I was never a morning person growing up. I have distinct memories of the few mornings I had woken up at what I (and I’m sure a lot of people) think of as ‘ungodly’ hours.
One such morning was spent at a relative’s house. They were a family of early risers and on most days the kids took a walk around the park with their parents’ first thing in the morning.
Forced by norms of social compliance, I reluctantly awakened from my beauty sleep and joined them. I was surprised and shocked at the number of people that were out there at the park. I saw people of all ages, engaged in a wide range of activities such as exercise, meditation, prayer, and even socializing!
I was struck by a severe bout of FOMO, decades before the term was coined. So profound is this memory that, to this day, when I venture out early am, that memory springs to the forefront.
It felt like the world was busy doing while I was frittering my time away sleeping.
Old habits die hard
My vacation ended, I went back home and back to my old ways. The Sun always won the who-rises-first battle.
I sincerely felt people belonged in one of two camps — early birds or night owls and I believed the prevailing wisdom that the twain shall never meet. And was quite content to do nothing to challenge that belief. Confirmation bias at its best!
The triggering event
As an adult, traveling the world quite a bit, I still maintained my night owl status. Until about a decade ago. I had just returned home from a month-long trip more than half-way across the world. As is typical from such a stark time zone change, I had severe jet lag.
Serendipitously, my jet lag caused me to be wide awake at 5 am. Instead of laying in bed, I decided to seize the day, got out of bed, and got a whole lot of housework done early in the morning before work. Being busy at work the rest of the day helped me from ruing all the lost sleep, and a carb-fueled dinner sent me back to bed by 9 pm!
It also helped that the rest of my family was on a similar schedule. So, I had no guilt about sleeping before the kids or missing family time.
The transition from owl to lark
A few days into this schedule and I was hooked. The jet lag was gone by then but the amazing thing is that my body clock started to adjust. More importantly, I started to crave those productive early mornings.
Somewhere along the way, I became, dare I say a “morning person”. A lark instead of an owl. Who’d have thought?!
And soon I realized, how much I loved these mornings. I’ve never been in awe really of sports, movie or rock stars. Never fervently followed a celebrity’s life.
But, I absolutely admire people that wake up early and get stuff done. The productive sorts — they are my kryptonite. And so, I started to read up on how most successful people use their precious mornings. And, found a lot of inspiration.
Culture favors mornings
There is something inherently beautiful about pre-dawn moments. There is a concept of “Brahma muhurta” in Hindu / Vedic tradition. Brahma muhurta (time of Brahma) is a period (1 hour and 36 minutes, to be precise) before sunrise.
Literally meaning “The Creator’s Hour”, it is traditionally the penultimate phase or muhurta of the night and is considered an auspicious time for all practices of yoga and most appropriate for meditation, worship or any other religious practice. Spiritual and creative activities performed early in the morning are said to have a greater effect than in any other part of the day.
Other spiritual practices the world over, place equal importance on the mornings. In the Old Testament, the morning was shown to be associated with divine activity. In this regard, Zephaniah affirms that every morning God, “reveals his justice. At dawn, he appears without fail” (Zeph. 3:5). With the light of each day his justice was revealed to his people in kindly acts and/or warnings through his prophets for the need of emulating his righteousness.
Islam places equal importance in the Fajr — the first prayer to Allah before sunrise. Zen Buddhist monks start the day around 3:30 am in meditative silences.
How I adopted the power of early mornings
Convinced that I wasn’t the only one enamored by the superpower of mornings, I set about trying to optimize my morning routines.
One of my guiding principles in life is the US Army slogan, perhaps misattributed to McDonald’s?
‘We do more before 9 am than most people do all day’
Regardless, it has worked well for me.
I value the morning silence.
I cherish the feeling of knowing I can pause and plan my day rather than react and play catch-up throughout the day.
Rising early, totally, helps with my control-freak tendencies.
I feel grateful and blessed.
Over time, I have figured out how to make mornings more productive for myself.
I schedule my day to get the hardest parts done in those early hours, if possible.
A note from Science about Sleep
It would be remiss of me here, at this juncture, to not touch upon a subject that deserves an essay on its own — SLEEP.
I was, I admit, someone that went around spouting the words “I’ll sleep when I’m dead because I have far more important things to do with my time now”.
It has now been proven beyond doubt that people with such views do die early, ironically from a cumulative lack of sufficient sleep.
Circadian rhythm, essentially, is the sleep-wake cycle that makes us humans susceptible to shut-eye at predictable times of the night and (sometimes) day. It is controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain, specifically the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that receives signals from the optic nerve/retina (light sensitivity) to regulate the amount of melatonin.
Decreased light causes an increase in melatonin that triggers the brain to invoke a sleep pattern. Conversely, increased light reduces melatonin causing wakefulness.
Of course, I provided an overly simplified explanation above and there are other factors such as the amount of caffeine ingested in the system, stress hormones, other medications, age, etc. that interfere with the brain’s chemistry in terms of regulating sleep.
While adjustments can be made in the timing of the sleep-wake cycle, it is vitally important to preserve the “sleep” portion of this cycle — both in terms of quantity and quality.
In the millions of years of our evolutionary existence, ostensibly, as the most evolved species, why would evolution still necessitate the body spend 8 hours a day, a third of our lifetimes, in a state of unconsciousness and paralysis, when we make ourselves most vulnerable to predators?
The answer is staring right back at us. It is because sleep performs such important functions in the preservation of who we are as a species that to do without is life-threatening at its very core.
Put another way, it is the 8 hours of sleep that directly enable us to accomplish tasks when we are awake. Take away the sleep and you take away all human achievements and run the risk of complete ruin.
Convinced about sleep?
I sure hope so.
I guess what I’m saying is this. You can attempt to become a 5 am person but that requires you to not binge on Netflix until midnight before. You cannot possibly burn the candle on both ends and expect it to be sustainable or productive. If your schedule allows you to fit in a nap during the day, that would be helpful too.
It is critical to reconcile an early-wake schedule with an equal and opposite early-sleep schedule to gather any benefits.
Ready to try to turn from an owl to a lark?
Having set morning rituals is a great start.
It is important to ensure you’re not waking up at 4 am to scroll through social media feeds.
Best to put your phone away until your most important and productive tasks for the day are done. That requires a degree of discipline and planning ahead, the evening or night before.
Here are some tips.
Find a schedule and try to refine it over a period of time.
- Early to bed: Go to bed early enough; at least a good 7.5 hours before you want to wake up. Sleeping in a dark, cool room is recommended for good sleep quality.
- Don’t snooze: Wake up when you intend to without hitting snooze. The snooze button simply prolongs the agony of having to wake up. I prefer setting my alarm outside of arm’s reach. From experience, I can say it’s usually a microsecond decision when you turn off the alarm on whether or not you head back to the bed. Do whatever you can to help steer you away from the bed at that time.
- Morning ritual: Find a calming ritual that you look forward to every morning. You’ll find plenty of time the rest of the day to run around like a headless chicken. Early am is a time to believe we’ve got it all under control.
- To Caffeine or not: That’s a personal choice. I’m pro-caffeine and proud of it. Some folks believe in the power of cold water. Whatever floats your boat!
- Plan ahead: The evening or night before is the time to figure out the 2 or 3 things you want to get done in the first couple of hours after you wake up. Once you wake-up it’s time to do, not time to plan.
- Check off ONE difficult task: First thing in the morning, you are like a cellphone that has been fully charged overnight. That’s the time to knock off the most battery-draining (intellectual or physical) activity you have planned for the day. Exercising your willpower is so much easier in the am than at the end of the day after it has been constantly tested.
- Consistency: Waking up at 4 am a few times a week and sleeping until 10 am other days is quite unhelpful. The body does not know the difference between a weekday or a weekend. Setting the same sleep/wake time each day will help your circadian rhythms regulate consistently.
- Trade-offs: Yes, there are certain tradeoffs that are going to have to happen. You may have to give up on a few Netflix shows or walk out of a rocking party early to get to bed on time even though you feel “perfectly awake and fine”. Remember you are trading off to get to a higher place in life.
Waking up early has been a life-changing experience for me and many others. But I’m cognizant and ever grateful that I have the resources that allow me the luxury of adapting to such a lifestyle.
Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
You are never too old or never too late to attempt a healthier lifestyle change.