How to Wake Up Early

Would you like to rise early? Have you been a late riser for as long as you can remember? Have you missed appointments, been late to work, or felt like you’re always trying to play catch-up with the day and want to change that? I might be able to help. Read on!

I’ve been waking up at 5am for a few years. This is a big surprise to me, as I spent most of my life experimenting with how late I could wake up and still get away with it.

I’ve often been asked how I managed to change my behaviour. The long answer is something I’ll cover in future posts, or if there’s interest, an ebook. You probably want a short overview, so that’s what you’ll get here.

  1. Make sure you get enough sleep! If you’re used to sleeping late and rising late, this is something you are going to have to take some time to adjust successfully. If you want to rise consistently early and not fall back into your old patterns, then there’s no shortcuts to this, you have to gradually adjust your body clock to ensure you get enough sleep. Or you could do what I did and just start getting up early and gradually finding myself so tired that falling asleep early became automatic.
  2. Learn about sleep hygiene. Ensure your bedroom is dark and as quiet as you can get it and also well ventilated. If in doubt, err on the cool side. Most of us are too warm at night time. Don’t take stimulants or other sleep-affecting substances late. Don’t use your devices in the bedroom, leave them downstairs, it’s OK, you won’t die. If you must use devices late, use your device’s ability to adjust the colours so that blue light emission is reduced. Wear loose, comfortable night time clothing, the less, the better. Ensure your bedding is clean and that your mattress is regularly vacuum cleaned.
  3. Use multiple alarm clocks, scattered around your bedroom or if you have an en-suite bathroom, in there too. Set all the clocks slightly differently so that they don’t all kick off at exactly the same time. You don’t have to vary the time every day, just set them all a couple of minutes apart and make sure there are at least three. (I won’t go into why three works for me, but two didn’t cut it)
  4. Visualise yourself swinging your legs out of bed the moment the first alarm goes off. Do this last thing at night. Practice this while you’re awake. If you let your monkey mind take over first thing, it will offer a dozen reasons why you deserve more sleep. You must get your body to start acting before your mind wakes up.
  5. Never, ever hit the snooze button. If you do, you will go into another sleep cycle and it’s game over. You’re likely to be hitting the snooze button repeatedly and you will feel worse when you do eventually rise.
  6. Take a 30 second cold shower the moment you wake up. I’ve been taking cold showers for years now too. It’s shocking the first few times, but you do get used to it. You don’t need to start off with maximum cold on your first day. Start by turning the temperature down a tad and reduce the amount every day. Before long you will be able to take a cold shower without even gasping. Tell yourself as soon as you feel the cold that “this feels great!”. There are multiple physiological benefits to taking cold showers, including the well documented mood enhancing effect. If you’re really brave, also take a 30 second cold shower before getting into bed.
  7. Plan your next day’s major tasks the night before. Let your subconscious work on your day’s tasks while you sleep.
  8. Give yourself a reason, or reasons to wake up early. Having time to yourself to get ahead of the day is my favourite reason. I know that if I wake up late, I will always be playing catch up and accomplish less. I’ll feel like the day is running me instead of me running the day. Your reason might be to get some exercise, to meditate, to read, to study, to work on your goals, whatever it is, if you want to get it done, the morning is likely to be a great, undisturbed period of time in which to accomplish what you want. Bonus: By the time the world is awake, you’ll already have taken care of the things that are most important to you.
  9. Get some exercise. For a year, I just forced myself to do 5 minutes on the stationary bicycle. Get your blood pumping, that’s all you need to do.
  10. Drink coffee. Good coffee is good for you, so long as you don’t go nuts.

Don’t Get Things Done

Back in 2011, I started using David Allen's Getting Things Done system, having read his seminal book. His system1 transformed my effectiveness, but it took me a while before I began to understand its true impact.

The key idea behind GTD is to have a trusted system into which you capture anything that has your attention, which you then filter, and organise for later action and review.

Once the system is working for you2, any time you see something you feel you might need to take action on, or delegate to someone, or even a full-blown project, you capture it into your in-tray or digital system (or both). I use OmniFocus, but you can use any digital system or indeed, if you're that way inclined, a traditional paper-based system.

What have I learned in the last few years about GTD?

You're not supposed to do everything on your list

What?!? Heresy! Aren't you supposed to become a productivity machine, demolishing all tasks foolish enough to stand in your way until you stand at the crest of the Hill of Empty Inboxes?

It's OK to capture everything that you think you might want to do, whether it's trying a new cheese, making a call to that friend you haven't spoken to in five years, playing The Last Guardian or climbing Everest, but you don't have to do everything on your list. You're not supposed to! When you capture something, you're ignoring how it fits into your life.

That thing that you captured simply had your attention for a while. Just as your email inbox is a way for other people to organise your priorities, your GTD inbox is just a stream of what captured your attention. You're in control of what you do, and ideally this is in line with your short, medium and long term life goals and values. You're free to discard these things and in fact, you should discard many of them. Think of it as panning for gold, because all that glitters is certainly not gold and your life is too precious to waste on fool's gold.

I find that a regular review of my Inbox and moving most items to the "Someday" section is a good way of dealing with tasks that might have excited you when you captured them, but are not relevant to your life's priorities. This is especially true of purchases, though I must confess to much failure in that regard. If you're brave, you will simply delete these things. The reason I tend not to delete everything is because some things just come back, and I want to know what I've deliberately discarded so that I'm not wasting time.

Capturing everything stills the monkey mind

It's great to get things done, so long as those things are worth doing. What you choose to prioritise is beyond the scope and wit of this article, only you can answer that, but the reason you capture everything is so that your mind becomes clear to think instead of remember.

You're just trying to get the task or project or thought out of your head and into your system, so that your head is free to think, which it's great at instead of remember, which it's not so great at.

This is why doing your lists last thing at night or first thing in the morning is so effective. Before your day begins, your subconscious has already spent all night working on ideas to move you forward in your key tasks and if you do the list at the beginning of the day, then you are driving your day, instead of events in the day driving you. Your mind won't be chattering away with "but you forgot this" and "you must remember that" and even if it does, you can capture it immediately to your trusted system and your monkey mind has been silenced. You are free again.

  1. Commonly abbreviated to just "GTD"
  2. Allen does suggest taking a couple of days to process every piece of paperwork in your life. If you want to apply this to your digital life too, this process could take considerably longer. I started by getting my physical paper life into order and this took me three days. It's worth it. Once you have a trusted system in place that you can live with, your life becomes much more manageable.