Getting the Jump on Getting Up Early

Getting the Jump on Getting Up Early

SUMMARY: To develop the waking up early habit, I theorize, the trick is not to focus on the WAKING. Instead, focus on the SLEEPING.

I’m an admitted “fair-weather fan” of getting up early; while I love the feeling I have when I’m up at dawn and already outside, I usually slide back into my night-owl ways. I’ve been battling to get back to this schedule, with limited success, because I’ve also been in a serious push to finally formalize my design practices with the Agenceum. On top of that, I’m trying to keep the podcasts moving along, am involved with a few other local communities, and it’s ALMOST CHRISTMAS again, and I have yet to buy presents with money I don’t quite have. As a result, my mind keeps racing, and I end up going to sleep too late.

Having become aware of the pattern, I took a deep retrospective look at my continuing struggle with the Early Waking habit. For one thing, I don’t really have a reason to wake up early anymore, so this becomes an exercise in pure willpower: if I don’t want it enough, it doesn’t happen. Because I don’t have to wake up early in the first place, the sense of loss is minimal because I don’t have the time-warping ability to compare it to the day I could have had. Secondly, I find it difficult to go to sleep when my mind is racing, and there’s a kind of winding down cycle that needs to take place first over a couple of hours. I’ve known this fact about myself for a while, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I realized that I had more control of the winding down cycle than I thought: I actually need to be wound up first for the wind-down to happen successful. And THAT comes from a sense of having exerted myself. It’s not unlike the feeling one gets when you exercise well for a sustained period of time: you get warm, the muscles loosen up, and your body–reluctantly at first–comes alive. Everything afterwards tends to feel good: eating, drinking water, and doing errands become simple joys. Yesterday, the big task was writing/adapting about 7000 words of new material into the Agenceum Process Wiki in about 4 hours, with over half that number being new words. This was both a major hurdle and breakthrough because it helps build the design practice while saving me time in the future, and I felt I had really accomplished something. That was the wind-up. At around 7PM I went home and cooked diner (leftover duck congee w/ caramelized onions) and puttered around the living room cleaning up, read the Gospel of Mark (I’ve been revisiting the Bible to see what’s actually in there), and then retired around 11PM. I woke up this morning around 7AM (not super early, but pretty early) feeling rather refreshed and ready to take on the day.

So to wake up early, it makes sense that one has to go to sleep earlier as well. In fact, for me it’s more important to focus on getting to sleep early than it is to wake early. This makes a lot of sense in hindsight, though our brains tend to be wired to look directly at the SYMPTOM rather than the ROOT CAUSE unless we’ve trained ourselves this way. I am a “root cause” type of person, but I hadn’t thought of applying the same diagnostic approach to waking up early. The obvious way to wake up early, it would seem, is to put all your energy into WAKING. But if you don’t go to sleep early, waking up will be awful and you’ll possibly be sleep deprived for the rest of the day and feel like crap. This creates a negative experience, which makes your body even less willing to do it the next day. And despite your willpower, your brain is also picking up on the negative experience and is making the habit less likely. Without a powerful external motivator (say, having young children and/or having a commuter job), the negative experiences will build up and eventually collapse the habit, leaving you back at square one.

Instead of focusing on WAKING early, I’m starting to focus on GOING TO SLEEP early. This is a much more rewarding feeling, because sleep is enjoyable when you’re ready for it. The trick is to figure out how to prepare myself for it, and my experience yesterday with creating all that content gives me a clue: make sure you get something significant finished. This may not be possible every day, but certainly every day can have some kind of significant event. And so I come full-circle back to being productive, or more accurately feeling productive, which gets back to the whole notion of keeping track of what you’re trying to do and what you’ve done. Or, if you aren’t doing that, you need to get someone to confirm that you’ve kicked ass. This is where being part of a good team or having a great boss is ideal.

It’s 9AM here in New Hampshire, so I’m going to go see what kind of day I can have. I’m feeling optimistic.


  1. Mario Sundar 10 years ago

    This is exactly what I’m discovering: the key to waking up is the WIND DOWN. I realize I need at least an hour or two to wind down and in my case it involves blogging, reading my google reader feeds and watching tivo’d shows :) But, I’ve never quantified it until now.

    So, I’ve decided to start the wind down exactly 11 – 12 hours before I want to wake up – it’s corroborated with your sleeping habits as well :) 

    Thanks for sharing! Love the blog!

  2. Lynn O'Connor 10 years ago

    It is 4:45AM in CA and while sometimes I will get up this early, other times (like now) I never went to sleep at all. I had made the TV (always on the computer via ITunes) off limits for over a week, but last night I indulged, being worn down with emotionally difficult things, people I work with and love being towards the end of a terminal illness, feeling like I can’t do enough to help people, while blithely ignoring my own academic writing due in a few weeks—I just sank into catching up on a few of my favorites, like “Dollhouse” and before I know it, here I am its almost 5AM, and I can get up and get to it, or sleep for a while. I seem to do this at least a few times every two weeks, just skip a night of sleep. Frankly, it doesn’t seem to harm me, as long as its followed by some reasonable nights of sleep.

    I love getting up at 4 or 5AM and writing. I don’t mind staying up like this, but I hate to admit it is always from something like catching up on a TV show, or reading a book that I’ve been wanting to read. I think I’ll read some and go to sleep, and wake up to a morning phone appointment by 8:30.

    I wish I were more disciplined, but maybe its not the goal to have in mind anyway. Maybe we just torture ourselves with ideas of what we should do, instead of enjoying whatever it is that we do do.

  3. Stephen Smith 10 years ago

    Dave, you have hit upon the secret – get to bed early so you can rise early and start cranking. I have been able to get up pretty early the past 2 days because I went to bed early. In fact, when I got home from work the other night it was not that late, but I was dead tired. I knew nothing good was going to get done. So I just hit the sack around 8:30pm.

    I was up the next morning at 4:30 and man, did I get a lot done before my lovely bride even got out of bed (see my desk here ). You should have seen it before!

    It’s 9:45 am now and I have already accomplished a ton of stuff, off to do the laundry!

  4. Jessica 10 years ago

    The wind down is critical.  It takes me at least 2 hours to fully dial down from the day, but the reward is being a completely productive person the next morning.  It’s so much easier to go to sleep when you’ve had the chance to ‘let go’ of the day and file it away mentally.

  5. Yeah, it’s hard to overestimate how important sleep is. I went through a phase where I was working super hard on my business; getting only a few hrs of sleep each night, drinking a couple red bulls a day. Of course after not too long of that lifestyle I had to go to the emergency room! It was an incredible experience, I almost had a heart attack! Lesson: Get your sleep!