An Ode To The Early Riser – Why And How To Start Waking Up Earlier

 

For most of my short time on this gigantic rock hurtling through space, I have not been an early riser. I have detested mornings. I have viewed them with a contempt that was typically reserved for only truly terrible things in this world. Things like people who don’t say thank you when you hold the door open for them.

Mornings were, for the most part, nothing more than a necessary scourge that must be tolerated in order to make it to the only part of the day that was enjoyable: the drinking hour(s).

It’s always been this way. Growing up I looked forward to sleeping in until 10, 11, or even 12. Even though for much of high school I was so busy with extracurricular activities like sports and academic competition that I regularly had to get up early enough to make it to the school by 6:30am.

And this continued on into college, only those early morning hours were filled with bars, drunk food, going home with strangers, and ping pong tournaments that rival what you see in the Olympics. Ask any of my old roommates. I took ping pong very seriously.

Fun fact: My Mom nearly called the police one time during my freshmen year of college because I was dead to the world and needed to go file some paperwork for financial aid. At around 1pm I finally shook off my hangover and found something like 20 missed calls.

Yeah, I enjoy sleeping in.

I always knew people who got up early. I had friends who enjoyed starting their day at 6am while we were still in college, and I always looked at those people suspiciously. They had clearly fallen and suffered catastrophic brain damage at some point or another. Nobody in his or her right mind would actually enjoy getting up that early.

But I have a confession to make.

In a terrible, no good, downright awful twist of fate; I have become a morning person. Nay, I have come to look forward to the mornings so much that it genuinely bothers me if I’m not waking up early.

And just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about getting up at 6am. Most of the world is up by 6am. No, I’m talking about getting up at a far more sinister hour.

Monday through Friday I get up at 4am.

How did this happen? How did I find myself starting the day bright eyed and bushy tailed before most of the world hasn’t even rolled over to hit the snooze button? It’s a story I’m sure a number of trainers can relate to.

A few years ago I took on a new client. High school kid who was a really talented baseball player. He was busy after school, so the only time we had to meet was before school. We settled on 5:30am, and for well over 2 years that was our schedule.

When we initially started I was still very much so of the opinion that mornings are terrible and should be dealt with accordingly, i.e. slept through. So I would drag my ass out of bed at 5:00am, get down to the gym, which was only a few minutes away, and pound coffee until we started.

But if you’ve ever been a trainer, or worked with a trainer in person, you realize that you can’t exactly look like death warmed over for your early morning sessions. The client has made a commitment to you, and you to them. They can roll out of bed and show up. You cannot.

Recognizing that this severely unprofessional behavior could reflect poorly on me, a week later I engaged in one of the most painful acts of self-flagellation imaginable and set my alarm for a time that began with a “4”. I figured an hour would be enough for me to casually drink coffee and catch up on SportsCenter.

But not long after, something weird started happening; something that would shake me to the very core of my being, and force me to look in the mirror and wonder if I recognized the person staring back at me.

I started to recognize that I actually cherished these mornings. Getting up early and having a quiet hour where I didn’t have to speak to anyone, text anyone back, or take care of any other bullshit obligation we place on ourselves in the modern world was oddly freeing.

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We often hear about being hyper-connected and how in response, some people do these radical things like tech sabbaticals in order to get away from the connectivity of the world.

For many of us, that’s just too far. We can’t bear the thought of going without tech for an extended period of time. But there’s still something deep within us that longs for not being a slave to our cell phone. The early mornings provided that for me.

Realizing how good this was for my mental health, I pushed the ball forward a bit. I set my alarm for 4am and let it ride. I got up at 4am, made my coffee, and read for about an hour before starting my workday.

Mornings became my secret weapon.

When I talk to a lot of friends, clients, or people in general and they find out that I get up long before dawn, there’s usually a look of utter disbelief; which I get because I felt that way for a long time as well.

But I also have a number of friends, mostly trainers, and entrepreneurs, who get up at the same time as I do. And I’m here to tell you that there’s an unspoken bond amongst us that rise so early.

It’s like being a part of this weird fraternity that gladly engages in masochistic behavior because they know they’ll be better for it. There’s a feeling that you’ve got an advantage over the entire world because you’re up long before them.

This feeling is hard to understand unless you’re showing up at a gym at something like 5am. There’s a level of respect amongst everyone in the gym at that same time. You all share a look as if to say, “Yeah, we suffer to get here. But we’re here, and we’re giving ourselves an advantage because of it.”

Just so you don’t think I’m making this shit up, one of my friends, Eric Bach, who, like me, enjoys drinking far too much alcohol and coffee, but also gets up absurdly early had this to say about the power of early mornings:

Morning is the ultimate focus time. When you get up early there are no emergencies. There is no rush. It’s dead quite, uninterrupted time for you to knock out the most important task of the day. For me, every hour before 7 am is worth two hours in the afternoon.

And is it any surprise the most consistent personal training clients want early time slots? No. Getting up early allows you to live a life unrushed and make serious headway on your goals.

Building in a buffer.

One of the most obvious benefits of getting up early that I noticed immediately was the buffer it provided for the rest of my day. No matter what sort of shitstorm life may cook up, I know that I had my morning.

Even I can’t get some of the things done that I originally planned on, I had my morning routine, which meant I got at least an hour of reading done and answered a few emails.

But what about staying up late?

Of course, the argument can be made that staying up late is just as good as waking up early, and from a pure time perspective, this is correct. Regularly staying up until 2-3am is likely going to afford you the same amount of time in the day as waking up at 4am.

Along with that, I was someone who thoroughly enjoyed staying up late, and at times I still do. There have been more nights than I can count where I’ve been up past 3am with a drink in my hand and writing something that may or may not ever be published.

They are not the same.

For one, lots of the world still stays up late. That’s a fact. No matter where you are, you’re going to find more people who are up late than you’ll find people who get up unreasonably early.

That mere fact alone is removing part of the innate super power in getting up before dawn has even considered cracking. Half of the magic is in knowing you’re doing something that nobody else is doing.

On top of that, there’s magic in knowing that you’re subjecting yourself to a strenuous life. Or, as Teddy Roosevelt, my favorite historical figure, so eloquently put it:

“…the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

Getting up long before the rest of the world has even thought about rising affords you a certain advantage in life. You have more time. You have the innate knowledge that you’re doing something others aren’t, and this knowledge alone instills a confidence that other people can’t take.

No matter what happens, by 8am you’ve likely gotten more done than 99% of the world, and whether or not you’re big on competition, that knowledge alone is powerful to think about.

So you want to join the club?

You’ve decided you want to be an early riser, eh? Well, I will be the first to congratulate you on joining our ranks. We aren’t many, but what we lack in numbers we make up for in vigor.

Here’s your early morning action plan.

  1. Determine your definition of early. We might have entirely different definitions of early. I’m fully aware that 4am is a time which most of the world is still asleep, and might be for another two hours or so. Figure out what early is for you.
  2. Easy your way into it. Remember, I had 3 different wake up times on my journey to 4am. You can go big from the jump, but it won’t be easy. Get acclimated to getting up somewhat earlier than normal, and work your way up from there.
  3. Be dogmatic about your bedtime. At 10pm I am in bed. Often times it’s before that. But no matter what, I am in bed at 10pm, which guarantees at least 6 hours of sleep. Figure out your bedtime and defend it like it’s your own Castle Black.
  4. Have a plan for how you’ll spend the mornings. It’s entirely understandable for you to be gung-ho about all the extra time, but if you don’t have a plan of action, you’ll end up just mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. Read, write, or find something that will improve you as a human. Do that immediately.
  5. Find accountability. Early on accountability for me was easy. If I didn’t get up, I missed a training session. Make a bet with someone, set multiple alarms, or schedule a wake-up call.

Just be aware that what you’re getting into is not going to be fun in the beginning. Hell, at times it’s still not fun. But it will become necessary. It will make you feel infinitely more productive. And you will become a better person because of it.

Plus, when we see each other we can rejoice in the fact that we’re a part of the select group of people who willingly subject themselves to torture in the name of being a better human, and there’s something awesome about that.