science of us

How to Keep Your Social Life When You Love Going to Bed Early

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My 31st birthday party had a 7 p.m. start time, and that’s only because my girlfriend said I couldn’t do 6:30. I knew I wouldn’t be the last one standing, even at my own party, but I hoped to stay out past 10:30, which I did — barely. I was home, in bed, by the hour at which most of the parties I went to ten years earlier were just getting underway. Because I am no longer in my 20s, I’m not often presented with a reason to socialize very late at night (and when I am, well, it’s only gotten easier to say no), but I am not yet dead, and having a social life is still important to me. For that reason, I would love to be able to stay out and alert until a reasonable hour (let’s say 10) without yawning my way through the last 90 minutes. Leaving parties early makes me feel good, except when it makes me feel bad — when my body gives up before my brain, and I feel ancient and uncool and selfish, somehow, for needing to sleep so urgently.

To see if I might pass myself off as a good-time party-going gal about town, I got in touch with sleep expert Dr. Teofilo Lee-Chiong, a Professor of Medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver and at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine. First of all, he told me, my problem is a common one, especially among (ugh) older adults. For most people, falling asleep earlier than desired is the natural result of sleep deprivation, which is itself the cause of a busy schedule.

I wish I could blame lack of sleep overall for my schedule (it would make me seem so important and popular), but the truth is I get eight or nine hours of sleep almost every night. It’s just that I get up at 6:30, so you do the math. But this, too, seems to be the result of my age.

“As one gets older, there’s a tendency for many of us to become morning larks,” Lee-Chiong says, making it sound a lot more fun than it is. “Some people may wake up as early as 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and it’s very difficult for them to engage with others when it comes to late evening social events.” My own mother calls it “sleeping in” if she makes it until 6, and I’m sure this is my destiny, too. Parties do start earlier now that my peers and I are older, but given a typical 10–6 work schedule, there’s only so much earlier they can realistically get. (And even when you do start your event early, those pesky nighttime people are always showing up late anyway.)

So what’s a morning lark to do? For one, you’ll appreciate Lee-Chiong’s recommendation: naps. But in order for a nap to help you (rather than make it harder for you to sleep through the night), practice what Lee-Chiong calls the Rule of threes: a 30-minute nap at most, starting at 3 p.m. at the latest. (It seems there are but two parts to his Rule of threes.) Any longer than that, and any later in the day, and you’re more likely to suffer tomorrow than benefit today.

How the average working adult is supposed to get in a 2 p.m. nap is beyond me; something to stick in the suggestions box, perhaps. But if you are lucky enough to have the kind of schedule that allows for it, take advantage — and set a timer.

As for my preoccupation with yawning, Lee-Chiong politely suggests I (and all of us) get over it. “There’s really no science equating yawning and boredom,” he says. “Yawning is a reflex. We don’t really know what yawning does. There are many theories as to why one yawns: that it controls your body’s carbon dioxide, or that it’s meant to cool your brain temperature, for example. But it’s just a reflex, like a hiccup. You can’t control it.”

You can, however, minimize it. If you feel a yawn coming on, says Lee-Chiong, you can usually stifle it by taking a few deep breaths. Alternatively, if the yawn is already in progress, you can “cover your mouth and pretend you’re coughing.” Again, it’s arguable whether repeatedly coughing is less embarrassing (or less annoying) than repeatedly yawning, but that’s your call to make depending on your environment. (The coughing thing might work better at a loud bar than the theater, for instance.)

Among other short-term solutions to the morning person’s dilemma are coffee or tea and, to a point, alcohol. When you first start drinking, says Lee-Chiong, you’re likely to feel more alert, engaged, and talkative — but the more you drink, the more the alcohol will act like a sedative. As with so much else, it’s all a balancing act.

In a perfect world, events would start earlier and earlier in the day the older you get (I’m doing my part one birthday party at a time), and we’d all be done with work by two, and everybody would get all the sleep he or she desires, no more, no less. Until then, you can try keeping your yawns to a minimum, but also, don’t worry so much about it. Nobody will care if you leave the party now. You’re still very well-liked and respected, I promise.

How to Have a Life When You Love Going to Bed Early