Your alarm goes off at 5am, and you immediately get out of bed without a second thought. As you orient yourself to the waking world, you can barely detect any lingering grogginess, even if you look for it. You stand up and stretch, feeling totally alert, fully conscious, and eager to start your day. The thought of going back to bed to get some extra sleep seems completely alien to you.
It feels great to be up early, and you know you’ll put those early morning hours to good use. You’ll be able to exercise, shower, get dressed, eat a healthy breakfast, read some inspiring material, and invest an hour in your home-based business — all before 8am. And you know that the habit of starting each day this way will serve you well for life.
Maintaining this habit is easy for you. You don’t have to force yourself out of bed, and it doesn’t seem to require much discipline at all. It feels normal and natural to be alert and active at this time.
If this scenario closely matches your current daily reality, you can stop reading now. But if it sounds like pure fantasy, then read on…
Waking up groggy
During my teen years and well into my 20s, I would usually wake up feeling very groggy in the morning. Even after sleeping 8-9 hours, I could have kept right on sleeping. A couple of my siblings were the same way. To get them up before noon required dragging their covers off. We only got up early when we had to, never by choice.
I wasn’t much good during those morning hours. I’d go through the motions of getting dressed and having breakfast, but I didn’t feel my brain was fully online yet. Since I was raised Catholic (I know — I’m mostly recovered now), every Sunday morning my parents would take us to church at 7:30am. Most of the time I sat through the mass in a half-conscious zombie state. I think they made the pews hard and uncomfortable to keep people from napping… but I’ll leave the rest of the Catholic commentary to George Carlin.
From grog monster to early riser
Fast forward to the present, and I’m a habitual early riser. Since I work from home and set my own hours, I can sleep in as late as I want. But I get up at 5am by choice. I like being up before dawn and getting an early start each day. It’s very easy to maintain. It feels like the path of least resistance.
If you’re so groggy you can’t get up before drifting back to sleep, you don’t need a new alarm clock. You don’t need to move your alarm clock across the room. And you don’t need a spring-loaded bed. What you really need is to address the factors that are making you wake up groggy in the first place.
I’m going to share what worked best for me in gradually converting from an AM zombie to an alert early riser. These tips will expand on and add to what’s already been covered in How to Become an Early Riser, How to Become an Early Riser – Part II, and How to Get Up Right Away When Your Alarm Goes Off. Those articles focused on building an effective strategy for getting up early. This article is about what you can do to ensure that when you do get up early, you feel alert and awake instead of tired and groggy, so you can develop early rising as a long-term habit.
This is the most important principle of all. If your current method of getting up each morning doesn’t feel right to you, then admit that it sucks, and try something else. If it’s not working, stop doing it. And for goodness sakes, don’t complain about it, since that can’t possibly help.
If you wake up groggy, it doesn’t mean you’re broken. It just means you’re making some physiological mistakes, and those mistakes can be corrected. The only way to get there, however, is to try something else. And if you’ve never been able to wake up feeling totally alert, then most likely you’ll need to try something you’ve never done before. If you aren’t willing to do that, you’re doomed.
As you experiment, seek improvement, not perfection. All you really need is to find some minor tweak that works a little bit better, and repeat. Some of the changes I’ll suggest may sound radical if you think about implementing them all at once, but those radical steps represent a lot of little changes accumulated over a long period of time.
Be patient in developing this skill. There’s no rush. If you can become an early riser in your teen years, that’s incredible. It wasn’t until my 30s that I felt I’d really mastered it.
Decide you’ll make it
Like most people, I oscillated between that enthusiastic feeling that I’ll be able to find a way to do this vs. that sinking feeling of having to admit that maybe I’m just not biologically suited for it. I kept making one push after another, but I could only get up early for a few days in a row at most before the fatigue would overwhelm me, and I’d crash.
If you’re fighting overwhelming fatigue or if getting up early seems virtually impossible, let me suggest that your approach may be wrong. Yes, there will be an adaptation period if you’re shifting your wake-up time, but it shouldn’t require an inhuman amount of discipline. It should only be mildly challenging. If the challenge level is too high, you’re tackling the problem from the wrong angle. Motivation is important, but technique plays a major role too.
Here’s what success in early rising looks like. You wake up early, and you feel wide awake and very contented. There will be some variation from day to day, but overall you’re alert and functional. As you get up, it feels like your conscious mind is going through a rapid boot-up process. You may remember having an interesting dream. You’ll also begin to think about the coming day. This all happens within a matter of seconds.
When you decide to make it, be sure to hold the right goal in mind. Forcing yourself out of bed while feeling like a zombie isn’t the goal to shoot for. I had a real breakthrough when I decided I wanted to get up early AND feel totally alert when I got up. That may sound like a very basic distinction, but being able to hold the correct intention in mind was a key step. If you have mixed feelings about getting up early, then sort through those feelings until you can paint a picture that feels right to you. Make success a matter of when, not if.
Fix your diet
Diet and sleep are inextricably intertwined. If you think you can master your sleeping habits without improving your diet, you’re deluding yourself. Seriously.
Unfortunately most people — Americans especially — consume a truly hideous diet these days, filled with hormone-laden animal products, artificial ingredients, sugar, caffeine, salt, white flour, and heavily processed junk. An unhealthy diet will tax your endocrine system (which is responsible for hormone production), and that is going to prevent you from enjoying restful sleep.
What works well for me is a whole foods vegan diet, heavy on the raw fruits and veggies. When I went vegetarian in 1993, I was able to feel well rested with less sleep, and I woke up feeling more alert. Then when I went fully vegan in 1997, there was another improvement. As I explained in Why Vegan, the energy difference is the primary reason I converted to such a diet.
Just as you may wake up with a hangover if you consume too much alcohol, you’ll suffer from other types of hangovers if you consume mood-altering substances. Two of the worst are sugar and caffeine. If your diet is high in caffeine and/or sugar (especially in the forum of corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup), do yourself a favor and conduct a 30-day trial without them. I notice that if I have just one cup of coffee in the morning, I won’t sleep as deeply the following night, it will take me much longer to fall asleep, and I’ll wake up feeling a lot more groggy — almost 24 hours later. (For specific ideas on quitting coffee, see How to Give Up Coffee.)
If you’ve been messing with your physiology by consuming excessive sugar, caffeine, processed foods, etc, I highly recommend you fix your diet first before attempting to master your sleep habits. Otherwise you’re only going to frustrate yourself. Two and a half years of feedback from readers attempting to become early risers has taught me it’s almost a rule that waking up groggy and eating a crappy diet go hand in hand. Keep in mind that in the USA, the average diet is an extremely crappy diet. I think that’s why people who wake up before dawn feeling totally alert tend to be considered overachievers, freaks, or genetically gifted. From the early risers’ perspective, it seems like everyone else is drugging themselves into a stupor.
At the opposite extreme, people who are fasting often report needing much less sleep. I had a friend who was really into juice fasting, and he told me he’d only sleep about 4 hours a night during a fast.
I encourage you to experiment to find the best diet for you, which may or may not be similar to mine. Find out which manner of eating helps you feel best in the morning. I could overload you with all sorts of dietary statistics, but I don’t suggest you model your diet on statistics. Let personal experimentation be your guide, and notice how you feel when you eat different types of food for an extended period — and especially how you feel when you wake up each morning. If you awaken feeling totally groggy, try eating different foods for a while.
Eat lightly at night
This could be considered a corollary to the above, but it’s important enough that it deserves special attention. If your body must digest a heavy meal while you’re sleeping, your sleep will not be as restorative, and you’re far more likely to wake up groggy the next morning.
Social conditioning may have taught you that a big dinner is the way to go, but for the real truth, you must consult your body. Even if you’re not a strict vegetarian, I highly recommend you try steering clear of animal foods for your evening meal. They take the longest amount of time to digest and are very likely to make you groggy the next morning.
Fresh fruit is perhaps the ideal food to eat for your last meal, especially low-sugar fruits like tomatoes, avocados, peppers, and cantaloupe. Personally I’m not a big fan of having nothing but fruit for dinner, but when I do, I usually don’t need as much sleep, and I almost always wake up feeling more alert. So regardless of what my mind has to say about it, my body clearly likes it.
A very close second choice for an evening meal would be fresh veggies, especially a big salad. After that would be lightly cooked veggies. The less processed your evening meal, the less energy it will take to digest, and the less it will disrupt your physiology. If you eat crap before bed, you can expect to feel like crap in the morning.
You’ve probably heard the advice that you should stop eating at least 2-3 hours before bedtime. If you normally eat a heavy dinner, that advice will help a little. But I can eat a large fruit or veggie salad right before bed, and it doesn’t seem to disrupt my sleep. I think it’s because our bodies are so well suited for fruit and veggie consumption. Such meals require very little energy to digest compared to other foods, so they don’t strain our internal resources and disrupt our sleep.
This is an area where I encourage you to experiment a lot. Try eating a very light dinner tonight, and see how you feel the next morning.
Even before I went vegetarian, I noticed a major improvement in my sleep patterns when I started exercising aerobically on a daily basis. I suppose the current term for aerobic exercise is “cardio,” but I don’t like that word because it invariably triggers my trendy-words-that-make-me-vomit filter. It’s right up there with Web 2.0.
You’ve probably heard this advice before, but there’s a difference between hearing advice and applying it. So go apply it, and get thine ass to the gym. At the very least, run around the block for 25 minutes each morning. If you don’t do it, you don’t know it.
When I’m exercising aerobically every day for at least 20 minutes, I can shave a good hour off my sleep each night, which more than compensates for the exercise time. I wake up feeling more alert and energetic too. But the best part is that I enjoy better concentration and alertness all day long. It works way better than caffeine… and without the crash.
I’ve also done weight training for months at a time, both with and without aerobic exercise. Despite the other benefits of weight training, by itself it doesn’t seem to benefit my sleep patterns and morning alertness. It doesn’t seem to hurt my sleep either though, even when I’ve trained vigorously with major soreness.
Be aware that marketers frequently attempt to manipulate exercise trends to boost product sales. You won’t normally see inexpensive exercises like running getting much promotional attention (unless it’s to sell you an iPod to listen to while running). Try not to be swayed by the marketing fluff, and go with what works for you, whether it’s trendy or not. If you feel compelled to spend money on your health, buy the best organic produce you can find, and keep your daily exercise cheap and simple.
Get up at the same time every day, including weekends
This was mentioned in the original early riser article. Getting up at the same time every day is pretty important when you’re first establishing the habit of early rising. In the beginning it’s too easy to fall off track, so I suggest that you get up at the same time every single day for at least 30 days. If you feel compelled to sleep in on weekends, you’re probably doing something wrong. Again, it should feel good to get up early. If you’re doing it because you want to, and it’s working, it will feel normal and natural to do it every day. If you think you need a cheat day, something is definitely off. Why would you cheat yourself out of something you like doing?
After you’ve been waking up energized for at least a month to establish the habit, doing it every single day isn’t critical. If I want to stay out late one night, I might sleep in until 6:30 or 7:00 the next morning. But the next day I’m back on schedule with no trouble. My normal bedtime is between 10 and 11pm, but I can stay up well past 1am without much difficulty if something stimulating is happening.
Last week Erin and I were in New York City, and my sleep schedule was all over the place during the trip. Some mornings we got up early, while other days we slept in until 8am. But upon returning to Vegas, I had no trouble getting back on my original sleep schedule. New York City (Eastern Time) is 3 hours ahead of Las Vegas (Pacific Time), so I was normally waking up earlier than usual on this trip. I’m not sure how easy it would be to re-adapt if we went to Hawaii instead. I’ll have to test that soon. 🙂
I recommend using an alarm clock unless you can set very reliable mental alarms. I still use an alarm clock every morning, but now it’s more of a conditioning maintenance device rather than a wake-up device. I probably don’t need an alarm to keep getting up early at a relatively consistent time, but since I conditioned myself to get up when the alarm goes off, it’s just part of my routine. I haven’t put much effort into building skill with mental alarms, largely because the alarm clock solution already works fine.
Go to bed only when you’re sleepy
This was also mentioned in the first early riser article. Instead of going to bed at a fixed time each night, stay up until you’re sleepy.
If you’re lying awake at night for 30 minutes or more trying to fall asleep, I’d say you’ve gone to bed too early. Get up and read for a while. When you start to nod off while reading, it’s time for bed.
Most nights I can fall asleep within a few minutes after lying down. If I’m not sleepy, I stay up until I am. Sometimes I’m ready to crash at 9:30. Other times I’ll stay up until 11:30. But most of the time the onset of sleepiness occurs pretty close to the same time, which for me is between 10 and 10:30. I perceive it as a gentle nudging that tells me if I lie down, I’ll be able to fall asleep fast.
In the first early riser article, I explained that if you start going to bed when you’re sleepy and get up at a fixed time each morning, your body will eventually adapt. For clarity I should add the caveat, “… if you aren’t excessively screwing with your biochemistry.” Much of the feedback I’ve received tells me that most people can adapt to becoming early risers within about 3-5 days. That’s how long it takes them to hone in on a fairly consistent bedtime that gives them enough sleep to feel well-rested the next morning and not feel sleep deprived during the day. However, the ones who eat a really poor diet or who drink alcohol every night rarely make it past the third day; they almost invariably give up.
Develop a pleasant morning routine
If you don’t like the way you spend your mornings, you may suffer the problem of waking up without getting up. A good morning routine can help remedy that. It’s important to have something to look forward to that makes you eager to get out of bed.
My usual morning routine is pretty basic, but it works for me. After I get up, I shave and put on my gym clothes. Then I head for the gym, do my workout, return home, shower, and dress. After that I’ll usually talk to Erin and the kids for a bit and have breakfast.
I like going to the gym, so it serves as a good reason to get out of bed. I know that exercising will leave me feeling even more energized.
This is a rich place for experimentation. Some people like getting up and working on a home-based business for an hour or two. Others like to meditate first thing in the morning. In this particular area, the rule is to do whatever works for you. If playing your favorite video game for an hour helps motivate you to get out of bed early, try it for a few days and see how it goes.
If your morning routine ever becomes boring, change it. Any effective routine may eventually stop working for you. Do whatever is necessary to keep it interesting.
What about an evening routine? It’s common advice that having a relaxing routine for winding down before bed will improve your sleep. For me it doesn’t seem to make much difference. I can enjoy a lot of variety and activity in my evenings, and I still sleep just fine and wake up alert. A stable evening routine can help compensate for a stressful lifestyle, but otherwise I don’t think it’s that important. Feel free to experiment with an evening shutdown process to see what works best for you.
Make it so!
Early morning alertness is a great habit to develop, and it will serve you well for decades. Don’t settle for that no man’s land of waking up groggy while your chemically wrecked body refuses to budge. Mastering your mornings will set the tone for your entire day. Once you’ve experienced how good it feels, you’ll never want to go back.