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7 Keys to Winning the Morning

I’ve never been much of a morning person.

I like the snooze button. For most of my existence, I’ve chosen to hurry through morning routines, cut corners on lunch prep, and eat a small snack on the run rather than wake up 30 minutes earlier.

Of course this pattern of behaviour defies common sense. It lowers quality of life. It adds unnecessary stress. But I lived this way for many years — presumably to make the most of those midnight hours and squeeze every last waking moment of productivity or amusement out of my evenings.

I’m just a night owl, I used to tell myself. This is how I’m wired.

It was in the late spring of 2017 that my thinking on morning routines finally started to evolve. Maybe it was my commute, the demands of parenting, or the growing awareness of the cognitive dissonance between the life I wanted and the life I was choosing. I wasn’t exercising consistently. I wasn’t reading or writing the way I wanted to. I often felt behind and stressed by work demands. When mornings begin with running around and a general lack of intentionality, the day tends to follow suit.

In short, my core values and life goals were suffering from a poor rhythm of life. Ultimately, the weight of my shortcomings ground into me the inescapable truth that something significant needed to change.

So it was that after years of subconscious dialogue, the radical prospect of reshaping my mornings finally became reality. In the end, it took an inspiring colleague’s example and some compelling Medium articles to get me to the tipping point. But once I was in, I was in.

I’ve set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. for just about every weekday morning since. And I seriously love what it does for me.

Of course when I tell people I wake up at 4:30 a.m. on weekdays, I often get the sort of look that considers my sanity an open question. Yes, it’s a bit extreme for most people. But I’m thoroughly sold. And I think if you give it a chance, you might just be sold as well.

You’ve heard this one before: Win the morning, win the day. Call it cliche, but it resonates powerfully with my experience. By 7:30 a.m. I’m now accomplishing a whole lot of goodness that has me feeling productive, settled, and prepared for the day. That wasn’t the case in the past.

What follows is my now-typical weekday morning before I’ve left my home for work. No, I never sat down to neurotically scheme the timeline that follows. But without watching the clock obsessively, this is reliably the way my morning unfolds:

4:30 wake up, get dressed for gym
4:35 stretching
4:40 organize office, file docs, review mail
4:45 drive to Starbucks
4:55 review goals for the day, journal
5:00 review and respond to email
5:15 evaluate assignments, plan lessons
5:45 creative writing
6:05 work out at Anytime Fitness
6:30 return home, wake up boys
6:35 make fruit smoothies, listen to scripture or inspirational content
6:45 empty dishwasher, clean sink/counter
6:50 make lunch
6:55 make bed
7:00 shower, shave, dress, sort laundry

With a start like this, this day is already well on its way to a win. All of those healthy routines and productive activities are finished — done by the same time that in past years I was just rolling out of bed to begin my normal harried scramble.

Not only am I now getting stuff done, I’m building the sorts of consistent daily routines (taking a few minutes to organize my office, sorting a few items of laundry, etc.) that prevent clutter from creeping into my world and into my brain. I’m identifying goals for the day. I’m thinking creatively. I’m working out. I’m doing so many of the things that I want to be about. And it all happens before 7:30.

It’s been an awesome experience. Now that it’s been in place for over half a year, I feel safe in saying this is going to be a permanent life change.

Clearly, there’s a price to be paid for waking up at 4:30 each weekday morning. After months of functioning this way, I’ve learned a few things about what is required to make early mornings happen. Here are 7 keys that define my formula for success.

  1. 6+ Hours of Sleep. Let’s start with the obvious. In order for me to wake up at 4:30 a.m. for five days straight, I need to be asleep by 10:30 at the latest each night. My goal is actually to be in bed with the lights out by 9:30, but six hours of sleep per night is manageable. What I have found, however, is that if I cheat on the six hour minimum for consecutive evenings, waking up early becomes very difficult indeed, and my health starts to suffer.
  2. Smarter Evenings. Since our two middle schoolers aren’t always in bed before 8:45 p.m., I only have 30–45 minutes to finish the day well and start winding down for bed. That makes the 8:45–9:30 window crucial. Ideally, it consists of turning off my phone and parking it in my office for the night, cranking out a few push-ups, showering and brushing teeth, completing my 10-minute journal, doing some reading, and connecting with my wife. Again, it’s not about watching the clock obsessively. But it is about treating this window like the precious commodity that it is.
  3. No Netflix on Weeknights. This little detail is basically covered in the previous point, but it’s such a significant sacrifice that it deserves its own item. I’ve made a few digressions on this one — like the time my wife decided to watch Saving Capitalism (I still think she was baiting me). But in general, spending 30–120 minutes watching a screen will basically guarantee a sleep-in the next morning. So I try to avoid it. Save the couch time for the weekends.
  4. No Snooze Button. To get up at this time, there’s no room for hesitation or an internal debate when the alarm sounds. I would lose that conversation and cave in every time. Instead, I quickly roll out, get to my feet, and leave the bedroom in one motion. By the time I get down the stairs to our main floor, glimmers of consciousness are starting to appear.
  5. Leave the House. After spending a few minutes in my office, I actually get in my car and drive to a Starbucks just two minutes away. This is the critical step, because it deals a death blow to any lingering temptation to go back to sleep. By heading off-campus, I’m burning my boats. There’s no sleeping at Starbucks with a fresh coffee on the table. The day is on and that is all. Twyla Tharp makes this point well in The Creative Habit.
  6. Recharge on the Weekends. To sustain five straight nights of 6–7 hours of sleep, I’ve found it’s essential to recharge on the weekends. If I can get 8+ hours of sleep on Friday and Saturday nights, I’m fully revitalized and feeling ready for another five days of 4:30 a.m. wake-ups. Or, if 8–9 hours of sleep doesn’t happen on one of those evenings, I might take a Sunday afternoon nap. The goal here is to make sure I’m not carrying any fatigue into a new week. A full recharge is essential.
  7. Go Public. Let others know of your morning commitment. As I put this audacious new habit into place last year, I quickly realized the power of accountability. By telling close friends and family of my morning routine, I was giving myself a powerful motivator to keep it up. There’s a certain satisfaction in being able to tell people that months after announcing a new resolution, you are in fact sticking to it. Harness that sense of personal pride and dignity by letting others know of your plans and then following through.

Am I a morning person? Frankly, I still don’t think so. But I’m pleased to say that I’ve finally put together the pieces necessary to win my mornings, and I’m seeing incredible benefits across all areas of my life. If your inner dialogue is prompting you to try something similar, there’s no time like the present to make the change.

If you’re in the process of making a similar shift in your mornings, I’d love to hear about your experience. Share your fails, tips, and tricks in the comments below.