night person?
It might seem like it’s a myth that there are “night owls” and “morning people” but many experts point to circadian rhythm differences to confirm this is the case. In fact, sleep experts have developed “chronotypes” which more specifically describe the different sleep patterns most people associate with, including those morning and night people. Chronotypes are named after animals, such as “wolves” (aka night owls); “bears,” who tend to follow the sun’s schedule; “lions” (or early birds); and dolphins, who don’t have much of a pattern at all and can be light sleepers.
Your circadian rhythm is determined by both genetics and your environment. A large research study of almost 700,000 people demonstrated all of these influences and concluded genetics greatly impact whether we are morning or night people, or another chronotype. Researchers are investigating how susceptible each chronotype is to certain physical and mental health conditions, though they still have work to do in those areas, the study suggests.
Can a night owl become a morning person, and can a morning person become a night owl?
Here’s the bad news—you might be predisposed to your chronotype for life. That means it can be extremely difficult to “switch,” though it can be doable if you have to make it work for your job or other scheduling needs.
“It’s believed that chronotypes are genetically determined, so therefore one cannot technically switch from one type to another. However, with changes to sleep habits, our chronotypes can be modified—if that is desired. These changes include moving bedtime, using light to adjust our internal clock and melatonin release and establishing a new sleep routine,” says Dr. Peter Polos, MD, PhD, FCCP, FAASM, sleep medicine specialist and sleep expert for Sleep Number.
If you have to change your sleep schedule, it’s important to remain consistent. If you can, try to work the same shift instead of rotating it and sticking to the same sleep routine even on your days off—to help your body get used to a new schedule and to keep your circadian rhythm on track, he suggests. Here are some expert tips on switching your schedule:
To switch from night owl to a morning person
If your new job or school schedule requires some seriously early mornings, it can be an abrupt shift for your body. Ease into it with these tips.
- If you end up needing a nap halfway through the day after an early morning, the sweet spot to feel refreshed, but not more groggy than before, is just 26 minutes, according to Khaliah Guillory, CEO of NapBar, a Houston-based napping pop-up business, and certified sleep consultant.
- Change your bedtime slowly, if possible, moving it up 15 or 30 minutes at a time rather than expecting your body to make a 4-hour shift overnight.
- Expose yourself to sunlight soon after waking. As a newly early riser, this will help your body realize it’s daytime as it eases into early bird life.
To switch from a morning person to a night owl
When a morning person tries to stay up late, it can lead to some serious sleep deprivation if it’s not done correctly.
- Don’t rely on caffeine to stay up late. These stimulants at the end of your day can delay falling asleep too long, Polos says.
- Sleep in a dark room with blackout curtains if you are up at night and sleeping during the day to keep light from impacting you, Polos says.
- Look into lightbox therapy, which generates artificial light to simulate night and day on a different schedule from the sun to accommodate your needs. Guillory suggests doing this about 30 minutes before you have to go to work to simulate morning when it’s not.
- Wear really dark sunglasses to prevent the light from messing up your schedule on a commute, for example, as you come home from a night shift, Guillory says. “That light signals to your brain you are supposed to be awake.”
Regardless of which change you are making, look to make the shift over 10-14 days, not immediately. Also try to avoid schedules that vary day to day, when possible, and try to keep the same routines on the weekend if you can.
Tips for becoming a morning person
You might love the quiet stillness of the morning light without anyone bothering you as you journal, meditate, exercise, eat breakfast, or jump into your workday early. These tips can help you make the shift to enjoying the mornings.
- Maintain good sleep hygiene in the evening for easier mornings, including avoiding blue light from phones and close-up screens at least an hour before bedtime, and maintaining a consistent schedule.
- Expose yourself to natural sunlight as early as possible
- Slowly shift your routine to begin earlier in the day, including mealtimes and bedtime
- Avoid blue light earlier in the evening—if you plan to go to bed at 10:00, unplug at 9:30
- Develop a consistent bedtime routine
- Avoid coffee after 3 pm
- Avoid napping after 4 pm
- Exercise regularly, as this has been connected with increased quality and quantity of sleep
Tips for becoming a night owl
So you want to be a night owl—or you have to become one for work or other reasons. Here’s what you can try.
- Gradually shift your bedtime later rather than trying to make the switch all at once and regretting it the next day
- Make time for short naps throughout the day
- Shift your mealtimes later in the day
The Last Word from Sleepopolis
While it might feel against your body’s natural rhythms at first, Guillory says many people she’s worked with, such as health care workers handling night shifts, adapt to different sleep schedules.
“They’re fine because their bodies have adjusted to it,” she says. But for others, she explains it “wreaks havoc” on their bodies and they end up needing to switch back. “It really points back to what works for that person…to get the best quality of life.”