As soon as the sun rises, I hide under my duvet. If I must emerge, I put the kettle in the fridge and wear jumpers inside out. At night, I could run a marathon and write a novel... it wouldn’t be good but it would get done. Like one in four of us, I’m a night person. An owl, with fewer feathers.
When I worked as a freelancer, this wasn’t a problem – I’d happily scribble away in the dark, undistracted by emails. But now I've got a job with regular 9.30am-6pm hours and I've suddenly seen how others live. Weeks in, I was miserable. Then I read about a regime that could turn night people into morning people.
The plan - devised by experts at Birmingham, Surrey and Monash universities - aimed to bring people’s body clocks forward by two hours. After three weeks, night people, said the experts, would be able to concentrate better in the mornings, feel more awake during the day, and feel less stressed. Because as much as I like the nights, it turns out they don't like me - studies show that night people have a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and mental health problems. But could I really change the habit of a lifetime? There was only one way to find out...
- Waking up 2-3 hours before my regular wake-up time
- Having breakfast as soon as possible
- Getting lots of sunlight in the mornings
- Only doing exercise before lunch
- Eating lunch at the same time every day
- No caffeine after 3pm
- No naps after 4pm
- Having dinner before 7pm
- Limiting light (daylight and screen-time) in the evenings
- Going to bed 2-3 hours before my normal bedtime
- Keeping the routine every day, regardless of commitments
When the alarm goes at 6am, I fling back the curtains. Sunlight stimulates cortisol (the stress hormone we need to wake up) and suppresses melatonin (the hormone that tells us to go to sleep). It’s two hours before I need to get up for work, and four hours before I’d prefer to get up – at 10am. I throw on some clothes and dash off to a HIIT class, rushing back two minutes later to pick up my work bag. I’m thankful we don’t live in Norway - it’s not quite pitch black, but I’ve vowed to get a blue-light emitting lamp - they replicate the effect of sunshine.
After the class, I bounce into work. I pass on coffee, brainstorm ideas and arrange interviews. I break for lunch at 1pm, returning to find my energy has waned. Usually, this is the start of when my focus peaks. But my eyes glaze over. I re-read the same article until I can go home. I have dinner, and crawl into bed at 8pm, two hours before the curfew of my new regime (and three hours earlier than my usual 1am).
The next day I swap exercise for breakfast. Normally, I don’t eat anything at this hour, but research tells me that in order to shift my internal rhythm (known as our 'circadian rhythm') we must shift everything else - from exercise to meal-times. According to experts, what we eat doesn’t actually matter; it's all about when we eat it. I butter bagels and mash avocado, but can’t face eating it, so wrap it up for lunch and go to work.
I feel OK in the morning but by lunchtime, I’m flagging. I make it through the afternoon with the help of coffee at 2.55pm (allowed), and another at 5pm (forbidden). I have a late meeting and get home at 8pm. It feels like midnight. Yet as the days continue, I see a gradual difference. I fire off emails in the morning, instead of moving around files in folders on my screen, and can feel my productive hours shifting earlier.
By the weekend, I’m craving a lie in, but I resist. At 7am on Saturday, I’m cleaning my flat. That evening I’m not so virtuous. I go to a birthday dinner. It’s well after 7pm when I order (but I skip the booze as it can disrupt sleep) and leave at midnight. How do I feel the next day? Terrible. I was still enjoying birthday cake crumbs at 10.30pm (three and a half hours after my food cut-off time), and wasn’t asleep until 2am. My body is confused - and maybe angry at me. Switching between my old routine and my new one doesn't make for a restful night.
I haven’t gone outside with my jumper inside out for at least two days, but I’m still groggy until 11am and the second week is marred by disturbed sleep. At first, I can’t drop off. Later in the week, I can get to sleep, but wake up at 3am, and lie there in a foggy haze until I have to get up. My body doesn’t know what’s going on - what time does it think it is?
I look at my evening routine. The regime dictates a lack of light. It means no Netflix and closing the curtains two hours before bed, at 8pm. I dim the lights but I’m virtually in the dark. It’s way too dark to read. I light a Jo Malone candle, but now my bedroom smells like roasted chestnut. I do everything else I read might help - meditation, putting lavender oil on my pillow, playing whale music. It strikes me that I’ve turned my one-bed into a low-end spa, and I consider adding it to Treatwell, before realising I can’t use my phone.
I speak to Neil Stanley, a sleep expert, to find out what I should do about my restless nights. When I wake up should I try to go back to sleep? “If you're not worrying about the end of the world, stay in bed,” he says. “But the minute you start hating your pillow get up. You’ll never get back to sleep in that state.” He suggests going into the living room to read or even doing some work - anything to distract my whirring mind.
My restless nights are getting worse. I’m monitoring my sleep using SleepCycle. Dr Stanley says sleep trackers are the devil in a nightgown because they make you anxious you’re not sleeping well - and then you really don’t sleep well. But I like mine. Then a friend has an idea: we’ll both swap graphs in the morning. Being competitive, I’d be a regular sleeper in no time. On Tuesday, I sleep through. I feel like I’ve turned a corner. This seems to be the very definition of a good night’s sleep (an early night, an early morning and eight hours imitating a log) - and I’ve had one for the first time in years .
By Thursday, I’m waking up just before my alarm goes off at 7am (the 6am starts were absurd). Dr Stanley says this is because our body starts preparing to wake up 90 minutes before we do and it’s clocked my routine. This suggests I’m waking up at a natural point in my sleep cycle. I’m still grumpy, and it’s still taking me until mid-morning to get going. Dr Stanley suggests this is caused by sleep inertia - the time when part of our brain is still waking up. This usually takes five to 30 minutes, but can take four hours. By Friday, I find myself walking rather than dragging myself to my desk.
I wonder how long I will need to keep this up if I want some semblance of a morning in the future. “We don’t know what will happen if night people relax the regime,” says Dr Bagshaw. “I suspect you'll need to stick to the rules - particularly when it comes to eating and exercising. Your natural drive might always be geared towards late bedtimes. If you see a benefit, you’ll want to change.” Basically, this means - whatever I do - it’s possible that I am inherently a night owl. I can disguise myself as a lark if I follow another pattern and might even pass for one, but I’ll never be the real thing.
I consider my options. I’ve seen the importance of giving my body clues to what time of day it is, using light, food and air (almost as if I were a plant) and sticking to a routine. But the thing is I could stop eating before 7pm every night, but I like going out for dinner. I could avoid coffee in the afternoon, but I sometimes crave a pick-me-up. I could get up early at weekends, but what about lie-ins? I'm reluctant to let go of life's small pleasures.
And yet for as long as I am expected to be in an office at ungodly hours (AKA daytime), this might be worth a shot. I might allow myself the odd day off, but if I need to function in the world, I don’t have a choice: I have to give this a go - and it has to work.