What I Learned From The Power of When

Earlier this year, I read the book The Power of When after hearing the author on a podcast interview.

Power of When

The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype–and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More by Michael Breus Ph.D. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Amazon CANADA)

Before I tell you the gem piece of advice I discovered for myself, I will briefly cover what the book is about. The premise is we all have some variation of four different sleep types. Each of these sleep types gets an animal designation. By discovering your sleep type, this book guides you with advice on how to structure your life better.

This is not a deep book and I have no idea if you will any get benefits from the ideas in The Power of When. I did. It was an idea so obvious that once I read it, I knew it would solve some of my problems and make my life better.

I’m a morning person. A Lion. For many years now my routine has been to start the day off strong and hopefully lock in the gains before evening arrives. By the time evening has arrived, my productivity is much lower. My strategy has been to win early.

Winning early for me also meant working out early. Two or three times a week for more than a decade I have been at the gym in the morning. The Power of When explained to me that was a mistake. Because I am a morning person, I should do all my project work in the morning and instead exercise in the late afternoon or early evening.

By structuring my day in this manner, ALL my mornings would be scheduled for projects and when the late afternoon arrived instead of going into zombie mode, I would go to the gym for an alertness pickup.

It all made sense.

On the days when I did my morning lifting, I tended to be more tired, more hungry, and less focused. I ate more meals throughout the day. I tend to eat more when I’m tired, as I almost never nap. Doing this week in and week out for so many years has likely caused me to consume more calories than I needed.

I started the late afternoon workout protocol around April and it is working great. I’ve completed more work on my projects and I’ve reduced the number of calories I consume on the days I workout. Start removing a few hundred calories a week and pretty soon you’ll start to notice the results. I’ve lost 20 pounds in the last few months. This was one of the factors. I’ll cover the others in an upcoming post.

Stress and Low Body Fat Levels

A year ago I posted How I Regained the Weight I Lost. There I speculated on what was my ideal weight.

If I were to ask my body what it believes my ideal weight is, I’d get different answers. My shoulders, chest and legs, would say I look most muscular at 215. My abs might say 185. My face looks younger at 200 than 185.

This is what I have believed for a few years now. The part I want to focus on is the fact my face looked younger at a higher weight. I believe I may have drawn a false conclusion.

When I was at my lowest weight, my face looked haggard. Years of reading nutrition blogs and their comments made me aware that dieting to low body levels can make one look rundown. And it appears to be more common with men over 30 that primarily use a lower carb diet. These are not my observations, but the observations that I’ve stumbled across several times.

What causes someone to look haggard at low body fat levels? When I first asked that question, I guessed that age was the primary reason. My thinking was that a 25 year old can still have amazing vibrant skin and be ripped, but at a certain age our faces need our body to carry more weight to look younger. But there is more to the story.

I’m actually surprised that it took me this long to connect the dots, but it wasn’t until Precision Nutrition posted their infographic on the article The cost of getting lean: Is it really worth the trade-off? before I realized my nutritional narrative was false. Go look at that graphic now. The part that caught my eye was in the Do More Do Less section. Notice the difference in recommendations.

Body Fat Percentage:

  • Men 15-20%, Women 25-30%: (no sleep or stress management requirements)
  • Men 13-15%, Women 23-25%: Sleep 7+ hours a night, practice some stress management
  • Men 10-12%, Women 20-22%: Sleep 7-8+ hours a night, De-stress daily for 20 minutes
  • Men 6-9%, Women 16-19%: Sleep 8-9+ hours a night, De-stress daily for 20 minutes
  • Men <6%, Women <16%: Sleep 9+ hours a night, De-stress daily for 20 minutes

According to the chart, sleep and stress management requirements increase as someone goes from normal lean to cut. The implication here is that the very act of being lean is stressful. I had to ask for clarification.


And then everything made sense. It wasn’t the low body fat levels that made me look haggard, it was how I achieved them. How did I get very lean? From The Grand Experiment Revisited:

Getting ripped is hard, but the real challenge would be to do it in a way that supports metabolism. What I learned is something I’ve talked about on other posts in the past few years and that is don’t stack stressors. Fasting, lifting, eat super clean, poor sleep and running on high levels of caffeine are all stressors. I did all those and then when that wasn’t enough, I started swimming in the cold Puget Sound.

I looked haggard because as I got leaner, my stress levels went up. I wasn’t reducing stress, I was stacking it. My sleep needs were increasing and I was frequently waking up in the middle of the night with headaches. There is a lesson here. Unless one can address stress and commit to enough sleep, getting very lean is going to be difficult or come at a cost or both.


Sleep by me

Better Sleep for the Too Early Riser

I was recently asked about what tips I had for better sleep. Instead of responding directly to the email, I thought it might make for a good post where others could read and comment. Most of the sleep advice you read online is written for the person who has trouble falling asleep and not for my fellow early risers. Before I begin, I thought I’d provide a little background on my sleep.

For as long as I remember, I’ve never had trouble falling asleep. I would estimate that there has been less than 20 times in my entire life where I couldn’t fall asleep in under 30 minutes. 99% of the time, I fall asleep in under 3 minutes. In the morning, I don’t oversleep. I haven’t used an alarm clock since the 1990s. Even in a dark room, I wake up either just before or just after sunrise. I’ve been like this my entire life.

If you are like me, then your sleep challenge is not being able to return to sleep after waking up too early. It is common to wake between 3 AM and 4 AM, still be extremely tired, but unable to return to sleep.

The good news is I have solved this riddle. I now sleep better than I have my entire adult life. This is how I did it.

MAS Sleeping

Me sleeping as a kid. Probably not a good idea to leave your shoes on.

#1 Sleep Before Other Goals

You may wish to gain muscle, lose weight or both. Maybe you have performance goals. Until you are sleeping like a champion, put them aside. Once you are sleeping better, body re-composition goals will become much easier. You do not want to stack stressors. This is a concept I explained in the post Rejecting the Seasonal Approach to Nutrition.

Trying to lose weight or gain muscle while tired is next to impossible. And if you do pull it off, it is likely unsustainable. Focus on improving sleep first, even if it means delaying your diet. Some exercise is good, but don’t overdo it during this period.

#2 Morning or Mid Day Sun Exposure

Shoot for 20-30 minutes of sun exposure a day. Besides personal experience and lots of online anecdotal evidence, the health study Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health states:

When people are exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning, their nocturnal melatonin production occurs sooner, and they enter into sleep more easily at night.

As a side note, I never get jet lag. Wherever I land, I make it a point to explore that location on foot during the day. I am instantly converted to the new time zone.

#3 Respecting My Morning Nature

I am a morning person. Have been since birth. I don’t expect that to change. This means that although I could push myself to participate in late night events, I know that I will still rise with the sun and feel tired the next day. Instead of fighting it, I pick sleep. This absolutely can be a social cramp, so it is up to me to plan social events that occur earlier in the day. In the past 6 years, I’ve hosted over 400 events with the Coffee Club of Seattle, most of which met just after lunch.

If alcohol was my thing, I’d be organizing happy hour events. Then I could have my fun, my food and still be in bed by 10 PM. 🙂

If I want to sleep 8 hours and I know my body will wake up at 6 AM, then I need to get in bed by 10 PM. Staying up later and hoping my body will sleep in never works. I need to respect my morning nature.

#4 Dial in Caffeine Level

Every article on sleep will tell you to reduce caffeine and not to drink coffee late in the day. My take is that we are all individuals who respond differently to caffeine and we need to figure out what works best for us. For me I discovered my best sleep happened when I had coffee in the mid afternoon. If I stopped drinking coffee before Noon, my sleep was worse. Go figure.

Dialing in your caffeine level is not a one time thing. We change. We can become more or less sensitive to caffeine throughout the years, seasons or even the week.

Because I adore the taste of black coffee, I do not add milk and sugar. However, it might be a good idea for the highly stressed body to avoid black coffee, especially on an empty stomach. The article Coffee Done Right explains why having coffee with food or milk and sugar will dampen the stress response. A body less stressed will get better sleep.


#5 Minimize Evening Liquid

I used to drink water and coffee all day long and then I’d have to get up a few times each night to pee. This disrupts sleep and increases the risk that you will be unable to return to sleep. It can also lower your body temperature, which places greater stress on your body and can make you more likely to get sick. The book Eat for Heat by Matt Stone explores this topic in great detail.

Eat for Heat: The Metabolic Approach to Food and Drink
Eat for Heat: The Metabolic Approach to Food and Drink by Matt Stone

#5 Prepare Sleep Dust

Pay attention to this one. This is the GREATEST SLEEP HACK ever for the too early riser! Get a bowl. Mix 5 parts sugar with 1 part salt. Nothing fancy. Regular sugar. Regular salt. Place this mixture in a container within an arm’s reach of your bed. If you wake up, place a pinch under your tongue. Let it dissolve. Take a sip of water. Lie back down. Odds are you will be falling asleep. I have found this trick works 80% of the time for me.

The post An Amazing “Back to Sleep” Hack covers why this hack works.

#6 Eat Carbs, Sugar and Salt Before Sleep

Ignore the standard advice to not eat after a certain hour. You should time your last meal to maximize your sleep quality. For me and I suspect other early risers, we need to eat something right before sleep. If I don’t have enough food, hunger will wake me up.

The reason we are waking up so early and unable to return to sleep is that adrenaline levels in the body peak around 3 AM – 4 AM. What food suppresses the stress response? Carbs, sugar and salt. Eating cheese or ice cream before bed has worked great for me.

Another trick is to down spoonfuls of honey before bed. Marcelo told us in January how well it worked for him.

It was about 2 weeks until i discovered the cause. Stress hormones were a river on my body! I was living on cortisol and adrenaline, because this i could be very active during the day, even with 3 hours of sleep a day! But i was feeling crap at night. Then i searched the web to solve this problem, i saw that people often with “high metabolism”, easy stressed, should not be on a regimen that stresses they body: IF + next to zero carb + heavy exercises everyday. Of course!

What i did, to experiment (saw on paleo hacks forum): continued with paleo, but, every night, an hour before bed, ate 5 tablespoons of honey, straight of the spoon. WORKED LIKE A MAGIC!!! Slept well first time in almost 3 weeks sleep deprived!

Victor from Brazil sent me information on eating popcorn before bedtime. After battling sleep issues, he is sleeping now sleeping like a rock thanks to popcorn. He also pointed me to a discussion on that topic.

Lots of people are reporting sleep success with carbs, sugar and salt before bed. Cheese too!

#7 Supplements

Magnesium, Calcium and Gelatin. Those are the only three supplements/foods that have demonstrated any value to improving my sleep. I do not like melatonin. L-theanine seems interesting if I had trouble falling asleep, but I don’t, so I’ve never tried it.

Natural Vitality Natural Calm plus Magnesium-Calcium Drink, Raspberry Lemon, 16 Ounce
Natural Vitality Natural Calm plus Magnesium-Calcium Drink, Raspberry Lemon, 16 Ounce

#8 Practice Calmness

Spend some time each day practicing calmness. That could be meditation, yoga or focusing on thoughts of gratitude. I like to do a walking meditation in the sun (#2). The reason for this item is that when we wake too early with our mind racing, we want that skill of calmness to guide us back to sleep. Develop the skill in the day. Use it at night.

#9 No Early Morning Sleep Distractions

If you do wake too early and the sleep dust (#5) fails to work, do not get up and participate in activities that compete with sleep. Don’t boot up the computer. Don’t make coffee. You do not want to reward your body for getting up too early with electronic or chemical stimulation. I used to wake up at 4:30 AM tired, but then jump out of bed to read financial news while drinking coffee. Sleep didn’t stand a chance. Now if I wake early, I have a rule not to look at a computer or make any coffee before 6 AM. Now sleep has a fighting chance.

#10 Rejecting Quantified Self

I was an early supporter of the Quantified Self movement. Not anymore. I don’t want this post to go down that path. You can read Some Quantified Self Honesty for my thoughts. Tracking my sleep quality for over 2 years was not healthy. It was stressful. At the time I thought it wasn’t, but only when I fully detached from it did I see how it was negatively impacting my sleep.

We don’t need more data to solve our sleep. We aren’t machines. There is not a data set complex enough to define what it means to be human. Instead we need to build our intuition. Do your best. Throw anyway the spreadsheets and uninstall your sleep apps. Trust the process and you’ll be fine. Pouring through spreadsheets and staring at your failures is no way to start each morning.

#11 Detach From the Outcome

When you try to improve your sleep or anything in life, it can be easy to blame ourselves for failures. Stop that. Show yourself self compassion as if you were talking to a friend with the same problem. Don’t attach yourself to the outcome. Focus on the process. Getting great sleep takes practice. Focus on the practice and not grading yourself. This is where a little background in Stoicism would help, I highly recommend the book A Guide to the Good Life.

More Ideas?

If your sleep challenges have been staying asleep, add to the comments what strategies have worked best for you or if you’ve gotten good results from something I listed above.