Getting Up Early

Waking up early — and having the right morning routine — is one of the great “secret weapons” of high performance humans. But what if you’re lazy as balls? I’ve been there. Here’s how I beat it.

For years, I hated mornings. I’d sleep in as late as possible, wake up feeling groggy, jam some food/coffee into my mouth and then drag myself to class/work at the last possible moment. (And of course, I wondered why I was having trouble keeping a meditation habit… finding time to write… keep the house tidy… huh, wonder why.)

So what changed? My mindset and habits. Over the last year, I’ve been experimenting with optimizing my life to make the early morning hours MINE. So I can get to all the projects and stuff I want to do, while still reserving time and energy for the obligations of the day.

I spent some time pulling together a big list of all the tactics that really made a difference. I’d love to hear about your strategies — what works for you?

Pre-Bed Routine

Go to bed early.

Sorry if you were looking for a magic bullet! If you want to wake up early, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you’ll need to commit to going to bed early (unless you’re one of those people who functions on little sleep — but I doubt it).

Focus on what you can control first. You can control your wind-down routine. You can control your prioritizing sleep over other less important engagements. You can decide to lay in bed, in the dark (or with an eye mask on) and wait for sleep to come.

I do best on about 7–8 hours of sleep, which means that I’m reading in bed at 9:30 PM for a 5:30 wakeup.

Cease all “stimulating” entertainment two hours before bedtime.

This is social media, news, work, and anything where my brain is required to be creative. While the start of the day is the perfect time to attack the most stimulating items, they have no place at the end of the day.

I switch to passive entertainment like Netflix, video games (relaxing stuff, not intense shooters) and non-stimulating books (like fiction, history and biographies). The goal is to wind down and chill out so your mind can prepare for the next day’s action.

Consider wearing a pair of blue light blocking glasses, starting 2 hours before bedtime.

Blue light (emitted by computer and smartphone screens) wreaks havoc on our circadian rhythm and screws up the release of melatonin. These glasses seem to help. (NY Times)

These glasses are the most popular pair. I personally feel like they work, and at $8/pair, it’s not too expensive to try. Downside: You look like a moron, and everything you watch has an orange-y tint. But sleep is more important to me than getting the color balance right in “Westworld.”

Eat two tablespoons of almond butter before bed.

This helps regulate blood sugar overnight and stave off the low-blood-sugar morning crash. A good tip from the Four Hour Body — Tim claimed it helped reduce “feel like shit” mornings by 50%. You’ll want the all-natural sugar free stuff. It’s pricy, but worth it. Natural peanut butter supposedly works, too.

“Pack a lunch for your brain.” Lay out your early morning priorities (at least one thing to work on without checking email first).

You don’t want to be figuring out what to do; that means opening up your email or PM system, and — whoops! — now you’re down a rabbit hole of little tasks.

The little tasks can wait. Personally, my early morning hours are perfect for single-minded focus on one big project. I want to guide my brain there with as little interference as possible.

I make sure to block out the morning for my big projects, and will jot them down on a note to myself so that I don’t have to open up email until I want to.

Getting quality sleep

Mess around with your sleep setup.

This will be personal to you. I encourage you to experiment within your budget and comfort levels; sleep is important!

Things that have significantly improved my sleep:

  • Earplugs
  • Sleep mask
  • White noise machine
  • Calm-down routines (breathing exercises, visualizations etc; find these on Spotify or Youtube. Examples here (YouTube) and here (Spotify).)

No phone in the room. Period.

Unless you have god-like discipline, the phone is dangerous to have around. It isn’t a matter of whether or not you’ll look at it, it’s only a question of when.

Even if I fall asleep without looking at the phone, if it’s by my bed when I wake up, it is a virtual guarantee that I’ll look at it first thing in the morning (and lose an hour to Reddit, the crossword, emails etc.).

Optimizing the morning routine

Explore a natural, light-based wakeup.

The Phillips Wakeup Light (Amazon) is an absolute game changer, and worth every penny IMO.

Being woken up by light, not a shrill alarm, has probably been the single most important factor in shifting me to become a natural early riser, outside of the biological needs (e.g. sufficient sleep). And even though I sleep with an eye mask, I just keep it loose — it always falls off by morning, and I am woken up by the light).

There’s a much cheaper version here (Amazon) that I haven’t used, but may be worth a shot.

The cheapest solution: sleep with the blinds open and let nature’s oldest alarm clock wake you up.

Have a short early routine that you get out of bed for.

I find it much easier to get out of bed if I can give myself a reason, even if it’s just keeping up my meditation streak.

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with a few different techniques. Doing the Wim Hof breathing exercises for a few minutes before meditating seems to wake me up even better, and I’ve also been doing the Molding Mobility stretching routine (5–10 min; excellent video overview click here).

If you’ve optimized all of the other factors, you should naturally want to get out of bed — but having a pre-selected routine in mind (as opposed to just “getting up”) can really help.

Finally, one lifestyle choice that makes a huge difference…

Reduce overall caffeine intake.

This one hurts. I was a big time coffee drinker, and I wouldn’t feel human until I’d had my first cup.

Getting down to one or two cups of green tea a day has significantly reduced the grogginess I feel upon waking. A cup of tea is still a part of my morning ritual, but it’s less urgently needed than when I was drinking coffee. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it on my big list.

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