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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

A Night Owl’s Guide to Getting Up Earlier

a bed next to a window in bright sunlight
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Right now, as I am typing these words, it is 6:45 AM.

The sun is rising, half covered by wisps of clouds. My room is dark, except for an encouraging flicker in the belly of my fireplace. There’s a hot mug of coffee—perfectly swirled with cream—at arm’s reach. Not a soul is stirring. And I have the entire day before me.

This moment? It’s a minor miracle.

Because, for most of my life, “rising with the dawn” has not been my modus operandi. At least, not willingly.

I was an early riser as a teenager—out of necessity, not desire. Early morning classes, a lengthy school bus ride, and an even lengthier ritual of systematically flat-ironing my hair to rigidly flat perfection (don’t ask, I was 15) meant regularly prying my eyes open at 5 AM.

My early morning habits began to erode once I entered college, where I had the option of choosing which classes to take and when (“anything after 9 AM, please!”).

And after college, at my first salaried job, I found myself blessed with a boss who didn’t really care what time I showed up to work, as long as I got my work done. It was a fantastic amount of freedom, and I took full advantage—frequently hitting the snooze button and scrambling into the office just a few ticks before 10.

And today? I run my own business, which offers even more freedom and flexibility. Which could have easily resulted in sleep-all-day-marathons, disaster, and financial ruin.

Except that it didn’t.

Because I’ve slowly retrained myself to be a “morning person.”

These days—well, OK, most days—I wake up earlier, swing into a burst of productivity, and often finish the majority of my work for the day by 2 or 3 PM. Which means the rest of the day belongs to me. And that’s a whole new kind of freedom.

Yep, I’m becoming an early bird. And this time, it’s on my own terms.

If you’re fantasizing about becoming one of “those people”—bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, ready to carpe the diem—here are my tips on how to crack the dawn.

Frame It as an “Experiment”

Tell yourself, “I’m setting my alarm for 5 AM for the next five days. I don’t have to do it forever. It’s just an experiment.”

If you’re highly motivated by peer pressure (I mean, um, “community support”), try starting a new Twitter hashtag—#earlybird or #dawnwarrior or #5AMfocus—and encourage others to join the “challenge” with you.

Find a Guiding Question

Many of history’s most inspiring writers, creators, and leaders—from Benjamin Franklin to Michelle Obama—are devoted early birds.

Franklin began each morning by meditating on the question: “What good shall I do this day?” Find your own guiding question, and let it inspire you to get up, get out there, and be of service.

Work From Bed

For many, the hardest part about waking up and getting out of bed is the “getting out of bed” part. So don’t! Winston Churchill spent the first three or four hours of each day working from bed, reading stacks of mail and dictating responses to his secretaries.

A four-hour work-in-bed-fest may not be realistic for you, but perhaps you could sneak in a 30-minute inbox-clearing session before the first hint of dawn. (Pillows are the best coworkers.)

Start the Night Before

It sounds obvious, but getting a good night’s sleep makes it much easier to have a good morning!

“Most Americans are chronically sleep-deprived,” says Dr. Susan Mathison, a double-board certified physician and sleep specialist. She recommends this:

“Remove all blinky lights from your bedroom, or cover them up—especially blue lights, which disrupt your body's melatonin levels, making you feel alert and awake when you want to feel sleepy.”

Roger. Blinky lights, be gone! Doctor’s orders.

Pour Some Inspiration Into Your Coffee

Surround yourself with phrases and quotes that keep you committed to your new lifestyle. I love this one from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”

Love—always the best reason to get up in the morning!