It’s a running joke among family and friends that I am not a morning person. Speaking to me before 8am comes with a health warning, and my boyfriend knows better than to ask "Cup of coffee?" until I’ve indicated I’m vaguely awake.
I don’t go to bed early, either, often staying up until midnight, watching TV, checking social media and occasionally working. I am what’s commonly known as a night owl.
By contrast, growing up I was definitely a lark. My mom has told me how I’d toddle into my parents’ room, singing (I had an actual song): "Good morning! It’s the morning!"
I have friends who are larks. One, who I’ve known since university, would be up even when we’d had a big night out. She is now a teacher and mom and up early even in the holidays. Another likes to go to the gym before work; a 5am alarm call is her norm. "I just find it gets me in the right frame of mind for work if I exercise early. If I had a bad day the day before, a good gym sesh helps me forget about it, then refocus before the next working day begins," she says. Yet another friend is a get-up-and-work person who thrives on the early start to bash through emails and meeting plans.
For me, the thought of exercising before work triggers an instant feeling of anger and annoyance.
My alarm goes off at 7am but I usually manage to drag myself out of bed by 8am. My days begin with a sluggish, dry-eyed feeling and I often find that this sleepy start leads to me leaving late and being grumpy.
So when I read about some new research into night owls and larks and how the nocturnal among us can change our habits, I was intrigued. The study, led by Monash University along with the University of Surrey and the University of Birmingham, concluded that by tweaking their sleeping patterns and thereby adjusting their body clocks, night owls could improve their mental health and performance.
Could this work for me? The idea of improving my wellbeing was one I really wanted to explore. Over the past six months I’ve struggled with my mental health, feeling depressed and isolated as I work from home as a freelancer. So much so that I set up a wellbeing blog to try and work through my feelings.
Would I benefit from adjusting my body clock? And could it really be done? In the study, night owls were instructed to make a number of behavioural changes, which I decided I would adopt for a week.
They included: going to bed around two hours before my normal bedtime, and waking and getting up two hours earlier; having breakfast as soon as possible after waking up; and not eating after 7pm.
That meant a 5am wake-up call and 10pm curfew. Ugh.
The very idea made me itchy and irritable. But with my mental health on my mind, I decided it was time to try.
Mastering my life is something I’d like to do, for sure. With visions of myself powering through my to-do list, pounding the pavement to the sound of the dawn chorus and getting to the shops before the rush, I set my alarm for 5am and headed to bed...
I’m normally woken by the radio alarm at 7am, but with my boyfriend not wanting to take part in this morning hell, I set the alarm on my phone. I bash it into snooze twice, then drag myself from under the covers at 5.20am. "I’m going to struggle," I say into the pillow, knowing my propensity to be bad tempered any time before 10am, and stumble to the bathroom, then the kettle.
Since I’m supposed to eat ASAP, I make scrambled eggs and coffee. This feels like when I’ve had to get up for a flight, and I have no idea what to do with myself. The world is fairly silent, and my first instinct is to go to my phone.
I post on Facebook: Ok so who's awake? Typing this at 05.36, woke up at 5am…. Apart from people woken by kids, are you up and awake on purpose. And why?!
It turns out, astonishingly (to me at any rate), that lots of people are awake. And there’s a clear difference between the people who are choosing to be up this early, to work or exercise, and what I now call forced larks – the people who have been woken by children.
Reasons come in thick and fast, ranging from someone who is up at 5am every day to meditate and exercise before work, to another who goes trail running early to beat the heat where she lives in the south of France, to someone who just likes to sit in the garden with a coffee and listen to the world wake up.
I begin to sift through emails and some copy I’ve been working on. By 10am I’ve done loads and feel a sleepy-headed sense of purpose at having got ahead of my to-do list. Unexpectedly, I feel a lot calmer than usual.
I read about how early birds make more money than night owls, and it spurs me on to send an invoice I meant to send last week.
My anxiety at needing to find information for a feature by 10am is quelled because I’ve done it well ahead of schedule and I’ve got ideas pitched out ready for people’s morning inboxes, too. It’s strange, though, being up this early, so out of my comfort zone. My boyfriend quite likes early mornings and gets up not long after me. I am afraid – have I made us a morning person household? What have I done?
A mid-morning smoothie and lunch (I’ve set 1.30pm as my regular lunchtime for the week) are like hits of energy. I’ve never really felt food fuel me before but it’s like putting petrol in the tank. At 7pm, we have pasta and pesto, and by 10pm I am flagging. But it’s in a good way: I prepare for bed and hit the pillow at 10.15. I feel like I’ve nailed it and am pretty proud of myself. Then it dawns on me – there’s another 5am alarm around the corner.
Getting up early on day two is hard. I manage to do it in two snoozes, and am out of bed by 5.15am. My very understanding boyfriend brings me a cup of coffee and we sit in the lounge reading the weekend papers for a little while. The sun comes up over the chimneys and I feel peaceful, like I’ve stolen a bit of time before the city wakes up.
Eating breakfast is hard. I don’t like to eat this early and Special K isn’t a fun part of this experiment.
In the heatwave, being up earlier is a godsend; I can feel the temperature rising by 8am when I head into the garden and photograph some newly opened sunflowers. I feel like I’m sharing their little moment of the morning, and it really boosts my mood as I head back to my desk.
I confess that I’m spending a large chunk of these mornings on social media. Is it a given that I should work at this early time? What else do people do? I am affronted at the idea of getting up this early just to sit with a coffee but actually, that’s what one friend says she does. Many others exercise, but I can’t bring myself to try it yet.
Being up so early means I am smashing through work (invoicing, transcribing) and then feeling more relaxed at a meeting later and the dentist at 3pm. Work often involves a lot of panic – I get emails from editors when they need something for a feature or send back an edit, and it’s often on their schedule rather than mine. Being up earlier means I can beat that by getting back to them before they’re at their desk. It gives me a feeling of lightness, of control and relief, and it’s having such an impact that I truly feel I want to start the working day earlier. I am more at peace with myself and even my work. I’m enjoying ticking things off a list before the rush of the day begins. I can’t believe it, but I am seriously into this lark business.
I decide I’ll try the local lido later and download a ticket, feeling happy I’ve got something to do as I feel like I’ve been working for ages now.
I stick to a 1.30pm lunch of leftover pasta, and feel that energy boost again.
I keep looking at the clock and thinking it must be a certain time, then it’s never as late as I think it is and I feel a rush of relief and joy that I’ve got so much of the working day left.
Home after my swim – which was heaven and didn’t come with guilt because I’d worked earlier – I am in bed by 10pm and feel an unusual sensation… I think it’s smugness.
Today I’m working in house at a newspaper, so I’ve got to be at the office by 9am. Usually, that would mean a rushed hour of me shouting things like "NO NOT THOSE SUNGLASSES!" at my poor boyfriend as I dance around choosing what to wear and trying to find my water bottle.
Instead, up at 5am, I have time to get some work done as well as choose what I’m going to wear and fill the bottle to chill in the fridge before I go to do battle on the Underground.
Drinking my morning coffee, I notice a lot of sounds I don’t normally hear: the geese on the small river behind our flat and the occasional car, as opposed to the 9am rush of beeping, revving traffic. The stress reduction is a definite bonus.
The morning flies by and at 1.30pm I treat myself to some sushi. By 4pm, though, I want to put my head on the desk and have a snooze. The intensity of the working day plus not being able to spend lunch on the sofa has taken its toll.
This evening I’m out with friends. They’re never a late-night crew so I have high hopes for a 10pm bedtime. We meet at 6.30 and have begun eating by 7pm, although it doesn’t finish until closer to 8.30. I feel like I’ve failed but I’m also enjoying the rosé we’ve ordered. They all laugh at my challenge, and it firms my resolve to keep going.
I’m home by 10.30pm, which feels like a half-win. But there’s one difference – I’m tipsy, and I know deep down this is going to make tomorrow morning a challenge. I don’t feel like I’ve failed, but I’ve certainly strayed from the straight and narrow. I go out a lot, generally, and wonder how I’d shift that if I were to become a long-term morning person.
Normally I’d have got home and watched Coronation Street for an hour before turning in but tonight I don’t and I feel quite disappointed and annoyed that my new routine won’t 'let' me.
As predicted, I struggle to wake up, but I’m pleased when I manage to get up at 5.30 and sleepily make tea and toast. By 7am it’s 22 degrees and I decide it’s time: I shall exercise. I wrestle on my sports bra, feeling surreal, a slight nausea, even, at the idea of going running.
But I persevere, thinking about how morning people are allegedly happier than night owls and I must embrace this if I want to feel that same joy! But I feel prickly, annoyed almost.
My usual route is normally crammed with moms coming back from the lunchtime pick-up at local nurseries, but at this time of the morning it’s empty.
I notice people on their way to work but it’s still pretty silent, like I’ve joined a select club of those who are up and about while the rest of the world sleeps.
I head to the office feeling virtuous and that if I had to commit to lark life I’d do an 11pm bedtime and 6am wake-up. But I’ll never be a morning exercise person. I feel that in my bones.
It might be my imagination but I’m convinced the dark circles under my eyes have faded and overall, I can’t deny I’m in a much better mood. I feel lighter in myself.
There’s something about the mornings that is giving me a boost, helping me feel balanced. Could it really happen so fast?
By lunchtime, I’m flagging and I have to avoid the urge to put my head down on the desk for a nap. I make sure I get some fresh air (and a Diet Coke for some caffeine) at lunchtime and by the evening am feeling a little more awake.
I’m seeing friends again and I know going to bed by 10pm is unlikely; in the end it’s around 11pm.
The problem with staying up later is, as another morning person friend points out: "You can’t do both. You have to pick lark or owl." One of my dinner mates is a self-confessed morning person and she asks me how I feel. "Smug," I laugh. She smiles knowingly. It’s true, getting up early makes me feel smug more than anything else. The quietness of that first hour from 5 'til 6 is so unique, and I’ve been getting so much more done that I'm sure it’s helped me feel more balanced. I’ve certainly felt less anxious about deadlines and work in general, like I’ve started a race early each day and am ahead of the pack.
After a night of thunderstorms and heat it’s hard to wake up but I had the curtains half open (another lark friend said to try this) and it’s nice to have the natural light stream in.
By some miracle, I’m up on time and over breakfast decide to watch the soap I missed the other night.
I then put on the news, but it’s a dangerous game; before I know it, it’s 7.30 and I am rushing into the shower.
The day goes well, I’m engrossed in two interviews and transcribing them and by 6pm when I leave the office I’m quite chipper. Is this the happiness I’d read about?
I’m off to a barbecue, where talk turns to the early morning project. My host says she is often up early, just to enjoy a coffee. As the mother of two teenagers, it’s often her precious quiet time. There’s one question on everyone’s lips, from my host to my boyfriend to other morning people I know. Will I keep it up?
Let’s just say that as I’ve been finishing this article, the clock says 7.07. Not the 5am I’ve dabbled with but yes, I could see myself aiming for an 11pm bedtime and a 6am wake-up. At least when the summer sun is helping me. Being a lark has been hard work at times but I can’t deny the benefits to my general mood. The exercise can wait, though.