My 13-year-old recently decided that he wanted to start getting up earlier.

Since this kid rarely gets up for his alarm clock, I viewed this decision with a fair degree of skepticism. I figured it would last a day, or maybe a week. After that, he’d be back to grumbling when I announced bedtime and struggling to get going in the morning—you know, normal kid routine.

The next morning, he set his alarm for fifteen minutes earlier than usual. And he got up. By himself. Without complaining.

Not only that, but he repeated the feat daily for the next week and a half, getting up earlier every day, until he was rising at 5:30 AM. He also started going to bed earlier.

Did I mention that he’s thirteen?

What let him accomplish this significant schedule shift, all on his own?

He worked with his body rather than against it.

Larks, Hummingbirds, and Night Owls

Everyone has times of day when they are naturally more alert and energetic. Whether that time falls early or late seems to be determined by a genetically encoded internal clock. About 10% of us are larks—people who like to rise early and greet the dawn. About 20% fall at the opposite end of the spectrum: night owls who function best late in the day. The rest of us—hummingbirds—can function happily either early or late.

My kiddo (who has definite lark tendencies) changed his sleep schedule and his work habits to take advantage of his internal clock. He noticed that he has more energy first thing in the morning, so he started using that time to do his schoolwork. His grades have improved. He seems more confident and sure of himself—all because he paid attention to his body’s natural rhythms and started working with them.

What’s your best time of day?

By answering that question, and adjusting your schedule to match, you can boost your creativity and productivity.

Making the Change

Change is never easy, and changes to your sleep/wake schedule can be particularly challenging. Unless you can quit your job, quit school, or rearrange friends’ and family members’ social calendars, you may not be able to switch to a schedule that’s perfectly matched to your internal clock—but you can almost certainly make some small adjustments.

My son’s success had several key components.

1. He made small daily steps: he rose 15 minutes earlier each day rather than trying to make the change in a single step.

2. He didn’t just “work harder”: That is, he compensated for his earlier rising time by going to bed earlier. This might sound like a no-brainer, but how often have you tried to add something into your schedule without taking anything else out?

3. He worked with his body and personality: He identified morning as his most energized time of day and took advantage of that. This move to get up earlier wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if, like my other son, he was a physiologic night owl.

4. He took note of how the change affected his life: By paying attention to his improved grades, increased energy, and feelings of empowerment, he could then use those things to keep him going through tough times.

5. He changed for himself, not for some external reward: By using intrinsic motivation (working for himself) rather than extrinsic motivation (working to please someone else or gain a temporary external reward), he increased his chances of creating a permanent change in his life.

6. He identified potential obstacles and, when they arose, he cut himself some slack: For instance, one disadvantage of the early mornings is that his early bedtime doesn’t always coincide with the rest of the world’s schedule. When he wanted to go to a concert last week—which would put him home an hour later than he’d usually go to sleep—he still got up early, but he also listened to his body and took a nap when he needed one.

7. He asked for help: Since his schedule doesn’t perfectly mesh with the rest of the family’s, he’s asked the rest of us to be conscious of his desire to finish his day earlier. As a result, we’ve changed the schedule for many of the things we can change, such as dinner and our Sunday night family time.

What about you? Do you know your most energized, most creative time of day? Are you able to harness it?

Feature images courtesy of Alan Cleaver.