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11 Reflections on Trying to Be an Early Riser

I recently grabbed a free subscription on Zinio for a handful of magazines, one of which I signed up for was Esquire. In the January issue of this year, a group of people were interviewed from a variety of walks of life on what they’ve learned in their lives. The range of people included former boxer Jake LaMotta, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, model and tsunami survivor Petra Nemcova, actor Mandy Patinkin, and Milwaukee police officer Lt. Brian Murphy.

One interesting interviewee was former California governor, bodybuilder, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now, Arnold has become something of a punchline in recent years, which I attest to the endlessly-cynical nature of our society these days. Truth is, regardless of your political views, Arnold is a great story. He was a hard working bodybuilder and successfully transitioned into a worldwide sensation and recognized actor. The guy was a household name, and even parlayed that into a political career.

I’ve made it a goal this year to get serious about being an early riser, and one quote in Arnold’s interview caught me by surprise in that “I never thought of it that way”-type of manner:

“The day is twenty-four hours. I sleep six hours. That leaves eighteen hours to do something.”

Man. Think about that. EIGHTEEN hours. Take eight hours of work, and that’s TEN hours a day to get something done. To get anything done.

That quote really kicked me in the butt. I’ve taken on a big, more serious workload this year, and I’m sick of feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day. Ten hours is a long flipping time.

So here’s what I’ve been doing: I’m a firm believer in listening to your body when you do things. So since January 1st, I’ve been keeping a detailed sleep log – the date, the time I turn off the lights, the time I wake up in the morning, and how I’m feeling when I wake up. I put a star next to the mornings where I’m happy with the time I woke up and how I feel, and try to notice some trends.

Here are my reflections on my efforts so far this year – both successful and unsuccessful.

It’s freaking hard.

It really is. Changing your sleep schedule is not easy, and I imagine that winter is the worst time to try it. In Wisconsin, the sun doesn’t rise in January until after 7:00am. That means that 5:00am (my target wake time) is as dark as midnight when I wake up. That’s hard. Last night, I turned off the light at 10:30pm and couldn’t fall asleep. At 11:00pm, I went downstairs to the couch and read for half an hour. After 11:30pm, I went back to bed. This morning, I managed to get out of bed at 5:00am. Five and a half hours of sleep. Not my normal sleep time, but I had to gut it out, because…

You have to be strict with yourself.

Give yourself an inch and you’ll take a mile every time. Looking at my sleep log, I’ve been shooting for 5am. Here is just a small sample of the various times I’ve woken up:

  • 8:30
  • 6:00
  • 7:00
  • 8:00
  • 8:45
  • 9:30
  • 5:00

See what happens when you give yourself an excuse? I talked myself into staying in bed repeatedly. You know how I got up this morning at 5:00am for the first time this year? I told my wife, who gets up for work at 4:45am, to walk into the bedroom after she gets out of the shower and turn the light on. That would give me until 5:10am to get up on my own terms. So which would I rather have? Get up and turn on the light when I’m ready, or be shocked out of bed by somebody else? That little extra layer of accountability got me up and out. No excuses – it’s either get up or lose.

The only way my body is going to adjust to getting up at 5am is if I get up at 5am. You know, your body will only adjust to something if you start doing it. Exercising, eating healthy, getting up early, and so on. You have to give your body the chance to get used to it.

How do you adjust to a cold swimming pool? You get in. How do you adjust to a hot tub? You get in. Your body won’t get used to it until you let it.

My mood changes when I get up early.

Even the mornings I woke up at 6am, I felt a sense of accomplishment. A sense of productivity. I feel like I’m getting stuff done. When I sleep in, I’m crabby. I feel rushed. I feel like I’m not getting stuff done. I feel like I can’t do my best work. That puts me in a bad mood for the rest of the day. I don’t like that.

When my wife comes home from a hard day’s work, I don’t want her to greet a scowl on my face. I’d rather smile and show her that I’m happy to see her home. That means I need to get up early.

I have an increased level of control over my day.

When I get up at 8:30am, I look at my to do list and say, “Okay, what needs to get done right away? What do I have to do first?” When I get up at 5am, I can look at my to do list and say, “What do I want to start my day with?” It’s a freedom thing. It’s a control thing. Both of which make me very happy.

I have a crazy amount of time, even going to bed early.

Looking at my mock-up of maximizing my time, when I get up at 5am, I have the following breakdown:

  • 9 hours of productive work-related activities
  • 1 hour of exercise
  • 1 hour of lunch
  • 1 hour of breakfast/shower
  • 3 ½ hours of quality time with my wife
  • ½ hour of guitar playing
  • 1 hour of “fun reading”
  • 7 hours of sleep

Look that over again. Reviewing my sleep log has revealed that I feel best after anywhere from 6 ½ to 7 ½ hours of sleep. So I’m getting enough sleep for my body. I can work for nine hours. I can get quality exercise time, and I get to take an hour lunch. I get great quality “shutoff” time with my wife. And I can be in bed by 10pm. That’s almost the perfect day.

I get more crap done.

Again, I’m more productive from a mindset standpoint. I can choose what I do and when. And I have a lot more time to do it. That is the absolute definition of productivity.

It relaxes my afternoon.

That schedule gives me five hours in the morning to do my more “intensive” work. That gives me the freedom (there’s that word again) to relax and do the more “fun” and less mindful things in the afternoon hours. So when people eat a big lunch and they struggle to get back to work, I don’t have to worry about it.

5:00am is a different world.

It’s quiet. It’s relaxed. It’s subdued. It’s a great atmosphere to read, write, pray, and warm up to the day.

It’s an amazing feeling.

Not much to add to this point. It feels amazing to be sitting down to eat breakfast at 7:00am and know that you got two hours of mindful work under your belt.

It’s doable.

It’s work. It’s hard. It’s tiring. It takes a long time to adjust. I haven’t even gotten there yet. But I can do it. I know I can. So could you, if you want to. Like most things, this is not impossible.

It’s necessary.

Most importantly, if I want to be a successful copywriter, add valuable content to this site, market myself, read piles of books, read blogs, practice copywriting, learn to play guitar, write a book, and have a social life, then that means I need to set myself up to maximize my time. This is one way that’s working.

What do you think? Are you an early riser? Do you want to be? What are your challenges in doing so?

hard work, productivity, sleeping