Falling behind no matter how early you wake up? Here’s how to get focused faster.
As Soon as You Throw off the Covers
What to do: Pull on extra layers.
What it does: Turning up the heat makes it hard to stay sleepy. Body temperature naturally tends to drop when we’re in the deepest part of our sleep cycle, which is two hours before we wake up, says Rafael Pelayo, MD, a sleep specialist at the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center. That’s why those hours of sleep right before the alarm goes off tend to be the most cozy.
How it makes you more productive: Your body will feel literally warmed-up and ready to go, and your mind will follow.
If You Usually Stumble Around Like a Zombie (Even After a Full Night of Sleep)
What to do: Shift your sleep schedule to match your circadian rhythms. It sounds like your alarm is currently jerking you out of low-wave sleep, putting you in a state of “sleep-drunkenness,” Pelayo says. He recommends locking in a wake-up time (use an app like Sleep Cycle to find out when you sleep the lightest) and going to bed at least 7 hours earlier. If you’re having trouble drifting off, he says, it’s better for your brain if you make up for lost time by taking an afternoon catnap rather than sleeping late in the morning. (Implementing your routine may require a conversation with your boss.)
What it does: While we’re all generally on the same time schedule (i.e., asleep in the dark, and bustling around in the light of day), our internal clocks vary by minutes to hours. For example, you might feel more energized after waking up at 6:15 a.m. than at 6:30 a.m.
How it makes you more productive: You’ll do your best work when you’re naturally more alert. When schools pushed back start times from 7:15 to 8:40 a.m. to partially accommodate the circadian rhythms of teenagers (who tend to be three hours behind), they found that students’ grades and test scores drastically improved.
While Brushing Your Teeth
What to do: Deep squats (at least 20 of them).
What it does: Activating the large muscles in the thighs and butt quickly gets blood flowing to the brain, says John Ratey, MD, a Harvard associate professor and the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, reinvigorating it with oxygen, nutrients (like glucose) and performance-boosting chemicals. This move is still uncomplicated enough to do with a toothbrush in your hand.
How it makes you more productive: It activates your brain and turns on the cells you’ll need for creative thinking, says Ratey (and brushing, of course, freshens your breath).
Before You Leave the House
What to do: Eat a bowl of oatmeal (or whole-grain toast with peanut butter, which is apparently the preferred breakfast of nutritionists).
What it does: Any kind of food fuels the brain, but the complex carbs in whole grains have a low glycemic index and are absorbed slowly, keeping blood sugar levels stable and energy levels consistent. That’s why they could be considered the breakfast of (Jeopardy!) champions.
How it makes you more productive: Studies have shown that breakfast eaters are more alert, have sharper recall and improved cognitive performance than those who don’t eat breakfast. One example: Schoolkids who eat something in the morning seem to perform better on tests. The effects are strongest if the meal is eaten within an hour of waking—which means we’re talking about breakfast, not brunch.
Before Going to Bed
What to do: Pre-program your coffee maker.
What it does: Caffeine works by temporarily blocking the action of a natural, sleep-inducing brain chemical called adenosine, explains Allison T. Siebern, PhD, a sleep specialist at Stanford Sleep Medicine Center. It essentially buys you hours of awake time.
How it makes you more productive: A strong cup of coffee can boost both mental alertness and physical performance by up to 30 percent within 15 to 30 minutes. You might notice the effects even sooner: The aroma of coffee beans alone can alter the activity of genes in the brain to reduce the stress of sleep deprivation, found Korean researchers working with exhausted rodents.
After Reading This Article
What to do: Come up with a morning ritual. This worked for the 161 creative minds whose routines are revealed by writer Mason Currey in his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Some of the more hard-core examples are the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who said that the repetition of his routine (wake up at 4:00 a.m., work for five to six hours straight, then run or swim—or both) becomes “a form of mesmerism”; and Anthony Trollope, who wrote 3,000 words every morning before heading to his postal worker job. (And then there’s the unorthodox approach of Benjamin Franklin who, Currey says, took daily nude “air baths” after rising).
What it does: As you repeat the ritual, it will become a habit. And the brain loves habits—they spare cognitive energy and make us more efficient. Soon your brain will be craving the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing your ritual, and it will become automatic.