Waking early is one of my favourite things in my entire daily routine. The morning is quiet as the world hasn’t begun stirring, the perfect time for meditation, creativity, and some quiet flowing hustle.
For many years, I was an early riser.
7 a.m. or 6 a.m.? Easy.
5 a.m.? That’s interesting.
4 a.m.? Excuse me, WTF?
I got the final push of inspiration after re-reading a book by Jocko Willink, Extreme Ownership. It primarily focuses on tactical leadership but has many life lessons as well. Jocko is also known as the guy who replaces Chuck Norris in a lot of jokes for the more serious crowd.
For example, after Jocko was born, he drove his mother home from the hospital. Or Jocko wasn’t born, he was tactically deployed.
I haven’t written about waking early for a while, mostly because my waking time is in constant flux. Some days I enjoy rising a bit later with my two little daughters. Other times I’ll get up extra early on purpose for a while and enjoy the extra quiet time.
Quarantine was a perfect time to experiment with personal productivity methods.
Since waking up at 4 a.m. daily and then having my usual eight to ten-hour client workshops, training, or consultations with high-performing executives could be more than exhausting, I understand that 4 AM regime is not my long-term focus, it’s more like an extreme experiment to prove myself and also draw a line of what is possible.
Because if you can climb Everest, no other mountains will be a challenge.
For many years I’ve learned a thing or two about how to change your wake-up time with joy and without anxiety, and today I’ll share the most successful techniques in my many experimentations, including the recent one—waking up at 4 a.m.
"When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love" –Marcus Aurelius
The gradual method
One of the best methods for changing the time you wake up is to do it gradually: Ten to fifteen minutes earlier for a week until you feel used to it, and then repeat. If you get up at 8 a.m. normally, don’t suddenly change it to 6 a.m. Try 7:45 a.m. instead.
That might seem too slow to most people. And you’re free to disregard this advice. However, in my many experiments, the most enjoyable and long-lasting change in the sleeping schedule has been slow and gradual.
Sudden changes of an hour earlier or more in your waking time are difficult and not likely to last. If you get up one to two hours earlier on Day 1, then you’ll have a tough time and not enjoy it. The next day, you’ll have a big sleep deficit, and it’ll be even tougher (assuming you’re able to do it two days in a row). Day 3 is even harder.
Sleeping patterns are difficult to change, so the gradual method works much better.
First, things not to do with your newfound early-morning time: don’t check email, news, social media, or blogs. Don’t waste this new time doing the same thing you always do.
Here are some other things that are better, in my experience:
- Drink a glass of water. You’re dehydrated from not drinking any water all night. Drink a full glass of water if you can. It’ll make you feel more awake.
- Meditate. Even just for a couple of minutes. It’s such a great way to start your day, just sitting and practicing mindful focus. Or using any meditation app or guided audio.
- Write or journal. Or do some other kind of creative activity.
- Exercise. Go for a walk or do a home workout. Even just ten minutes, warm up your muscles, joints, and mind.
- Enjoy a cup of coffee or tea. Either one of these makes the morning better, trust me.
- Do something meaningful for your goals. Take advantage of all that extra time. Don’t wake up an hour or two early just to read your social media, unless that’s a major goal of yours. Don’t wake up early and waste that extra time. Get a jump start on your day!
Going to sleep earlier
You can’t just wake up earlier and not sleep earlier. You’ll eventually crash. So here are some tips for getting to sleep earlier:
- Set a bedtime of seven to eight hours before you want to wake up. Where you are in that time frame depends on how much sleep you need. Most people need about seven to eight hours of sleep, though there are lots of variations.
- Create a bedtime ritual. It’s often overlooked, yet very powerful too. I like to spend time with my family, put the little one to sleep, and have a meaningful conversation with my partner, sometimes watch Friends, read a book, or have a light snack.
- No blue screen in bed. That means no phone, no laptop, no tablets, no mobile phones. Better to have your phone in another room altogether.
- Exercise helps a lot. It gets your body tired, so you’ll sleep better. Don’t exercise an hour or less before bed, or you’ll be too pumped up. I like to have my workouts at 7–8 p.m. at the latest since I go to sleep around 9–10 p.m.
- Power of naps. Or power naps. Be consistent and keep a regular nap schedule. Prime napping time falls in the middle of the day, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Make it quick—set your alarm for thirty minutes or less if you don't want to wake up groggy. Go dark—nap in a dark room or wear an eye mask (blocking out light helps you fall asleep faster). Stay warm—stash a blanket nearby to put over you because your body temperature drops while you snooze.
Here are some of the most common problems in my experience and from the client’s questions:
- Super tired in the morning. If you wake early and just can’t seem to function, that’s fairly normal, especially if you are not used to it. My solution is water, moving around a lot, and drinking a bit of coffee or matcha (powdered green tea, but make sure you are drinking it at least one hour after the wake-up time, look up caffeine performance after sleep in respected research). I will sometimes take a nap in the afternoon if I’m really tired. Also, it might be a sign that you’re moving too quickly—make sure you’re waking just a little earlier, and stay at one time for a few days until you feel adjusted before setting the alarm even earlier.
- Missing out on partner/spouse/romantic time. If you are used to spending the evening with your partner, and going to bed early means you’re missing out on that time, you have a few options. One is to see whether your partner is willing to try getting up early with you, perhaps to meditate, exercise or just have coffee together. Another is to cut out that together time in the late evening, but find time during the day (if possible), or at least in the early evening and weekends. Finally, you could decide that the together time is too important, and not get up earlier. Or compromise and keep most of the evening together time, but wake just thirty minutes earlier. Think evolution, not a revolution.
- You’re not a morning person. Some people think this but just haven’t given waking up early a try. Or they’ve gotten up an hour or two earlier all at once and hated being so tired. This is why the gradual method is so important—it’s not that you’re not a morning person, it’s just that you tried to change too quickly and are suffering.
But what if after all this effort of mine waking up early is just not your cup of tea?
It’s true that some people just are better off focusing late at night (I have friends and clients like this) and morning isn’t their thing—and that’s perfectly all right.
There’s no need to conform to what others do. I just shared this to show what works for me.
And for me, morning is magical.
The morning is your time.
The morning is a fresh start, peaceful and free of constant email notifications and the never-ending hustle.
Waking up early is a powerful habit. Go get one.