How (and why) I went from being a night owl to waking up at 5AM

I was born in the mid-80s, so I’m about as “90s kid” as you can possibly be. I grew up loving Nicktoons and TGIF, eating Dunkaroos and drinking Surge. I loved my SNES, but eventually became a Playstation kid. I may or may not have dreamed of being a Ninja Turtle.

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And so it began … (me on the right)

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But when I was a kid, around 10 PM each night Nickelodeon (a landmark of 90s kids TV entertainment) switched its programming from kid-centric shows to classic TV reruns. They called it Nick-at-Nite.

Being a bit of a night owl even way back then, I was introduced to the likes of I Love Lucy, Bewitched, Happy Days, The Dick van Dyke Show, and Mary Tyler Moore.

I don’t imagine Nickelodeon had me in mind when deciding to rerun these shows in the late night time slots, but for some reason my brain just didn’t want to fall asleep until around 2 AM (at the earliest). So from as far back as I can remember, when possible, I’d be awake late into the night, and sleep late into the morning.

My parents hated this. They told me I was wasting the morning hours sleeping. I figured I was getting plenty of sleep still, just in a different block than everyone else. Obviously, school made this more difficult, but most of my summers were spent in this cycle, staying up late watching Laverne and Shirley or Dragnet, and rolling out of bed somewhere between 10 AM and Noon.

This sleep cycle continued into adulthood, as I chose night school for my college education, and every one of my jobs allowed me to set my own schedule.

I’m telling you this because I feel like I need to establish my night owl bonafides. If there ever was an unlikely candidate to advocate for waking up super-early, it’s me.

The Problem

I’m not going to sugar coat my point here. I didn’t see a problem with my schedule. But in hindsight, I see a lot of laziness in choosing this schedule.

Waking up late was easy. Which made staying up late easy. Which made waking up late easy. And so on.

It took no discipline. I didn’t decide to keep this schedule, I let the decision be made for me.

Maybe as a kid you can overlook that. After all, it was summer break. I had no where to be, and I wasn’t hurting anyone.

But as an adult, this lack of basic discipline had a radiating effect on other parts of my life. My sleep schedule was very clearly a negative keystone habit.

[Keystone habits are] small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.

The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

But it was by no means the worst thing I was doing. I had a plethora of other bad habits, and I needed to address those first.

But once I had made significant positive changes in other areas of my life, I had one last mountain left to climb. But why this? Why change my sleep schedule.

But, Why?

In late 2018, for the first time in my life, I was becoming genuinely interested in my career. I was well out of my 20s, and I started thinking more seriously about my future, and what I wanted out of life. My job plays a huge role in enabling the kind of life I want to live, so focusing on professional growth was becoming essential to the choices I was able to make personally.

So I needed time. Time when no one else was around, and I could focus on getting stuff done.

So I figured I’d do my deep work after the kids were in bed. After all, I was a night owl. I could work for a good 2-4 hours each night between 10pm and 2am, right?

Wrong.

Turns out that after having been awake for the last 12-14 hours, my brain just didn’t want to work. This was “wind down” time, and I was trying to get things done? Nope. It never worked.

People who take offense at hustle culture are quick to point out that you don’t get “more time” by waking up very early. They insist that you have the same number of hours in a day whether you wake up a 5AM or 9AM. And they’re right. But in my experience (and definitely not ONLY my experience), those first few hours after waking up, after taking a little time to “wind up”, are BY FAR the most productive hours of the day.

Why is that?

  1. No interruptions: most everyone else is asleep.
  2. Maximum energy: you’re fresh. No afternoon slump, no late day brain exhaustion.
  3. Clean slate: you’re not putting out fires, but instead you’re able to define your own agenda and focus on future focused tasks.

After doing this for a few weeks, I noticed I was getting more done in the first 4 hours of my day than I used to get done in 8 hours before.

As a software engineer, this was a huge win for me.

But I was also able to accomplish some personal tasks in the early morning, too. I finally had the opportunity to try things like meditation and journaling. I could spend time reading, learning a new skill, or planning out a home improvement project. I could categorize the previous day’s spending in my budgeting software, while the purchase was still fresh on my mind.

I even watched a sunrise.

The benefits were clear. I still wasn’t a “morning person”, but I was starting to see the appeal.

But, How?

a man, up early, drinking coffee

So, this is probably why you’re here, reading this post. You already know the benefits of waking up early, you know you’re not doing yourself any favors by sleeping in late, and you want to change.

But you don’t know how.

I don’t claim to have the secret. Only what worked for me.

So, I’m not going to give a full course on how to develop new habits, I can tell you that, for me, the key was understanding the Cue > Craving > Response > Reward cycle.

Recommended Reading

Atomic Habits by James Clear

I’m not telling you that understanding this is going to be a magic bullet. Doing something you don’t want to do is going to take some discipline and willpower. But maybe we can exploit this natural part of human psychology to reduce the level of effort necessary to wake up early.

Here is my process:

The night before, I assemble all the necessary components to make a cup of coffee. I grind some beans, I prepare my pour-over brewer, and I fill my kettle. I set everything on the stove, ready for a single button press begin the process. I charge my iPad and I put it in my office, ready to browse Youtube.

My smartwatch is ready to buzz at 5AM the following morning. I use a Fitbit Charge because its battery life is 7 days, meaning I can basically leave it on all the time, charging it while I’m in the shower.

The first few days are hard. You haven’t yet connected the cue to a craving, but if you commit to NOT letting yourself have the reward if you don’t have the proper response, that connection will eventually form.

So, if you ignore your alarm and wake up late … no coffee for you. Literally walk to the kitchen and dump out the water and throw away the coffee grounds. Never, EVER reward yourself for failure.

But when you succeed, enjoy your reward.

For me, the connection happened quickly.

My wrist buzzes, and I pull myself out of bed.

Oftentimes, I actually wake up naturally about 5-10 minutes before my alarm. That’s a nice bonus.

I walk to the kitchen and start brewing my coffee.

For what it’s worth, the reason I use the pour over method for making coffee isn’t because I think it tastes better. I’m not even a little snobbish about my coffee.

Nope, the reason I use it is because it’s manual. I don’t have the option of having a timer make my coffee. I get to trigger my craving during the ~4 minutes it takes for it to brew. The method, each step in the process, the smell, the visual appeal … this all reinforces the craving that starts the minute my alarm goes off.

I take my freshly brewed coffee to my office and begin my day with a reward for making the right choice.

Once the caffeine kicks in, my day officially starts.

It only took a few days for the habit to form. And now I, Nathan Rice, a lifelong night owl, a Nick-at-Nite connoisseur, and someone who has absolutely no natural affection for mornings, am able to effortlessly wake up at 5AM every morning.

There’s no reason you can’t do the same thing.

If you want to.

How to tackle big goals by narrowing your focus with two simple questions

I made some poor decisions in my 20s. Or rather, a series of poor decisions that seemed to stack and compound.

I took on tens of thousands of dollars of credit card, student loan, and tax debt.

I gained 70 pounds since graduating high school, because I ate way too much fast food and pretty much never exercised.

I binged entire series’ of television shows while pushing work off until the last minute.

I would stay up late into the night, and sleep away the mornings.

And because of all this, my wife and I “had to” put off starting a family until we could get our house in order.

Add to all that a sense of angst over current events and politics, my tendency to stress over the security of jobs, the financial crisis that lead to The Great Recession, and a barrage of 24 hour news cycles that can mentally fatigue even the most psychologically resilient among us.

If you’ve ever been in a situation like this (or even just a fraction of this), you probably know the feeling of wanting a change, but feeling like there’s just too much. How do you figure out what to focus on, and what to ignore?

I needed a formula

I’m a big fan of using decision formulas for quickly analyzing things. They’re somewhat subjective, and will need occasional tweaking. But at their core, they can be really useful.

Because I had so many things that I let go off the track, I needed a way of focusing my effort … a way of identifying things that need ignoring, and prioritizing things that need attention.

So I borrowed a lesson from Stoic philosophy, combined it with a question that I often ask other people when they ask for advice, and came up with something that I have found quite useful.

I also inadvertently mirrored part of Steven Covey’s “circle of concern / circle of influence” model, outlined in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Oops! He probably says it better. Oh, well!

Question 1: Is this something I can control?

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.

Epictetus, Discourses

There are so many things in my life that I can’t change. I don’t control the weather, I will not live forever, and certain people will just never like me.

But there are a lot of things that I can change. I can plan my activities around the weather, I can make choices that will allow me to live a bit longer, and I can choose who I spend my time with.

Only focus on what you control

Was I in control of banks when they were giving loans to people who couldn’t afford them? Could I control the stock market?

Do I decide if a client chooses to move forward with a project? Or how much money they’re willing to pay? Or if they’ll pay me on time vs. ghosting me after I’ve delivered?

Probably not.

But do I decide what food I put in my body? Do I get to choose how I spend my money? Is it my choice whether or not I get some exercise today? Or stay up until 2:00 AM? Or sleep in until 10:00 AM?

It’s a hard truth to accept. No one did this to me.

It wasn’t the credit card company’s fault.

It wasn’t the restaurant’s fault.

It wasn’t Netflix’s fault.

It was my fault.

These were decisions that I had made, habits that I had formed.

And after letting myself be angry at what I had done, I saw the silver lining: if my actions caused the problem, I was obviously the one in control.

Question 2: How much do I care?

If I decided that it was something I could control, I then have to have a difficult, honest conversation with myself. And I really had to be brutal about it. No aspirational answers, just the raw unpolluted truth.

Do I care enough to do whatever it takes to accomplish this?

When people ask for advice about the usual subjects:

“I want my kids to behave better”

“I want to lose weight”

“I want to get my finances under control”

“I want a promotion at work”

“I want to find love”

“I want to spend more time with my family”.

… it’s possible that they want it, but not badly enough to do what it takes to achieve it. And you know what? That’s fine. It may not be the right time, or there may be more important things that should take priority. The point isn’t to feel guilty about your answer, but to be honest with yourself.

Acknowledging the potentially painful parts of a decision can help us honestly analyze our desire for change.

So, I asked myself …

To have any influence over politics, my best shot was to run for some sort of political office. Was I willing to do that?

Nope.

To fix my procrastination problem, I’d might need to give up my autonomy and get a regular job where I didn’t set my own hours. Was I willing to do that?

Again, no.

To fix my weight and health, I’d need to go on a diet and start exercising regularly. Was I willing to do that?

I tried, and failed, many times. Clearly I was not.

To fix my finances, I’d need to cut up the credit cards, sell a car, and go on a budget. Was I willing to do that?

Turns out, I was! What Now?

Focus!

If the answer is “no” to either of these questions, it’s no longer my focus. It’s a dead issue to me. I won’t be wasting a single minute of effort or thought on it until/unless I can answer “yes” to both questions.

And when the answer to both is “yes”, it’s time to prioritize and focus.

And I mean intense focus. Maximum effort, focus.

I was able to leverage the ability and the desire to change, and give myself permission to ignore the things that don’t pass the test.

And maybe after I’ve conquered one goal, I’d be able to revisit my list from before. Perhaps my answer to the 2 questions will change once I have a win to reference.

So, what happened?

It took me 2 years, but I did eventually pay off all my debt, save enough money to buy a house, and develop good money habits that continue to this day.

And then …

After revisiting my list, turns out I was willing to take a job with a little less autonomy and a little more structure. Great decision, exactly what I needed.

In late 2012, I took on my weight and health. In 6 months, I lost 50 pounds, and I’ve kept it off.

In 2018, I completely revised my sleep schedule. I now wake up between 4:30 and 5:30 AM every day, and I’m able to get more done by 10:00 AM than many people do all day, including my daily budget analysis, reading, writing, etc.

Each goal accomplished sequentially, one at a time, and only when I could honestly answer each of the questions above with a confident YES!

None of it happened because of super-human discipline. If white-knuckle effort was the key to progress, I’d be hopelessly lost.

Luckily for me, it’s about eliminating the unimportant goals to make room for the ones that really matter, then letting the power of focus and compounding take over.