I've always been geared towards getting up before lunchtime, but I wanted to be a real morning person. A get up before the sun person. A get 3 hours of work done before lunch everyday person.
For a few months I was getting up at 6am every day. But something changed in late 2015 when I moved in with my partner and co-founder, Josh. Josh is naturally a late riser and works after I've gone to bed many nights. I don't know if it was my own body's rhythms trying to align with his, or residual feelings of stress and upheaval from the process of moving house, but it took me at least six months to get into a routine of getting up before 8am again.
It was a real struggle. So hard, in fact, that I wondered at times if it wouldn't just be easier to switch to a night owl schedule to match Josh's patterns. Every time I've tried this, though, I've lasted one day at most. Sleeping in late and staying up late just don't come naturally to me, and it's counter-intuitive to work hard to stay awake longer than your body wants to, so I always give up quickly.
So getting up early was the way to go. I just had to figure out how to do it. When it came time to write my email course, Productive Habits, I knew I needed to have this early rising thing down pat.
Here are some of the things that ended up working for me. But remember: this took at least 6 months of experimenting and failing. If you really want to do this for yourself, you'll need to figure out what works for you, and you may be in for a long haul.
Get up much earlier
There's plenty of get-up-early advice out there that advocates for getting up just a little earlier each day. For instance, incrementally, set your alarm back 15 minutes until you get to your desired wake up time.
This makes sense in theory, but for some reason it didn't work for me. I honestly don't know why.
I didn't have a specific, regular wake up time when I started this process. I work from home whenever I feel like it, so I get out of bed when I decide to. But I had been getting up consistently later than 8am, which I discovered was the latest I could get up and still feel good about my day. Getting up later than that made me feel annoyed at myself and sluggish for the rest of the day. I always seemed to get more done if I made it out of bed before 8.
So, initially I set an alarm for 8am and tried to make it out of bed by then every day.
I was terrible at this. I failed so often. And almost every time I didn't fail, I woke up at 8 and laid in bed or sat on the edge of it for up to half an hour before doing anything. Ostensibly I'd achieved my daily goal, but it didn't feel like success.
After months of this nonsense, I tried something counter-intuitive on a whim: I set my alarm for 6am the next day. A full two hours earlier than I'd been struggling to get up every day so far. I can't think of any reason why I would have thought this could work, but I'm so glad I tried it.
I found it easier to get up at 6am than I did two hours later. Part of this may have simply been the novelty and bragging rights that come with getting up properly early, as compared to 8am, which barely counts as early. Or perhaps that's just a more natural wake up time for me. I tend to doze and wake up more during morning sleep, so it's possible I was making things harder on myself by staying in bed til 8 and getting lower quality sleep for the last couple of hours.
I don't know for sure why this worked. It definitely didn't work alone. Over time I've done a couple of other things that have helped me make this a regular habit.
And these days I don't always get up at 6. It's usually between 6 and 7am, unless I've had a particularly late night. I'd love to get up even earlier, but this seems to be the most natural wake-up time for me. I want to work with my body, not against it.
Go to bed at the same time every night
I'm lucky that I didn't have to plan this too much, because I tend to do it anyway. After dinner I usually watch some TV with Josh, and sometimes go for a walk. Then it's around 8 or 9pm and I'm definitely not feeling like working, so I usually jump onto bed. I'll take a hot drink, my notebook for planning tomorrow, and my Kindle, and spend an hour or two winding down for sleep.
A regular bedtime is important for helping your body fall asleep faster and for making sure you're well rested when your early morning wake up time rolls around.
Don't forget, I was already going to bed by 11pm at the latest. Most nights I was in bed by 9 or 10. My body naturally gets tired around 10pm and I don't like working after dinner because I'm not very sharp, so it's easy for me to go to bed this early. If you don't get tired this early, you might be naturally geared to going to bed (and getting up) later. You can fight that, but it's much better for your body if you work with your natural inclinations.
Create a morning routine that you look forward to
This is hands down the most important change I made in building this habit. Behavioural economist Dan Ariely says we're designed to think about the present. Although acting with the future in mind is good for us, it goes against our nature to do so. To get around this limitation of the human brain and ensure we do things which are good for us even if we don't want to, Ariely suggests using a method he calls reward substitution.
Basically, reward substitution is when you get yourself to do the right thing for the wrong reason. For instance, if you want to work out more, only allowing yourself to watch your favourite TV show when you work out would mean you'd start working out so you could watch that show, rather than so you'd be more fit and healthy. But you'd be doing something good for your body. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
When I wake up in the morning, I get out of bed for my coffee. Not because I know I'll have a better day and be more productive if I get up now. Future me is a whole other person, even when she's only a few hours away. I can't motivate myself (at least not every day) to get up early so some stranger in the future can reap the benefits. I need rewards now.
Building a routine that I do every morning when I get up helped me find a way (finally) to make waking up early habitual. It starts with coffee, which I look forward to enough to get out of bed and get the routine started. The rest of the routine keeps me out of bed. It goes like this:
- Drink coffee and practise French
- Do 5 push-ups
- Take a shower and get dressed
- Eat breakfast
Coffee, French practice, and having breakfast are things I look forward to, so I focus on those parts of my routine after getting up. Each one acts like a string pulling me forward through my routine until I get it all done.
Another reason this is helpful is that although I get up early so I'll be more productive, I don't have to think about work as soon as I get up. By the time my whole routine is done, it's been an hour or more since I wake up, and I'm usually itching to get started on some work.
The more I do this process, the more habitual it becomes—and getting up early is just part of the routine.