I have been asked about how to wake up early every morning.
The idea is to allow your deep sleep cycle to complete. Instead of having the alarm clock rudely jolts you from your REM stage, you let your body to wake up naturally. And that will improve the quality of your day.
While these approaches work for me, each of us is different. Listen to your body, and feel free to adopt, modify, or abandon any of what I’m suggesting.
Genuinely care about making the change
What you are doing is in effect attempting to adjust (and for many, radically alter) your circadian rhythm and sleeping pattern. So it is crucial to make sure your psychology is in sync with your physiology.
Notice any conflicts you have regarding your sleeping habits. For example, our motivation to wake up early often conflicts with our night addictions (mine was computer gaming, what’s yours?).
To help your ‘early riser’ side to win that battle against your ‘night addiction’ side, you have to give it an overwhelming advantage.
One way to do this is to give your mind reference points on how great it is to be an early riser (1). Read about how early the world top CEOs wake up, or the story about the sports legend Kobe Bryant waking up his trainer to help him practice at 5 a.m., or how a former military general and special forces commander, even after retirement, still wakes up at 4 a.m.
Help your mind recognise how great your life is going to be, just by changing this one single routine.
Discover how much sleep you need
You may have come across articles where scientists say you need 7 to 9 hours of sleep.
For our purpose, please ignore them. Because we scientists do this messy thing called inductive generalisation. We may have an idea how much sleep the general population typically require, but we don’t know how much sleep you (the person reading this) need.
Find your own optimum recovery time.
You may also find people bragging about how little sleep they get (implying that they work harder because they stay awake longer). Don’t let them get into your head.
Because it matters less how many hours your eyes are closed. What matters more is how awake you are when your eyes are opened.
Step-by-step on how to wake up early
For illustration, let’s assume your optimum recovery time is 7 hours, and you want to wake up early at around 5-6 a.m.
- Go to your bed at 9.30 p.m., 8 hours before your target time. Yes, an extra hour than what you need. When you get good at this, you can go to bed later. Have dinner at least two hours earlier.
- Keep a bottle of fresh water near your bed.
- Condition your environment to help your melatonin regulation by making your room as dark and as quiet as you can.
- Set your alarm at 5.30 a.m.
- Listen to a soft music playlist (2).
- Put your phone away to stop it hurting the quality your sleep. Just stay with the soothing audio, and breathe. It may take a very long time, and that’s okay. You will eventually fall asleep.
- As soon as you wake up, drink the fresh water, and then take a shower.
Now, the first few times you do this, you will either:
i) Fail to wake up when the alarm goes off. Don’t give up, stick with the plan. If you still find it harder to sleep, try integrating the Exhaustion Steps below.
ii) You do wake up early, but you’ll feel tired throughout the day. It took too long for you to fall asleep that you didn’t get the amount of recovery you need. It’s part of the transition process. Don’t get frustrated. And don’t nap during the day — use that tiredness to help you fall asleep earlier on your next try.
Repeat step 1-7, until you consistently wake up at 5.30 a.m. for several days.
Now, don’t set your alarm anymore (if you have a class or work the next morning, set it as late as you reasonably can as a backup).
Then, set an intention to be up at your target time. It can be in the form of a prayer or just self-talk. In my personal experience, when I intend for an unusual time, I get better accuracy.
For instance, if I set my prayer as ‘God, help me to wake up early at 5.34 a.m. so I can serve’, I would wake up at 5.36 or 5.22 a.m. But when I intended for the ‘normal’ 5.30 a.m., I only got up at around 6 a.m.
So experiment with that. Go weirdly specific with your intention. See whether it works for you too.
A word of caution: Don’t get obsessive about getting it to be ultra-accurate. It is pretty cool when you get it (I couldn’t stop smiling when it happens), but be happy if you wake up within 30 minutes of your target time.
The (optional) exhaustion steps
At times, I lose my sleeping pattern because I break Step 1: I go to bed late because of work, going out for dinner, or Skyping with people from a different time zone.
To regain that pattern again more quickly, I insert some of these variations before step 1:
i) That late afternoon, exhaust your body by working out. But keep the intensity lower and the duration longer:
– If you lift weights, do total body low volume high repetition workouts.
– If you run, keep the pace slower than usual, but make the session longer and take fewer breaks.
ii) Take a cold shower and have dinner. Eat about 50% more than usual. Reduce the carbohydrate portion by half, and double the protein portion.
iii) Usually, the physical exhaustion is enough. But if it doesn’t, exhaust yourself mentally as well. Play chess, or read materials with abstract concepts above your current comprehension level.
iv) Put one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and half a tablespoon of honey in a small glass of warm water. Mix and drink it.
Be kind to yourself throughout the transition
You may feel frustrated initially when you try to make this change, and it doesn’t seem to work.
Don’t be too harsh on yourself. Remember, your body has adopted your current sleeping pattern perhaps for years. So altering that may take more than a couple of days. It’s not going to be perfect but keep at it. Aim for a realistic target, to wake up early 80% of the time, instead of 100%.
When it finally works, I promise you, you will feel amazing. You will wake up with more energy and more time to do what you love.
As Rumi puts it, “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.” Once you experience the fresh morning winds on your skin, while looking at the sky changing from deep purple to golden orange, you may never want to go back to your old habits again.
(1) I am of the opinion that not everyone has to wake up early. There are ‘night owls’ whose performance period peaks late at night. If you find that you perform better by staying late at night training or studying, then I think you should maintain that routine.
(2) I use sounds to anchor my attention, to stop it firing into a thousand different directions. I don’t read on my bed because I want to minimise exposure to light. If music doesn’t work for you too, find an alternative, like a spiritual lecture, an audio book, or sounds of nature.