How to Become an Early Riser - Part II
Part II of Steve's article
Last Monday’s post How to Become an Early Riser obviously struck a chord with many people. That post has generated more links than I can count, sending more new traffic to this site than any other post or article I’ve written. And the traffic logs indicate that the surge was decentralized (not attributable to a mention in any one major source).
You can get an idea of what that post did for StevePavlina.com’s traffic at Alexa (note the big spike at the end of May 2005). Alexa isn’t very accurate, but it’s good enough for noting general trends.
Last Monday I did a Google search on “how to become an early riser” (in quotes). It returned zero results. Now look at how many results it returns.
OK, so this was an instalanche. But why? Getting up early is a relatively benign topic, isn’t it? At least I thought it was at the time I posted it.
Since this appears to be a topic of interest, even though I don’t fully understand why, I figured I’d do a follow up post to add some more detail.
First, on the subject of going to bed when you’re sleepy… to do this correctly requires a mixture of awareness and common sense.
If you’re doing stimulating activities before bed, you’ll be able to stay up later and stave off sleepiness for a while. In college I used to participate in poker games that went until dawn, and then we’d often go out to breakfast afterwards. I can easily stay up later than my normal range of bed times if I work, go out with friends, or do other stimulating activities.
But this isn’t what I meant by noticing when you’re sleepy. I mentioned the test of not being able to read more than a couple pages of text without losing concentration. This doesn’t mean waiting until you’re about to drop from exhaustion.
The onset of sleepiness I’m referring to is when your brain starts releasing hormones to knock you out. This is different from just being tired. You actually feel yourself getting drowsy. But in order for this to happen, you need to create the right conditions for it to occur. This means giving yourself some downtime before bedtime. I find that reading is a great way to wind down before bed. Some people say reading in bed is a bad idea… that you should only sleep in bed. I’ve never had a problem with it though, since when I’m too sleepy to keep reading, I can just put the book down and go to sleep. But read in a chair if you prefer.
Another test you can use is this. Ask yourself, “If I were to go to bed now, how quickly could I fall asleep?” If you think it would take more than 15 minutes to fall asleep, I say go ahead and stay up.
Once you set a fixed awakening time, it may take a bit of practice to hone in on the right range of bedtimes for you. In the beginning you may see some huge oscillations, staying awake too late one night and going to bed too early another night. But eventually you’ll get a feel for when you can go to bed and fall asleep right away while allowing yourself to wake up refreshed the next day.
As a failsafe to keep yourself from staying up too late, give yourself a bedtime deadline, and even if you aren’t totally sleepy, go to bed by that time no matter what. I have a good idea of the minimum amount of sleep I need. 6.5 hours per night is sustainable for me, but I can do 5 hours in a pinch and be OK as long as I don’t do it every night. The maximum I ever sleep is 7.5 hours. Before I started waking up at a fixed time each morning, I’d often sleep 8-9 hours, sometimes even 10 hours if I was really tired.
If you consume caffeine during the day, it’s likely to mess with your sleep cycles. So the original post assumes you aren’t drugging yourself to stay awake. If you’re addicted to caffeine, then break the addiction first. Don’t expect natural sleepiness to occur at the right time if you’re screwing with your brain chemistry.
The idea of the original post was to explain how to develop the habit of arising early. So the advice is geared towards creating the habit. Once the habit is established, it runs more subconsciously. You can be doing stimulating activities like work or playing video games, and you’ll just know when it’s time for you to go to bed, even though it may be a different time each night. The sleepiness test is important for developing the habit, but subtler signals will take over afterwards.
You can always sleep in late now and then if you need to. If I stay up until 3am, I’m not going to get up at 5am the next morning. But I’ll return to my usual routine the next day.
I recommend getting up at the same time for 30 days straight to lock in the habit, but after that you’ll be so conditioned to waking up at the same time that it will be hard to sleep in. I decided to sleep in late one Saturday morning and didn’t set my alarm, but I woke up automatically at 4:58 am. Then I tried to sleep in, but I was wide awake and couldn’t fall back asleep again. Oh well. Once the habit is established, it isn’t hard at all to get up, assuming you’re going to bed at the onset of sleepiness.
If you have kids, adapt as needed. My kids are ages 5 and 1. Sometimes they wake me up in the middle of the night — my daughter is in the habit of doing this lately, popping into the bedroom to tell my wife and me about her dreams or sometimes just to chat. And I know what it’s like when there’s a baby waking up every few hours. So if you’re in that situation, I say that the rule is to sleep when you can. Babies aren’t very good at sticking to schedules.
If you can’t get yourself out of bed when your alarm goes off, this is likely due to a lack of self-discipline. If you have enough self-discipline, you’ll get out of bed no matter what. Motivation can also help, but motivation is short lived and may only last a few days. Discipline is like a muscle. The more you build it, the more you can rely on it. Everyone has some discipline (can you hold your breath?), but not everyone develops it. There are a lot of ways to build discipline — I’ve written a whole chapter on this topic in my upcoming book. But basically it comes down to taking on little challenges, conquering them, and gradually progressing to bigger ones. It’s like progressive weight training. As your self-discipline gets stronger, a challenge like getting out of bed at a certain time will eventually become trivially easy. But if your self-discipline has atrophied, it can seem an almost insurmountable hurdle.
Why get up early?
I’d say the main reason is that you’ll have a lot more time to do things that are more interesting than sleeping.
Again, I’ve gained about 10-15 hours per week doing this. That extra time is very noticeable. By 6:30am, I’ve already exercised, showered, had breakfast, and I’m at my desk ready to go to work. I can put in a lot of hours each day of productive work, and I’m usually done with work by 5:00 pm (and that includes personal “work” like email, paying bills, picking up daughter from preschool, etc). This gives me 5-6 hours of discretionary time every evening for family, leisure activities, Toastmasters, reading, journaling, etc. And best of all, I still have energy during this time. Having time for everything that’s important to me makes me feel very balanced, relaxed, and optimistic.
Think about what you could do with that extra time. Even an extra 30 minutes per day is enough to exercise daily, read a book or two each month, maintain a blog, meditate daily, cook healthy food, learn a musical instrument, etc. A small amount of extra time each day adds up to significant amounts over the course of a year. 30 minutes a day is 182.5 hours in a year. That’s more than a month of working full-time (40 hours per week). Double it if you save 60 minutes a day, and triple it if you save 90 minutes a day. For me the savings was about 90 minutes/day. That’s like getting a free bonus year every decade. I’m using this time to do things that I previously didn’t have the time and energy to do. It’s wonderful.