Beyond Sweatpants: Waking Up in a Post–COVID-19 World


Apr 14, 2021

Busy family morning in the kitchen, photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on Psychology Today on April 13, 2021.

The other night, I had my first dream about life in a post–COVID-19 world. It was nothing like I expected—me running on a beach, arms outstretched, and joyfully embracing the return to normal life. In fact, it was not a pleasant dream at all. In my dream, I left the house to go to an actual meeting with actual real live people. I was running late. And when I got to the meeting, I realized to my horror that I was wearing a version of the same basic ensemble I have been wearing to virtual work for the last year—made up and proper up top, old and riddled with holes (but oh so comfy) sweatpants on the bottom.

Just like everyone else, I'm sure, I have been fantasizing about what life will look like when we finally bust through the grip of COVID-19. When it comes to morning wake schedules, adjusting to post–COVID-19 life may be a challenge, and small steps now may help get you better prepared for the shock of returning to the morning rush.

With all of the hope and optimism coming from rising rates of vaccinations, there are also a number of reasons why many people, including myself, are beginning to feel some anxiety about our eventual return to “normal” life. Truth is, as challenging as this year has been, there are a few things about pandemic living that I may have a hard time giving up. A big one is the relatively slow pace of mornings.

I've had no commute. My kids start school at a healthy hour instead of the inhumane 7:35 a.m. of the normal school year. I don't spend so much time getting fully dressed in work clothes. (Those sweatpants from my dream are real. And I love them!) My morning routine has been deliciously civilized for the past year.

How you wake up and the consistency of your wake-up time is the single most important cue for setting your internal biological clock, which, in turn, is critical for setting you up for sleep success at night.

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But this transition is going to come. Deep down, I want it to come. At least some of it. And if I'm going to navigate that transition, it's going to mean shifting some behaviors that I've gotten used to. As with any behavior change, I know that in order to avoid too much of a shock to the system, things will go better if I start taking small steps now to ease back into the behaviors that will be required in a post–COVID-19 world.

I've begun to make some small adjustments to my mornings. This is important because how you start the day can have a big impact on how you feel the rest of the day. From a sleep perspective, how you wake up and the consistency of your wake-up time is the single most important cue for setting your internal biological clock, which, in turn, is critical for setting you up for sleep success at night.

How the R.I.S.E. U.P. Framework Can Help

My dear friend and colleague, Allison Harvey, professor of psychology at Berkeley, has developed a set of strategies to help people who typically struggle with mornings (including teenagers), to set and maintain consistent wake-up times. Her program uses the acronym R.I.S.E. U.P. which stands for:

  • Resist the urge to hit the snooze button
  • Increase your activity for the first hour
  • Shower or wash your face right away
  • Expose yourself to sunlight
  • Upbeat music—turn some on
  • Phone a friend to boost your alertness.

You may find that some of these strategies are more relevant or helpful to you than others. For example, I don't see myself phoning a friend first thing in the morning. On the other hand, focusing on increasing my physical activity level in the first hour upon awakening, or honestly, even just the first 15 minutes, has been a game changer for me.

As I try to shift gears from the somewhat slow-starting mornings of a COVID-19 world, to anticipating the likely faster pace that post–COVID-19 life will bring, I have undertaken the 100-squat challenge. Every morning, as soon as the alarm goes off (with no snooze, of course), I open the blinds to let in the light, I brush my teeth, splash some cold water on my face and return to my bedroom to knock out 100 squats. It takes less than 10 minutes, and when I am done, the morning haze I felt just 10 minutes before has vanished. I get to start my day feeling like I already accomplished something.

By taking these small steps to ensure my wake-up time is consistent, and engaging in behaviors that can boost my alertness, I can reduce some of that anxiety that stems from worry about our post–COVID-19 lives. Perhaps this can help you too.

In the next few months, I'll explore other topics related to how we can adjust back to normal, as well as which aspects of “normal” weren't working so great for us in the first place. I'll also be sharing excerpts from my book, Sharing the Covers: Every Couple's Guide to Better Sleep, about how couples sleep together (or don't) and the implications for relationships.

Wendy Troxel is a senior behavioral and social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.