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The summer after I graduated from college, I returned home and started working a late-night job. I was the hostess at a fancy restaurant in town, and my day usually started around 5 p.m. and ended when the bar tabs had been calculated and the last dishes were unloaded out of the dishwasher at 1 a.m. I would often fall into bed an hour later and sleep like a rock until noon the next day.
This was my routine for three months. Even on the days I hadn’t worked, my body clock roused me around lunchtime and I wouldn’t be tired until far later than midnight. I was also attempting to find a 9-to-5 job, which made my schedule untenable. When I finally landed my first full-time job, my schedule turned on its head seemingly overnight. I had to be on the train by 6:48 a.m. I had to be asleep by 9:30 p.m. if I wanted to avoid nodding off in my meetings with my new boss.
I knew I had to train myself to be an early riser, but how? Technically, I had trained myself to wake up at noon, even if I wasn’t trying to. If it takes 21 days to form a habit, the same can be applied to your body clock reworking itself. It’s been 10 years since I had to switch up my sleeping habits, and to this day I remain an early riser. It took a few stops and starts, but here’s how I did it.
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Here’s how to get started if you’re also looking to become an early riser:
1. Commit to a time plan that feels reasonable.
If your goal is to wake up perky and ready to rumble, work backward and figure out what bedtime makes sense. For a 6 a.m. wake up, I would say somewhere in the realm of around 9-10 p.m. makes sense. You may be tempted to go to bed at 8 p.m., but the key is going to bed at the same time every night to get your body familiar with the routine. Pick a time that makes sense for your schedule.
2. Come up with a bedtime routine and a morning routine.
Maybe it’s your skin care routine, maybe it’s reading a book or listening to music, maybe it’s stretching out or reading the news, but whatever it is, do it at the same time each morning and each night. This will signal to both your brain and body that you’re going to sleep or waking up.
3. Don’t skip weekends — sorry!
I know this might be painful to hear, but you have to keep up your sleeping schedule seven days a week for it to really take flight. Don’t worry — if you get up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, you don’t have to immediately start doing things. Just be awake. Watch some “Gilmore Girls” reruns. Watch some “Law and Order.” (It’s always on.) Have a bowl of cereal. Just don’t go back to sleep!
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4. Get one of those lights that mimics the sun for the winter mornings.
I hate to be the one to remind you of this, but winter gets dark. Like, really dark. Like, the sun wakes up two hours after you wake up dark. Alarm clocks (especially your phone alarm) are a farce, I’ve found. The Philips SmartSleep was a lifesaver when I was “sleep training” as an adult. It begins to light up your room gradually in anticipation of the alarm going off, mimicking the sun. You won’t remember it’s pitch black outside until you open the curtains. (I don’t recommend doing that.)
Soon, you are going to feel completely different about how and when you sleep. A few setbacks? No worries. Just stay on the path.
Caroline Moss is the host of “Gee Thanks, Just Bought It!” a product-recommendation podcast produced by Forever35. She is the co-author of “Hey Ladies!” and a series about women in work for kids called “Work It, Girl.” She has been writing and editing for the internet for the last 10 years and lives in Los Angeles.
Not everyone wants to be an early riser, but I always did.
Most of the people I wanted to emulate with my life were waking early in the morning, making the most of their day and life. It was something I desired to be true of me, but was never able to accomplish—until my mid-thirties.
Roughly a decade ago, I decided to change my habits. I don’t wake up at 4:00am like some stories I hear, but most mornings nowadays, I wake up at 6:00am cheerfully and excited to get started with the day.
And everything changed in just one month’s time.
If you’ve ever wanted to become an early riser, here are the exact steps I took:
1. Set a 30-Day Experiment.
I learned the value of 30-Day experiments from Steve Pavlina.
When it comes to changing habits, in his words, “We often psyche ourselves out of getting started by mentally thinking about the change as something permanent — before we’ve even begun…
But what if you thought about making the change only temporarily — say for 30 days — and then you’re free to go back to your old habits? That doesn’t seem so hard anymore.“
30 days is a long enough period to see if you like the changes in your life. And, after 30 days, if you like the change, it is easier to mark the behavior as already a habit.
You can try the 30-day experiment for any life change you are interested in. For me, it became the month-long experiment that turned me into an early riser for good.
I chose a 30-day period and committed to waking up every morning at 5am. “It’s just for 30 days. Surely I can accomplish that.”
2. Feet on Ground, Look Out the Window.
Every morning when my alarm went off, I gave myself only two instructions:
- Feet on the ground. (Stand up).
- Eyes out the window. (Look outside).
These were the only two disciplined steps that I required of myself each morning. Not burdensome, not difficult. In my head, I’d just repeat that phrase, “Feet on ground, eyes out the window.”
Those steps became incredibly effective—especially on the days that I struggled to get up. They weren’t difficult. But once you complete those two steps, you’ve won 80% of the struggle. At that point, it requires a conscience decision to go lay back down and fall sleep.
Plus, depending on when you choose to wake, if there’s sunshine outside, the sunlight boosts your serotonin and biologically helps you stay awake.
But even if there is no sunlight: “Feet on ground, eyes out the window.”
After completing those two simple steps, buoyed by my desire to be successful in my experiment, I was up, awake, and out of bed.
3. Go to Bed When You are Tired.
Waking up earlier will mean that you get less sleep if you keep the same bedtime.
The most important change to become an early riser is to learn going to bed earlier.
But what time should that be? Let your body tell you.
Change your thinking from, “I go to bed at x pm” to “I go to bed when I feel tired.” And let your body tell you when that is.
It’ll take a little getting used to, especially if you are used to wasting hours at the end of the day watching television or scrolling social media. But remind yourself that you are only trying this out for 30 days.
I can almost guarantee that after a few weeks of learning to listen to your body and going to bed when it asks you to, you’ll love the new approach to bedtime—rather than letting the clock tell you how late you should stay up.
4. Find a Motivation for the Morning.
Waking up early is easier when you have a purpose to it.
In most cases, your home will be quiet when you begin waking up early. So use that time intentionally.
During my 30-day experiment, I was working to minimize the sentimental items that had collected in our basement. It was a project I wanted to complete, but knew would take time. I also had two young children and didn’t want to sacrifice time away from them in the evening after work.
So decluttering the basement became part of my morning routine. I’d wake up at 5, declutter a box or shelf in the basement for an hour, and then make breakfast, get ready for work, and be fully ready by the time my kids were up getting ready for school. I would also use occasional mornings to write when appropriate (growing this blog actually), but I always knew what I wanted to do when I woke up.
Maybe you would enjoy extra time reading, praying, painting, exercising, journaling, baking, meditating, or doing yoga. The choice is yours. Don’t pick an activity that you dread, but pick something that will help you stick to your experiment and wake-up time.
5. Awake is Awake.
There’s a difference between awake and cheerful. And some mornings, that was helpful to remember.
There were certainly some days when I felt alive and excited to be up. But there were other mornings where I was simply dragging myself out of bed. (I was the only one awake in my home so my sloggy mood didn’t affect anybody else).
I’d often have to remind myself that my goal for the 30-Day experiment wasn’t necessarily to be a Fully-Joyful Joshua at 5am. My goal was to be awake.
Over time, as I appreciated more and more those early hours in the day, joyfulness came more naturally.
6. After 30 Days, Adjust.
After 30 days, make a decision on how you want to continue. You can keep your designated wake-up time or you can adjust to a new one.
If you have enjoyed the mornings, believe you are living more intentionally, and don’t feel like you are missing much late at night, almost certainly you will have begun reshaping your sleeping habits.
You can keep your designated wake-up time (5am, for example) or adjust to a new one.
After my 30-day experiment, I had completed most of the work in my basement, but still enjoyed the writing that I was doing in the early mornings. So I kept my 5am wake-up for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. On Tuesday and Thursday, I’d wake up at 6am—which is when I wake up most days still.
John Dryden is quoted as saying, “We first make our habits, then our habits make us.” Becoming an early riser was a habit I always wanted to make for myself. And through the steps above, I accomplished it. You can too.
How can you stop hitting the snooze button and become a fully-fledged morning lark?
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Some of the world’s most successful people – like Apple CEO Tim Cook and Vogue editor Anna Wintour – are known to start their day before sunrise.
But being an early riser might have more benefits than helping you get a head start on your unread emails, as a new study has found that people whose sleep pattern goes against their natural body clock, are more likely to have depression and lower levels of wellbeing.
Researchers from the University of Exeter concluded that getting up early every day can have a protective effect against mental health issues, and those who do it tend to be happier.
So, how can you stop hitting the snooze button and become a fully-fledged morning lark? Here are a few simple tips for getting the job done…
1. Nudge your alarm by five minutes each day
With any new habit, it’s tempting to launch yourself in head-first, but if you usually sleep in until late, then setting your alarm for 6am might not be realistic.
It’s much easier to get into the habit of waking up early if you gradually ease your body into it, by adjusting your wake-up call by five-minute increments each day.
2. Put your alarm on the other side of the room
It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, but putting your alarm on the other side of the room really does work.
Because you’re forced to throw off the duvet and get out of bed to switch it off, you remove the opportunity for half-consciously snoozing your alarm and immediately going back to sleep.
3. Give yourself a reward for waking up early
Many of us wake up and start rushing around to get ready for work straight away, but having an extra hour in the morning means you can luxuriate with some free time.
Whether it’s taking a calming yoga class, going out for an early morning coffee or spending an hour on a personal project, give yourself something motivating to get up and out of bed for.
4. Use light to your advantage
Light acts as a natural cue for our bodies to wake up. While darker, sunset-coloured light causes your body to release the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, daylight kickstarts our bodies into action.
Just like limiting your exposure to blue light gadgets at night can help you to drift off more easily, using a sunrise lamp that gradually fills the room with simulated daylight, can help you to wake up more naturally.
5. Be consistent
Going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time is key to shifting your sleep pattern, so make sure you aren’t sleeping until midday at the weekends.
On average, it takes more than two months before a new behaviour becomes an automatic habit, so don’t worry if you struggle to get up in those first few weeks – it’s helpful to see your new morning routine as a marathon effort, rather than a quick sprint.
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Are morning people born or made? In my case it was definitely made. In my early 20s, I rarely went to bed before midnight, and I’d almost always sleep in late. I usually didn’t start hitting my stride each day until late afternoon.
But after a while I couldn’t ignore the high correlation between success and rising early, even in my own life. On those rare occasions where I did get up early, I noticed that my productivity was almost always higher, not just in the morning but all throughout the day. And I also noticed a significant feeling of well-being. So being the proactive goal-achiever I was, I set out to become a habitual early riser. I promptly set my alarm clock for 5AM…
… and the next morning, I got up just before noon.
I tried again many more times, each time not getting very far with it. I figured I must have been born without the early riser gene. Whenever my alarm went off, my first thought was always to stop that blasted noise and go back to sleep. I tabled this habit for a number of years, but eventually I came across some sleep research that showed me that I was going about this problem the wrong way. Once I applied those ideas, I was able to become an early riser consistently.
It’s hard to become an early riser using the wrong strategy. But with the right strategy, it’s relatively easy.
The most common wrong strategy is this: You assume that if you’re going to get up earlier, you’d better go to bed earlier. So you figure out how much sleep you’re getting now, and then just shift everything back a few hours. If you now sleep from midnight to 8am, you figure you’ll go to bed at 10pm and get up at 6am instead. Sounds very reasonable, but it will usually fail.
It seems there are two main schools of thought about sleep patterns. One is that you should go to bed and get up at the same times every day. It’s like having an alarm clock on both ends — you try to sleep the same hours each night. This seems practical for living in modern society. We need predictability in our schedules. And we need to ensure adequate rest.
The second school says you should listen to your body’s needs and go to bed when you’re tired and get up when you naturally wake up. This approach is rooted in biology. Our bodies should know how much rest we need, so we should listen to them.
Through trial and error, I found out for myself that both of these schools are suboptimal sleep patterns. Both of them are wrong if you care about productivity. Here’s why:
If you sleep set hours, you’ll sometimes go to bed when you aren’t sleepy enough. If it’s taking you more than five minutes to fall asleep each night, you aren’t sleepy enough. You’re wasting time lying in bed awake and not being asleep. Another problem is that you’re assuming you need the same number of hours of sleep every night, which is a false assumption. Your sleep needs vary from day to day.
If you sleep based on what your body tells you, you’ll probably be sleeping more than you need — in many cases a lot more, like 10-15 hours more per week (the equivalent of a full waking day). A lot of people who sleep this way get 8+ hours of sleep per night, which is usually too much. Also, your mornings may be less predictable if you’re getting up at different times. And because our natural rhythms are sometimes out of tune with the 24-hour clock, you may find that your sleep times begin to drift.
The optimal solution for me has been to combine both approaches. It’s very simple, and many early risers do this without even thinking about it, but it was a mental breakthrough for me nonetheless. The solution was to go to bed when I’m sleepy (and only when I’m sleepy) and get up with an alarm clock at a fixed time (7 days per week). So I always get up at the same time (in my case 5am), but I go to bed at different times every night.
I go to bed when I’m too sleepy to stay up. My sleepiness test is that if I couldn’t read a book for more than a page or two without drifting off, I’m ready for bed. Most of the time when I go to bed, I’m asleep within three minutes. I lie down, get comfortable, and immediately I’m drifting off. Sometimes I go to bed at 9:30pm; other times I stay up until midnight. Most of the time I go to bed between 10-11pm. If I’m not sleepy, I stay up until I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. Reading is an excellent activity to do during this time, since it becomes obvious when I’m too sleepy to read.
When my alarm goes off every morning, I turn it off, stretch for a couple seconds, and sit up. I don’t think about it. I’ve learned that the longer it takes me to get up, the more likely I am to try to sleep in. So I don’t allow myself to have conversations in my head about the benefits of sleeping in once the alarm goes off. Even if I want to sleep in, I always get up right away.
After a few days of using this approach, I found that my sleep patterns settled into a natural rhythm. If I got too little sleep one night, I’d automatically be sleepier earlier and get more sleep the next night. And if I had lots of energy and wasn’t tired, I’d sleep less. My body learned when to knock me out because it knew I would always get up at the same time and that my wake-up time wasn’t negotiable.
A side effect was that on average, I slept about 90 minutes less per night, but I actually felt more well-rested. I was sleeping almost the entire time I was in bed.
I read that most insomniacs are people who go to bed when they aren’t sleepy. If you aren’t sleepy and find yourself unable to fall asleep quickly, get up and stay awake for a while. Resist sleep until your body begins to release the hormones that rob you of consciousness. If you simply go to bed when you’re sleepy and then get up at a fixed time, you’ll cure your insomnia. The first night you’ll stay up late, but you’ll fall asleep right away. You may be tired that first day from getting up too early and getting only a few hours of sleep the whole night, but you’ll slog through the day and will want to go to bed earlier that second night. After a few days, you’ll settle into a pattern of going to bed at roughly the same time and falling asleep right away.
So if you want to become an early riser (or just exert more control over your sleep patterns), then try this: Go to bed only when you’re too sleepy to stay up, and get up at a fixed time every morning.
Edit (5/31/05): Due to the incredible popularity of this post, I’ve written a follow-up with some extra detail and clarifications: How to Become an Early Riser – Part II. And if you really want to take sleep to the next level, read about my experiences with Polyphasic Sleep, where you only sleep 2-3 hours a day by taking 20-minute naps every few hours, around the clock.