Does the phrase wake up early make you want to curl up and sleep some more? If you feel the word morning has too much a.m. associated with it, you’re not alone. After spending more than half my life a night owl, I slowly transitioned to being an early bird—a lark. Not to sound too hyperbolic, but it has been one of the most positive, life-altering decisions I’ve made.
The question of whether to be an owl or a lark is such a hotly debated subject. This issue seems to energize (and polarize) people across the board. And it isn’t just laymen and women who evince keen interest in this topic. Subject matter experts in areas as diverse as science, productivity, and spirituality, feel equally strongly (each with theories to support their positions).
I know there isn’t one right answer on whether it’s better to be an owl or a lark. That said, early mornings are exceptional and have some naturally powerful qualities that make them worth your consideration.
My point is this: it’s possible to become a thriving morning person even if you’ve always considered yourself a night owl. Mornings are worth a shot. So, please don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. You can always go back to burning the midnight oil.
So, whether you’re already in the lark-camp, or merely an owl curious about larks, read on.
This post, Part 1 of the Early Mornings series, contains ten tips on how to wake up early. In Part 2 (coming soon), I’ll discuss effective early morning routines to make the most of your mornings (waking up at 4 a.m. to scroll through Instagram is NOT worth it).
First, a short anecdote.
I was never a morning person growing up. There were very few mornings I had woken up at what I (and I’m sure many people) think of as "ungodly" hours.
I spent one such morning at a relative’s house in India with a family of early risers. The dad took the kids out to the park at six a.m. Forced by norms of social compliance, I reluctantly woke up from my beauty sleep and went with them.
I was surprised to see the park teeming with people engaged in varied activities—socializing, meditating, working out. I was struck by a severe case of FOMO (decades before the acronym was coined). It felt like the world was busy doing while I frittered away my time sleeping.
Post vacation, I tried to maintain the early morning wake-up routine, but that lasted all of two days. Quickly I returned to my old ways of being a night owl. The sun always won the who-rises-first battle.
I was convinced people belonged in one of two inconvertible camps—larks or owls. And I was quite content to do nothing to challenge that belief.
Owl to a lark
I maintained my night owl status for many years until a severe case of jet lag once forced me wide awake at five a.m. As I lay in bed forcing myself to sleep some more, my mind seemed to whisper to me. “Carpe diem,” it said. So I got out and enjoyed a productive day before a carb-fueled dinner sent me back to bed by nine p.m.
The jet lag lasted a few days, so I kept the new schedule up. But by then, I was hooked! I had started to crave those productive early mornings.
I’ve never been in awe really of sports, movie, or rock stars. Never fervently followed a celebrity’s life. But I’ve always admired people that wake up early and get stuff done. The productive sorts? They are my kryptonite.
I was keen to do everything in my power to keep my body clock tuned to this new schedule.
And so, I started to read up (and to this day am still reading) on successful morning routines. There’s a lot of inspiration there! Using those tools and techniques, I became, dare I say, a “morning person.” A lark instead of an owl. Who’d have thought?!
I soon found out it wasn’t just life coaches and productivity experts proselytizing the glory of early mornings. Proponents of the superpower of early mornings come from all walks of life, religion/spirituality, sports, and education, to name a few.
Here’s one example that stuck with me and changed how I viewed mornings.
The Hindu / Vedic tradition refers to pre-dawn moments as “Brahm-Muhurt” (creator’s hour)— a period of 1 hour and 36 minutes before sunrise. During this time, creative and spiritual activities supposedly have a vastly more significant impact than at any other time during the day!
Other world religions echo similar sentiments. The Old Testament points to divine activity in the morning. Islam places equal importance in the Fajr, the first prayer to Allah before sunrise. Zen Buddhist monks start their days around 3:30 a.m. in meditative silences. The Sikh tradition emphasizes meditating during the pre-dawn Amrit Vela.
Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but I figured if ancient spiritual practices world over uphold the superpower of mornings, who am I to question authority?
But more significantly, early mornings worked well for me. And I’m not alone in singing its glory.
The early morning brigade
What do early risers, McDonald's and the US Army, have in common? This slogan:
We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.
That’s not hyperbole. Early mornings are the perfect self-care time to do what YOU want before the bustle of the day starts to set in, and everyone can lay claim to your time. Metaphorically speaking, they are airplane announcements urging you to put on your mask first before helping others out.
I, for one, totally value the morning silence. I cherish the feeling of knowing I can pause and plan my day rather than react and play catch-up throughout the day.
Early rising helps with my control-freak tendencies too. I feel grateful and blessed. I know this sounds very woo-woo, but I feel more connected to the soul of the earth in the early hours of the day than at any other time.
Over time, I have also figured out how to make mornings more productive. For the first time in my life, I grasped the true potential of the power of twenty-four hours in a day. It has been life-altering, to put it mildly. I’ll get more into that in Part 2 of this series on creating effective morning routines.
But for now, let’s work on how to get out of bed when the alarm goes off.
How to wake up early?
Here are ten foolproof ways to make early mornings a daily habit.
These are grounded in science and not based merely on fads or clever-sounding hacks. I have personal experience with most of these techniques and can vouch for them.
1. Early to bed
Let me be crystal clear: No amount of hacking your wake-up routine will help you get up in the morning if you don’t get adequate shut-eye the night before. The importance of sleep cannot be overstated. I (and science) have so much to say on this subject, so I’m going to write a separate post on it.
For now, suffice to say that everyone needs a minimum of 7-8 hours a day to function well. Telling yourself otherwise is wishful thinking.
Ideally, you should sleep in one continuous 7-8 hour cycle. But if that’s not possible, a restful nap (more than a powernap) may work during the day to make up for your sleep deficit. This isn’t as effective as uninterrupted night-time sleep, but you could make it work on some days.
2. Ban the snooze
If I had a magic wand, I’d ban the snooze functionality on devices, especially alarm clocks. But that’s just me. And for the record, I’m not a vicious or merciless person (mostly).
When your alarm goes off in the early mornings, please do not hit the snooze button. Doing so simply prolongs the agony of having to wake up early.
Once you hear the alarm go off, your sleep is already disturbed. Snoozing puts your brain and body into limbo where you lose the benefit of sleep and simply confuse and daze your brain.
3. Walk to your alarm
Putting your alarm out of arm’s reach or, better still, where you actually have to get your feet on the ground and walk a few steps to turn it off can be very helpful, especially in the initial days as you train yourself to wake up early.
The physical movement of walking signals quickly to your brain that you’re ready to move on with the day.
For those with a strong heart: If you have the combination of an obnoxiously loud alarm that goes off within hearing distance of other family members that like to sleep in, you’ll learn very soon to run (rather than walk) to your alarm in the morning to turn it off. (#experience). That will jolt your brain enough to be fully awake by the time you turn the alarm off. Of course, it isn’t the most pleasant way to wake up, but let’s focus on content over form initially!
Note: Be thankful I’m only asking you to walk. I’ve heard of more extreme suggestions to get you to fully wake up, such as getting off the bed and doing ten jumping jacks right away. I say “no, thank you” to such suggestions, but each her own.
4. Awaken your brain
It’s usually the few nanoseconds after you turn your alarm off that determines whether you go back to bed or not (assuming you’ve had enough sleep already - see step 1).
While most people think willpower has a considerable role to play here, I beg to differ.
Once you wake up early, you need to give your brain something more tempting than the bed to look forward to.
Think of something that excites you and makes you want to wake up. It can be as simple as the smell of coffee or some activity you have planned for later in the day.
As humans, we experience the world through our senses. So anything that invigorates our senses—a picture of a beautiful beach setting, or dabbing a soothing aromatherapy hand cream, is what we need to be focused on as soon as we wake up.
Another tip here: we love shiny objects. So you’ll have to keep changing your object of stimulation every few days. The coffee may excite you for a week when you have a new espresso maker, but after that, it isn’t going to be strong enough compared to the lure of a cozy bed!
On the flip side, try not to think of anxiety-provoking thoughts, especially those that make you want to go back to bed and curl in a fetal position. I know that’s easier said than done, but with practice and good morning routines, it’s possible to delay those anxious thoughts for a while.
5. Get lit
For all its complicated neuro wiring, this is how the brain translates visual stimulus.
Light = Wake
Dark = Sleep
As soon as you turn the alarm off, go somewhere you can turn a bunch of lights on. The more you can make it look like a floodlit stadium, the better. Not to annoy others, but because of science.
Increased melatonin is one of the critical hormones that causes us to sleep. Here is how it works:
Light enters the eye through the retina, which stimulates the optic nerve to send signals to a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN then triggers the brain to reduce melatonin and increase wakefulness. So, the more light, the more stimulation to reduce melatonin and therefore, a more awake YOU!
For precisely this reason, at night, you should do the reverse, i.e., reduce your exposure to light, so the SCN can signal the body to increase melatonin and induce sleep.
Another related trick worth a try is to use a wake-up light alarm clock. These devices have gained massive popularity in recent years for precisely the reason I mentioned above. The devices increase light stimulus which helps with wakefulness.
The wake-up alarm lights do have a downside when you have a spouse/partner who doesn’t want to wake up at the same time you do. Unlike an audible alarm that blares once, the light-based alarms have different lighting levels and gradually increase the light intensity over an hour. This makes it hard-to-ignore not just for you but for anyone else in the room with you. So, be warned, and don’t blame me for any relationship issues, if you go this route!
6. Be consistent
Set the alarm for the same time every single day. Waking up at 4 a.m. a few times a week and sleeping until 10 a.m. on other days is quite unhelpful. The body does not know the difference between a weekday or a weekend. Setting the same sleep/wake time each day will help your circadian rhythms regulate consistently.
Yes, you will need to engage in tradeoffs, especially in the early stages of forming this new habit.
That Bridgerton binge on Friday night? Can’t happen. Other casualties may include needing to walk out of a rocking party when your spirit is still in it so that you can get to bed on time.
Remember, when you wake up early, you are trading off to get to a better place in life (you need to convince yourself of that first).
8. To Caffeine or not
That’s a personal choice. I’m pro-caffeine and proud of it. Some folks believe just in the power of cold water. You’re welcome to do whatever floats your boat! There are no hard and fast rules. These are simply supplements to keeping you awake once you wake up early.
9. Device use
Now, this is a controversial subject. I used to be a huge advocate of going device-free for a couple of hours after waking up. That’s because reading the news or my emails within fifteen minutes of waking up just made me anxious and interrupted my morning zen time.
Not to mention the slippery slope that can happen once you turn on your devices—it’s hard to turn them off. Before you know it, your five-minute email catch-up session will turn into a two-hour doomscrolling session through the dark web!
That said, I now have gotten into the habit of doing the NY Times word puzzles or crossword with my morning coffee. It gets my brain going and makes me feel more awake. I finally have the discipline to put my phone away when I’m finished with my coffee, regardless of where I’m at on the puzzle.
For beginners, though, I highly recommend staying away from devices until you complete your morning routine. More experienced morning practitioners may consider doing something interesting (such as puzzles or inspiring reads) early in the morning to trigger creativity.
10. Patience and trust
If you’re someone that goes to bed at two a.m. every night, you’re not going to be able to turn around and start waking up at five a.m. within a few days. Start with small modifications to your schedule by advancing your sleep and wake-up times by 30 minutes every few days. You will eventually get to your goal, but you need to trust the process and have some patience.
So, I guess what I’m saying is this: There is a lot to be gained by waking up early. There is no harm trying, especially if you’re the kind of person that says, “I’d be a morning person if mornings started at 11:00 a.m.”. Remember: you always can go back to being a night owl.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to protect your sleep through this process, though. You can attempt to become a 5 a.m. person, but it requires you not to binge on Netflix until midnight before. You cannot possibly burn the candle on both ends and expect it to be sustainable or productive. It is critical to reconcile an early-wake schedule with an equal and opposite early-sleep plan to gather any benefits.
The bottom line is that you are never too old, never too late to attempt habit changes. The tools are here. All you need to bring is the right attitude!
In the meantime, I'll wait here for your 4 a.m. "Eureka moment" texts.