I once conducted an experiment for SUCCESS magazine about getting up early. Every day for a month, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. intent to spend the “extra” time working on something I’ve always wanted to do but never had time for.
I’ve done many experiential and/or stunt stories; this one was the worst, by far. I never got used to getting up at 4:30 a.m. Nor did I get used to going to bed at 8:30 p.m. I felt awful the whole month. It was drudgery. By the end, I drifted along as if in a fog.
After a lifetime of being bombarded with bromides about the value of getting up early, I never understood why I failed to adjust. I went through a similar, unintentional stretch this summer in which I repeatedly woke up at around 5 a.m. I walked through those days as if my head was full of cotton. Now, after spending the summer trying to improve my sleep, I finally get it: I am genetically predisposed not to be able to get up that early.
That sounds like an excuse my kids would make up when they don’t want to get out of bed for school. But it’s not. If you’ve struggled with when to get up and when to go to bed, it’s possible you are fighting against your genes, much like I was.
“Everybody—every human on Earth—has a genetic, predetermined bedtime and wake-up time,” says Dr. Michael Breus (“The Sleep Doctor”), an author, speaker, clinical psychologist and fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “It’s called your chronotype.”
That might be an unfamiliar term, but it’s a familiar concept. Early birds don’t go to bed early and night owls stay up late just because they want to. They have to, in a sense. Researchers believe as many as nine genes determine your chronotype. In his book The Power of When, Breus broke chronotypes down into four categories and prescribed ideal bedtimes and wake-up times for each:
- Lions: Conventionally known as early birds, they are what Ben Franklin had in mind when he said “early to bed, early to rise.” Ideal sleep schedule: 10:30 p.m. to 5:30-6 a.m.
- Bears: More people are bears than any other chronotype. They are why culture follows the schedule it does. Ideal sleep schedule: 11 p.m.-12 a.m. to 7 a.m.
- Wolves: Commonly called night owls, they are creative extroverts. Ideal sleep schedule: midnight to 7 a.m.
- Dolphins: Insomniacs and/or light sleepers who wake up feeling unrested. Ideal sleep schedule: 11:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.
You probably can figure which one you are based on examining your life and comparing it to Breus’s descriptions. You could also take an online quiz or a genetics test. Breus also suggests asking your parents when they go to bed.
As a solopreneur, you probably work from home and set your own schedule. Breus strongly encourages you to take advantage of that in determining when you go to bed and when you wake up. Set your sleep schedule according to your own biology, not what the culture demands. Put another way, if you struggle getting up early and you don’t have to, then don’t.
Not everyone can pick their own wake-up time. If you have a required wake-up time, your lights out, eyes-closed bedtime should be seven to nine hours before it. Whatever bedtime you pick—or whatever bedtime picks you—rule No. 1 is following it as best as you can. Go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time, even on the weekends. The wake-up time is especially important, Breus says, because it resets your circadian rhythm every day.
“Regularity is king,” says Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science, and author of Why We Sleep, in a MasterClass video. “And it will anchor your sleep and improve the quantity and quality of that sleep.”
And an increase in the quantity and quality of your sleep will make your life better. In a TEDx talk, Breus told a story about a patient named Kate who was an extreme wolf. Her inability to adjust to a “normal” schedule hurt her personally and professionally. Like me during my 4:30 experiment, she was always exhausted. Breus prescribed a novel experiment—the reverse of mine: With approval from her family and boss, she adjusted her sleep schedule to 2 a.m. to 9 a.m. Her mood and work performance improved markedly.
Although most people won’t need such extreme changes, Breus says lining up your sleep schedule with your chronotype will yield results. “If you can follow those guidelines, life gets so much easier because your body knows what to do and when to do it,” Breus says.
Slowly but surely, I learned that this summer as I focused on improving my sleep. I used an Oura ring, a wearable device that analyzed my sleep patterns to determine the best bedtime for me (9:15 p.m. to 10:15 p.m.) and then encouraged me via push notification two hours before to hit that bedtime.
I looked back at two months’ worth of my best sleep scores (80 or better, 18 times). In all but three, I fell asleep within the 9:15 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. parameter, and two of the misses were within four minutes (10:16 and 10:19; the other was 10:38).
I also looked back at two months’ worth of my worst scores (70 or lower, 15 times). I hit my bedtime only four of those times. My big misses were often because travel made me late getting to bed. But sometimes, for no real reason, I stayed up late. I paid for it with poor sleep, which occasionally chased me for days in the form of low energy and sour moods.
As I learned to intentionally hit that bedtime, it became first a routine and then a necessity. Now it’s almost like I have to go to bed in that window. My body demands it. My sweet spot seems to have narrowed to 9:45 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. I’m still working on the ideal wake-up time. But I know for sure when it’s not: 4:30.
Photo by David Prado Perucha