Waking Up Early

Waking up early is probably the most popular topic amongst the personal development blogs. Not to mention the fact that is almost the first thing you hear during a personal development seminar: I will teach you how to wake up early, my friend. It’s the “Hello World” of the personal development (“Hello World” is the first application you build when you learn a new programming language). I have to admit that I was quite busy with this too, back in my early personal development endeavors.

So, why is this so important after all? Why waking up early? In today’s post I’d like to focus on the reasons behind this popular topic as well as on some of my own techniques to accomplish this.

No Time Mindset

With all due respect, I think that waking up early comes from a “I have no free time” mindset. Waking up early is for people who have daily jobs but want to win extra time on the side. Waking up early is a signal you send to yourself with the content: “free some of my limited, allotted time, and do it early in the morning”.

That approach changes your time perception. It makes time a finite resource. We may perceive time as a finite resource, but that’s only a convention. You know, when you’re in love, a second can seem like minutes and an hour can last days. When you’re bored, a whole day may pass in a second. We manipulate time through our perceptions. If we perceive time as infinite it will be infinite, the same as it is when we’re in love.

The empty goal of waking up early changes our time perception into a limited resource.

So, waking up early as a goal comes from a scarcity mindset. The underlying reason is: “I am in serious trouble with my time, I don’t have enough, I have to win some otherwise I won’t be well”. Lack of something is a powerful motivator and this motivator works for many of us. Especially when you can have some quick and visible victories. If you can create a habit of waking up early in a week, you’ll have some quick victories on your side and that will make some boost in your self-respect. You get the feeling you are not missing that thing anymore.

But the main question is: “what are you going to do with all that free time?”. I know people who were really good at creating the habit of getting up early but they reverted back to a different routine after several weeks, because… well, because they had no idea what to do with that free time.

So, if we’re going to wake up early, we need a better reason for that. We need to know what are we going to do with that free time, otherwise it won’t work. Or at least, it didn’t work for me. Waking up early must be a consequence of something much bigger than a habit, it shouldn’t be just a goal on itself.

Assess Your Time

What are you doing with your time throughout the day? Have you ever had the curiosity to write it down, to journal your time usage? I bet you’ll have some big surprises. It might sound awkward to journal every 15 minutes what are you up to, but if you can do it for just one day long, it will be enlightening. You’ll be dazzled to find out that your daily time is huge, you’re just not using it properly.

But, suppose you’re using it properly, but need more. If you haven’t notice it so far, I am using my Assess, Decide, Do life management framework for this. If you haven’t read yet the ADD series, feel free to do it right now and then come back here to read this post. By using this ADD approach, we’re going to traverse each of the necessary realms (from assessment to doing) until we’re actually going to implement the habit.

So, for now we’ll be starting in our Assess realm. Suppose we really have to do more (out of pleasure, for instance: we started a nice project, we love it, and want to do more of what we like). We gathered all the information we need.

Here comes the decision realm. We can decide to free up some time throughout the day, by eliminating some other tasks, for instance, or we may chose to free up some time from our sleeping routine. Again, suppose we’re not going to free time from the early night (which will result in going to sleep later than usual) and we decide to free up from the morning routine.

As you may see, this approach is really different from other DIY tutorials or self-improvement programs. We take a step back and first we assess the need for that specific habit. And then, after we have all the information from the assessment realm, we make a decision. And again, note that the decision could be quite different from our initial intention: we may find out that we’ll be better going to sleep later than waking up early.

Now that we assessed the need, took the decision, all we have to do is implement the doing part.

Waking Up Early – How To

In my experience, there are two ways to achieve this: brute force and gradual adaptation.

Brute Force

Back in time 20 years, for a personal story. At that time I was doing my military service in a Romanian city called Timisoara. We were still under a communist regime and military service was pretty bad. But out of nothing, during December, some people in Timisoara started a Revolution which ultimately led to the fall of the communist regime. Years after, that was to be called the Romanian Revolution. I didn’t have any idea what was going on in the city, but the most important result for me, as a soldier, was that I was forced not to sleep for 5 nights and 6 days.

That’s what I call brute force. From that event on I was able to manipulate my sleeping patterns much more easily. The duration of that sleep deprivation was so huge that made 2 nights of sleep deprivation in a row actually manageable. Of course, I was under extremely stressful conditions. But the main result was that I knew I was able to do it. Ever since I find it really comfortable to have 24-36 hours in a row without sleep, every once in a while.

Word of caution: I do not recommend to try sleep deprivation like this, it was just an example on how bigger and faster moves can make regular moves achievable. It was also something that took place in very stressful conditions and also generated very stressful effects, apart from this new ability. Sleep deprivation can be extremely dangerous for your health, and it is something you should know before starting a waking up early routine.

Another example for brute force is running: if you manage to run one day 10 miles, you’ll find the next day quite comfortable to run 3 miles, although your regular habit is to run only 1 mile.

I was applying this technique in my guest posting habits also. I never had a guest post in my entire life, but that was until last month, when I decided it’s time to start doing this. And last month I implemented an experiment called “Massive Guest Posting” (feel free to read the post for more info) during which I wrote and published not one, not two, not three, but seven guest posts. To make things a little bit spicier, each post was part of a series, was published on a different blog in a different city on the globe, but at the exact same time.

Guess what, now I’m finding pretty comfortable to write 2 guest posts per month, and that without affecting my regular writing routine for the blogs I already own.

Gradual Adaptation

Gradual adaptation is a cumulative technique in which you are making and assessing small progress each day.

It’s the 5 minutes per morning rule: put your alarm clock 5 minutes earlier each morning. If you do this for a week, you’ll have 35  minutes of free time. It’s important to assess the effects each morning, in order to see how much you can push. I know people who are able to push 5 minutes per morning for two weeks continuously. That gives them an extra 10 minutes aside the expected extra hour. Other seem to do it better in installments: 5 minutes for a week, than one week at the same hour. And then another week with the alarm clock 5 minutes earlier each morning.

Gradual adaptation works. Period. I never met somebody who didn’t get results from that. This is why is so spread as opposed to the brute force technique. I successful used gradual adaptation when I learned a new language and I found it much more appropriate than brute force. For instance, when I was in Japan I tried the brute force approach in learning Kanji. The result was a lot of frustration. I was so confident that once there I will learn my way out in one or two days that I totally neglected to learn some Kanji before getting to Japan. Once there, I was completely puzzled and despite my efforts I had to rely only on English signs for my orientation.


Waking up early works only if you have something to do with that hour. If you don’t, you’d be better sleeping more and hope you have some nice dreams. So, if you ever want to implement that habit, I highly suggest to give some meaning to that extra hour. Start a list of things that you have to do during that hour. And then do them.

34 thoughts on “Waking Up Early”

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  5. Very interesting post. I personally find that I need a lot of sleep 8.5-9 hours a night and when I sleep 7.5-8 hours per night (due to necessity) my performance suffers greatly.

    Now I understand that when you change sleeping habits, there is an adjustment period, but the previous statement is true (for me) even after that adjustment period is taken into consideration. I’ve tried gradual adjustments and rapid adjustments (not the same thing as brute force) and neither method worked well.

    So what point is there is having an extra hour in the day if you are operating a 25% capacity ? And is there a way to sleep less and still be able to perform at full capacity ?

    My current strategy is to aim to get up at a certain time (dictated by existing commitments) but let my body wake itself up naturally. ie don’t use an alarm. When I do this I still feel tired during the day, but because I woke up more naturally, the effect is minimised.

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  8. Fabulous post, on one of my favorite topics………..early rising habit :)! And all that with a fresh perspective. Thank you for pointing me here.

    By the way, I think of this as reverse. Is it just me? I think of an hour being a minute long when I am in love, and an hour seeming like several (longer) when I am bored (which is never, so let’s say when I am unhappy or waiting or frustrated ;))…
    ” You know, when you’re in love, a second can seem like minutes and an hour can last days. When you’re bored, a whole day may pass in a second.”

    Maybe my time perspective is really warped :)!

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Well, your time perspective proves once again that time is just a perception, not an absolute thing. I’m sure you’re not alone in this, there are several commenters up here who are experiencing time in the same way. Time is relative. Which I find to be great 🙂

  9. This is an interesting concept, but I’m not sure. Does forcing yourself to wake up earlier each morning really make you more productive? It’s part of a bigger picture of time management. Going to bed at a reasonable time that allows for a healthy night’s rest is probably more productive in the long run than scrimping a few minutes here and there. For me, it’s better to wake up and be excited and interested in doing something. And after completing the tasks you assigned to yourself then taking a moment to relax is weel deserved and perfectly healthy. If you have to push against your will to try to achieve something then you should take a very close look at your goal and whether actually achieving the objective is going to deliver a feeling of accomplishment that makes the journey worthwhile. Life is too short to battle uphill along the wrong paths.
    .-= baby gender predictor´s last blog ..Chinese Lunar Pregnancy Calendar – Fact, Fiction or Fun? =-.

  10. First words out of my mouth each day…Modeh ani lefaneicha melech chai v’kayam shehechezarta bi nishmati bechemlah – rabbah emunatecha
    I gratefully thank you, O living and eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion – abundant is Your faithfulness!

    Or if in a hurry, modeh ani for I am grateful. A great way to start each morning and head in a good direction

  11. Hey Dragos, great article. I think people get up early for different reasons. I have always been a morning person, I’m just wired that way. I love to see the day begin, there is just something about it that really resonates with me. I like 5:30 AM, it’s feels right. I could probably count the number of times in my life when I’ve slept past 8:00 Am on one hand. In the winter when it’s dark, I may sleep in till 6:30 but that’s about the latest.
    .-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..The 5 Dimensions of Knowledge =-.

  12. Hey Dragos!!

    haha, really liked your “it’s the hello world of personal development” description 🙂

    the benefits you outlined are definitely strong arguments… and journaling time usage like you suggest is a mind-blowing exercise. did the same with what i ate one day and that was almost as astonishing.

    question here is the quality of your time. i had 8am lectures in pure statistics (really difficult university course) and i decided not to go. it would have been incredibly beneficial had i gone in terms of the learning that would take place BUT it messed up the rest of my day and the downsides of being tired all day weren’t worth the benefit of going to the lectures… so i studied really hard and copied other people’s lecture notes and made it happen my way – while feeling well rested, i might add 😛

    the sleep derivation thing comes naturally. used to have nights and nights of it, steadied out now but definitely can relate. the running analogy was a good one, got me thinking.

    …my biggest ish with waking up early though is a mental block more than anything i think. i’ve associated feeling good with sleeping late. not late late, but 9am late…. not early as in 6am at any rate 🙂 i have a symphony of alarms and still don’t get up, and yet, as i spoke about in a post titled “why you never get anything done” on my site, when i had to take a friend to the airport at 5am, i woke up BEFORE my alarms went off. leads me to think it’s a mental thing entirely. whether you decide that waking up early is important to you or not.

    inspiring stuff. gave it a stumble.

    cool blog all round

    keep in touch
    alex – unleash reality

  13. I’ve always thought waking up early is a good incentive for a goal orientated mind, yet I find it doesn’t really matter much if you’ve got real desire for the goals. The only way waking up early would matter is if you had to do something you weren’t particularly happy with etc ^^ I tend to just get up now whenever I wake up.

  14. Hey Dragos! I absolutely agree on needing a reason to wake up, before even trying to embark on the task itself. For a while I tried the whole waking up early gig for the sake of waking up early, and it brought no results whatsoever because I didn’t assign a real reason for waking up early. Nowadays I just sleep 2-4 hours/day (without feeling tired), because it feels so great getting stuff done and I just want to keep doing vs. falling asleep! I wrote an article with 21 tips on waking early before actually, which can be found here – http://celestinechua/blog/2009/01/21-tips-to-wake-up-early/ (incidentally, the first reason is to find a purpose for waking earlier)

    By the way, I just changed my domain to http://personalexcellence.co, so I was wondering if you can help update my url. Thanks a lot for the link love Dragos!

    • Wow. And I mean: WOW! Are you a polyphasic sleeper? 2-4 hours a day are something really really unusual.

      Congrats on changing your domain, I think my blog will go through the same change pretty soon. 🙂

      • Hey Dragos! I’m not a polyphasic sleeper. I just sleep in the 2-4 hrs in one block. Actually sleep comes a lot from mental fatigue, so if we concentrate on releasing mental clutter (getting things done, releasing detrimental thoughts) there’s really not that much sleep needed. Usually the more I get done, the less I need to sleep.

        Thanks for changing the url! Can you also change the title of the link to my name? (Celestine Chua). I’m shedding off the old Embrace Living name – it doesn’t fit my vision anymore 😀

  15. Dragos, this is a wonderful post – as usual. However this is not true for me nor most other people in my exerience:

    “That approach changes your time perception. It makes time a finite resource. We may perceive time as a finite resource, but that’s only a convention. You know, when you’re in love, a second can seem like minutes and an hour can last days. When you’re bored, a whole day may pass in a second. We manipulate time through our perceptions. If we perceive time as infinite it will be infinite, the same as it is when we’re in love.”

    When I’m bored time crawls. When I’m having fun it flies.

    Other than that it’s great. Good morning! 🙂
    .-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..Don’t Be Offended =-.

    • Once again: when I’m happy, I lose track of time, completely. When I’m bored, I’m very time aware, I can count minutes, seconds, hours. When I’m enthusiastic, I feel like I’m in a different realm and I’m surprised to see that I was spent only 5 minutes reading some book paragraph, while this time in my internal clock seemed so dilated.

      That only proves that the perception of time is something so subjective.

  16. Interesting post!

    I think the benefit of getting up early definitely hinges on whether you are a “morning person” or not. Some people (myself included) simply find mornings, especially early mornings, are the best time to make decisions and do focus or concentration heavy tasks; like programming for example. Getting up early can simply be a way of maximising time at the productive end of the day.

    I’ve been getting up at 5am and going to bed at 10:30pm pretty consistently for nearly 8 years now. Provided I exercise, I still feel awake and full of energy. However I have found that I’m much more susceptible to colds and viruses. But that may have more to do with hard work and the stress associated with getting a business off the ground than getting up early every day.

    I also find maintaining a strict routine is absolutely key, even at weekends. If I go to bed 30 minutes later, or sleep in (like I did today) until 8am, I feel terrible and the effects take days to wear off.

    So as you’ve already said – it may or may not be a benefit and it’s a definite trade-off.

    • Hey Andrew,

      Glad to see you on my blog (as I am one of your customers for your great iBlueSky for iPhone mind mapping app).

      I knew that you had to have some strict discipline behind your work, didn’t know how strict was it. I know how it is to change this routine and I find it extremely difficult to get over the effects myself. Being on a raw food diet for more than 7 months really helped but after that, I still have to relyon self-discipline to stay on track.

  17. Hi Dragos,

    Wow- you touched on so much here.
    A few years back I was dealing with some very personal events in my life besides starting my business. My business was my focus and my escape from not having to dwell on emotional stuff.
    I would get up around 4AM to run my morning 5 miles. This was 7 days a week. I scheduled my time more and ate better. I think eating better came from having house mates that didn’t cook. 🙂
    When I had trouble sleeping, I would get up and work anytime of the night until I decided to run or sleep. I was productive and driven. It was how I dealt with my personal situation. Some nights 3 hours sleep is all I got.
    Never wrote it in a journal but never experienced sleep deprivation at this time.
    Now I need at least 10 hours sleep so it is funny how things effect us.
    I use to be a morning person then Thumper came into my life.
    During the week I work 40+. He works closer to 60.
    We have tried for the past 6 months to get up early but something always prevent the change, like work or staying out to late. The longest we have been able to stay on a earlier time schedule has been 3 days.
    Good subject! I do think it is different with each individual.
    .-= Bunnygotblog´s last blog ..In My Father’s Arms – Happy Father’s Day =-.

    • You are very determined person, waking up at 4AM each day is something really difficult, and I know it from experience. As for establishing a new waking up routine, when you’re in a relationship things are much more difficult. I also know it form experience 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by.

  18. “[…] when you’re in love, a second can seem like minutes […] When you’re bored, a whole day may pass in a second”

    I would say it’s the other way around. 🙂

    As for the actual reasoning behind waking out early – I’m still not convinced! Yes, you might have the feeling of having more time, but you don’t actually have it. On the other hand, one thing you didn’t mention – which is even more important – is that each person has different times at which they can work best. Some people are orders of magnitude more productive during the night (let’s say 10pm to 3am), so it makes no sense for them to sleep during that time just for the sake of waking up early!

    I would say that waking up early is just as overrated as a hello world program (since you made the comparison). 🙂

    • That’s strange: for me, time cease to exist when I’m in blissful state, like in love or enthusiasm, this is why I have this perception of time dilatation. When I’m bored I become much aware of time and I feel it heavier.

      Oh, and working better or worse at night or in the morning are just habits. You can form them each way you want, I don’t really believe in this predispositions…

      • Exactly! Since you’re more aware of the time when you’re bored, 10 minutes might seem like an hour. When you do something you like time flies, so one whole day might seem just like a couple of hours. 🙂

        You’re right! Now that I read your reply I actually got it. It’s not a predisposition. For me working during the night is the same as for you working in the morning. It’s not that I am physically more productive. I just enjoy it more and have the *feeling* that I have more time – and that’s what actually makes me more productive. So yes – I agree that that feeling is essential. But no, it’s not about the morning. It’s about the time of the day that makes *you* feel that way. 🙂

        PS: flat comments are much nicer.


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