Hating mornings: What I learned about waking up at 5am for a month
I have never been an early to bed, early to rise stoic. Either by habit, biology or curse, I have lived a life full of pathological hatred toward early mornings. But at the same time, I know some very accomplished, driven people who consider rising before the rest of the world a cornerstone of their success. Until now, I had always assumed that it was simply coded in their DNA.
They were just “morning people.”
Takeaway: “Rise and Shine!” I say to myself, “How lucky dead people are!”
― Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
But digging deeper, I found that it wasn’t true. When asked, most said that the early start was far from easy. It was the hardest part of their day, but they did it anyway. What they felt they gained in productivity, free time and extra control far outweighed any discomfort. Most didn’t consider themselves morning people and even struggled, just like me, to disconnect from their evenings. Shockingly, it wasn’t down to biology and they weren’t superhumans.
I am not a wimp and I am always up to a challenge, but I had tried in the past to get up early and it never worked out. Not only has my wife always objected to an alarm going off long before she had to get up, but the dogs would naturally assume I was up early just to feed them and felt compelled to spread the news to the kids. And to compound the conspiracy, on those nights when I had told myself to prepare for an early morning, sleep would elude me until moments before the alarm buzzed. There were simply too many hurdles. Then one day I had an opportunity.
During a recent trip overseas, I was gone just long enough to fully adapt to the new distant time zone. On my return, jet lag was flattening me by 9pm and, by the time the alarm went off in the morning, my head had already been telling me for hours that I shouldn’t be in bed. I realized that this was my moment.
I made a serious attempt at earlier nights, maybe not 9pm but I still went upstairs earlier. Then, just before I turned out the light, I told myself to get up at 5am and even counted out the exact hours and minutes to be sure my head understood what my body had to do. Without official permission to set an alarm, my subversive plot had to rely on mental programming or I’d be sleeping in the hallway.
The first morning arrived at a brutal 5:15. That was hard, but pretty close to the goal. The next morning was and even more painful 4:50 but I didn’t dare roll over for fear of falling into the trap of an early morning dream. The next morning arrived at 5:05 which was close enough for jazz and slightly easier. This went on day after day, including weekends. I was determined to make it stick and it was getting easier.
Now over a month later, I’ve had very few mornings start later than 5:20 and in that time, I’ve made some interesting discoveries.
Takeaway: You have to suffer like a mother-loving-son-of-a-beach to make interesting discoveries.
It gets easier the more you do it
The first few times are incredibly hard. Unless you end up with a time zone head switch like I did, you’ll probably need the aid of a nagging alarm in the beginning. If someone in the house objects, allay their grumbling with a promise that you only need it for a few mornings to get started. Your body will quickly adjust. You may not be able to hit your exact wake up time to the minute every day without an alarm but those 5:15 and 4:45 mornings even out.
Sleeping in hurts
Consistency is key. I discovered that for reliably painless early mornings to become the norm, you have to keep it up. This means no late Sunday morning lie-ins. I know you are screaming “deal breaker!!!” but hear me out. The logic is counterintuitive.
Years ago, I read an article that recommended improving sleep by keeping wakeup times consistent, even over the weekends. As a working parent who got little enough sleep already this wasn’t just unrealistic, it was completely bonkers. When was I supposed to catch up on all the sleep lost in the busy week?
The harsh reality is that studies show you can’t catch up. Those hours are gone forever, so give up, grieve then move on. Oddly, trying to get them back only makes you feel more tired.
There were times during the early weeks of my experiment when I looked at the clock and, due to previous evenings’ attempts at squeezing in some quality time with my overworked, co-parent-survivor-partner, I rolled over to catch a few more z’s. When you get up at 5am 7 days a week, sleeping in to 7am should feel as sweet as a surprise tropical vacation. But, alas, the curse of counter-intuitive biology strikes again.
The last morning I rolled over, I made it to 6:30 but felt horribly jetlagged for the rest of the day. That was the end of all lie-ins. At some point during the experiment, I had unwittingly crossed the line that separates early risers from sane people. Getting up early had suddenly become easier than the alternative so, in the end, I accepted my new reality. If I awoke at any point after 4:45am, I had to put my feet on the floor or endure the drawn-out consequences.
Takeaway: If you fully commit to getting up, it gets easier. Inconsistency is like a little death.
You get more done than you can possibly imagine
But what can you really do before the sun comes up? Anecdotally, I had always heard that crazy early-risers achieved more in the wee hours than at any other time of the day. But I was certain that I had them all beat because I was dedicating multiple hours each night to industriously hammering away at my self-imposed workload. Those misguided mental laborers had a hard stop when the regular day kicked in. Maybe they could squeeze in an hour or possibly two before the kids woke up, but, as a night owl, I had the luxury of working double that amount of time if I wanted. Logically, my strategy was better.
But, again, I proved myself wrong. In all the hundreds of hours spent working in the evenings, the amount of quality work I could achieve was hampered by my already tired brain, frazzled by decision fatigue and mushy from endless meetings and complex projects. The distractions that had built up during the day were still sitting in the back of my mind making it hard to disconnect and fully concentrate. And to compound the problems, the later I stayed up, the harder my mornings were and the more exhausted I felt by 8pm. By Friday evening, I had the stamina of an asthmatic sloth and would often put everything off until some point over the weekend.
Conversely, my early mornings haven’t been like that. I may only have an hour and a half before I have to face the recurring weekday zombie apocalypse, also known as “getting the kids off to school,” but the quality of that work trumps anything done after 8pm. And as a tremendous bonus, I get some of my evenings back to do something other than stress over projects — provided I’m in bed before 10pm.
Takeaway: You can get more done before the zombie apocalypse than most people get done all day.
Distractions aren’t early risers
Concentration, of course, requires more than just alert brain cells. Outside forces in the form of unanswered email, the notification counters on Slack and the siren call of unregarded mentions on Facebook and Twitter are powerful distractions for hungry neurons. It’s very tempting to take a peek at them when you shouldn’t and that temptation is greatest in the evenings.
Early mornings don’t share the same pitfall. Yesterday’s work, news and notifications seem so… yesterday, and new distractions haven’t woken up yet. The cleanest slate of the day is ready for your concentrated energies first thing in the morning and your brain is likely up to the challenge after only a few minutes and two gulps of coffee.
Takeaway: Damn! It’s peaceful.
That rushed feeling goes away
As if greater productivity and taking control of your life aren’t enough of an incentive, I also noticed early on that my perception of time throughout the day radically changed for the better. I still had as much to do each workday but I no longer felt like I was rushing from one thing to the next. By 10am I was no longer haunted by feelings that I was already behind. No matter what else I could tackle during the day, knowing that I had already achieved something for myself, reduced my feelings of anxiety and stress over everything else.
And the most unexpected part was that I didn’t even have to accomplish much at 5am to feel good about it. There will always be good and bad mornings, but simply knowing that I got up and did anything was all I needed.
Takeaway: Doing it 7 days a week come with a free serving of all-day zen.
Make a plan the night before
However, if you do want to get something done each morning, you have to make a plan. At some point during my experiment I found myself blankly staring at an open laptop with no idea of why I was sitting there. After a few minutes I compounded the problem by beating myself up for squandering hard-earned time. What was the point in overcoming the tendency to roll over if I did nothing valuable with it.
Don’t leave it to chance. Have your computer ready. Have your clothes ready. If it’s going to be cold in the morning before the heat kicks on, put the right clothes out the night before. Make sure you can grab what you need in the dark. Set that coffee maker. Get your tea mugs ready and put the water in the kettle. Optimally you want to have as few steps to getting down to work as possible.
And most importantly, your plan should detail exactly what you are going to work on. Knowing that it’s the “stuff I want to do” isn’t good enough. Be as precise as possible. The more specific the task, the easier it will be to focus. If you are a writer, don’t just set a goal of writing 500 words before the kids get up. Define exactly what you are going to write about or you’ll end up with page of “all work and no play makes Homer… something… something.”
Coders need to do the same. Plan out exactly which parts of the code or functionality you want to focus on and don’t get diverted. For extra points and smugness, write down each day’s task or keep a spreadsheet with days planned out ahead. Looking back over a week of early morning achievements is a great motivator to keep it up over Saturday and Sunday.
Takeaway: As General George S. Patton said “A pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.” Unless you want blood in your 5am coffee, do what he says and make a frickin’ plan.
For me, the experiment hasn’t ended. I still have hurdles to overcome. I continue to stay up too late at night. I have a hard time winding down before bedtime and, as the mornings grow colder, it’s harder to throw back the blankets and face the early chill. But looking back, I have accomplished too much during those quiet mornings to stop the experiment now. I have at long last joined the ranks of the early risers.
UPDATE: More than 6 months into waking up early, seven days a week I am not up around 4:30 am without an alarm clock. I have found that the extra 20 to 30 minutes makes a significant difference to productivity.
Agree? Disagree? Tell me below in the comments.