How to wake up early, avoid procrastination and stop being lazy – even if you have a sleep disorder

I have a suspicion that most of those “how to wake up early” posts are written by morning people – those annoying chipper people who smile too much. They mean well, but can’t understand the complexities of sleep deprivation facing sufferers of sleep disorders.

Personally, I don’t believe in waking up early. I don’t think waking up early makes you happier, smarter or more successful (and I’ve seen studies that show night owls actually score higher in those three traits). I don’t believe waking up earlier is a moral imperative, or that it somehow makes you a better person.

Like many creative people, I self-identify as a night owl, and I don’t usually see any problem with that. I started doing online business because I hated waking up in the morning. Now that I have my own schedule, I avoid scheduling anything in the morning, and generally sleep from 4am to 12 noon. I sleep just as much as “normal” people do, just at a different time. 

I also feel generally productive. Like most people, I work as hard as I need to in order to pay the bills and afford my ideal lifestyle. After nearly a decade of doing online business, I get by working on a few hours a day. That puts me in a strange position, where I have most of my day free, and can feel “lazy” or “unmotivated” if I’m not always using my time to work on goals. However:

A) If I’m already making enough money, it’s difficult to motivate myself into making more money, or work harder, because why should I?

B) Certain tasks, for example writing fiction, is creatively exhausting, and wears me out – if I can manage a few good hours of writing, I usually feel drained for the rest of the day.

Last month I was depressed, because I was waking up much later than usual, and because I wasn’t doing anything. I was depressed because I hate “being lazy” and unproductive, and I was seeking motivation, but I just felt so awful I couldn’t produce. It was a dangerous cycle. I cured it by allowing myself to watch Netflix for 2 weeks. That was my only goal, and I did it well, and my depression lifted. Now my mood is back to normal, but my sleep is still off.

Sleeping in until noon because you can is fine – even cool.

Sleeping in until 6pm and missing an important conference call, like I did today, is not great.

For one thing, it’s always dark and you never see other people, which compounds depression quickly. But mostly, it’s the fact that you don’t want to sleep in so late, but do anyway. It’s the lack of control over your own life that makes you feel like a lazy asshole.

Sleep Disorders and Sleeping In

I hate using excuses, like “I slept in” or “I stayed up too late last night” to explain my behavior, because they don’t justify missing appointments (which is why I usually don’t schedule any appointments, at all). So today I’ve decided to admit that I have a sleep disorder.

Delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD) is a syndrome in which a person’s sleep is delayed by 2 or more hours beyond the socially acceptable or conventional bedtime. As I’ve long suspected, people with DSPD have a circadian period significantly longer than 24 hours, which is my my normal sleep schedule gets pushed back every day until it’s way too late… then I’ll stay up until the afternoon the next day and try to reset it by sleeping early (which I need to do every couple weeks).

The symptoms of DSPD can be managed, but no cure is known. It is not the same as insomnia, because people with DSPD – about 1 out of 2000 – have trouble falling asleep and difficulty waking up again (people with insomnia are light sleepers who have trouble staying asleep). At its most severe and inflexible, DSPD is a disability. 

In 2017 researches linked DSPD to at least one genetic mutation, which means I’m a mutant.

I don’t believe it’s necessarily a disadvantage. It could easily be my superpower. It might make me more intelligent or creative. It’s possible that sub-optimal sleep regularity increases spurts of peak productivity. People with OCD are more likely to be diagnosed with DSPD than the general public, so perhaps my abnormal sleep schedule alternates with periods of intense focus (if I’m able to get done in two hours what most people take eight hours to accomplish, why shouldn’t I take the rest of the day off?)

I’m basically Batman: a creature of the night. My condition may also be linked with sleep paralysis; which led to childhood encounters with the easter bunny, demons and aliens, and is no doubt a formative experience in my quest for truth and meaning (studying theology, philosophy, and world literature).

But like I mentioned earlier, it’s a problem if I want to change my behavior but can’t, or if it leads to depression, which can kill motivation and purpose and lead to lack of productivity.

It can be medicated with melatonin and modafinil.

I’ve tried both and enjoy neither (modafinil is actually amazing, but only when paired with adequate sleep, not as a sleep substitute, and the following day I’ll usually have a headache or brain fog). Melatonin gives me headaches and brain fog.

I’ve also tried dozens of alarm clocks and smart phone apps for sleep regulation. I’ve had alarm clocks that fly or roll around; alarm clocks I have to shoot to turn off; and other novelties that don’t work.

Intuitively I know that a radio alarm clock works best for me and that I should try waking up to music instead of obnoxious beeping, though I also know I can easily sleep through loud noises. But even though studies show DSPD is likely hereditary, and results even with professional help are unlikely to shift more than a few hours, I don’t want to play the victim by playing the sleep disorder card too frequently.

How to cure a sleep disorder and wake up earlier

Assuming that normal methods like alarm clocks won’t work, here are some non-standard and extreme practices I’ve read about that I’d like to try, with the goal of going to bed at 3am and waking up at 11am daily.

#1 – light therapy

I imagine sleep disorders like DSPD are becoming increasingly common now that we spend all our time glued to electronic screens. I *should* turn all screens off an hour before bedtime and read a book, but that’s challenging for me. I usually do my best work a few hours before sleep, which means I’m on my computer being productive up until 4am; when I finish, I go to bed. Studies have shown we are at our most creative when we’re drowsy – either just having woken up or just before bedtime, but in my case I usually procrastinate all day and do the work I need to right before sleeping.

Either way, it’s extremely likely that artificial light is screwing up my already non-standard circadian rhythm… so I’d like to try a natural light alarm clock and these blue light blocking glasses before bed. I already use Flux, a windows app that changes the blue light of your computer screen, but it’s not enough.


#2: Sleep supplements

As I mentioned, I’m not a fan of melatonin, but I do think these supplements will help:

  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • B12

I’m already pretty sure I have an iron deficiency after getting some blood work testing done in Bulgaria. The problem with most/many supplements is that they make me feel worse – drowsy or clearheaded – but these three seem to at the very least do no harm, so I’ll start taking them more regularly.


#3: Alertness supplements

I’m a huge fan of the possibility of using brain boosting supplements or nootropics, and have experimented with many, but haven’t found any one I love enough to recommend yet. I’ve written before on the dangers of Huperzine A, which makes me manic (it can be great if I’m aware of what’s happening, for short periods). And I seem to be “cholinergic abnormal” – which means standard recommendations like Choline have an adverse effect on me.

The newest stack I’m trying out includes Lion’s Mane – a fungi used in Chinese Medicine that *may* be good especially for focused productivity and motivation (having more energy is not the problem; I often have lots of energy, even to the point of hyperactivity, but it can lead to anxiety and procrastination. More energy doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll get more done, whereas certain supplements seem to make me feel like working. Modafinil, for example, but as I said earlier, I can’t use it much due to rebound headaches).

Caffeine can work too – though I prefer espresso only (regular coffee gives me muscle tension and headaches, espresso doesn’t). Most nootropic stacks include caffeine+theanine, but theanine makes me drowsy. It’s supposed to give you that “alert calmness” which might be fine for exercising or physical labor or meditation, but isn’t great for high level creative work.

Other popular ingredients for mental focus and energy (Ginkgo Biloba, Acetyl L – Carnitine (ALCAR), Ginseng, Maca, Bacopa) don’t do much for me… jury is out on Omega-3, but it’s probably helpful especially for mood. 


#4: Lifestyle changes

Some other things I would like to try:

1 – not eating or drinking anything but water after midnight (especially caffeine). I have a history of snacking and eating especially junk food; as a kid I stayed up late snacking and reading and falling asleep. I still pretty much do the same. I should stop eating a few hours before I want to sleep, and especially stop eating sugar.

2 – paying for a class or something in the afternoon. You’ve paid for it, you don’t want to miss it.

3 – scheduling lunch or coffee dates. This one is really scary for me, because I’d be so stressed about missing it that I wouldn’t sleep the night before (and would be more likely to actually miss it). And I’d hate to let people down by not showing up. 

The real problem…

This month I’m doing much better, after moving from Taiwan to Vietnam, until today, and I may have figured out the reason. For the past week I’ve been waking up early, excited to week on my projects, and I can work 12 hours without a break – but it’s because I was putting off some “real work” that I needed to do (real work for me = other people’s projects/client work). My clients have been amazingly patient with me and I love them; I try to do quality work but I’m pretty slow.

When I know I NEED to do that kind of work, I put it off all day and procrastinate until really, really late – because I don’t want to go to sleep or relax until I’ve done the work. So I rush it before going to bed, stay up later than usual, and sleep in the next day to repeat the cycle. Solution = focus on making more money doing the work I WANT to do, so I don’t need to take on work I’m not excited about (it’s either yes or hell-yess; not “well this shouldn’t be very hard so why not?”

Are you a superhero too?

If you also struggle with waking up early, keep in mind that you are not the problem, you may just need to find a lifestyle that can support your sleep habits. Also, there’s nothing wrong with sleeping too late or sleeping all day. It doesn’t mean you’re lazy or a bad person. The need to “be productive” all the time is a modern mania that causes anxiety and depression. If you love sleeping and dreaming and the slow drowsy awareness and healing that takes place between the sheets, don’t feel guilty about it.

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors build profitable publishing platforms. Find me

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