I have always wanted to be a lark, but I long ago resigned myself to the fact that I am an owl.
I have never woken up without the help of an alarm. At least not at a “decent” hour. Left to my own devices, I might open my eyes once around 8:30 a.m. (only because I have kids, and my mom panic mode would set in) but would then immediately drift back to sleep, not waking until 9 a.m. or later. I imagined that if I vacationed at a resort sans kids for even a week, I would soon revert to waking at 10 a.m. or later.
In spite of this, I never considered myself a troubled sleeper, but rather an enthusiastic one. I loved sleep. I longed for sleep. I lusted after it once I had kids, dreaming of sleeping in the way one might dream of water in the middle of the Sahara. I could sleep anytime, anywhere given half the chance. Did this mean I suffered from exhaustion? Probably. Yet, I couldn’t figure out a solution to my constantly tired state. I was regularly getting about eight, sometimes nine, hours of sleep per night but still never felt rested. I always craved more shut-eye, no matter how much I got.
I figured I just needed more sleep than the average person. I constantly cited this study to my husband that states women need more sleep than men to justify making him get up with the kids while I slept in on the weekends. I would often watch hours of Netflix before going to bed. If I was going to be tired anyway, why not at least enjoy my nights, right?
Then I was spurred by an upcoming birthday to make a fresh start with my habits. I wanted to start running regularly, eating healthy, keep a steady freelance work schedule, and cut out all the TV I was watching to accomplish my goals. I started slow, cutting back my intake of TV at night from two hours per night down to one hour per night. Then I made a list of only five shows I would allow myself to watch. Then two. Then none.
I started reading books in bed in lieu of TV time, still shutting off the lights around the same time of 10:30 p.m. I tried to keep myself away from my phone and computer, making my bedtime routine consistent with the healthy lifestyle I wanted for myself.
I didn’t expect it to change much other than my sense of self-control, but what happened was life-changing. During the first week of TV-free nights, I found myself waking without an alarm clock for the first time in my life. Not only that, but I was waking up earlier ― way earlier.
The first day I woke early, I checked my phone, saw it was 5:45 a.m. and assumed my body was simply confused by my sudden changes in habits. I didn’t get up, opting instead to hit my internal snooze button, but I didn’t fall back asleep. I lay awake until 6:30 a.m., then decided to get up, seriously worried that fatigue would hit me like a truck by mid-morning. Instead, my energy levels remained solid throughout the day, and I was ready for bed at my usual time.
The next day it happened again. This time it was 5:30 a.m. without a hint of exhaustion. I decided to get up and raise the stakes, going for a 2-mile run in the 37-degree weather. I felt even better than the day before, refreshed and accomplished before my family was even awake.
I was amazed. Despite going to sleep around the same time as I was in my TV-heavy days, I was suddenly getting up nearly two hours earlier without an alarm every single day. Not only that, I was ready to be awake, fully able to bolt out the door for an early morning run or start in on some work without relying on caffeine to make my brain function.
It turns out I wasn’t a true night owl after all. I was simply wired on too much late-night media. It’s a problem many people may have without realizing it. Most of us consider watching TV a relaxing way to unwind at the end of the day. Parents especially can struggle with not having enough energy to do anything else ― but it’s possible that watching TV is helping to keep them in this exhausted state in the first place.
Media consumption before bedtime can alter your perception of sleep. Even if you are getting the same number of hours each night, you’ll wake feeling less rested after spending hours in front of a screen before settling down. So if you’re feeling sleepy even after a good night’s rest, it may be a sign you need to cut back, at least before hitting the hay.
“An hour of no media prior to bedtime would be optimal,” says Dr. Gregory Carter, associate professor of neurology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The reason for doing so, he adds, is twofold. “The first is the exposure to blue light from the screen of phone, tablet or monitor at close range to the eyes. This has an alerting effect on the brain and allows the individual to stay up longer than he or she should thus making morning awakening more problematic. The second is emotional arousal from troublesome news or emails that cannot be easily swept from one’s mind.”
Giving yourself this screen-free hour before bed can also become a cue to your body that it is time to sleep, Carter says, and this screen-free period can help reset our out-of-whack circadian clock. “If we can limit evening alerting effects of media, we can avoid the circadian shift and the resultant sleep deprivation.”