A common New Year's resolution is to "get up earlier." The resolution is treated as a positive change in lifestyle, similar to "eat more healthy" and "get more exercise." There is a huge difference, though. Eating healthier and exercising more frequently improve your health. Rising earlier than you're already rising, by contrast, raises your risk of heart disease and early death.

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to three scientists who discovered the molecular mechanism inside the brain that determines one's natural sleep schedule. This mechanism expresses itself according to your genetics. As a result, humans (like all animals that sleep) have a circadian rhythm that determines when your brain wants to sleep.

About 10 percent of humans (early birds) have a circadian rhythm that makes them want to rise before dawn; about 20 percent of humans (night owls) have a circadian rhythm that makes them want to wake long after sunrise. It has nothing to do with willpower or moral superiority; your genes tell you when you want to sleep.

If your actual sleep schedule becomes out of sync with your natural sleep schedule, the worse it is for your health. The negative impact is largest in people who work night shifts or graveyard shifts. According to the World Health Organization, such work increases the risk of diabetes (and associated heart disease) as well as cancer, specifically breast cancer.

The same thing is true of people who are forced to get up earlier than is natural to them. According to a 2018 report on NBC News:

[Researchers] found people with naturally late body clocks were about 10 percent more likely to die over a given period than early birds who rise with the sun ... because living in a world geared for early starts is throwing off the circadian rhythms of the night owls.

A mismatch between your natural sleep schedule and actual sleep schedule also impairs efficiency and creativity. This is most obvious with jet lag. It takes a few days for your brain to catch up to something resembling its natural rhythm; meanwhile you can experience "daytime fatigue, an unwell feeling, difficulty staying alert, and gastrointestinal problems," according to the Mayo Clinic. While jet lag is temporary, though, an ongoing mismatch between your actual schedule and natural schedule is a constant drain on your health and efficiency.

Please note that this has nothing to do with the amount of sleep you get. Night owls who go to bed at 8 p.m. and rise at 6 a.m. get 10 hours of sleep, but they'll nonetheless consistently have crappy days, put a strain on their overall health, and suffer a risk of early death. (The same thing would be true of an early bird who was forced to go to bed at 2 a.m. and rise at noon, but that never happens.)

Here's how to know if your actual sleep schedule is matching your natural sleep schedule:

  • If you don't need an alarm to get up, or you set an alarm but automatically get up before it goes off, you're in sync.
  • If you always need an alarm clock to wake you up (and especially if you always hit the snooze bar), you are out of sync.

And that's why "get up earlier" is such a dumb idea. If you are already in sync (i.e., no alarm needed), getting up earlier will put you out of sync. And if you're already out of sync (i.e., need an alarm and getting up earlier than is natural), getting up even earlier will put you even more out of sync.

For example, suppose your natural schedule is to rise at 9 a.m. But because you work in an office where coming in after 9 a.m. looks weird, you set your alarm at 7 a.m., which gives you just enough time to walk in the door at your workplace at 9 a.m. If that's what's happening, you're already hobbled and damaging your health. Deciding to get up at 6 a.m. would be just plain stupid and trying for 5 a.m. is literally insane. Therefore:

  • If your sleep schedule is in sync, your New Year's resolution should be "maintain my sleep status quo."
  • If your sleep schedule is out of sync, your New Year's resolution should be "get up later."

That's assuming, of course, that you want be healthy long term and at your best every day. With that in mind, here are three ways to get up later:

  1. Streamline your morning routine. Examine everything you do in the morning and move as much as possible to the night before. Get an automatic brewer so your coffee is ready the moment you rise. Pack your lunch and lay out your clothes. Do your workouts in the evening.  See if you can shave 30 minutes or even an hour off your morning routine. The later you can manage, the healthier you'll be.
  2. Come in late and work late. Your belief that everyone will think it's weird if you regularly come in at 10 a.m. may be exaggerated. If the quality of your work is high and your workplace culture isn't gung ho about everyone coming in early, you can probably get away with it. The trick here is to always be ready to hit the ground running. This shouldn't be too difficult, because people who are out of sync usually waste an hour or more at work in the morning just getting up to speed.
  3. Work from home. One of the greatest advantages of working from home is that (if you don't have kids) you can match your actual sleep schedule to your natural one. For me, this was a real eye-opener (literally) when I started working exclusively from home in 1996. My natural schedule turned out to be 1 a.m. to 10 a.m., with a short nap at about 4 p.m. Once I started living my natural sleep schedule, I became wildly more productive and much healthier than when I was using an alarm clock to unnaturally force myself awake at 8 a.m.

Published on: Jan 7, 2020
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