Time for a quick moment of universe-altering truth: most of us are not morning people. Most everyone enjoys a short sleep-in, taking extra time to eat, shower, and get ready for the day. However, with early morning classes, exams, and general day-to-day scheduling for premed students, the medical field forces us to wake up much earlier than we would like. Here, I’d like to share with you just how I managed to wake up regularly at an ungodly hour – and oddly grew to thoroughly enjoy it.
What is sleep hygiene? It’s essentially your behaviors and patterns leading up to sleep. With good sleep hygiene you can fall asleep faster and maintain high quality sleep. I’m not going to give you a detailed breakdown of every aspect of sleep hygiene. You can find detailed guides elsewhere. Instead, I’m going to share with you what I found were the key factors are to being able to wake up early day after day… and not be miserable.
Consistency with Bedtime and Wake Time
This is it. This is the foundational block that I based my own sleep hygiene on and found that it was the key factor in making this an easy process. Here are the guidelines that I made for myself:
- First, Determine what time you must wake up in order to get to work on time
- Next, subtract the number of hours of sleep you will need. Ideally, as students and young adults we should be getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night – but let’s be honest – that can be a challenge during certain rotations. I happily survived on 6 hours per night, but again, everyone is different and you should figure out what works best for you.
- Third, once you’ve determined your bedtime and wake time, stick to it like religion. Normally, you will be going in for 6 days per week, and you should be waking and sleeping at the same time every day. Even if some days you can go in an hour later, stick to your original schedule and use the extra time in the morning to get more work done. This will make the entire chore of waking up early that much more bearable. I used to get to the hospital early and pump out some Anki cards or get started on my reading for the day. More on this later.
- Lastly, what to do with weekends? Technically, you should be sticking to the same schedule even for weekends for optimal results, but have yourself a life. How you spend your Fridays and Saturdays are up to you, and we at MedSchoolInsiders understand that with the rigors of the week you might want to relax a bit; sleeping at 9:30PM and waking up at 3:30AM is probably not how you want to spend those days. That’s totally O.K., just stick to the schedule you set yourself during the week.
Along with having consistent bedtime and wake times, having a pre-bedtime routine will help train your body to gear down and get ready for sleep. For me, warm showers followed by 10 minutes of meditation worked wonders. My mind used to race at night, and I know that’s a common problem for a lot of you. Meditation and writing down any lingering thoughts or ideas essentially cured me of this problem.
Limit Screen Use Close to Bedtime
The blue glow from backlight devices including TVs, smartphones, computers, and other electronics tells your brain that it’s bright outside. This will wreak havoc on your circadian rhythm. My own personal rule was no screen time 30 minutes prior to bed unless it was to set an alarm for the morning. You will be stunned how impactful such a small change will make. Limiting the use of these items in the 30-60 minutes leading up to your bedtime will both help you fall asleep faster and increase the quality of your sleep. In short, you will feel better when you wake up.
I also like to use apps that transition the screens to warmer temperatures at night. This decreases the negative influence backlit devices have on your sleep cycle.
- F.lux is what I use on my computer. It’s free and runs in the background taking essentially no resources. Every evening around sunset it transitions to a warmer color temperature, meaning the screen looks slightly yellow. As it gets later, it adjusts the temperature accordingly. This app is also downloadable on Android smart phone devices.
- Night shift on your iPhone or iPad allows you to do the same thing and is built into iOS 10.
An Alarm System that Works for You
I use my smartphone as my alarm. There are tons of apps for your phone that either force you to do a math problem or perform some other task to help you wake up and not go on a snooze-a-thon. The few that worked for me include:
- SpinMe – this forces you to get up and spin in circles to turn off the alarm.
- Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock – estimates your sleep stage and tries to wake you up at lighter stages of sleep.
Wake Up Lights
I found these extremely helpful. They essentially mimic sunrise to help tell your body its time to get up. You can either use a Philips Wakeup Light (Amazon) or another smart lighting system. I used the Philips Hue Lights (Amazon) which worked brilliantly for me. This is a smart lightbulb system that you can plug into regular light bulb sockets. Now the Wakeup Light is basically a dedicated alarm clock that uses light to wake you up. The reason I love the Hue lights is I could program them to gradually turn on in the morning just like a Wakeup Light but also have all the additional fun and useful features of smart lights.
A note on lighting – the room should be pitch black when you’re sleeping. Invest in black-out curtains if street light (or daylight, depending on your sleep schedule) creeps into your bedroom. You’ll sleep that much better. A sleep mask (Amazon) may help too, as would some ear plugs (Amazon). I go into how sound pollution can disturb your sleep (even if you don’t realize it) in this post.
- Avoid naps if possible or keep them short (15 or 20 minutes at max). Taking naps during the day decreases the “Sleep Debt” that is so necessary for natural sleep onset.
- Avoid stimulants in the late afternoon and evening. Caffeine late in the day will likely be more trouble than it’s worth.
- I found it helpful to set my alarm clock on the other end of the room to make sure I had to get up and couldn’t lie in bed constantly snoozing.
- Cooler temperatures are more conducive to sleep. A little cooler is better than a little warmer.
- Don’t sleep with the TV on. This is terrible for your sleep quality. Background white noise like a fan is fine and can help you drown out other sounds.
- Your bed is for sleep only (… and hanky panky). Seriously. That means no working, no reading, and absolutely no TV while in bed. Otherwise you’ll subconsciously associate you bed with wakefulness.
I never considered myself a morning person, but by following the guidelines above, I’ve slowly become one. I know it sounds crazy – but hear me out. While waking up at 3:30AM for your surgery rotation is painful no matter how you cut it, but you’ll learn that you can get so much more work done in a day by waking up at this ungodly hour. My productivity skyrocketed as I was fresh and had the energy to tackle my to-do list early in the morning. I could go through more Anki cards or get more reading done in the same amount of time. This also translated to me having less stress and pressure to get things done after I came back from the hospital since so much was already done.
There’s a reason that countless prominent and successful figures highlight the importance of waking up early. Try it out for a couple weeks and see how it makes you feel.
As cheesy as this sounds, hopefully you decide on a specialty that makes you excited to go in every morning. I was fortunate enough to land on a surgical subspecialty that cured me of my snooze-a-thons because I was genuinely excited for the cases that day (clinic was another story). If you haven’t found that specialty yet, keep on looking. It’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make as you’ll be doing it day in and day out for the rest of your career.