Habits: Waking Early Summary

Habits: Waking Early Summary

This is week 3 of “rebooting” a habit that helps me maintain a certain level of productivity: getting up early. This is one of a series of habits that I am planning on starting, but am doing one at a time on the advice of The Power of Less.

Getting up early requires extra effort, particularly if you like to stay up late and sleep-in as much as I do. The life of a freelancer is very flexible (which I like) but this comes at a price: there’s a tendency to lose touch with your friends and family. The primary reason I want to wake up early is to help me stay in sync with everyone else, an increasingly important requirement for me. A major side benefit, as my friend Robert points out, is that I also have a lot more time to goof off in the morning. While I might use a more marketable phrase like providing adequate time to marshal one’s creative energies and ramp-up for a busy day, it is an accurate statement. I tend to lumber down the runway of productivity like an antique cargo plane, fueled only with the best of intentions. With a good tail wind at my back, a cup of coffee in my hand, and the Grace of God as my copilot, I somehow manage to lift my creaking body into a sky filled with possibility. If my energy holds I might actually get somewhere before falling back to earth. In short, the act of takeoff requires a lot of effort from me, and I need a commensurate amount of runway (e.g. time) to assure that I don’t crumple back into the ground before achieving liftoff. Getting up early is an essential part of the formula, because it gives me the runway length I need for a productive day.

Anyway, here’s the short list of what it takes for me to stay on track, roughly in order of dependence.

1. First, You Gotta Want It Enough to Really Do It

Motivation! The key to everything! My motivation is to maintain sync with my friends. Otherwise, I tend to cycle on a 28-hour day, which has me looping in and out of people’s lives like a wraith. When I’m out of sync, I spend a lot of time in “vampire mode”, sleeping during the day and working at night. Sometimes that’s OK if you just want to get things done and don’t care about or need people. Your motivations will probably be different.

When I first tried this, it was for the sheer novelty of the experience, but I learned a lot of things about the early morning that I got to like. This has given me extra motivation to get it going again.

2. You need to do the prepwork before you go to sleep

Behind every successful action is a supporting action. In this case, I need a certain amount of sleep (8 hours) which means I need to make sure I’m asleep by a certain time

  • …which means I need to be IN BED at that time, eyes shut. If I want to wake at 6AM, that means in bed at 10PM.
  • …which means I am READY TO GO TO SLEEP beforehand. That means I have already showered and brushed my teeth.
  • …which means I am MENTALLY WOUND DOWN. I need about an hour of deliberate non-thinking beforehand.
  • … which means I should be letting go of the details of the day at around 9PM.

I have a natural tendency to seek intellectual stimulation, which contributes to late nights. I like to look up things on the Internet. I get drawn into a line of inquiry or design experiment. I get sucked into a magazine article. I might be halfway through some project work. If I don’t stop that mental activity by 9PM, I am not going to be asleep at 10PM. I have had to learn how to turn off my brain, which requires (somewhat ironically) some mental effort. I don’t like to medicate myself, so enforcing the habit is an exercise in just saying no to myself; even though I’m not a Dad, I end up having to take care of my inner child.

There are four other factors that affect the success of my sleep schedule:

  • I have to stop working at 6PM at the latest, otherwise the winding-down process doesn’t have enough time to work.
  • I have to eat dinner at 7PM at the latest, and not too much. Otherwise I will not sleep well due to stomach issues.
  • For the first week, I have to decline late night invitations to stay out with friends. Otherwise the habit will not set.
  • I have to also maintain the same hours on the weekends, to some extent.

3. You need to trump the pleasure of the moment

Getting to sleep on time is half the battle. NOW IT’S TIME TO GET UP! If you aren’t required to wake up early by an external force (like a job), then you will need a compelling reason to get moving. Otherwise, you’ll just fall asleep again. Here are the things that I look forward to in the morning, which helps me get out of bed.

  • I have had friends to meet regularly at a local coffee shop for a few minutes before work. This works particularly well if they are new friends who you think might become really good friends. Just keep the interaction short if you have things to do later. It’s kind of like waiting for the school bus in the morning, hanging out with your bus-stop buddies. It also helps that over time I got to know the people at my Starbucks, and they seem glad to see me and know my name. It took about a year because I’m an introvert by nature, but it was totally worth it.
  • I was curious enough to experiment with waking early just for the experience, for at least two weeks. Two weeks isn’t bad, and it doesn’t make you feel trapped by a habit you may be unsure about. That makes it easier to commit to, and if it sucks you can always stop.
  • I knew from my previous two-week sleep experiment that being up before everyone else was kind of neat. You see different people, and I find the early morning sun quite agreeable.
  • I added a planning ritual to the beginning of the day, on a regular paper notebook (this is how the Emergent Task Planner was born, incidentally). I avoid email until I get my head clear, because it’s too easy to get sucked into it.

4. And you have to get out of bed first

I can remember several very productive mornings at Starbucks that sadly, took place in dreamland. I once cycled through this three whole times, each time dreaming I had looked at the alarm clock, jolted out of bed, showered, and gotten to the door before realizing I was actually still asleep.

There are three countermeasures that work for me, though I don’t deploy them all at the same time:

  1. I set multiple alarm clocks. Loud ones, from different sources, at varying positions and distances from your bed. If they don’t have a standard position, your body won’t be able to perfect the slam-and-snooze maneuver automatically. Don’t overdo it, though; if they are too far away you just might learn to sleep right through them. To mix things up, I sometimes use my cell phone’s alarms, set at 6AM and 607AM. The regular alarm clock is set at 6AM, and at 615AM my Voco Good Morning Sir Clock (yet another awesome present from my delightful sister) reminds me that I have important gentlemanly affairs to tend to. It’s a little too quiet to serve as a primary alarm clock, but the quiet authority of Stephen Fry challenges me to be my best.

  2. I force myself to immediately open my eyes, keeping them open for 30 100 seconds. This is the minimum-effort action I can take without having to shift my entire body, though it is surprisingly difficult. Once my eyes are open. For extra credit, I look toward the window and try to determine what the weather is. This sometimes requires additional body movement. If I keep my eyes open for long enough to look around the room, that seems to start the mental processes going. It’s sometimes helpful to position interesting things within eye’s glance the night before. Maybe something to do? Something to remember? And if I get tired of counting to 100 seconds, I can always just get up :-)

  3. I drink 16oz of water before I go to sleep. The amount of water varies, but when I’m serious about waking up I drink enough of the stuff to ensure I have to go to the bathroom. I believe this is an old soldier’s trick for waking up in time for their watch. A full bladder is plenty of reason to get up. If I drink TOO MUCH water, however, I end up getting up in the middle of the night, and that kind of defeats the purpose.

5. Follow-through with the habit for two or three weeks


p>Two weeks is about the minimum time it takes to establish a habit, though for this habit I have decided to go for three weeks. The extra week gave me time to confirm the theories I had regarding habit maintenance. Some rules of thumb:

  • I gave myself permission to screw up, so long as I could identify the root cause of the screw up. For example, staying up late with friends would cause me to get to sleep later, and sometimes wake up later. However, as my reason for waking up early is to stay in sync with my friends, it’s hard to really consider this a failure (at least in a holistic sense).
  • I told people I was starting this habit. The more people that know, the more they are likely to inquire about it, and keep you mentally on-the-hook for following through with your word. Some of them will even go along with you, as my friend Robert chose to do. He even started going to the gym! Awesome!

It took about 3 or 4 days before I was waking up just before the alarm clock. Frankly, I was surprised at how quickly my body adapted to the rhythm. The prepwork helped, I think.

After about a week, my body developed an affinity for staying to the schedule, and this built up a kind of sleep equity that I could “borrow against” for unusual circumstances. If I stayed up late with friends, for example, my body would still wake up early because it had been conditioned to do so. However, it would become important to adhere to the schedule the next day, otherwise I would start to slip back into a later waking cycle. I have actually been a recovery mode for the past three days, due to some ill-advised late weekend nights. However, because I have been identifying the root causes of the slippage, I know what I need to do to correct my mistakes.

During this third week, I am realizing that I need to apply the same rules to the weekend. When the weekend rolls around, I implicitly give myself permission to do anything I want, which means I stay up really late. After two days of this, my Monday and Tuesday is pretty much shot. This weekend I will try to relax the schedule a bit but still maintain a regular waking time. We’ll see.

Next Habit

I’m either going to do the Gym or Drinking Water. Probably the Gym, as I’ve done this before, and I actually have discovered that the noon-time workout is a nice break from the early morning work I do writing and emailing people. Juggling TWO new habits will be a new experience in itself…we’ll see how it goes.


  1. Marina Martin 14 years ago

    I set out to drink more water (at least 100oz/day) four years ago and I’ve been able to keep it up all this time with one small habit. I bought three Nalgene bottles (green, yellow, red) and fill them up each night. I pull the green one out in the morning and put it next to me on my desk. Drinking water has become sort of a mini-procrastination outlet; while switching tasks, I find myself grabbing the Nalgene and taking a few swigs. When that’s empty, I switch out for the yellow, and finally the red, and it feels really effortless. Measuring eight different cups = horribly tedious.

  2. Christopher Lee 14 years ago

    I love the idea of waking up early.  I dream about every morning between snoozes.


    The kicker is that I naturally wake up for the first time between 6-7 am with no alarm.  But since it’s so early, I figure, I’ll just sleep more, and then I end up snoozing for quite awhile when the alarm goes off.

    No willpower.

  3. J Wynia 14 years ago

    Following the same schedule on the weekend is *critical* to getting up early and sticking with it. At least for me it is/was.

    Sleep rhythms are much more natural when they’re consistent. It’s not like the weekend is a natural human rhythm. It’s pretty much a 20th century invention

    The side benefit is that you have no idea how much more “Saturday” you seem to get when you start it at 5:00am until you do it a few times.

  4. Heather M 14 years ago

    Two weeks ago, I started getting up at 5:45am every day to go for a half-hour walk with my fiance (who is currently unemployed – it’s hard on him, but he goes). It’s one of those things that I’ve always wanted to do but because I tend to stay up late and sleep in, I never did. But now that I have a walking partner, I find it’s much easier to force myself up and out. I never thought the buddy system would work for me – it’s frequently mentioned in fitness magazines – but it totally does.

    I really enjoy these walks, even though I’m half-asleep for the first 10 minutes or so… For the first time that I can remember, I’m actually ALERT at work in the mornings. :)

  5. Evelyn 14 years ago

    Thank you for changing the photo on your site header. I could never figure out why you featured booze.

  6. Lynn O'Connor 14 years ago

    I am going to join you on this one. I woke up at 6:00 yesterday, got fairly active, but by 8:30 I fell back to sleep and slept until 11:15. It is just what you describe for us at home workers.I’m not exactly free lance as I work part time for a doctoral program of clinical psychology.  And I do have external deadlines in front of me—I was supposed to have a critique of a journal article in two days ago and I have not even read it yet,  journal articles are insufferably boring. I am supposed to be grading my students from the spring trimester and have not yet done it, etc etc. I KNOW from prior experience, early awakening is a key to getting these things done, to say nothing of editing my book, first draft all written in early morning almost two years ago.

    It is absolute hell for me to really get up, and it is a very very slow process. It seems to take hours. This morning I awoke at 5:30, just naturally woke up, and that is the exact right time for me. I got up, talked to my husband, got coffee, got dressed, laid down again with my computer. Began dealing with email I have to deal with.  it is now almost 9PM, I am still prone in bed with computer. Getting up is some kind of anguish. But then I have an office in another room, and something of an office in bed room, right beside me are files, equipment etc.

    Dave, I am joining you on this one. I commit myself (here, in public, to two weeks of getting up at 5:30 AM. If I go to bed late I will suffer the next morning/day, but I think if I keep getting up, when I go to bed will take care of itself. I will check in here to say (honestly) how it is going. Two weeks of this I think I can stand. thank you for getting back to these basics.

  7. Lynn O'Connor 14 years ago

    An aside—I really like your new web page look, the writing ‘drawing instruments look so much better and on target than the scotch or whatever it was. We are in the process of changing my lab’s web page. My husband is doing it. I am not happy with it right now, but I’m not sure where it should go. take a look at
    http://www.eparg.org. I have wanted to have an EPARG logo, but haven’t come up with one yet. Any ideas?

  8. Tom Nagle 14 years ago


    A couple thoughts on your ‘Getting Up Early’ habit.

    Getting up early or anything that changes your routine is going to take time.  Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr, in the fantastic The Power of Full Engagement, write that habit formation takes (about a month) and you (we all) have limited self-discipline (so don’t take on more than on – two at the most – habits at a time). 

    Waking up early is affected by multiple factors, which you seem to realize.  Consistent bed times, food, overall health, naps, caffeine intake, exercise times, etc.  all affect your ability to create a schedule for yourself.  It’s also one of those things that works every day..versus just workdays. 

    Something that works for me:  I go to a gym class (CrossFit) at 5:30AM three days a week.  I never exercised that early,  but it feels like the equivalent of drinking a pot of coffee.  I also take a nap every day for about thirty minutes.

    I would analyze your energy level throughout the day, and chart it, a la a heat map. (http://su.pr/4bbBKt)  Designing your optimal circadian rhythm can be liberating – perhaps you just aren’t that early of a bird.  Tim Ferris claims he was most productive in the middle of the night – which is when he wrote his book.

    I would also be careful of drinking large amounts of water before you go to bed – you don’t want to disrupt your sleep cycle by getting up to go to the bathroom repeatedly.  What’s worked for me:
    1) getting in good shape
    2) blocking out all light – even from a clock
    3) running white noise
    4) not eating or exercising late
    5) writing the next day’s to do out (so I am not thinking about it)
    6) Read fiction before bed – it will take you out of the here…and will distract your mind.

    As always, I love your work.

    Be good.


    P.S.  If you are doing water intake as your next goal – blend loads of fruit and drink every day.  Great example:  http://su.pr/2QP2At

  9. Lynn O'Connor 14 years ago

    In the interest of accountability, confession: shortly after I wrote comment above (it was around 9AM), I talked to another faculty member re some student problems, and when we got off the phone I fell back to sleep and slept until 11AM. I hope tomorrow is better. Instead of working in bed when I am up and dressed, i have to go into office. I wish I could imitate some of you—like the morning walk is a GREAT idea. Or going to a coffee shop and working there is a great idea..maybe this is a period of experimentation. How can I get up early and not fall back asleep after doing some small work tasks?

  10. Benjamin Deschamps 14 years ago

    I had been trying to wake up earlier for a while now, then I read your post. The one thing I was missing, and this is so obvious, is that the only thing you need to do to get up early is to open your eyes at the right time and keep them open! Brilliant. As you suggested, the moment I wake up, I start counting with my eyes open. This is VERY difficult, but it works. Eventually, I get bored of counting and just get up.

    Lynn, I am a Master’s student and also used to work with my laptop in bed quite a bit. I could be in bed until 11AM “kind of” doing stuff, but not nearly at peak productivity… I made a new rule for myself that the bed was a place for sleeping (and one other activity), not for electronics. As David mentioned, it also makes it easier to turn off your brain and sleep at night if you don’t have your laptop with you to make you think (and stress) about stuff.

  11. Lynn O'Connor 14 years ago

    Two days later:
    I woke up at 6AM this morning, and stayed up. I’m not worrying about what time I fall asleep; if I am able to continue getting up early, I’ll go to sleep earlier at some point, it will just happen. I used the ETP last night, doing the same tonight. When I woke up this morning, I knew exactly what I was going to do. How is everyone else doing?

  12. J Wynia 14 years ago

    For not falling back to sleep, the key is much the same as your multiple alarm clock thing making staying asleep difficult.

    You can’t be in a place/situation where falling asleep is easy. Working on the couch/recliner? Easy to just tip over or lean back. Working in a chair with no neck/head support (or one of those inflatable ball chairs)? Hard to fall asleep.

    Coffee shops, restaurants serving breakfast, etc. offer even less sleep-conducive environments.

    I also tend to schedule conversations at times when I’d tend to find it hard to stay awake. Talking to people wakes me up.

    Tell people that if they want to IM/chat/call you, that 11:00am – 12pm is your best bet.

    It’s a whole lot easier to avoid eating ice cream if you’re not working out of a booth at Dairy Queen.

    Until the habit is formed, the rational You can’t trust you and needs to avoid putting you in situations where you have the possibility of failure. Consider it training wheels.

  13. awake 14 years ago

    Proud of u men…

    It’s funny I planned and started a morning ritual just 2 weeks ago and I did so using a similar thought process to what you are using, which is basically to formulate one habit at a time.

    I did not get the idea from a book or anyone else though…  For me it just seemed like common sense to do it this way (I should mention this is after experience with formulating different habit and watching/observing myself over the years of course).

    I also figured that with this method, if I move to a different stage of my life I can re-adjust ritual-a and rutual-d to suit the new stage while keeping the rest of the rituals I develop intact (ritual-b,c,e…).

    I’m still on ritual-a though so we’ll see how it goes.  Good luck on your habit formulation journey.

  14. Elise 14 years ago

    I’ve had trouble countering my night owl tendencies for years.

    Now that I’m doing so much arts presentation work and the earliest work day I have is a 1 pm middle school band class, I’m probably hosed for life.

    My only tether to the 9-to-5 is my hubby Rob’s schedule, which (as a city letter carrier) is 8 to 4.  I’m not home a lot of nights, but if I want to stay in touch with him, I have to not go TOO far off the deep end.  I’m trying to rein myself in so I’m in bed by 2 now…that’s conservative for me now!  That way, we can have Sundays together (which is pretty much the only day we’re both pedictably off.)

  15. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Today’s the first day that I’m “back” on the early rising schedule. I just went to sleep at 10PM, after winding down at 9PM after a good 90 minutes of being a vegetable watching DVDs. I purposefully didn’t set an alarm clock to see if I’d wake up at 6AM. And I did.

    What comes to mind, after reading everyone’s comments, is that

    1. You need a compelling reason to wake up early [Elise, Christopher]
    2. You must eliminate the distractions that kill the habit [JWynia,Benjamin]
    3. You have to manage yourself to ensure that the sleeping goes well [Tom]
    4. You need the desire to get up, the immediate impetus to get out of bed. That’s different than 1, which is more of an intellectual “would be nice” [Heather]

    Then it seems to be a matter of willpower and associated trickery. Trickery is comprised of things like multiple alarm clocks and opening your eyes to stare at the lightening sky.as you count to 100. Willpower is, I think, a matter of HOW MUCH YOU REALLY WANT IT, and is having clarity in your own values. Lacking that, having clarity in someone ELSES values will help (you know, like having to go to work every day vs getting fired). If that choice isn’t available, then you get stuck in a decision conflict loop. There are pros/cons to each! At that point, you might as well just pick one and decide that you’ll do that one because YOU SAID YOU WOULD, and maybe switch it around if it doesn’t seem to work. That builds willpower, because at least you’re making a conscious choice and sticking to it, not letting the tongue flapping of people who don’t understand sway you. Marina has a good article on her site about NOT waking up early that I like a lot.

  16. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Ooops, I fell asleep again after a few hours. Developed headache. Theory is that I should have eaten something, gone out into the rain, and not worn glasses before sitting down in basement to work.

  17. Steve C 14 years ago

    Now combine this with riding your bike to work (or wherever) after the goofing off period: you will give yourself an extra solid 30 minutes of energy per weekday, and that’s a really big deal.  I’ve found.