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Up at 5:30am, and Leaning into the Pain

My mom likes to tell this story.

My extended family was pretty close growing up. I was close with most of my cousins. Every month or so, we’d all get together to celebrate birthdays and holidays. I have three brothers, so we hosted these parties often.

Most (normal) kids, when having the opportunity to hang out with and play with their cousins, will beg to stay up late and keep the party going all night.

Not this guy.

When I was a young boy, I’d hit a point where I’d just… get tired. So I’d put my pajamas on, go say “good night” to my parents, and crawl into bed.

Never mind that there were usually half a dozen other kids in the room playing with the lights on. I’d just go to bed anyway. Why not? I was tired.

So as far back as I can remember, I have loved to sleep.

So why did I get up at 5:30am this morning?

My goal in life is to be a prolific writer. I want to write a lot, and I want to write often.

Between journaling, writing and publishing my own books, blogging, and ghostwriting for clients, my career depends on me being prolific.

Like any sensible person, I Google “how to be prolific” or “how to be a prolific writer” and I start reading all the tips. I study the daily routines of some of the most prolific and talented writers in the world.

And they get up early.

They get up and they write. Or they get up and exercise, then write. They wake with the sun… or even before.

The same is true of most of the high achievers and the most disciplined people that I have found and admire.

Jocko Willink. Benjamin Franklin. Robert Iger. Pretty much every successful CEO out there.

It makes total sense. But ugh… early rising?

You can imagine how this sleep-lover was crushed.

But I knew I had to do it. It’s a habit I need to cultivate. I’ve started in fits and stop, and I have never quite internalized it.

Today, however, I got up at 5:30am. And the reason why it worked today might be the key to unlocking this habit for me.

It’s not just about “getting things done”.

My original reasoning for getting up early is that I’d be able to squeeze a few more hours out of the day. Makes sense, right? If you get up at 5am instead of getting up at 7am, you’ve just snatched two more hours per day, or ten more hours in your workweek.

However, this wasn’t enough motivation for me. When the alarm clock would fire off, I’d still find a reason to turn it off and justify going back to sleep.

Last night, I watched a few videos by the aforementioned Jocko Willink (one of my favorite personalities ever), and high achievers like Tony Robbins.

What they discuss is not just having more hours in the day, but the opportunity to channel your energy and set yourself up for success the rest of the day.

Getting up at 5:30am this morning meant I was getting up before my wife and kids. Yes, I enjoy the quiet house. Yes, I did a little writing. But getting up early allowed me to start the day by taking control of it. I made the decision to start the day. I didn’t start the day because my 4-year old son was crawling on me.

That attitude switch alone is very powerful. Instead of starting the day by having something happen to me, I started the day by doing something proactively.

That sets up your brain to do powerful things. As I write this, I’m over 600 words in and it’s only 8:30 in the morning. My brain is already primed to take action because I took the simple action of getting out of bed.

When I got up, I tried out a routine that seems to have really worked for me:

First, I immediately took a shower to wake myself up. I’ve tried to get up and immediately work, and it doesn’t work for me. At all. I sit down with my laptop to write and – wouldn’t you know it? – I fall back asleep with my fingers on the keys.

Showering allows me to blast my body with some water to freshen me up, smell some soap, and get invigorated. I can start my shower with my eyes closed and gradually wake up in there if I want to.

While in the shower, I ended it with a blast of cold water. My love for sleep is rivaled only by my love for hot showers. So this was intimidating. But cold showers can have a psychological effect on you. I didn’t do it for very long – only about ten seconds. But instead of limping listlessly out of the shower, I was panting heavily and all my muscles were clenched. If I wasn’t awake before the shower, I certainly was afterwards!

Then I dressed for work. Because I work from home, that just meant a good t-shirt and shorts. But again, it’s all about psychologically setting myself up. Being dressed for work by 6am instead of still in my sleep clothes at 8am is a powerful switch.

When I got downstairs, my laptop and notebook were already set up on the kitchen table. I opened up my laptop and fired up my “Motivation” playlist on Plex, which is about 25 minutes of really upbeat, inspiring music. I use this playlist for workouts, but today it was just about infusing a little more energy into the day.

Then I grabbed a few strips of bacon and tossed them in a pan on low heat to get them started. A good breakfast loaded with protein would be essential, and I had the time to make one.

While the bacon was heating up, I did a modified version of a 10-minute process Tony Robbins calls “priming”. First, I did some breathing exercises, then thought very intensely about something I was grateful for. After that, I thought very deeply about three things I wanted to accomplish today. It’s something of an active form of meditation, and it worked pretty well.

I also pounded my second glass of water for the day. I know energy levels are low in the morning because of dehydration and there are loads of benefits to drinking some water right away to start your day.

The bacon was still heating up, so I then wrote in my journal a little bit. Once done with that, I focused on making a nice breakfast and doing a little fun reading. After some fried egg whites, three strips of bacon, two small pieces of toast, and a glass of lemonade, I felt like I was ready to take on the world. And it was only 6:30am.

I cleaned up my dishes, wiped down the counters, and headed upstairs to help with the kids, who were awake now. Once everybody was sitting for breakfast, I could get ready to leave for the coffee shop.

And now, here I am, writing away.

There were some setbacks.

It sounds like this was simple and everything worked out right away! New routine, new life!

Of course, it’s not that simple.

I still went to bed later than I wanted to. I think I was asleep around 11pm. I’d like to get that closer to 10:30pm at least. And I woke up with a crippling stomachache around 12:30am that kept me up for about half an hour or so (related to some other health issues).

And I am still figuring out my Phillips Wake-Up Light. I love this thing because it wakes me up without waking up my wife or kids, like a blaring alarm would. But my 5am wake-up time actually turned into 4:40am because I had the thing cranked up so high. I’ll have to back that down.

Between waking up at 4:40am and the half-hour interruption after midnight, I actually wound up getting up at 5:30am. So there’s still work to do.

But this was a good start, and it’s something that I can see offering major benefits for my work and my life.

Key takeaways to making it work for you.

I have no idea if this will work for you. I’m not a morning person and it worked for me. But maybe it won’t for you. I don’t know you. That’s up for you to decide.

But if you want to make it work, here are some keys that worked for me today:

  • Have a reason to get up beyond “get more stuff done”. Waking up early is as much a psychological game as it is a time management game. Tell yourself that you’re getting up so that you can make more out of the hours that you already have, not just have more hours. It’s the chance to set up your day and be proactive.
  • Get a wake-up light. Some of them are loaded with features and cost a lot of money. This one was affordable and works just fine. I’ll be honest, I popped out of bed at 4:40am. I was pissed that I was up that early, but I was up. I was even tempted to stay up, but I’m trying to make a habit out of 5am right now, and my goal was to focus on that. But shoot, these things work really well, and extra bonus if you have a wife and kids. You’ll get up and they’ll stay sleeping. That’s a win-win for everybody.
  • Put your backup alarm in the other room. I used to keep my phone’s alarm set for 5 minutes after my wake-up light and on my dresser across the room. But of course, I got really good at getting up and turning it off without waking up, and then crawling back into bed. This morning, I put it down the hall in the bathroom. So to beat the alarm, I had to get up, leave the room, and literally be standing next to the shower to turn it off.
  • Find an activity you can start while still asleep and will be awake when done. Some people go for walks in the morning. That’s a great way to do it. But I live in Wisconsin, and there’s a good 3/4 of the year where going for a walk in the morning probably won’t happen. I used to go for runs, but running wore me out, so I was still tired by the end of the run. And I enjoy afternoon running in the sunshine. For me, showering works pretty well.
  • Make as many decisions as possible the night before. I picked out my clothes and put them in the hallway next to the bathroom last night so that I didn’t have to tiptoe around the bedroom to get dressed, trying not to wake my wife. All I had to do was get out of the shower, towel off, and get dressed. Eliminate friction wherever you can. Remember when I said my computer and my notebook were waiting for me on the kitchen table? Also not an accident. All I had to do was sit down and start writing.
  • Focus on your mindset, not your to-do list. I didn’t want to get up and write 1,000 words for my book. I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. Instead, my entire focus for the morning routine was about setting up my day. I was focusing my energy, focusing my brain, and just training myself to get into a place of productivity and gratitude. I was tired, but it put me in a good mood. I feel worlds different right now compared to mornings when I sleep in and have to start working hard at 9am.
  • Lean into the pain. Jocko Willink – who gets up at 4:30am every day – recently posted that getting up early hurt for “18 seconds” and then you go about your day. I tried to focus on that. The 18 seconds part isn’t important, it’s just important to know that, if you just push through the pain, it will go away.
  • Know yourself. This is a big change, and it’s going to require a certain amount of discipline. Set up your environment and your schedule in a way that’s going to work best for you. Make it easy, make it rewarding, and make it all about you. Don’t make it about the work. You’re doing this to take care of yourself, not to “get more things done”. Getting more things done is the byproduct that will happen naturally.

What about you?

Are you an early riser already? Have you tried it and failed? Or are you like, “screw that, I’m getting my sleep!”?

[Side note: it’s not even 9am and I’ve already showered, journaled, meditated, eaten a really good homemade breakfast, interacted with my family in a positive way instead of slugging around like a zombie, and written 2,100+ words. So maybe there’s something to this.]