How many times have you heard the advice to get up early? It’s either why productive people get up insanely early, or famous artists who get up early, or why getting up early is the secret to success.
I actually don’t have an issue with this advice because I’m naturally an early riser. I’m one of those people who can’t stand to wake up late in the morning, because I feel like the day has passed me by already.
No, my issue was always with the particular branch of early rising advice that suggests waking up early to write. Being a writer and an early riser already (it’s a common trait for writers—perhaps that’s no coincidence), I scoffed at the many blog posts I read suggesting I wake up extra early to write.
Like someone trying to quit a bad habit, I kept telling myself I could get up earlier if I wanted to. But I wasn’t convinced I’d get any benefits from doing so. After all, I write all day anyway. Why get up extra early to write more?
Recently I decided to try this experiment for myself. I started getting up at 6am to write. I make a coffee, then write until 7am, when I shower and start my day normally.
Although I don’t succeed in doing this every morning, I’ve been surprised how beneficial it is, and I’m convinced it’s worth building into a daily habit.
Productive by 7am
I love feeling like I’ve gotten a lot done. One of the best things about writing first thing in the morning is feeling productive before I even hit the shower. After making a coffee, I usually get 40-45 minutes of solid writing time. I use it for writing only (no researching, polishing existing drafts, etc.), so I can usually write about 1000 words in a morning.
Waking up my brain
One thing I’ve always had against the idea of writing first thing in the morning is that I’ll feel groggy from sleep. I always thought I needed time to wake up before I could create anything worthwhile. Turns out, Hemingway’s quote is true in more than one sense:
There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write…
Not only do I warm up physically as I write, my brain warms up, too. By the time 7am rolls around, my thinking is clear and I’m ready to face the day.
Working on my own stuff
Remember how one of my objections to getting up early was that I write all day anyway? What I missed was the difference between working on my own projects and working to pay the bills. When they use the same skillset it’s easy to not prioritize your own projects.
Since I started writing in the morning, I’ve been able to publish a new post on my blog every Friday, and launch a new content project.
Thinking in words
Investor Paul Graham says writing helps you form ideas:
Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.
I’ve found this to be especially true when I write first thing in the morning. Writing for myself when it’s dark and quiet, I’ve been able to let go of the pressure I normally feel when writing for others, or for work. It’s the only time I let myself rhapsodize about whatever I want in my writing.
Because of this approach, I’ve found I can explore interesting ideas first thing in the morning and use writing to help me think things through and come up with new ideas.
Why you should try it
These are all benefits I’ve found, so they may not apply to you. But if you’re thinking of trying “Early wake, daily write”, as Sean McCabe calls it, there’s plenty of evidence that says it will probably be good for your health as well as your writing.
Early birds tend to feel happier and healthier than night owls, which may be linked to the fact that work and social hours are more closely aligned to an early bird’s waking hours. Early birds also tend to be more proactive and feel in control of their lives.
Early risers also tend to have better diets, eating less fast food and more fruits and vegetables. Night owls are more likely to put on weight due to their tendency to consume more calories late at night before bed.
Of course, waking up early won’t necessarily change any of these factors, but waking hours could be related.
About 50% of your chronotype, which determines whether you’re a morning lark, a night owl, or somewhere in between, is predetermined by genetics. So you can change your sleeping habits slightly, but a dramatic change might be more difficult, or at least uncomfortable. For instance, Sean McCabe gets up early on workdays, but as soon as he goes on vacation he reverts to his natural night owl tendencies.
The answer isn’t necessarily to wake up earlier. Working against your natural chronotype can be detrimental to your health. But if you really want to adjust your sleeping habits, try to expose yourself to natural light during the day, which can nudge your chronotype into earlier sleeping and waking hours.
How I did it
Although I like waking up early, my new experiment hasn’t come easy. I started it as winter was just giving way to spring, so the mornings are still cold and it’s hard to leave my bed before the sun has come up.
So far, here’s what has helped me:
If you’re trying to wake up several hours earlier, you might want to stick to Leo Babauta’s advice and move your alarm back 15-minutes at a time. Because I only wanted to wake up an hour earlier than usual, I moved my alarm back to 6am immediately. For a couple of weeks I slept through it consistently, but out of laziness I left it set to the same time. Eventually, the persistence worked, because I’m now getting up at 6am 2-3 times per week.
Before I write a word, I make a coffee. There’s something rewarding about sitting down to write with a fresh coffee next to me. This is one of the bargaining tools I use with myself when 6am seems to early to get out of bed. The other is reminding myself that I notice a difference in my productivity and my mood on the days I drag myself up early, so it’s definitely worth it.
Waking up before getting up
Sometimes I’ll wake up at 6, but struggle to get out of bed because it’s warm and comfy in my bed. I doubt many people would back this up as a good idea, but by accident I’ve found that when I lay in bed checking notifications on my phone, reading emails and catching up on Twitter, the mental effort and the bright screen help me to wake up. After about 15 minutes of that, I’ll usually give in and get up, because I can’t immediately fall asleep again, anyway.
Preparing topics ahead of time
Sitting down to write at 6am is not the most pleasant experience. It takes some time for my body and my brain to wake up. By the time 7am rolls around, I’ve definitely hit my stride. It’s just a matter of working through the sleepiness.
Preparing a topic ahead of time so I can just sit down and ramble makes it much easier. The question of what to write about is not one I want to focus on first thing in the morning.
Waking up at the same time every day
I have an alert on my phone that goes off at 6am to remind me to take a pill. Every morning I wake up and take my pill, even if I’ve had a late night or it’s the weekend. Many times (including every weekend morning) I go straight back to sleep, but the regular wake-up time has conditioned my body to be able to wake up at 6.
Going to bed later
This last one is counterintuitive, so it took me a while to try it. Initially I thought going to bed early would help me get up earlier, but it didn’t work out well. I tend to be ready to go to sleep by around 8:30 or 9pm, but this means I often wake up too early—around 4 or 5am. Knowing that it’s too early, I go back to sleep, and end up sleeping in until 8:30 or 9am. This makes me feel tired from sleeping too much, and it sets my day up badly because I don’t start work until late morning, but I still run out of energy by dinner time.
Now I usually stay up to read until 10 or 11pm if I can manage it, which gives me around 7-8 hours of sleep if I get up at 6. That’s just right, and I find it’s much easier to wake up early (if not get out of bed) when I go to sleep later.
If you’re still scoffing at the benefits of waking up early, I don’t blame you. It doesn’t work for everyone. But I do suggest at least trying it out for yourself over a few weeks. The worst part of building a habit of waking up early to write is the experimentation. What works for you won’t be quite the same as what works for anyone else, so you need to be willing to give it time and try different things. If you see the positive changes in mood and productivity that I’ve seen, it will be worth it.
Image credits: Harvard Business Review