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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
- No interruptions: most everyone else is asleep.
- Maximum energy: you’re fresh. No afternoon slump, no late day brain exhaustion.
- 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.
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.
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.