It's 2:42AM as I write this from the Mountains of Utah.
I'm nearing the end of a 30 day experiment to wake up earlier.
The only things stirring are my eyeballs, typing fingers, and wisps of steam rising from my hot cup of turmeric tea. I'm up before the birds, I'm up before the sun.
More importantly, it feels like I'm getting ahead of MYSELF (the Michael that popus up at 8:57AM right before his first meeting).
That Michael, he HATES mornings. For that Michael, mornings are a jarring whirlwind of email and Zoom. This Michael (2:42AM Michael) gets to make art.
And so in this article, I'll be explaining to YOU the art AND science of how to wake up earlier; lessons learned from 30 days of bumbling around trying to do so myself.
...probably not at 2:42AM (honestly, today's a result of insomnia not conscious effort...) but early enough.
"Early to bed, early to rise, make's a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."
ok Grandpa Franklin, stop memeing me.
As cliche as it sounds, at some point in your life you've probably fantasized about being able to wake up at the crack of dawn like Jocko Willink.
Yeah, his entire Instagram feed is a 4:30AM workout fest)
Cliches like "early to bed. early rise" last the test of time because they WORK. 21st Century Jocko wants to be like 18th Century Ben Franklin because they've figured the same thing out: they both saw waking up early as an insanely unfair life advantage.
Like with any habit, I like explaining things through a WHY, WHAT, and HOW framework. Because it ain't easy... but DAMN is it worth it.
So I want to give you not only the explanation but practical tips for actually making it happen.
Let's dive in.
WHY (wake up earlier?)
Us humans, we evolved to operate with the rising and falling of the sun. Our natural cadence: wake at sunrise, sleep at sunset.
Fast forward to all this iPhone B.S. where we instead sleep and wake up to our notifications....
We've undergone an enormous health burden since evolving and massively disrupting our sleep and diet problems.
Cancer.gov estimates 1,806,590 new cancer cases will show up in the US with over 600k people dying from the disease.
Now, correlation isn't causation (there's a LOT Of messed up things with modernity), but it's safe to say it isn't "great for your body" to have an out of whack circadian rhythm.
If that doesn't sell you on it, let me find a modern take:
Cal Newport, in his book "Deep Work", asserts that deep work is an increasingly RARE and RELEVANT skill in the age of distraction. Most people can't get 2 hours of focused time between texts and Tiktok.
So if you can, you aggressively stack the odds in your favor.
Here's why waking up later (than the sun) sucks. BECAUSE EVERYONE ALSO WAKES UP LATE.
It's super easy to fall prey to your inbox in the morning; as you open to well-intentioned but deviously distracting emails
... or just straight spam (Source: googling "funny scam email")
I once heard, "your inbox is other peoples' definition of your to do list". You COULD procure 1000 different productivity hacks (sound cancelling headphones, time blocking).... or you could. But why not just avoid the problem all together; ELIMINATE potential distractions at the root by getting up before they can drop into your inbox?
Alright, enough scare tactics. What could small but consistent wins in the morning net you?
Take it from Jerry Senfield, worth $820 million dollars, who has an entire productivity system built after consistent wins (often morning writing). He has a huge wall calendar, Xes off day he successfully protects writing time, and repeats’ DON’T BREAK THE CHAIN!
Lebron, Tim Ferriss, Tom Bilyeu. All these incredible folkshave shown up on record saying that 1) sleep is super important but 2) you can make massive wins just by finding protected hours to work
WHAT (really is waking up earlier?)
Here's the bullet point list of what I'm going to teach you in this article:
- 1) How to identify as an early morning person and then prove it to yourself through small wins
- 2) The process to inch your time back SLOWLY to guarantee it sticks
- 3) The secret hack to not needing your snooze button
- 4) HOW to spend your morning productively
HOW (to waking up earlier?)
My framework here comes from James Clear's Atomic Habits.
1) Make it appealing
2) Make it easy
3) Make it obvious
4) Make it rewarding
If you actually read the book, you'll notice I swapped his original order slightly around. This ACTUALLY should go 3,1,2,4 but you’ll see the reasons for this ordering in a bit!
1. MAKE IT APPEALING
The magic words here are: "get to, not have to". Let's repeat that again.
GET TO, NOT HAVE TO.
You GET TO wake up earlier, you don't HAVE TO wake up earlier. The simple act of setting an intention to start your day on your own terms makes an incredible difference. So you need to find motivation to get your butt up at the buttcrack of dawn.
Not because some random Chinese dude on the Internet told you to do so.
So let's find that internal inspiration. Action item for you: take out a piece of paper and write out the PERFECT MORNING for yourself.
Describe the smells, sights, actions, feeling of it. What would you be accomplishing? What would you be getting ahead on that you normally don't have time for?
If you need any inspiration: this article by (https://goinswriter.com/wake-up-early/) has a couple ideas:
1) Listen to podcasts related to waking up early.
2) Read about people who were early risers.
Here's another compelling example of why it’s super important to be in bed and get a solid night’s sleep.
"Between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., your core temperature falls the most drastically, allowing for more neuron and nervous system repair, neuron growth, an upregulation of circulating T cells (the killer cells of your immune system), and a decrease in inflammation. If you can get solid sleep during this phase, you’ll have a stronger immune system and less inflammation. But in order for your core temperature to drop like this, you need to have been asleep for up to six hours already."
Ben Greenfield, in the above line, asserts AGAIN that your body has natural mechanisms in place that only work if you've been in bed around 8 or 9PM.
It sounds crazy early, but think about how crazy it would be if a caveman time traveled to see your blue lit up face swiping on Candy Crush or IG reels at midnight.
With a bedrock of motivation set, let's continue to step 2.
2. MAKE IT EASY
You need to make it easier for yourself to get up. This is simple. Go build this bed
Hah. Jokes aside... the point I want to make is that ,ideally, you should "FALL" out of bed.
Almost like gravity is pulling you. No struggle, no fight, just slide right on out and get to an awesome day.
If you try to rely on willpower, you're going to fail
Instead, you should just sleep earlier.
The problem with willing yourself to wake up earlier is... it's not really possible.
Waking up is mostly neurochemical. Your level of sleepiness is driven by a set of automatic body systems.
There’s a natural rise in cortisol (stress hormone that energizes your body) in the morning that beats down melatonin (sleepy hormone).
If you don’t get to bed early, your cortisol levels won’t rise enough to combat sleepy melatonin in the AM.
It's REALLY HARD to fight melatonin. You're not meant to.
Again, according to Ben Greenfield:
“This surge of morning cortisol turns on your brain and body. It also coincides with the release of the very important hormone vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, fittingly called VIP. VIP causes a variety of important wake-up actions, such as increased contractility in your heart, vasodilation (widening of your blood vessels), and liver glycogenolysis (breakdown of your liver’s glycogen to naturally bring your blood sugar up).”
But you can ramp that cortisol curve properly with a good night's rest: Rather than fighting the natural urge to sleep, you can go to bed at a reasonable time and reap the natural consequence of waking up earlier
Another reason: If you try to wake up early but don't sleep earlier (i.e. cut down on sleep hours, you might feel more productive in the short run but you're just going to die earlier.
So how does one ACTUALLY sleep earlier?
I could give you a LOOOONG laundry list of things that are going to help... but that might be overwhelming and confusing. I'm going to give you just four. Nail these, and you’ll be smooth sailing.
1) RESTRICT BLUE LIGHT AT NIGHT
The science is pretty clear; blue light can disrupt your sleep DRASTICALLY. The sun is meant to trigger activation and alertness in the body; thus, bright light after sundown is NOT natural.
Such that night shift workers exposed to bright light and, thus struggling with sleep regulation have incredibly high rates of cancer.
If you have glasses, get these to clip on.
I'm not going to tell you to turn off devices 90 minutes before bed.
That's insane behavior for most people. Instead, PREVENT the devices from wrecking your melatonin production with these glasses.
2) EXERCISE REGULARLY BEFORE 6PM
Why exercise before 6PM? There's a MAJOR correlation between strong physical exertion and easier sleep.
Get your booty moving and your steps in, and it's way likelier you'll just pass out like a baby.
But do it too late and you risk a cortisol spike.
As for step count, 6000 steps is anecdotal; I've found that's the sweet spot for me (getting at LEAST 6000 in, not exactly)
How do you get 6000 steps? Take 2 30 minute zoom calls while walking. Your coworkers will understand
3) OPTIMIZE TEMPERATURE
If you can afford it, get a chilipad: it's a temperature regulating "water bed" mattress topper that circulates cold air. Set it between 55 degrees to 60 degrees. Why is this helpful?
If you CAN'T, just set your AC to 65 degrees at night or crack a window. You want your blanket to feel like a cozy cocoon in a COLD ROOM
Why is lower temperature helpful? Humans evolved sleeping outside. Reduced body temperature signaled continued rest, while the rising sun and temperature got your body up.
4) OPTIMIZE ROOM LIGHT
Get some blackout curtains to keep things dark during your rest. You may not notice the light exposure leaking in through the windows, but it will affect your sleep.
The ONE issue blackout curtains may present is that they will remove sunlight as a natural wakeup signal, if you don't want to dish out the funds for some automatic blackout blinds, you can just simulate the sun inside. You do this with a light generating alarm clock (this is the Phillips one I have). Alarm clocks suck at 5AM anyway.
A final tip I'll give you in this section is to proactively troubleshoot.
Define the most harmful things to your sleep. and actively avoid them. The perfectly optimized room setup won't do anything if you chug an Espresso at 10PM. So with coffee and other stimulants like tea and chocolate, people say to stop drinking after 4pm. That's dumb. Stop caffeine after noon.
Social media usage at night should also be avoided. Even if you use blue blocking glasses, any social media use at night is going spike your cortisol. Instead, try to read some non fiction or even watch a show on Netflix instead. Anything but a FOMO Feed.
ok, so that's all for making the wake up habit easier. Let's move on to the 3rd part of the Clear framework.
3. MAKE IT OBVIOUS
You need reminders to sleep earlier. Motivation isn't enough, your body needs neurological triggers to get in the mode to sleep earlier.
Here's a couple suggestions:
1) Set a "bedtime" phone alarm. I've found that over time, it's easy to become desensitized and just start ignoring the same message and continuing on with your evening. INSTEAD I set a recurring calendar invite with an alert at the time of the event, between 8-9PM.
Every two weeks, I change the timing by 5 or so minutes and also change the prompt to keep it fresh. Here's a couple suggestions:
- "Go to sleep dumb dumb"
- "It's beauty sleep time"
- "GET OFF UR PHONE"
- "Can this wait till the morning?"
2) Freedom.to, an app that you can use to automatically block distracting websites.
3) Smart plug, plug in your Router into this and set this to shut off at 10PM. This doesn't solve the phone issue but... combined with...
4) Turn off your phone and charge it outside of your bedroom. Yes, a novel idea, I know. Hold the lock button and swipe that red button off baby!
This last one works ESPECIALLY well because your impulsive (but layzy) self won’t want to wait all those 30 seconds for that Apple logo flash on. So likely, you'll pick up the phone with the urge, remember it's off, then begrudgingly contine your evening wind down
4. MAKE IT REWARDING
Last but not least, perhaps the most underrated but most powerful tip. Gary Keller, in the one thing, would say you only need enough discipline to make a habit self perpetuating. After that, you don’t need.
But the ONLY way to get there is to make the habit feel intrinsically rewarding.
If a new habit feels like punishment, you’re not going to make it past a couple days.
So the trick is to coordinate an enjoyable morning routine that gets you WANTING to wake up earlier.
You want to experience a flood of dopamine in the morning.
So maybe smooch your partner.
Snuggle your dog.
Drink your FAVORITE warm beverage.
Rub your feet a little bit with coconut oil.
Idk. Get creative.
Do you REALLY need to wake up earlier?
Honesty hour here.If waking up earlier is going to cause you to consistently get less than 6 hours of sleep, don't do it.
The following list is a whole collection of what sleep does for you:
- Improves your ability to learn new motor skills by 20 percent
- Increases your ability to gain new insight into complex problems by 50 percent
- Enhances well-being and mood through hormonal rebalancing
- Promotes skin health through collagen repair
- Increases athletic performance: V02 max and muscle recovery.
I prefer to think about early morning wakeups like I think about keto. It’s important to know how to do it, sometimes, if need be, for certain periods of your life. But for some people, it’s not the most sustainable long term lifestyle.
There's actually a whole body of research on sleep chronotypes: that some folks are genetically predisposed to wake up and fall asleep at different times.
Bottom line, don’t kill yourself over trying to wake up earlier. It just might not be for you!
But if you DO try to embark on this journey, download the guide linked above, drop me a line at lifeandlim.com and let me know how it went!