Can a night owl become a morning person? A Slate experiment.

Health and medicine explained.
June 13 2008 4:26 PM

Can a Night Owl Become a Morning Person?

A Slate experiment.

(Continued from Page 1)

The allure of being up first thing in the morning wasn't immediately apparent. By the third morning, however, the weather had cleared, and we were discovering that 7 a.m. was our new favorite time of day. The pale sun glinted off the rooftops as we stepped outside. The world was especially beautiful at this hour, and we were under doctor's orders to stroll around and enjoy it. We found a playground nearby and went down the tandem slide together. We explored unknown side streets. We discovered a park that was full of signs with interesting facts about our town. "The Edsel was manufactured here!"

Unfortunately, staying up late hadn't lost its appeal. One night early in my experiment, I was drifting off to sleep around 11 when my roommate came in. "We haven't caught up in a while," she said. By the time we finished chatting, it was midnight. Another evening a friend coaxed me out to a Brazilian dance club, and I didn't get to sleep until 1.

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As the experiment wore on, waking up became more painful, not less, and not just on mornings after I'd stayed up late. When people asked me how I was doing, I invariably said, "Tired." By Day 9, there were dark bags under my eyes. That afternoon I gave in and took a two-hour nap at my desk.

I realized I'd made a tactical error. I'd budgeted for eight hours of sleep a night, but I was discovering I truly needed eight and a half, and the debt was accruing quickly. My boyfriend and I discussed shifting our bedtime back to 10:30—which seemed positively geriatric—or our wake-up time forward to 7:30—which seemed like a cop-out.

We liked our new schedule the way it was. It had given us a newfound sense of control over our lives. We started each morning with an act of will that set the tone for the day. We went to work early and finished early. And if the evenings were a bit less fun than before—even a lot less fun—we also remembered how we often stayed up late into the night, zombified, both of us staring silently into our laptops. Our new routine seemed like a commitment to live a more virtuous life.

Still, I was so tired I was losing the will to live at all. By Day 11, I had developed two distinct personalities: "Mel," my melatonin-induced alter ego, who walked briskly around the block as the sun was rising, and "Deepa," who emerged three hours later, cranky and easily provoked.

On Day 13, I ended the experiment one day early. The decision was easy. The alarm went off, and I stayed put. No more melatonin, no more glasses, no more mandatory walks. But in the days that followed, I still got sleepy around 10:30 and ended up going to bed about an hour later. My wake-up time crept forward, but settled at a still-respectable 8 a.m., where it has remained since. According to the doctors, the key is incremental change—so if I were to push for 7 a.m. now, I might find it easier than I did the first time.

But I probably won't try. Being a morning person has its drawbacks. Morning people get sleepy just when all the fun begins. What I really wanted when I started this experiment, I now realize, was to be one of those crazies who functions well on just five hours of sleep. That's never going to happen.

And hey, I'm not not a morning person. Recently, I took the bold step of signing up for a 7 a.m. gym class that meets twice a week. The woman at the reception desk was a little concerned. "You know what time it starts, right? That's OK with you?"

"Yep," I said.

"Good," she said, shaking her head and smiling. "Because I couldn't do it."

For a split second, I wanted to give her a condescending smile and say, "I just don't understand why it's so hard." That smugness! That total lack of compassion! I kept my mouth shut, but I knew I had arrived.

Deepa Ranganathan is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.