It may be a cliché, but the old saying that the early bird gets the worm may very well be true. A recent survey of 1,000 Americans by Sleep Junkie found that both job satisfaction and salary are higher among people who rise before 7 a.m. Greeting your day at 5 a.m. was associated with a peak salary, while those who rose at 6 a.m. had the highest job satisfaction.
The self-reported survey’s findings are in line with academic studies. A 2008 study from the University of Texas, for example, found that students who said they were “morning people” got higher grades, Forbes reported, and a Harvard study found that early risers tend to be more proactive.
Of course, it’s not all about how early you get up. Waking up at 5 a.m. each day won’t be much help if you’re going to bed late and not getting enough sleep. A 2011 study found that insomnia was a threat to workplace productivity with an overall loss of 252.7 days and $63.2 billion due to sleepiness at work.
For most adults, anywhere from seven to nine hours of sleep a night is the sweet spot, according to the National Sleep Foundation. But with up to 70 million adults in the U.S. having a sleep or wakefulness disorder, that can be tough, as lack of sleep affects your concentration levels, recall and overall performance. Common reasons for not getting enough sleep include overdoing it on caffeine, late-day eating, stress and being too wired at night when you should be trying to wind down.
Lack of sleep can also make you feel less positive about life. “With poor sleep, thoughts can be more negative, and the processing of them may be more likely to include negative repetitive loops, or rumination, leading to negative emotions,” Jenna Carl, clinical psychologist told Newsweek.
Consistency is important, too. In a 2017 study, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital tracked the sleep patterns of 61 Harvard students for 30 days to see when they went to sleep and rose each day. The team found that those who went to bed and woke up at the same time each day performed better academically.
Why is consistency so important? Our bodies like to know when to turn on the “sleep” hormone melatonin, which regulates when we sleep and wake up. So when you stay out late on Saturday night and sleep in on Sunday, you will probably still feel off Monday morning.
When you switch your sleep schedule, it becomes harder for the body to anticipate when to release the sleep hormone and get into a natural circadian rhythm. “Sleep is a part of a larger system of biological rhythms that regulate everything from brain function to muscle repair,” Michael Grandner, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona, told Time. “The more variable your sleep schedule, the more these systems are not working optimally together.”
How to improve your sleep to get ahead
So how do you get a better night’s rest? You don’t need to check into a sleep center to get the shut-eye you deserve, but you can try these five steps:
1. Decode your sleep deficit
One of the first things I did after purchasing a Fitbit was flip out at how little sleep I was getting. I thought I was a champion sleeper, but in reality, the evil little device said I was only tracking an average of five to six hours per night.
People often misjudge how much sleep they get and are in shock when they track their sleep patterns, the New York Times reported. You don't need to purchase a fitness tracker to monitor your sleep, but instead use old-fashioned paper and pen or try this handy diary.
Record when you go to bed and when you rise in the morning. Add in naps or if you woke up in the middle of the night to determine how much sleep you are getting. Use the data to adjust your sleep patterns, or — if you think you need medical help — deliver the results to your doctor for further evaluation.
2. Get the right kind of light
While being assaulted by sunshine may not sound like a fun way to wake up, allowing your body to be exposed to sunlight in the morning signals the brain that it’s time to start your day, as the New York Times has reported. It’s especially helpful if you’re trying to wake up earlier each day — so you might want to swap out those blackout curtains.
“Any light suppresses the hormone melatonin, which peaks during the night to make you feel sleepy,” Dr. Simon Archer, a chronobiologist at Surrey Sleep Research Centre, told Science Focus. “But it’s actually blue-light receptors in the eye that are responsible for doing that, so light enriched with red will help you fall asleep faster, whereas light enriched with blue will coax you into wakefulness in the morning.”
To make sure the light from your phone is not keeping you awake at night, switch into “night mode” or “night shift” — or invest in some cool glasses:
3. Banish the snooze button
While it may feel great to get “just five more” minutes by hitting snooze in the morning, this move actually can kill your chances of maintaining a healthy and consistent sleep schedule. What’s the harm in snuggling a little longer?
When you try to fall back to sleep for a short amount of time, your body goes into a new sleep cycle, which ends up resulting in a groggier morning, Time reported. Plus, as the Sleep Junkie survey found — and perhaps unsurprisingly — hitting snooze seems to be correlated with lower relationship satisfaction for those sharing a bed.
Rather than hitting snooze, drag your bones out of bed and try to face the day. Then, use your subsequent sleepiness to help set an earlier bedtime that night. Keeping to a strict bed and wake time will get your body into a healthy circadian rhythm and help you get up earlier, since you’re not delaying your rising time each morning.
Another suggestion? Ditch your alarm clock altogether as an experiment while on vacation or taking time off from work. If you keep a sleep journal, you’ll be able to see when you naturally fall asleep and wake up, the New York Times said. Doing this for a few days will allow you to pinpoint your natural sleep pattern and make adjustments to fit your work or school schedule — once you need to wake up at a certain time again.
4. Exercise earlier in the day
Even a little physical activity can help you achieve a better night of sleep, Sleep.org said. In fact, researchers at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, published a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine that found just 30 minutes of exercise three times a week can improve sleep and even encourage further participation in exercise.
Still, you’ll want to make sure you do it during the morning or mid-afternoon. For most people, working out at night can actually make you more energetic, which may hinder your ability to crash on time.
5. Start your day with breakfast
If you have a hard time waking up, add breakfast to your morning routine. Eating breakfast on a daily basis will help with the whole “synching up” process you want to achieve, the New York Times reported.
What should you eat to set you up for the best day?
Start with a meal that contains healthy fats such as avocados, salmon or eggs, William Cole, a functional medicine doctor who specializes in nutrition, told the New York Post. While the doughnuts in the break room may look tempting, walk away from the sugar. Refined sugar only promotes a quick energy crash, whereas starting your day with good fats allows your body to release energy slowly and helps you maintain steady productivity levels.
Want even more advice? Here’s how to make money in your sleep — literally.
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