It can be tricky figuring out what to do when you wake up early and can’t fall back asleep. I’ve been there – many times. Because this has happened to me so many times, I have some advice to help you make the best of this situation.
Before I get to my advice, let me just say that I don’t always do one or the other. I have been known to stay up on some mornings and try going back to sleep on others. The best thing to do when you wake up early and struggle to go back to sleep is to be in tune with your body and make the logical decision – and that decision isn’t always the same.
In this blog post, I’ll explain how I arrive at my decision to either get up or try falling back asleep.
Stay Awake or Go Back to Sleep? – Make a Wise Decision
Obviously, you know your two choices here and you also know that you must decide quickly or else you’ll be staying awake whether you like it or not.
To make this decision quickly and easily, ask yourself a couple of questions and avoid certain behavior, which I will explain below. Keep reading!
Ask Yourself These Questions if You Wake Up Too Early – Then Decide What to Do
- Do I feel rested? If so, just get up and do something relaxing, fun or productive. Don’t worry about what time it is if you truly feel rested and ready to start your day. If it happens to be super early like 4am, so what? In fact, as I mentioned in my other blog post about waking up at 4am – maybe 4am isn’t so bad! 🙂
- Would I have time to complete at least one more sleep cycle? If so, try to go back to sleep. If not, just get out of bed. According to Dr. Amie M. Gordon from Psychology Today, the average sleep cycle lasts 90 minutes. If you have to get up for work in an hour, that would force you to wake up mid-cycle, which will make you feel worse than if you just get up now that you’re already awake. [Take a peek at the time, but don’t dwell on the time so that you don’t get frustrated for waking up too early. Simply use the time as a tool to make a quick, logical decision about whether to go back to sleep or get up.]
About the ‘Do I Feel Rested?’ Question
I’d like to dive a bit deeper with the “do I feel rested?” question from #1 in the list above because I realize it can be vague and difficult to decipher.
The question should really be this: Do I truly still feel tired or do my eyes just hurt? This is a predicament I have to face nearly every morning.
If you wake up early and your mind is alert, coming up with ideas, ready to tackle the day, etc., but you feel groggy or your eyes hurt – you should definitely get out of bed and act on those intentions. Nearly everyone feels groggy when they first wake up – that’s normal. Being groggy and being in need of more sleep are two completely different things.
When my mind is alert super early, despite my gut instinct, I‘ve found that my grogginess and achy/dry eyes tend to feel much better within 5 minutes of getting up. If I get up and go to the bathroom to wash my face and (on bad mornings) use these awesome preservative-free eye drops, my eyes feel so much better and my level of alertness skyrockets. At that point, I don’t give going back to sleep another thought.
Of course, if you woke up early and don’t have the ability to decide if you’re rested and just groggy because you’re starting to fall back asleep, well then, you’d better go back to sleep. 🙂
What to Do If You Wake Up Early and Decide to Go Back to Sleep
If you decided to try going back to sleep, I realize that can be easier said than done. I have some tips to help you out.
Use the 30 Minute Rule
First, whenever I decide it’s best to go back to sleep after waking up early, I establish a rule for myself: If I don’t fall back asleep within 30 minutes, I have to get up and do something monotonous that might help lull me back to sleep (like reading or doing dishes, for example).
I never use the clock to determine if 30 minutes have passed because that’s counterproductive. I guestimate in my head. If it seems like 30 minutes have passed, then I get up. Until then, I lie there and try to sleep.
Clear Your Mind with Meditation
While my 30 minute window starts, I do everything within my power to quiet my mind. You should, too!
Whatever you do, do not start thinking about anything after you’ve awakened in the middle of the night. Thoughts are a sure-fire way to keep you awake every night. Avoid them like the plague!
To make sure your head stays thought-free (frustration-free, that is!), try meditating or silently naming parts of your body from head to toe as you relax each body part – AKA yoga nidra. You can perform yoga nidra by yourself in your head or by listening to a video like the one below:
By quieting your mind, you get yourself back into a relaxed state where you can actually fall asleep again.
Listen to Relaxing Music or a Boring Podcast
If meditation isn’t your thing, try listening to binaural beats (with earbuds or headphones) designed to help you fall asleep – like these on YouTube. Or try a storytelling podcast that is purposely boring with the intention of lulling you to sleep – like the Sleep With Me Podcast. I have found both relaxing instrumental music and the Sleep With Me Podcast to be super effective at putting me to sleep when I wake up too early.
Read a (Real Paper) Book or Kindle
Whether or not my 30-minute window has passed since I woke up, I will often reach for a book to help me sleep. The general idea is to essentially bore myself to sleep. Pretty weird, but it works…
I like to make sure of a couple of things, however, so that the reading session doesn’t wake me up further:
- Read light (perhaps boring?) material that doesn’t get your mind racing. It can also be light-hearted fiction where you don’t get too wrapped up in the story or textbook style non-fiction that you’re not particularly interested in at that moment. Who knew there would be a use for my $300 genetics textbook after college? 😉
- Avoid reading on a smartphone or tablet because the blue light emitted from the screen will wake you up.
Reading on a Kindle or other e-reader is perfectly fine because the screen is a glare-free/blue light-free flat white color similar to the look of paper. My beloved Kindle Oasis (which you can find for the best price here) always does the trick for me.
And of course – regular paper books with a reading lamp or book light like this one works just as well.
What to Do If You Wake Up Early and Decide Against Going Back to Sleep
If it’s obnoxiously early, but you’ve decided it’s best to just get up instead of going back to sleep, you’ll need to find something to do.
Do Something You Never Otherwise Have Time For
If you’re up early, why not use the time to do something you never have time for? Maybe you would like to make time for practicing a musical instrument, drawing, painting, weekly meal prepping, DIY projects around the house, or some other personal passion or project?
If there’s something you want to do, but your normal day never allows time for it – do that thing when you wake up early!
Do Something Fun
If you’re up early, you might as well make the most of it. Have a little fun! What’s fun to you? Do you like to play video games or watch Netflix? Do you like to listen to music?
Fun activities can seem like unproductive guilt trips during the normal course of the day, but early in the morning is a different story! If you’re up early, reward yourself – guilt-free!
Exercise, Stretch, or Do Yoga
It can also be a good idea to get moving if you wake up early and decide to stay up.
It doesn’t have to be intense exercise like running, but it can be! Even just some gentle stretches or slow yoga poses are better than nothing.
Do Some Journaling
When it’s early and your mind is going a million miles an hour, journaling can be a perfectly-timed tool that will make the best use of your time.
First thing in the morning is usually when my head is clearest and I have the best ability to get my thoughts onto paper.
Morning journaling has many benefits in addition to being something you can do when you wake up too early. Journaling can:
- Increase mental clarity
- Help establish goals and action plans
- Help you vent your problems and come up with solutions
- Document your life, thoughts, and feelings
- Help you get into a productive frame of mind for the day ahead
What If You Can’t Fall Back Asleep After Waking Up to Use the Bathroom?
This happens to everyone sometimes! For some of us, it happens every night. Sometimes nature calls in the middle of the night, and yes, you do need to get up to relieve yourself, but… You can minimize the disruption it causes you so that you’re not 100% awake after you finish your bathroom business.
Nighttime bathroom trips don’t have to be the cause of being unable to go back to sleep – especially when it’s way too early to get up (like 1am or 2am, for example).
Here are a few tips to help you go back to sleep:
- When you’re awakened by the urge to use the bathroom, get up immediately. Don’t procrastinate or ignore it because that will just wake you up even more. Go to the bathroom and get it over with as quickly as possible.
- Before going to sleep for the night, put night lights in your bedroom, hallway, and bathroom so you won’t have to turn on any bright lights. I use these night lights in the warm white color and couldn’t be happier with the soft light they put out at night. During the day, the ambient light makes them turn off, so that’s great too. Those same night lights in the daylight white color are too bright for nighttime – FYI. I bought that color first and had to return them.
- Do not, do not, do not turn on the overhead light in the bathroom. That is the quickest way to ensure you stay awake for the rest of the night!
- Wear pajamas that are easy to groggily pull up and down so that fighting with your clothing doesn’t wake you up further.
- Don’t look at the clock when you get back to your bedroom. Immediately lie down and go back to sleep.
I hope this blog post has served as a guide for how to decide whether to get up or go back to sleep when you wake up early. Like I said at the beginning, the choice isn’t always the same – nor is it always a clear decision.
Always go with the way your body feels and you’ll know exactly what to do. Good luck!