I Thought I Was A Night Owl. I Was Wrong.

I've been wrong about a fact I believed about myself since I was twelve. I'm not a night person. I'm a morning person. It's uncool, but I just have to accept it, because it turns out? The morning? Is pretty cool! As Tracy Jordan observed on 30 Rock, "Did you know that in the morning they have food, TV… almost everything!"

Earlier this month I read Gretchen Rubin's latest happiness self-help bestseller, Better Than Before, which focuses on habits. In the book, Rubin suggests early rising as a new habit for a friend, who currently keeps late hours, but fondly recalls getting up early as a child. She suggests to him that he consider getting up an hour earlier to do an activity he enjoys, like taking the dog to the dog park. This turns out to be the lynchpin for him to actually start getting up early, and enjoying it. Previous attempts, he explains, always failed, because they centered around getting to work earlier, something that didn't motivate him.

This resonated with me. All of my attempts to get up earlier have also centered around getting to work earlier, and have also failed for that reason. There's no motivation there. Sure, if you get to work earlier you can leave earlier, but that's hardly an immediate reward that lures one out of bed. But it occurred to me that there was a very natural enjoyable activity that might actually get me out of bed in the morning, one I already enjoyed: birdwatching.

I've been the world's latest birdwatcher for three years. All of my eBird.org checklists have ridiculous (for a birder) start times, like noon or 5:45 PM. As a rule, birds are most active, by far, early in the morning; they tend to lay low in mid-day. By refusing to get up early, I've been handicapping myself.

Combine the lure of kicking my birding to a whole new level with a nagging dissatisfaction that I wasn't getting enough outdoor time, and I had just the motivation I needed to start a new habit. On Thursday, March 31, I set my alarm for 6:45 AM, over an hour earlier than usual. When I woke up, I was much less tired and more excited than I thought. The sun was shining, and I was eager to get started on my morning. I slipped out of bed, put on jeans and a hoodie--no sense in getting my work clothes dirty--and walked over to the park, where I spent the hour between 7 and 8 wandering in the early morning sunlight with my binoculars, noticing 14 species of bird, and cheerfully nodding "Good morning!" to other early risers.

Since then, I've gotten up at 6:45 every morning, and I've walked on every day it wasn't raining or snowing. (Yes, it was snowing one of those mornings. Boston.) This has had a ton of benefits. I've seen a lot of birds. I've easily walked 10,000 steps almost every day. I've made and eaten big hearty breakfasts of eggs. And the hungry, deprived feeling of not being outdoors enough has been fading, leading to an improvement in my general happiness and well-being. Sure, I'd still rather be outdoors more, but it had been getting to a point where I resented any indoor activity that occurred on weekend day (like being invited to a party, or doing needed errands) because I so jealously guarded those precious free daylight hours for my sun-and-birds time. Now I can be more balanced about my weekend activities because I'm getting sun-and-birds time every day!

Most surprising is how good I feel in the morning, and how natural it seems to me to fall asleep earlier. I adjusted right away. I think this means I'm a morning person, all right.

Why I assumed I was a night person

It's very possible that I was a night person at twelve--most tweens and teens are, just as most young children are up bright and early. I guess I just didn't bother to question that I was a night person because I always hated waking up to an alarm, snoozed as late as possible (especially when I had jobs that required early rising), and resisted going to sleep at night.

But, now, I have some alternative explanations for these things:

I resisted going to sleep at night because nighttime, after work and dinner and the normal business of the day was complete, was my time, the only me time of the day. I didn't want to sacrifice any of it.

I always snoozed as late as possible because I'd stayed up too late the night before (see above), and because I knew that I was just going to have to go through the usual grind of dressing, washing, toast, and going to work, and I was not especially jazzed about that. The better jobs I've had have also tended to be the most flexible in terms of hours, so the fact that I woke up more easily for later-starting jobs wasn't necessarily because of the later start.

I always hated waking up to an alarm because alarms are horrible.

My new routine removes all of these problems:

I don't guard my nighttime hours as jealously, because I get "me time" early in the day. It's kind of the daily routine equivalent of paying yourself first. I never run out of hours in the day in which to enjoy myself because I enjoy myself in the first hour of the day. Whatever happens the rest of the day is just extra. I find myself becoming extremely tired around ten in the evening. I used to fight that because ten-thirty is a silly time to go to sleep, but now I just give in.

I don't snooze because I'd only be cheating myself out of time doing what I love. It used to be that as soon as I swung my legs out of bed, I'd have to get started on the pre-work work of putting on business casual clothes and getting together my things for the office. Now, I don't do that until after breakfast. Lingering over breakfast is how I stall now; there's no direct motivation to stall while lying in bed.

Finally, I've been waking up before even my early alarm, now, too. I'm not sure why; maybe it's just a more natural time for my body to wake. Come to think of it, this is usually about when I wake when I'm on vacation. Maybe that should have been my first clue?

But, more important then details of when I get up or why, I think the most important lesson here, for me, has been to stop living for the weekend and saving up my favorite activities for Saturday and Sunday. I'm so much happier when I make sure to get a little piece of something wonderful in every day. It's worth questioning my routines and rearranging my day to make sure that happens.


  1. Does cohabiting have something to do with it, do you think? I find that it is much easier to get up at a reasonable hour if my partner also has reasonable hours.

    I don't live with Madeleine, but when she is home we go to bed around 1:30-2, as opposed to my normal time of 2 or 3 (or 4!). None of those are early hours, but it's earlier than I could manage by myself.

    I'm envious that you were able to switch.

    1. My partner and I had more similar schedules before I began getting up earlier. It's actually inconvenient now because I fall dead asleep before she is remotely tired, and she's unconscious when I slip out for my morning walk! I do think that if you want to switch, incentivizing yourself with a fun morning activity is the way to go. For me, the earlier bedtime naturally followed because I just got so tired!


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