2020 Disclaimer: I don’t do this anymore. It worked great until it didn't. Six hours of sleep isn't sustainable for me, and getting to bed by 9:30pm is harder than getting up at 4:30am.
The moment the alarm goes off is the first test; it sets the tone for the rest of the day. The test is not a complex one: when the alarm goes off, do you get up out of bed, or do you lie there in comfort and fall back asleep?
-Jocko Willink in Extreme Ownership
I’ve never been a morning person. For the first thirty-odd years of my life it felt damn near impossible to wake up before 9:00. However, for the last few months I’ve been getting up at 4:30.
It’s been hard, hard, hard. I’ve fallen back asleep so many times. But after months of iteration, I’ve finally got a routine that gets me out of bed and gives me 60 to 90 minutes to work on an important-but-not-necessarily-urgent task before the rest of the world (namely, my daughter) wakes up.
Our sixteen month-old daughter wakes up between 6:00 and 7:00. That time is an immutable fact of nature. It doesn’t matter if I stayed up late working. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t sleep well. It doesn’t matter if I went out to a bar for the first time in months and had one more drink than the two I can handle these days.
She still wakes up.
It took nine months to accept this. I used to use Emma’s crying as an alarm clock. I’d stay in bed as long as possible, grasping at every last snooze I could get. “Let’s wait ten more minutes and see if she falls back asleep.” When I finally conceded and went in her room, I’d steal a few more minutes on the floor.
Every morning, I woke up on someone else’s terms. Every morning, I was grumpy for being robbed of the thing I most desperately craved. Every morning, I was grumpy towards my daughter.
My friend Ryan Evans is the founder of ByteSizePR, Source Sleuth, and Tend.io. He also has three kids under the age of five. I asked him over breakfast one morning how he manages to get anything done.
In his humble, matter-of-fact manner, Ryan told me that he gets up at 4:30, makes himself some tea, meditates for ten minutes, then walks to Starbucks and spends 90 minutes on the most important task of his day. After that, he goes back home to help the kids get up and ready for school.
No matter how far off the rails the rest of his day goes, Ryan knows that he’s moved the most important ball forward at least a little bit. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, 90 uninterrupted minutes is more than most of us get on the highest priority task on the typical day at the office.
Ryan made me see the value of greeting the day on my own terms. I realized I could either begrudgingly be woken up at 6:30, or I could choose to get up at 5:50, squeeze in a shower, and get conscious before getting Emma. So I started experimenting with that about five months ago.
4:30 still seemed a bit absurd though.
Jocko Willink is a retired Navy SEAL. I was introduced to him via his interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast. Tim’s a big fan of morning rituals and often asks his guests what the first sixty minutes of their day looks like. It was here that I first heard Jocko talk about getting up at 4:30, but it was his book, Extreme Ownership, that made me think I should do the same:
If you have the discipline to get out of bed, you win – you pass the test. If you are mentally weak in that moment and you let weakness keep you in bed, you fail. Though it seems small, that weakness translates to more significant decisions. But if you exercise discipline, that too translates to more substantial elements of your life.
I learned in SEAL training that if I wanted any extra time to study the academic material we were given, prepare our room and my uniforms for an inspection, or just stretch out aching muscles, I had to make that time because it did not exist on the written schedule… The only way I could make time was to get up early. That took discipline.
There are things I want to do with my life (e.g. write this post) that simply don’t happen between 9 and 5. I used to do those things between 10pm and 2am, but those hours don’t exist for me anymore. If I want extra time, the only place to draw from is the morning. If I want to accomplish those tasks, I need more discipline.
It was when I started following Jocko on Twitter and seeing the tweets of his watch every morning that I decided to go for it:
I tweeted at him on one of those early mornings and was pretty tickled when the commander of the most decorated Special Operations unit of the Iraq War tweeted back:
Two thoughts on this:
- You can’t tell me that Twitter isn’t amazing.
- I bet “tickled” isn’t a word often associated with Jocko.
Unfortunately, the “How” is more complicated than “Wake up and get out of bed.” It’s taken months of iteration to find a routine that:
- Gets me out of bed at 4:30
- Keeps me from falling back asleep on the couch or floor
- Results in a productive use of the morning
Every step of the routine is critical. Each one is a specific response to a point in the process where I have succumbed and fallen back asleep. Before we go into detail though, let’s talk about The Blerch.
(if you liked that, you should check out Matthew Innman’s other works.)
The Blerch lobbies for low-effort, high-instant-gratifications decisions. In that category, nothing beats going back to sleep in the morning. The Blerch is very persuasive – especially to my weak-willed morning brain.
The trick to winning the morning is a chain of low-friction decisions that build momentum until my brain comes up to full strength. Ask too much of the Brain before it’s ready and the Blerch wins. But offer something that’s only marginally more effort for only marginally less gratification, and the Blerch will concede.
9:30pm the night before
The evening is about reducing friction:
- Close all apps on my computer except for the thing I want to work on in the morning.
- Grind coffee and fill the electric kettle with water.
- Lay out tomorrow’s clothes on the bathroom counter.
- Set silent FitBit alarm for 4:29am.
- Set alarms on my phone for 4:30am and 4:50am.
- Leave my phone charging in the bathroom. This alone has been one of the most valuable hacks of last year. No phone in bed means more sleep.
- Read fiction on the Kindle in bed. Typically, I’m out after 15 minutes.
FitBit silent alarm goes off. Wakes me 50% of the time. Otherwise, phone alarm goes off in the bathroom. Wakes me 100% of the time.
This kicks off a series of negotiations with The Blerch.
“Hey Blerch, how about instead of letting that alarm wake up Emma – which will eliminate all opportunities for further comfort this morning – we get out of bed with all possible haste and turn it off?”
Everyone’s cool with this plan.
I throw off the covers, bolt to the bathroom, and turn off alarm. Then I immediately turn on the shower while The Blerch is distracted. No effort required to rotate that handle.
Eyes barely open. Brain grasping for justifications to go back to bed. I can’t really describe this state as “awake.” Essentially, that alarm has relocated the “Do I get up?” decision from lying in bed to standing in the bathroom.
It feels like too much effort to undress and get in the shower. But it also feels too defeatist to turn off the shower and walk back to bed. So I procrastinate.
“Hey Blerch, how about instead of walking all the way back to bed, we just stand here and browse Reddit on this phone that’s already in our hand?” The Blerch never says no to Reddit.
Starting my day with screen consumption isn’t awesome, but my brain is so out of it that it really doesn’t matter. Nothing is retained.
“You know Blerch, there’s a hot shower running two feet behind us. If we just took off this shirt and pants, we could stand in there and close our eyes. It’s basically the same as going back to bed, but warmer.”
The offer I used to make was, “… and we can stay in there as long as we’d like,” but then I was taking 40 minute showers. Hence the 4:50 alarm.
“Hey Blerch, there’s an alarm about to go off. We still don’t want to wake up Emma, right?”
Exit shower. Dry off first and then pick up the phone to turn off the alarm (that’s happened in the wrong order before). Put on the clothes that are on the counter in front of me. Brush teeth and take meds. Walk to the kitchen and feed the dog, lest she start asking for food and wake the baby.
By now my brain is 75% awake. But the battle is not yet won.
“Hey Blerch, you like coffee right?”
This is a critical moment. For weeks, The Blerch was winning 50% of the time. I’d be like, “Okay, I’m up. What do I do now?” and The Blerch would be like, “Why don’t we just lay down for ten minutes while we figure that out?” It has never, in my life, been ten minutes.
I realized that waking up isn’t enough. If it takes too long to figure out what to do next, or if the gap between effort and gratification is too great, The Blerch wins.
I tried following Ryan’s lead, but the coffee shop across the street doesn’t open until 7:00.
I tried eating breakfast, but why burn fifteen minutes here when I can do that with Emma?
I tried meditating, but I always end up asleep on the floor.
I tried going to the gym, but I always end up asleep on the couch. Too much effort for too little gratification. (I’ve fallen asleep with my coat on.)
I failed. A lot. And you know what? That’s okay. I kept telling myself that the most important part was building the habit of getting up and showering. If I could just get that foundation in place, I could build on it. And now, two months later, I think I finally figured out what comes next.
“Hey Blerch, how about we sit in that comfy chair and open our laptop?”
The Blerch loves sitting in a comfy chair with a laptop open. But it’s hard to fall back asleep with an open computer on my lap (it’s happened though).
My brain is awake enough to be productive, but hasn’t been awake long enough to be thinking about a dozen different things. I’m surprisingly insusceptible to social media at this hour. I know that the clock is ticking. I know that I’ve done the hard part and that it’d be a shame to put in all that effort and then piss away these precious first minutes of my day.
Writing is the activity of choice at the moment. Sometimes something for my personal blog. Sometimes something for Twilio. I’ve always been enamored by Jerry Seinfield’s “Don’t Break the Chain” method but the missing piece was protected time to do the work.
Now I’ve got that time. No one’s scheduling a meeting. No emails are arriving that can’t wait until the rest of the country starts doing business. So long as I keep doing my part, I’ll keep having time to write.
Few quick points.
First, none of this happens if not for my wife, Rachel.
If I get back in bed, she knows it – and I’m always trying to impress her. She often takes care of the little things like grinding the coffee beans the night before and reminding me when I don’t plug in my phone. She keeps clean clothes in the closet and the house uncluttered so that there’s less decision fatigue. When Emma wakes up early, Rachel puts her back to sleep. Like many, many life improvements over the last five years, this one simply wouldn’t be possible without Rachel.
Also wouldn’t happen without Emma. It’s only after I accepted that I’ll never again sleep past 7:00 that 4:30 started to look attractive.
Second, you’ll notice on that FitBit chart that I’m averaging six hours of sleep. This is, obviously, less than generally recommended. I’m not going to lie: I’m tired. I think it’s something that every new parent comes to accept – you’re just going to be tired.
A quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has one of the more impressive list of accomplishments of my lifetime:
I’ve always figured out that there are 24 hours a day. You sleep six hours and have 18 hours left. Now, I know there are some of you out there that say “Well, wait a minute, I sleep eight hours or nine hours.” Well then, just sleep faster.
Also related to Arnold: when I can no longer pull the “sleep more” lever to feel less tired, I have to be more intentional about diet and exercise.
That said, there are some mornings when, for whatever reason, I got to bed late and give myself guilt-free permission to fall back asleep on the couch. I want getting up and showering to be automatic – something I just do. But I need to be realistic about what the rest of my day looks like on less than five hours.
I also need to be conscious that sleep deprivation can trigger the mental health issues to which that I’m prone. (Thanks to Sean Firoitto for reminding me of this). Time will tell if six hours is sustainable.
Finally, I can’t overstate the importance of giving myself permission to fail. If the metric of success had always been, “Get up at 4:30 and write for an hour,” I would have given up weeks ago. But constantly saying, “It’s okay. We got the first 20 minutes right. Let’s try something different tomorrow,” has been the difference between longterm success and failure. Ultimately, this is about what the next ten years look like more than what happens on any given morning.