7 Lessons from Waking Up at 4:30am for 22 Days Straight

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I joined the 4:30am club when I decided to rent a hydraulic press machine to crush some difficult goals of mine. Goals I wasn’t accomplishing or even felt I was progressing on. I figured I should either drop them, or go overboard to chase them down. This is a story about what I wanted, achieved, and learned in 22 days of early morning grinds.

June 1st was the day I started this challenge: wake up everyday for 21 consecutive days at 4:30am (I ended up doing a bonus day — continuing the “overboard” theme). This is not one of those fad challenges where you’re challenged by a friend and then you challenge somebody else. You challenge yourself to do it — if you’re crazy enough. I heard about it a couple years ago from a TEDx talk by Filipe Castro Matos but at the time I just thought it was a neat idea. What actually drove me to do it was watching a recent Joe Rogan podcast with Jocko Willink. A book called The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod also helped (all video links posted below).

Before I started this pretty insane task of discipline, I had to have definitive reasons for doing it; otherwise I’d fail very quickly. My two main reasons were simple: I wanted to establish a morning routine focused on health and feeling good, and hack my sleep to rid insomnia and improve sleep quality.

Photo by @eric.prov (https://www.instagram.com/eric.prov)

1. The importance of a SUPPORT system when trying to do anything drastic. It’s much more likely to get done if you have some kind of help along the way. That help for me was friends seeing my posts everyday. And I’d like to emphasize the support as them just “seeing" my posts. I did not get much emotional support during this challenge. In fact I only had one friend actually say “I think it’s a great idea what you’re doing” .. some were like “You’re crazy!” “This is for fun?!” and “WHY!?” which didn’t exactly provide for me the “good job” pat on the back. But what else could I expect .. I was doing something extreme no one in their right mind desired to do .. maybe I am crazy. After those people, others seemed either curious with neutral responses, or not impressed with a “big whoop, lots of people do that for work” approach.

So the support came from my intent to post basic photos on social media every morning throughout the challenge — which I did. It may have been boring for friends expecting interesting photography on their news feeds, but entertainment wasn’t my goal. It kept me accountable. And if it was a method good enough to keep ex-navy SEAL Jocko Willink accountable, it was good enough for me. I thought it was genius .. a splash of cold water in my face every morning. It’s one thing to promise yourself you’re going to do something, but if you tell others there’s a much greater sense of moral responsibility to stay true to your word. Now take that idea and multiply it promising everyone you know on social media. If friends didn’t see each post, they could look back after seeing a more recent post and check if I actually got up every morning. It didn’t matter if any people actually looked back. The possibility meant responsibility. Accountability for what I said I would do. If I had any doubt I reminded myself of the two main reasons I was doing it, and a bonus reason to keep going was inspiring someone along the way.

2. Dialling in on optimal hours of sleep helps maintain ENERGY levels throughout the day. This is probably common sense that optimal sleep hours were a huge factor determining how I felt — not just in the morning but all times of the day. Apart from just feeling good, consistent sleep hours were key because physically I had a pretty demanding day. Working in Guangdong, China also didn’t help — with the humidity and temperature levels unbearable without A/C . This has more of an energy draining effect than you may think. So I needed a full energy tank to pull me through the physical and temperature demands. Without it my daily “to do” list became just a list and my work day became dull and .. work. Contributing to the energy tank were 3 main factors: sleep, food and mindset. I’m not sure how equal these 3 are but I believe the former is definitely important. So my main point; I need to take sleep seriously if I want to perform at the highest level I can. My body can’t operate without a charge, like a mobile phone. Can there be a perfect charge? I wanted to find this out. What amount of sleep time is optimal for my body? And then stick to that plan. 8 hours of great quality sleep was the amount I found to be perfect for me.

About to ignite the AM routine

3. Waking up earlier meant more time in the morning to DO THINGS I wanted to do. This included reading, writing, stretching and exercise. Having two different workouts (morning and early evening) was one of those goals I’d been trying to achieve. Adding flexibility training and time for reading in my day were also goals not being met. Before the challenge, my free time began after work. I’d hit the gym the earliest I could at 5pm. Get home, shower, eat, then it’s 7pm. At this point it’s late, I was exhausted, and I didn’t feel like doing anything productive — even leisure reading. Youtube, social media, and tv shows were the usual things I’d be drawn to. My thinking leading up to the challenge: if I wasn’t productive in the hours of 8-11pm I could trade them for 4:30-7:30am (still maintain 8 hours of sleep) and see if it resulted anything positive. It eventually did, but at first it was difficult which leads me to ..

4. Just because I decided to be more PRODUCTIVE in the morning didn’t actually make me so. Decision ≠ action. If I allowed myself to slack off from the AM routine once, it was much easier to do it again. There were obstacles, excuses, distractions that quickly became bad habits. The largest was browsing social media after I made a post. I fixed this problem by narrowing social media down (if I needed it) to 5 minutes of inspiration from friends and celebrities I followed, then an alarm came up on my phone (4:40) telling me to get started. The second chance here was following that alarm, if I ignored it then I failed myself again. Luckily this trick worked. In the process I thought .. the decisions I made designing a systematic routine for myself were all well thought out and align with my goals. I often spend a lot of time deciding something (like how to finish off this paragraph) until it makes perfect sense to me. But if I make the decision to do something, why do I still not do it? This is where I have to stop thinking. Just do. Be consistent. Consistency is on my side with alarms in place and forced me to continue that productive motive I started with.

5. If I took sleeping seriously, I also needed to take ROUTINES seriously to ensure sleep quantity and quality. My evening routine: sleep cocktail (2 tbsp apple cider vinegar, 1 tbsp honey, hot water) as suggested by Tim Ferris and many others (link below), 10 min meditation (using the headspace app), read fiction. Morning routine: drink glass of water, max pushups, curls and shoulder press, core workout, shower, eat, write, read. Adding alarms throughout these routines was something I did shortly after starting the challenge. Too many became annoying, having a few was useful — notifications telling me to either get going, or get sleeping. The only time they weren’t as effective were on weekends ..

6. If I value a social life, I should deviate from this crazy plan on WEEKENDS. Types of health to balance: physical, mental AND social health. Before starting the challenge I thought I could maintain it through just a few weekends, but I was wrong. I made the mistake of abandoning the evening routine and bedtime for social outings, only to feel it the next day still waking up at 4:30am. This became a struggle and created the need for naps. Delaying bedtime and wake up time would have been more appropriate to maintain the overall goal of feeling my best. Plus occasional social outings helped me achieve this goal anyway .. so it would have been a definite exception to make. After the challenge I could apply this to an already more accommodating and sustainable plan. The only problem is trying not to offset the sleep hours too far on weekends so it’s easier swinging back into the early weekday mornings.

7. I felt HAPPIER - I thought I was feeling good before I started this challenge but after getting in the pocket of routines and great sleep I felt amazing. I also experienced euphoric bouts for generally 15 mins in the afternoons. Usually on my ride home. I’m not sure if it was the exercise, or that the work day was finished, or that I’d felt a sense of fulfillment completing more at that point in the day than before. I also felt great having routines to follow. I think a lot of people are happy following routines, especially if their day can get a little crazy sometimes. Another reason I probably felt happier was not because I woke up super early but because of the things I did in the morning before my day. I simply did things that made me feel good. Something physical first — it may have not really mattered what I did (push ups, core and flexibility exercises, myofacial release with a roller), just getting the heart pumping and body moving. Next was the brain, what could I do to wake up this stubborn and complicated machine to actually feel decent? Well exercise already helped a lot. Some days writing “The 5 min Journal” also helped; it’s said to be particularly useful for people who don’t write very often. After writing I read nonfiction. By this point my mind and body felt in tune, alive and ready for the day.

7 Bonus Tips (from the American Academy of Sleep Research) I experimented with for better quality sleep:

  • During the day go outside to get more sunlight
  • Avoid screens (blue light) 1h before bedtime
  • Avoid naps - they interfere with sleep debt and natural sleep
  • A cool room temperature is better than a warm one
  • Stick to your bedtime and be already sleeping for the optimal hours of 10pm — 2am
  • Make your bedroom as dark as possible
  • Use 10min meditation before sleeping to calm your inner chatter

Links:

TEDx talk by Filipe Castro Matos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOEB1Fr0_MM

Joe Rogan podcast with Jocko Willink (full): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFYvmTWHhnc

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyakvZgU_gk

The Miracle Morning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXfor1YJ-Ec

Sleep Cocktail — Tim Ferris: http://www.zenabode.com/apple-cider-vinegar-and-sleep.html#

5 min Journal — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsDC3R24XOM

Sleep Quality Tips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPFywqpAdTg