It’s nearly 7 AM, and as I’m drinking my morning tea and reading, I suddenly feel the urge to write about how my newly acquired habit of getting up early has affected my life. At the moment, the house is still, with only the cats wandering around (well, one of them at least, the other, being a total lazybones, is curled up on the chair next to me).
It’s pretty well established that one of the common habits of successful people is waking up early. There’s also plenty of good tips on how to start doing it. I’m not going to re-hash those here; instead I’m going to just talk briefly about my experience.
All my life I’ve been a habitual late sleeper. In college I actually failed a class that began at 8AM, at least in part because I skipped almost a quarter of the lectures. My first job out of college had hours of 12pm – 8pm, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to be up until 2-3 AM, then sleep until 11 or so. Even after getting a job with normal hours, I still never broke the ritual of later mornings.
So what finally made me change? That’s easy: becoming a parent. Espeically after my second child was born, I found quiet time to be at an incredible premium. It was rare both of the kids were asleep at the same time, except for late at night or early in the morning. And given that, by the end of the day, my brain tends to be about as useful as a pile of noodles, it was only logical that the single easiest way to regain some of that valuable reflective time was to get up earlier.
Now, several months later, I would say that I am a successful “early bird”. What lessons did I learn throughout this process?
The first is that slow, gradual progress is better than huge leaps. At first I tried going all out (i.e. going from waking up whenever to 5:30AM or so) and immediately failed. My body simply couldn’t handle the dramatic change in schedule, and I quickly fell back to my old patterns. A gradual change worked much better, where I set my alarm around 10-15 minutes earlier every few days. There were still difficulties, but it was a much smoother transition.
The second is that my choice of alarm was more important than I thought. The traditional clanging bell or other constant noise did more to annoy me then wake me up, and it usually resulted in an angry slap of the snooze button and a failure to get out of bed. I experimented with several options before settling on the Sleep Time iPhone app. It uses the iPhone’s built in accelerometer to determine what stage of sleep you are in, and tries to wake you when you’re at a “light” period. It also starts the alarm very softly and gradually increases in volume, which wakes me up in a much more gentle fashion.
The third is that this works better if I don’t eat breakfast right away. Making my traditional green smoothie or eggs and veggies takes up a decent amount of time, and time is extremely valuable. Instead, I make myself a cup of coffee or green tea, sit down, and get to my morning work. Only after I’ve accomplished some useful things do I stop and think about eating. This also means that I can still eat breakfast with my family most days.
And speaking of useful work, the fourth lesson is that being intentional about what to do with my time in the morning is crucial. It’s very easy to get lost browsing the news sites or reading blogs. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as that is what I really want to do. So, before I get started, I’ll stop and think about what I want to accomplish in the hour or so I’ve got.
Finally, I would say the consistently getting up at the same time, even when I didn’t necessarily have to (such as weekends) or got poor sleep (because that would never happen with two small children) helped get make this a successful habit. I’m not sure if there is some scientific reason behind this, but from a purely personal experience perspective, always getting up at the same time seemed much easier than modifying the time based on factors like when I went to bed the night before. Yes, this means there are days when I’m running on a less-than-desirable amount of sleep. But I find that my body usually does a decent job of telling me when I’m burning the candle too long and need to get to bed earlier. I will say that the one exception to this rule is when I’m sick; in that case I just let myself wake up when my body decides it’s time.
There’s no doubt in my mind that learning to be an early riser has been a huge help in keeping my reading and writing habits alive during the challenging period of raising two small children. The stillness of the morning (well, except for the one cat whining to go out or be fed), the feeling of a clear mind, and not having several voices clamoring for my attention are all wonderful things to experience. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge and getting up earlier, my advice: go for it.