Five Awesome Sleep Hacks to Nail Early Starts

(From a Chronic Night Owl)

There are two kinds of people in this world. Night owls and early birds, or as I prefer to call them, bright-eyed morning bastards who should leave me the fuck alone for at least 5 more minutes. As a night owl, I am very good at late night activities. Box set watching, experimental cookery, cupboard cleaning, clothes alterations and of course, furniture rearranging. With almost four decades of sleep-onset insomnia under my belt, I have at the other end an equal amount of morning horror to draw upon.

Sleep-onset insomnia is also described as ‘delayed sleep-phase disorder’ – DSPD for short. This disruption in circadian rhythms simply means that my natural falling asleep and waking up patterns are out of whack. I have over the years used alcohol, medication, meditation, hypnosis, yoga nidra, more booze and of course, exercise to try and deal with falling asleep, but I’ll save those findings for another blog post. This one is about facing the morning after the never ending night before.

Basically, if I knew for sure there was a fire in the building, I probably wouldn’t get out of bed until the walls got hot. But three years ago, I began working in an office three hours from home, and so I had to drag my sorry ass out of bed even earlier than normal people.  My Monday mornings begin at 5am, a time at which I would much rather be going to bed.

For the first six months of the new job I would fall asleep at my usual 2am, wake up at 5am and stumble through the day like a member of the undead, pale of face and trembling from the sixth coffee. Eventually as the months passed, I figured out some tricks to make the morning eviction that little bit easier.


1: Step into the Light

Did you know sunlight triggers melatonin?



This one I learned the hard way when our firstborn kept waking up at 4.30am. Sunlight is a major influencer on our circadian rhythms and our melatonin levels. Sleeping with the curtains open in a room with lots of natural light will mean that (in summer time at least) it is slightly easier to wake up. You can buy lights that replicate sunlight for this exact reason. This tip is TOTALLY FECKING USELESS in the winter time.



2: Alarms 

Ease through three different settings.

So when you’re woken up before your time, it helps to set a series of alarms to bring you to full (or semi) consciousness. I’m going to go right ahead and assume you’ve got a decent phone with multiple alarm tones. Set the first one with a gentle tone. I like ‘Silk’ for iOS. You may sleep through it, or you may knock it off without even reaching consciousness. That’s OK.

Have another tone of more urgency set for about 5 minutes later. And then for five minutes after that, go in for the kill with the ‘Old Car Horn’ sound. This bad boy is horrendous, and will jack your anxiety up to 11, but it will probably get you moving.


3: The Holy Grail Tip

I swear to Jebus, this really fucking works. Because science!

Photo of freediver Hanli Prinsloo by Annelie Pompe.

I can’t begin to impress upon you how unbelievably powerful this next bit is. It’s all about the water. As soon as that car horn blows, get your tired, headachy, miserable, shaky self to the bathroom and get some water onto your face. Here’s the science bit:

In 1962, Per Scholander, a Swedish-born researcher began to uncover the powerful effect that water has on the human body. (he was studying divers) Basically, when we submerge our bodies the blood moves away from our limbs and to our vital organs. This is called “peripheral vasoconstriction” which has a profound affect on the body and brain. What’s interesting is that you need only put your face in water to trigger these “life-lengthening (and lifesaving) reflexes.” Swedish people, first naked saunas, now this. I love the Swedes. You should read the much longer, totally fascinating article here on TED.* Note this beautiful image is taken from that feature.

At a fundamental level, splashing water on your face makes you feel more human. It also seems to help if you’re in that place where you think you may not be able to stop crying until every drop of water has left your body. Splashy splashy, fixy fixy.

 *TED.Com [online] Extracted 03/08/15) (source:

4: Prep like a Pro

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

Three down, two to go. This next tip is more practical but it involves going back in time to the night before. You know, when you were bouncing off the walls like a meth head on rollerblades. Now is the time to pick what you want to wear, pack your bag, make your breakfast, get your parking change ready.  Make all your planning decisions when your mind is operating at full tilt. Do everything you can to reduce decisions when you are in the zombie state. Put toothpaste on your brush. Leave your car keys in the door. This has the added benefit of making sure you have less to be anxious about when you’re staring at the ceiling later on.

Last tip. This works for me, but took me a decade to master. It may not be for everyone.

5: Nail the naps

Don’t give up, even a tiny bit of shut eye helps.

disco napI was never able for disco naps. DSPD means that it takes about 2 hours for to fall asleep and so napping was always an exercise in frustration. HOWEVER. I have learned to put my brain into a semi-sleep mode. I’m awake and I’ll answer you, but I’m getting some sort of brain rest. In truth, it’s only possible when I’m extremely tired, but there are a couple of ways to get into it that you might want to try.

  • If you’re travelling by train, plane or bus, take a seat on the inside, so you have something to lean against.
  • Always wear a huge hipster scarf that can double as a rug/pillow.
  • Bring socks. No-one can nap with cold feet.
  • Cover your eyes. Pulling a beanie down over your eyes will mean you look like a tool, but it helps to remove visual stimulation. Or cultivate a handy fringe, as I have demonstrated here.
  • Plug in your earphones and listen to something soothing. Please don’t judge me, but Coldplay seems to work a treat.

imageThere’s an amazing clinical hypnotherapist called Patrick Browning who has a bunch of apps in iTunes and his voice is probably one of the most relaxing I’ve ever heard. They are a couple of bucks each. The best three for napping are the ones on relaxation, coping with anxiety and the one specifically for falling asleep – though this may work too well, you might want to save that for night time. I actually use this on the kids, it is, quite simply, valium for the ears.

I hope some of these help other night owls face the day. If anyone has any more suggestions, I’d love to grow this list! Put them in the comments 🙂