What I Learned From A Week Of Waking Up Early

For years I've written about productive people who accomplish big things before breakfast, but I'm not a morning person myself. What happens when I take my own advice for a week?

You know the advice: If you want to get more done, try going to bed earlier and getting up earlier. You turn wasted evening TV time into productive morning hours. You can accomplish big things before most people eat breakfast.

I’ve written about many productive people who use this strategy. I’ve also found it hard to implement in my own life. I am not a morning person. I also have three small children who, until about six months ago, woke me up so early that the thought of getting up any earlier just made me want to hide under the covers. However, as I started looking ahead to the deadline for a book I’m writing, and realized that I would need to be more productive and focused, I decided to try waking up early for a week to work, in the hopes that I would get more done.

I spent the past week doing just that. The results have been positive, though not so overwhelmingly positive that I’m going to wake up before dawn for the rest of my life. I am, however, willing to keep trying it from time to time.

Before my new morning ritual, I was waking up between 7 and 7:30 (yes, this is one of the upsides of having no commute). I got up, got the kids breakfast, and started working around 8.

This past week, I set my alarm to 6. I showered the night before, so all I had to do was go downstairs, turn up the heat, start my coffee, and head into my office. I’d be working by 6:03. I spent 90 minutes each morning plowing through the data analysis necessary for my book project. Then I’d start the old morning routine after that.

I found I quite liked the quiet time. I got a lot of focused work done. I enjoyed seeing the sun come up, illuminating the trees outside my window. I enjoyed sipping my coffee with no interruptions.

You can't create more hours in the day.

But the new routine didn’t exactly work miracles. For starters, I didn’t succeed in generating any additional hours in the day. In order to be up at 6, instead of 7, I needed to go to bed at 10:30 or 11 instead of 11:30 or midnight. That meant I no longer had 2 hours to work at night after my kids went to bed.

Some nights during my week of waking up early, I managed to put in another hour, but by the end of that hour, I was pretty much gone. I log my time, and when I added up my work hours, I saw that I was putting in 10 to 11 hour days instead of 9.5 to 10.5 hour days. In other words, I didn’t get 90 more minutes of work. I got maybe half an hour.

The mid-afternoon slump

My 3-4 p.m. slump was also twice as hard as usual. While I’ve always found myself mildly unfocused at that time, responding like Pavlov’s dog to emails in whatever order they came in, in this new world, 3 p.m. felt like quitting time. I had to be more disciplined about going outside for a break, or changing locations. By heading over to the library one afternoon, I was able to rescue the rest of the day, but it wasn’t easy.

The family impact

Then there was the question of how my schedule affected the rest of the family. The kids slept through my wake-up, though my husband wasn’t so thrilled about the daily 6 a.m. alarm (I sleep with ear plugs, so my "alarm" consisted of him nudging me, at which point I pulled out my ear plugs and heard the real alarm. Sorry sweetie!). My earlier bedtime also meant we didn’t get to spend much time together at night.

All in all, though, I do feel like it was a productive week—probably in the 90th percentile, as far as weeks go. While I won’t continue this schedule indefinitely, it’s helped me feel more like my workload is manageable. That’s never a bad thing.

Do you wake up earlier than you need to in order to get things done?

[Image: Flickr user alexkerhead]

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7 Comments

  • Adam Chek

    For your husband's sake please start using some kind of a vibrating alarm or something. I can't think of anything more rude than sleeping with earplugs in AND relying on a traditional alarm clock to wake up. You dont live alone.

  • I like the comment about daylight savings time. You can't make a blanket longer by cutting an inch off one end and sewing it on the other end. If you work for a half an hour or more in the evening and stop to go to bed a half an hour early and get up a half an hour early IT'S THE SAME HALF HOUR! Except as the author points out her circadian rhythm makes her less productive in the morning. Listen to your body clock not someone else's.

  • Laura, when I wrote my first book I found it necessary too squeeze extra time out of a rock... which didn't work out so well so instead, I forced myself out of bed by 0500 hrs every day for 100 days and write for 90 minutes straight. I was allowed to do nothing else during that 90 minutes but write.

    At night I worked for 30 minutes from 1100-1130 to configure my next days writing and while it probably took some of the "fun" out of writing it certainly allowed me to finish the manuscript quickly. When it was complete, then I went back and edited it fully.

    In the long run it was a handy habit to be able to adopt when necessary but I have no intention of finishing my time on earth under that schedule:-)

    Best of luck on the next book.

    David Perry co-author, Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters 3.0

  • Patrick Toohey

    One week is too short a period to truly assess the value in waking up early. I myself have started waking up earlier (part of a new year resolution of sorts) and encountered some of the same difficulties as yourself. For comparisons sake, I'm at work by 7:30 with roughly a 30 minute commute so I'm out the door by 7 at the latest. That said I was waking up around 6 but could hit the snooze button till 6:30 if needed.

    At the end of January I decided I'd start running in the morning which resulted in a 5am alarm. In the first week I hit that same 3pm wall but by week two I had acclimated and started powering through the day better than before. Eventually I started naturally waking up a few minutes before the alarm would go off. By the beginning of March I started alternating running days with going to crossfit. While this hasn't resulted in more 'working hours' it has made me more productive in the same amount of work hours as I'm more alert and energized by the time I get to work.

  • I'm a total night crawler. But I am Trying to bring about a change in my schedule. I want to cycle to office and the best times to do that in my part of the world is the morning hours before the traffic sets in. I'm also taking the assistance of this app called Habits avbl on the play store that helps me keep track of the streak!

  • Gavin Hepp

    I wouldn't draw too many conclusions from 7 days. Give it a month or several months. You're changing habits, can't be done in a week. Seize the day, the morning hours whether relaxing or busting out some work, are the best.

  • Great article. I wake up 3 hours before my work day begins and it has been a transformational habit change for me. However, I agree that while it may work for many, it does not necessarily work for all. I switched because my evenings were not being used effectively. So when someone does use that time well (for quality time with a spouse, or finishing work after kids go to bed) then it may be more appropriate to create habitual disciplines around those processes rather than completely changing your daily routines. Again, great read...looking forward to the next book!

    Tim