Are morning people born or made? In my case, the answer was definitely made.
Here’s how I learned how to wake up early, and managed to make that habit a permanent one.
“It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom.” – Aristotle
Early to bed and early to rise?
In my early 20s, I rarely went to bed before midnight, and I’d almost always sleep in late. I usually didn’t start hitting my stride each day until late afternoon.
After awhile, I couldn’t ignore the high correlation between success and rising early, even in my own life. On those rare occasions where I did get up early, I noticed that my productivity was almost always higher, not just in the morning, but all throughout the day. And I also noticed a significant feeling of well-being.
So being the proactive goal-achiever I was, I set out to become a habitual early riser. I promptly set my alarm clock for 5am…
…and the next morning, I got up just before noon.
Try, try, try, try, try again
I tried again many more times, each time not getting very far with it. I figured I must have been born without the early riser gene.
Whenever my alarm went off, my first thought was always to stop that blasted noise and go back to sleep. I tabled this habit for a number of years, but eventually I came across some sleep research that showed me that I was going about this problem the wrong way. Once I applied those ideas, I was able to become an early riser consistently.
It’s hard to become an early riser using the wrong strategy. But with the right strategy, it’s relatively easy.
The most common wrong strategy is this: You assume that if you’re going to get up earlier, you’d better go to bed earlier. So you figure out how much sleep you’re getting now, and then just shift everything back a few hours. If you now sleep from midnight to 8am, you figure you’ll go to bed at 10pm and get up at 6am instead.
Sounds very reasonable, but it will usually fail.
It seems there are two main schools of thought about sleep patterns. One is that you should go to bed and get up at the same times every day. It’s like having an alarm clock on both ends — you try to sleep the same hours each night. This seems practical for living in modern society. We need predictability in our schedules. And we need to ensure adequate rest.
The second school says you should listen to your body’s needs and go to bed when you’re tired and get up when you naturally wake up. This approach is rooted in biology. Our bodies should know how much rest we need, so we should listen to them.
Sleep patterns for productivity
Through trial and error, I found out for myself that both of these schools are suboptimal sleep patterns. Both of them are wrong if you care about productivity.
If you sleep set hours, you’ll sometimes go to bed when you aren’t sleepy enough. If it’s taking you more than five minutes to fall asleep each night, you aren’t sleepy enough. You’re wasting time lying in bed awake and not being asleep. Another problem is that you’re assuming you need the same number of hours of sleep every night, which is a false assumption. Your sleep needs vary from day to day.
If you sleep based on what your body tells you, you’ll probably be sleeping more than you need — in many cases, a lot more, like 10-15 hours more per week (the equivalent of a full waking day). A lot of people who sleep this way get eight-plus hours of sleep per night, which may be too much.
Your mornings may be less predictable if you’re getting up at different times, and because our natural rhythms are sometimes out of tune with the 24-hour clock, you may find that your sleep times begin to drift.
A combined approach to waking up early
The optimal solution for me has been to combine both approaches. It’s very simple, and many early risers do this without even thinking about it, but it was a mental breakthrough for me nonetheless. The solution was to go to bed when I’m sleepy (and only when I’m sleepy) and get up with an alarm clock at a fixed time (7 days per week). So I always get up at the same time (in my case 5am), but I go to bed at different times every night.
I go to bed when I’m too sleepy to stay up. My sleepiness test is that if I couldn’t read a book for more than a page or two without drifting off, I’m ready for bed.
The onset of sleepiness I’m referring to is when your brain starts releasing hormones to knock you out. This is different from just being tired. You actually feel yourself getting drowsy. But in order for this to happen, you need to create the right conditions for it to occur. This means giving yourself some downtime before bedtime.
If you’re doing stimulating activities before bed, you’ll be able to stay up later and stave off sleepiness for a while. In college, I used to participate in poker games that went until dawn, and then we’d often go out to breakfast afterwards. I can easily stay up later than my normal range of bed times if I work, go out with friends, or do other stimulating activities.
But this isn’t what I mean by noticing when you’re sleepy, and doesn’t mean waiting until you’re about to drop from exhaustion.
Another test you can use: Ask yourself, “If I were to go to bed now, how quickly could I fall asleep?” If you think it would take more than 15 minutes to fall asleep, I say go ahead and stay up.
Most of the time when I go to bed, I’m asleep within three minutes. I lie down, get comfortable, and immediately I’m drifting off. Sometimes I go to bed at 9:30pm — other times, I stay up until midnight. Most of the time I go to bed between 10 and 11pm. If I’m not sleepy, I stay up until I can’t keep my eyes open any longer.
Get up when the alarm goes off
When my alarm goes off every morning, I turn it off, stretch for a couple seconds, and sit up. I don’t think about it. I’ve learned that the longer it takes me to get up, the more likely I am to try to sleep in. So I don’t allow myself to have conversations in my head about the benefits of sleeping in once the alarm goes off. Even if I want to sleep in, I always get up right away.
After a few days of using this approach, I found that my sleep patterns settled into a natural rhythm. If I got too little sleep one night, I’d automatically be sleepier earlier and get more sleep the next night. And if I had lots of energy and wasn’t tired, I’d sleep less. My body learned when to knock me out because it knew I would always get up at the same time and that my wake-up time wasn’t negotiable.
Once you set a fixed awakening time, it may take a bit of practice to hone in on the right range of bedtimes for you. In the beginning, you may see some huge oscillations — staying awake too late one night and going to bed too early another night. But eventually you’ll get a feel for when you can go to bed and fall asleep right away while allowing yourself to wake up refreshed the next day.
As a failsafe to keep yourself from staying up too late, give yourself a bedtime deadline — and even if you aren’t totally sleepy, go to bed by that time no matter what.
I have a good idea of the minimum amount of sleep I need. 6.5 hours per night is sustainable for me, but I can do 5 hours in a pinch and be okay as long as I don’t do it every night. The maximum I ever sleep is 7.5 hours. Before I started waking up at a fixed time each morning, I’d often sleep 8 to 9 hours, and sometimes even 10 hours if I was really tired.
On average, I slept about 90 minutes less per night, but I actually felt more well-rested. I was sleeping almost the entire time I was in bed.
Not tired? Don’t go to bed
I read that most insomniacs are people who go to bed when they aren’t sleepy.
If you aren’t sleepy and find yourself unable to fall asleep quickly, get up and stay awake for a while. Resist sleep until your body begins to release the hormones that rob you of consciousness. If you simply go to bed when you’re sleepy and then get up at a fixed time, you’ll cure your insomnia.
The first night you’ll stay up late, but you’ll fall asleep right away. You may be tired that first day from getting up too early and getting only a few hours of sleep the whole night, but you’ll slog through the day and will want to go to bed earlier that second night. After a few days, you’ll settle into a pattern of going to bed at roughly the same time and falling asleep right away.
So if you want to become an early riser — or just exert more control over your sleep patterns — try this: Go to bed only when you’re too sleepy to stay up, and get up at a fixed time every morning.
Why get up early?
I’d say the main reason is that you’ll have a lot more time to do things that are more interesting than sleeping.
“I never knew a man come to greatness or eminence who lay abed late in the morning.” – Johnathan Swift
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve gained about 10-15 hours per week doing this, and that extra time is very noticeable. By 6:30am, I’ve already exercised, showered, had breakfast, and I’m at my desk ready to go to work. I can put in a lot of productive hours each day, and I’m usually done with work by 5pm (and that includes personal “work” like email, paying bills, picking up my daughter from preschool, etc).
This gives me 5 to 6 hours of discretionary time every evening for family, leisure activities, reading, journaling, etc. Best of all, I still have energy during this time. Having time for everything that’s important to me makes me feel very balanced, relaxed and optimistic.
Think about what you could do with that extra time. Even an extra 30 minutes per day is enough to exercise daily, read a book or two each month, maintain a blog, meditate daily, cook healthy food, learn a musical instrument, etc.
A small amount of extra time each day adds up to significant amounts over the course of a year. Thirty minutes a day is 182.5 hours in a year. That’s more than a month of working full-time (40 hours per week). Double it if you save 60 minutes a day, and triple it if you save 90 minutes a day.
For me, the savings was about 90 minutes per day — that’s like getting a free bonus year every decade. I’m using this time to do things that I previously didn’t have the time and energy to do, and it’s wonderful.