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The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early

‘The proper response to life is applause.’ ~William Carlos Williams

Waking early is one of my favorite things in the world. The morning is quiet as the world hasn’t begun stirring, the perfect time for meditation, writing, exercise and some quiet reading.

Waking early can give you an hour or three of extra time for focus and creativity. While you could do those things later in the day, most people don’t (with exceptions of course).

I haven’t written about waking early for awhile, mostly because my waking time is in constant flux. Some months I enjoy rising with the sun, other times I’ll get up early on purpose for awhile and enjoy the extra quiet time.

I’ve learned a thing or two about how to change your wake-up time with joy, and today I’ll share the most successful techniques in my many experimentations.

The Gradual Method

The best method for changing the time you wake up is to do it gradually — 10-15 minutes earlier for 2-4 days, until you feel used to it, and then repeat. If you get up at 8 a.m. normally, don’t suddenly change it to 6 a.m. Try 7:45 a.m. first.

That might seem too slow to most people, and you’re free to disregard this advice. However, in my many experimentations, the most enjoyable and long-lasting change in sleeping schedules have been slow and gradual.

Sudden changes of an hour earlier or more in your waking time are difficult, and not likely to last. If you get up 1-2 hours earlier, on Day 1, then you’ll have a tough time, and not enjoy it. The next day, you’ll have a big sleep deficit, and it’ll be even tougher (assuming you’re able to do it 2 days in a row). Day 3 is even harder. Eventually you either make it through the tough times (it’ll take at least a week of suffering), or you crash and sleep in late and have to start over or you give up.

Sleeping patterns are difficult to change, and so the gradual method works much better. This is true, by the way, of eating habits, exercise habits, clutter habits and more.

3 Steps to Actually Get Up

So you’ve set your alarm for 10-15 minutes earlier than normal, and maybe got through the first few days, then set it another 10-15 minutes earlier, and soon you’re at 30-45 minutes earlier than usual … but now you have the tendency to hit the snooze alarm and stay in bed (sometimes awake) without getting up.

Here’s how to beat that in 3 steps:

  1. Get excited. The night before, think of one thing you’d like to do in the morning that excites you. It could be something you want to write, or a new yoga routine, or meditation, or something you’d like to read, or a work project that’s got you fired up. In the morning, when you wake up, remember that exciting thing, and that will help motivate you to get up.
  2. Jump out of bed. Yes, jump out of bed. With enthusiasm. Jump up and spread your arms wide as if to say, “Yes! I am alive! Ready to tackle the day with open arms and the gusto of a driven maniac.” Seriously, it works.
  3. Put your alarm across the room. If it’s right next to you, you’ll hit the snooze button. So put it on the other side of the room, so you’ll have to get up (or jump up) to turn it off. Then, get into the habit of going straight to the bathroom to pee once you’ve turned it off. Once you’re done peeing, you’re much less likely to go back to bed. At this point, remember your exciting thing. If you didn’t jump out of bed, at least stretch your arms wide and greet the day.

What to Do When You Get Up

First, things not to do with your newfound early-morning time: don’t check email, news, social media, blogs. Don’t waste this new time doing the same thing you always do.

Here are some other things that are better, in my experience:

  1. Drink a glass of water. You’re dehydrated from not drinking any water all night. Drink a full glass of water if you can. It’ll make you feel more awake.
  2. Meditate. Even just for 3 minutes. It’s such a great way to start your day — doing nothing, just sitting, and practicing mindful focus.
  3. Write. Or do some other kind of creating.
  4. Exercise. Go for a walk or a run, or do a home workout. Even just 10 minutes.
  5. Enjoy a cup of coffee or tea. Either one of these makes the morning better.

Sleeping Earlier

You can’t just wake up earlier and not sleep earlier. You’ll eventually crash. So here are some tips for getting to sleep earlier:

  1. Set a bedtime of 7-8.5 hours before you want to wake up. So if you’re waking up at 6 a.m., go to bed between 9:30-11 p.m. Where you are in that time frame depends on how much sleep you need. Most people need about 7.5-8 hours of sleep, though there are lots of variations. I tend to get about 7, but also take a short nap in the afternoons.
  2. Create a bedtime ritual. I like to set up the coffeemaker and clean up a little (it’s nice to wake up to a clean house), then floss & brush my teeth and do a flouride rinse. Then I read myself to sleep.
  3. No computers in bed. That means no laptop, no tablets, no mobile phones. Kindles are OK except the Kindle Fire, which is the same as an iPad. No TV either. Just reading.
  4. Exercise helps a lot earlier in the day. It gets your body nice and tired, so you’ll sleep better. Don’t exercise an hour or less before bed, or you’ll be pumped up. I like a glass of red wine in the evening — it helps relax me and I tend to sleep a bit easier.
  5. Try this method if you have trouble sleeping: close your eyes and get comfortable, then think of the first thing you did that morning — the very first thing, like turning off your alarm. Then think of the next thing, and so on, replaying your morning in as much detail as possible. I never get to mid-morning.

Common Problems

Here are some of the most common problems in my experience and from readers’ questions:

  • Super tired in the morning: If you wake early and just can’t seem to function, that’s fairly normal. My solution is water, move around a lot, and drink a bit of coffee or matcha (powdered greeen tea). I will sometimes take a nap in the afternoon if I’m really tired. Also, it might be a sign that you’re moving too quickly — make sure you’re waking just a little earlier, and stay at one time for a few days until you feel adjusted before setting the alarm a little earlier.
  • Missing out on spouse time: If you are used to spending the evening with your spouse, and going to bed early means you’re missing out on that time, you have a few options. One is to see if your spouse is willing to try getting up early with you, perhaps to meditate or exercise together, or just to have coffee together. That can be really nice. Another is to cut out that together time in the late evening, but find time during the day (if possible), or at least in the early evening and weekends. Finally, you could decide that the together time is too important, and not get up earlier — or compromise and keep most of the evening together time, but wake just 30 minutes earlier.
  • You’re not a morning person: Some people think this but just haven’t given it a try — or they’ve gotten up an hour or two earlier all at once, and hated being so tired. This is why the gradual method is so important — it’s not that you’re not a morning person, it’s just that you tried to change too quickly and are suffering. But finally, it’s true that some people just are better focusing late at night (I have some friends like this) and morning isn’t their thing — and that’s perfectly alright. There’s no need to conform to what others do. I just shared this to show what works for me.

Zen Habits

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How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
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The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
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Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
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Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
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The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
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You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
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In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
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Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
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When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
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The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
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The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
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It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
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The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
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7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
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How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
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How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
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A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
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Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
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The Letting Go Ebook, Free
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The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
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The Little Book of Contentment
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A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
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Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
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The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
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The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
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How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
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Advice to My Kids
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The Daily Checklist
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12 Rules to Live By
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The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
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