Struggles of becoming an early riser (so far)

It seems like every blog on productivity or self-improvement has an article on the problem of timely rolling out of bed in the morning. And for good reason: early rising is a keystone habit for many successful people.

While it may be true that there are many feasible daily rhythms -many programmers swear they find their most productive hours late at night-  the majority of people find early wake-ups to be very conducive to a productive day.
I’m not quite sure what the reason for this is; perhaps it’s the innate quietness and the sense of waking up with the sun; perhaps a fulfilling sleep leaves our willpower reserves filled to the brink; or perhaps it’s something more primal (as Navy Seal Jocko Willink put it: “I want to be up before my enemy”).

Too bad then, that waking up early is so goddamn hard!
I personally struggled for years (and still struggle) with waking up early. I actually think this is an area of my life that I’ve been trying to conquer for the better part of four or five years.

Many tactics were tried: a dozen different alarm clocks, putting my alarm across the room, wakeup communities, coaching and affirmations and so on… So I consider myself somewhat of an authority on what doesn’t work on a hard case like myself.

Let’s spend a second on what really doesn’t work; as 90% of people’s efforts in this area essentially consist of banging their heads against the wall.
If you’re in this situation, your problem is not that you don’t have enough willpower to wake up. Perhaps this seems paradoxical because you’ve heard many times from friends and families to just muster the willpower to get out of bed. (But if it was it that simple, would you be struggling that much with it?)
Steve Pavlina wrote an excellent article on this topic many years ago, with some great tips as well. The gist is this: humans happen to be very poor judges of who they’re going to be when they wake up. It won’t be you waking up tomorrow. It will be grumpy, sleepyhead you. And grumpy, sleepyhead you does not follow the same logic and reasoning with which you devise all your clever wake-up tricks.

“I’ll just put my alarm clock halfway across the house; that way I’ll have woken up by the time I reach it and I’ll be awake!.” Guess what. In the drowsiness of a bad morning, grumpy you is not going to give a damn where you put your alarm. It’s more likely going to hijack that amazing willpower of yours, and use it to get you on a sprint back to bed after you snooze the alarm. Then you’ll wake up two hours wondering what happened.
Been there more times than I wish to count. And it gets quite frustrating: it seems that no matter which ploy you devise during your sober hours, sleepyhead you foils you time and time again.

My breakthrough came when I set out to divide and conquer, and split the challenge up into several parts.
First, starting to think about how to give sleepyhead me a better time in the morning.
Second, making sleepyhead me less of a douche by improving my sleep amount and quality.
I’ll tackle the different aspects in turn below:

Your wakeup mindset.

As this blog post by Carrie Spaulding points out, many people have this barely conscious vision that once they nail their new wake-up habit, they’ll be able to soaring out of bed like a Phoenix, and jumping into the bathroom like an Olympic athlete. Once you think about this a bit deeper, you’ll realise it’s quite silly.

And well, several months into better wake-up habits, I still don’t “jump out of bed” with any degree of enthusiasm. Expecting that is actually half the game.
Shooting for a 15-minute grumpy wake-up phase is more in the realm of possibility. Try to cultivate habits to do while slowly waking up (stretching, morning reading, sitting on the couch), but make sure to stay awake.

For instance, I realised that the thing I hate most about waking up is that my bed is soft and warm, whereas rooms in the morning are harsh and cold; no wonder sleepyhead me is so eager to crawl back into his man cave!
So I got myself a warm bathrobe. And instead of expecting me to brace the cold like the warriors of old, I’ve resigned to putting on the bathrobe and sitting groggily on the couch for a few minutes. It’s not very gracious, but, I’m awake.

Don’t try to trick yourself too much. Your mind is capable of astonishing feats of endurance and . In moments of emotions and distress, it can make you crawl over ice, fight a bear or suffer through pain. So do you really think you’re going to stump it with putting your alarm a few meters away?
I tried various of these tricks: putting the alarm away from the bed, under something, on top of something, hidden behind a sign, and so on. Mostly this was just a waste of time; years of bad wake-up habits can’t be erased that easily. start off, this is fine.

Sleep amount

If you’re a “late riser” (with a sleeping schedule of let’s say 2 AM to 10 AM) and want to mend your ways (waking up at 6:30 AM), this means the following:
1) Training your biological clock to feel awake at 6 AM. If your body isn’t used to this, it will lead to quite a shock.
2) At the same time resisting your body’s temptation to sleep more in an effort to deal with the stress.

This split made it intuitively obvious for me why my early rising experiments were not working. I was essentially trying to tackle both parts at a time, guaranteeing failure. Why not take it one at a time?

I didn’t need any sexy tricks to reset my biological clock. I just went to bed really, really early. To achieve a wakeup time of 6:30 I went to bed at 22:00, 21:00 or even earlier. I had no ambitions to actually keep going to bed at this time (that would have cut into my productivity very harshly). I was simply overshooting my amount of sleep needed by a high amount.

It worked.
Within a few days I was waking up at 6:30 consistently. After just one week I felt the habit was strong enough to also adapt my bedtime. Within another week I changed my bedtime from the very early to a more reasonable 22h30-23h00.

The transformation I longed for for three years, in the end fitted in a few weeks!

Sleep quality

For a long time I slept with my curtains open. My reasoning meant that trying to wake up “with the sunlight” would give my biological clock a better basis.
However, I would now say that modern life -at least in the center of Ghent- has way too much ambient light during the night to make this feasible. It’s simply too light during the night for the morning sun to have any strong effect.

In my opinion, it’s better to keep the room as dark as possible and optimize for higher quality sleep. It’ll more reliably make you wake up in the morning. (Though I did recently invest in a Philips Wake-up Light which I’m very happy with.)


All in all though, getting up early is the best. Nothing really beats the feeling of starting to kick ass before others are even out of bed.

Let me know how it goes in the comment section!


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