The Night Owl’s Guide to Waking up Early

Ever tried creating the habit of waking up at early?

You pump yourself up every night thinking tomorrow is the day you’ll finally do it only to have your motivation crushed when you realize you’ve slept 2 hours longer than intended.

Consistently waking up early isn’t as simple as setting your alarm and forcing yourself to wake up. You might be able to do that once or twice, but pretty soon you’ll end back where you started.

In this article, I’ll show you how to create a system that will help you wake up when you want. First, though, we have to talk about something important.

Why do you want to wake up early, anyway?

Really. Is it because you found out you’re more focused in the morning and you want more hours of focused work? Or is it because you heard people like Richard Branson wake up at 5am and you’re hoping it will make you successful as well?

If you want to do it because it makes you feel great, cool. Go for it. If you’re hoping it will save your productivity, you might want to ask yourself if you really need it. Not all successful people wake up at 4:30 or 5.

Morning routines

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So what’s your goal and how early is ‘waking up early’ for you? 4:30am? 5am? 7am?

If your goal is to become more productive, consistently waking up an hour or 2 than you do now will give you more hours over the long run than forcing yourself to get up at 4:30 and quitting after 3 days.

Action step:

1.Let’s start by creating a clear statement of intent. Complete the following sentence:

“I want to wake up at [insert time] because I want to [insert specific reason]”.

This statement of intent will help remind yourself why you’re doing this.

Are you really a night owl or has technology turned you into one?

Technology has made our lives a lot easier. If you don’t know how to do something, just look it up on YouTube and a 12 year old kid with a bad microphone will teach you how to do it. Want to connect with an author you admire? Just send them a tweet and you can get a reply. Want to watch some good shows? Use Netflix. It opens up a world of possibilities.

The downside of all this technology is it doesn’t have natural endings. Once you watch one video, it’s going to recommend another one, and then another one, and another one. You start by learning how to get rid of a virus on your computer and end up 3 hours later watching how Parmesan cheese is made.

Twitter and Instagram have the same problem. You can keep scrolling and you’ll get an endless supply of new content, whether you like it or not. The next shiny thing is just a scroll away.

And not only does all that information prevent your brain from winding down, the light from screens can mess up your biological clock and interfere with melatonin (the chemical that helps you sleep ) secretion.

One study found that, when people go camping without any electronics (phones or flashlights), their sleep schedules synchronize with the environment. They get up when the sun goes up, they sleep when the sun goes down.

Having natural endings to your day and cutting off technology is something I struggled with for the longest time. I wanted to wake up earlier, but it always ended with me going down the Youtube rabbit hole. Even when I knew it was time to go to bed if I wanted to wake up early, I thought one more video couldn’t hurt. It’s only a few minutes, right?

The problem with evenings is you can’t count on willpower to help you. It’s the end of your day, so most of your willpower is gone. The only way you can get out of this is to set up the end beforehand.

Now, I use an app called Freedom to block access to social media at 10 pm every night. Once it’s starts, there’s no way to turn it off so I might as well go to bed or read a book. Nothing helps you get to bed earlier than being bored out of your mind.

Only when I started doing this did I manage to go to bed at a reasonable time.

Action step:

1.Take stock of what are you doing right before bed? Is it something with a natural ending, or could you keep doing it for days before ever running out of things to do?

2.Use a tool like freedom to cut any temptations beforehand. If you rely on willpower, it won’t last.

The cold, hard truth about waking up early

Here’s the thing…

If you go to bed at 3am and try to get up at 6 you may be able to do that once or twice. But soon your body is sleep deprived and it’s going to be like “Screw this, more sleep.”

If you try to use willpower to fight one of your most basic needs — sleep — willpower will lose. Instead of forcing yourself to wake up early, try to get as close to 7 or 8 hours of quality sleep as possible. Notice I said quality. If you sleep like shit for 9 hours you’re still going to be tired.

Now, sleep tips is a whole other article, so here are some resources to help you:

When you go to bed late and force yourself to get up early, you’re setting yourself up for failure physically AND mentally.

You’ll crawl into bed, look at the clock and notice you’re only getting about 3-4 hours of sleep. Then when the alarm goes off the first thing you think is “Ugh I only slept for 3 hours this sucks.” Now you’re already resenting getting up and you’re making it more difficult for yourself.

Action steps:

1.Work backwards to find out how much sleep you need.

If your goal is to wake up at 6am every day and you need 7 and a half hours of sleep, you need to be in bed at 22:15 ( assuming it takes you 15 minutes to fall asleep).

2.Optimize your environment for quality sleep.

Get blackout curtains, make sure the temperature is optimal,…

Take the sting out of waking up

When you want to get up early, one of the best things you can do is make a big list of what you like about it and what you don’t like about it. You can lie to yourself and say you love it soooo much, but you’ll give up after 4 days.

Be honest. Some aspects of it are great — like feeling in control of your day. Other aspects, like standing on a cold floor with your bare feet, suck. Big time.

Make a list of all the advantages and disadvantages so you can try and reduce the bad stuff while enhancing the good stuff. For example:

Good things:

  • I like the feeling of being in control of my day
  • I get a lot more done when I wake up early
  • I feel more productive
  • I have an hour or two before everybody else wakes up

Bad things:

  • I hate waking up with a jolt when my alarm goes off
  • I’m still super sleepy when my alarm goes off
  • I hate going from a warm, cozy bed to standing on a cold floor in my underwear
  • I failed 500 times before so why bother?

It’s important that you’re specific when you do this. What exactly do you not like about this? What thoughts go through your head when you think about waking up?

Once you know what you like and dislike about it, you can start to look for ways to make the process more enjoyable. You could:

  • Install an alarm that gradually gets louder so you don’t wake up with a jolt
  • Put down a towel or a small rug to stand on when you get up
  • Get up 5 minutes earlier to prove to yourself you do have control over your time
  • Read for good book for 30 minutes after you get up

The goal of this process is to make the good as good as it can get and make the bad suck less.

Action steps:

1.Take a piece of paper and draw two columns. Label the left column ‘Good things’ and the right column ‘Bad things’

2.In the left column, write down everything you like about waking up early. In the right column, right down everything you hate about waking up early. Be specific.

3.Take 20 minutes to brainstorm ways to make the good more enjoyable and the bad suck less.

Don’t force yourself to get up right away

“You snooze, you lose!”

Yeah that’s great, but most of the time I’m not even conscious when I turn off my alarm.

Sleepy me is pretty good at finding ways to turn off alarms when he doesn’t want to get up. When I use regular alarms I will more often than not wake up 2 hours after it should have gone off because I turned it off without thinking about it.

I tried everything. I tried apps that track your sleep cycle and wake you up when you’re in a shallow sleep phase, but again I’d sleep through them because sleepy me turned off the app.

I tried alarms that don’t stop until you get out of bed, but sleepy me found I could just turn off my phone to stop the alarm.

Finally, I tried using Alarmy to help me get out of bed. It locks you out of your phone until you get out of bed and take a specific action. In order to turn it off I have to get out of bed and scan the barcode of a book that’s on my desk.

Unfortunately, that didn’t last long either. After a few days I would just scan the barcode and get back to bed. Sleepy me really doesn’t want to get up.

The only way it works is when I use an alarm to wake up, and an alarm to get out of bed. The first one is easy to shut off and wakes me up. The second one requires me to get out of bed and scan the barcode.

This gives me about 5 minutes where I can slowly wake up and not have to get out in the cold. I can take those 5 minutes to stretch and enjoy the warmth of my bed before I get dressed.

Action step:

1.Set an extra alarm 5 minutes before you have to get up. The goal of this alarm is to gently wake you up, not bully you out of bed.

2.Set a second alarm to get you out of bed. Use Alarmy if you need, or put your alarm somewhere out of reach.

Aim to start the chain

There are certain decisions you make throughout the day that set in motion a chain of events. Once you decide to boil water in the morning, you’ll drink a cup of tea/coffee. Once you pick up your gym bag and walk out the door, you’ll go to the gym. One action is followed by a chain of other actions.

Waking up early is no different. There are certain actions that solidify your decision to wake up. For me, it’s putting on a t-shirt. Once I’ve done that, I’ve made the decision to get up and putting on the rest of my clothes is easy. Putting on that t-shirt starts the chain of waking up.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be getting dressed, too. For you it could be removing the covers or going to the bathroom.

When you wake up, your one and only goal is to complete that first action. Once you’ve done that, the rest is a lot easier to accomplish.

Action steps:

1.Take a piece of paper and write down every action you take when you wake up. For example:

Second alarm goes off -> Take phone -> Remove covers -> Get out of bed -> Scan barcode to shut off alarm -> Put on t-shirt -> Put on pants -> Put on socks ->…

2.The next few days, notice when you stop resisting your decision to wake up. Is it when you put on your socks? when you get to the bathroom? After what action have you officially “woken up”?

3.Rearrange your bedroom so that action is really easy to take.

If you feel like you’ve woken up when you’ve put on your shirt then make it really easy to put on a shirt. Put it on your nightstand or a chair nearby. The easier it is to start the chain, the more likely it is you’ll do it.

Don’t make changes too drastic

If you want to fail, change your bed time from 2am to 9pm in one go. You’ll do it exactly once. The second time, you’ll go to bed at 10pm, then 11, and finally you just go back to your “regular” hour.

If you want to wake up early, change your bed time and wake up time by half an hour every week or so. This will make the change less drastic, and you’re more likely to keep doing it.

Consistency is key when you’re building new habits.

Action step:

1.Take your current and desired wake up time and calculate the difference between the two. Now multiple it by 2 to get the amount of weeks it’s going to take you to get there.

So if you currently wake up at 9am and you want to wake up at 6, it’s going to take you 6 weeks to get there.

Control your mornings, control your day

Henry Ward Beecher once said the first hour of the morning is the rudder of the day. I found that to be very true.

If I start my day early and do productive things, the rest of the day seems to be so much easier. Let’s quickly recap all the steps you need to wake up early:

  1. Know your why
  2. Create natural endings
  3. Get enough sleep
  4. Make waking up as enjoyable as you can
  5. Focus on the first thing
  6. Don’t make changes too drastic

It took me a while to figure out a system that works, and you might have to change some things here and there. I’m confident that if you follow the steps in this article you’ll be able to wake up earlier as well.