30 Days Before Sunrise

The secret wisdom in waking early.

I love being up early, but I hate waking up early.

Which is like saying I love losing weight, but I hate working out.

There’s something about the quiet of the morning and a hot cup of coffee that stirs my soul and focuses my mind. But getting out of bed before dawn takes discipline and most mornings I sleep until 8am — effectively wasting the best hours of my day.

Determined to reclaim my mornings, I committed to start work by 6am for thirty days in a row. The benefits have been mind-blowing.

Early mornings aren’t just for old people.

Some of the most successful people on the planet wake up early — achieving untold success while the rest of the world is still asleep.

In her book What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, Laura Vanderkam explains why early mornings are more productive in general.

“In these early hours, we have enough willpower and energy to tackle things that require internal motivation, things the outside world does not immediately demand or reward.”

So true. I’ve spent hours in the late afternoon or evening staring at a design or some other project, only to wake up early the next morning and finish it within the span of thirty minutes.

Early in the morning — without the distractions of family, colleagues, or social media—I’ve found I work faster and think clearer than during any other part of my day.

In his review of Vanderkam’s book, Shane Parrish explains why this is.

“You don’t just have one willpower battery for work and another one for home. They are the same battery. And this bucket is used to control your thought processes and emotions…
“Most self-control failures happen in the evening after a long day of traffic, bickering kids, pointless meetings, and other things that zap our self-control.”

It takes self control to focus on things that don’t give us a quick shot of dopamine. Consumption is easy. Creation is hard.

Mornings are for making.

Dedicating a portion of the day to making something isn’t a new idea. In his famous post, The Maker’s Schedule, Paul Graham explains how even though most of our schedules are dictated by managers (i.e. filled with one-hour meetings), makers tend to operate in a much different rhythm.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

Recently, I’ve started blocking off my mornings for making. I try not to take any meetings before lunch.

Be intentional about how you spend your mornings.

When I combine Graham’s wisdom with the knowledge that I tend to get distracted during the latter half of my day, dedicating mornings to making just makes sense.

In his book “Show Your Work”, Austin Kleon suggests makers should share a little bit of their process during the part of the day when most people are looking for some distraction. He sums up his own work/share rhythm nicely:

“I like to work while the world sleeps and share while the world works.”

It makes perfect sense. Create things in the morning and dialogue about what you’re doing later in the day.

After thirty days, the habit took!

Building this habit was hard work. I knew from the start I couldn’t do it on my own.

There are different ways to achieve accountability. There are services like Beeminder (and a host of others) that will charge you money if you don’t meet your goals.

I’m a big fan of applying social pressure through “The Seinfeld Strategy” (better known as “chaining”). I used this method during my last 30-day experiment.

This time around, I simply turned to a friend. I asked him if I could text him a photo of myself showered and dressed before 6am for thirty days and pay him $10 for any day I missed.

He gladly obliged.

A second friend overheard and offered to pay me $5 for every day I sent him the same photo, but for any day I missed I’d owe him $20. I’m still not sure whether he really wanted to see me succeed or just really thought I’d fail hard.

I missed 1 day out of 30.

I only missed one day out of thirty. I had a snafu with my alarm and didn’t wake up until 6:30.

It’s been nearly a month since I officially finished the 30-day experiment. I’m still getting up by 6am nearly every day except for Sundays.

Other than forming a new habit, here are some things that came out of the 30-day challenge:

  • I realized I need to buy more clothes. There’s a lot of blue and gray in that collage you guys.
  • I spent some extra time on a side project I’m pretty excited about.
  • I decided to transition my role at work from product design to leading our marketing team.
  • I started taking more notes when I read. I guess discipline begets discipline.
  • My wife told me I was noticeably more helpful around the house. For instance, I started making breakfast for the kids in the morning.
  • I started swimming more regularly (~4 times per week). Again, discipline begets discipline.
  • I took some time to examine some of my core beliefs about life, God, sex, family, etc. Nothing earth shattering, but it just feels good to see where my opinions are mine and where I’ve just adopted the opinions of others.

Let’s do this together!

I told some friends about this project and they got inspired to try it themselves! I told them I’d join them — today marks day 1/30.

We’re just holding each other accountable to weekdays, which is totally fine. One thing I learned along the way is that 30 early mornings in a row can take a toll if you’re not prepared.

A group chat yesterday afternoon, after I invited some friends to review this article.

If you’d like to do this yourself, (a) leave a comment here—I’ll totally do it with you—and (b) keep these tips in mind if you find yourself feeling extra tired:

  1. Get to sleep before 10:30. A late night here or there won’t hurt too much, but I had a few stints of consecutive late nights and started feeling really worn down.
  2. Take a cold wake-up shower. Jesse Jacobs has a great write-up on this one. Oddly invigorating.
  3. Go back to sleep for 15 minutes. But only for 15 minutes and only after you’ve tried the wake-up shower and gotten dressed.

Good luck — you can do this!