What Happened When I Woke Up Two Hours Earlier For A Week

Here's what happened when we challenged readers, and ourselves, to wake up much earlier than we wanted to.

Last week I challenged readers, and myself, to wake up what they considered to be "insanely early"—a time earlier than when they would normally wake up, whether it be 6:30 a.m. or 4:30 a.m.

The idea is that having a time in the day where there is no pressure and no expectations from other people would result in better focus and more creative thinking.

What happened when I put this advice to the test?

My plan was to wake up at 6:30 a.m. instead of my normal rising time, 8:30 a.m. I would get in my workout in the morning and then arrive to the office early.

That was the plan at least.

I did not—not even once—arrive to the office by 8:30 a.m. as I had originally hoped.

What I didn't factor in was just how slowly I operate in the morning. The first morning I caught myself staring blankly at my coffee for 10 minutes.

I did wake at 6:30 a.m. most mornings, but even though I had my things packed the night before and I only needed to throw on my gym clothes, I still couldn’t manage to get out the door until after 7 a.m.

But I essentially accomplished what I was striving for.

Focus

One of my goals for this challenge was to become more focused on something that is important to me, my health.

With so much of the day devoted to work, it’s easy to put exercise on the back burner and think, "I’ll get to it tomorrow." This is because, as we see from next week’s habit challenge, we make tons of decisions throughout the day, and our pool of decision-making energy is limited.

As the day progresses our willpower depletes and we’re more likely to either act impulsively or do nothing.

By waking up early, I allowed myself to focus on what I consider important to my well being, exercising, and I prevented myself from reneging on that responsibility to my health.

Creativity

Making time in the morning to take care of myself felt really good.

The first day I had so many endorphins shooting around my body that I almost felt manic—but in a good way.

My mind was bursting with thoughts and ideas, possibly because of the effect exercise has on our bodies, but also because I felt unencumbered by the need to start working immediately. My inner dialogue just wouldn’t shut up on the walk to work.

Challenges

Despite the happy vibes and positive feelings the challenge evoked for me, it’s important to point out that this experience was not all rainbows and butterflies.

Take Your Significant Other Into Consideration.
Waking up a lot earlier than your significant other means making some extra preparations. For one thing, I made sure to leave my gym clothes and packed bag outside the bedroom so I could get ready in the living room. I set several alarms leading up to my wake-up time and I kept my phone under my pillow and set the alarms to the lowest level possible.

Getting Out The Door Is Easier Said Than Done.
You can find a lot of things to distract yourself with when all you want to do is go back to bed for just a little while longer, so getting out the door was half the battle.

Even before getting out of bed I found myself—a young woman with very few responsibilities other than myself—tempted time and again to keep hitting snooze and rationalizing the idea to myself: "What’s another five minutes? No one is going to notice."

As long as I made it to work at a decent time and got everything done, the stakes were pretty low if I snoozed.

Not the case for many parents who chimed in on the challenge. Many pointed out that they rarely have the luxury of sleeping until 6:30 a.m., which would make their wake-up time for this project much earlier. This seems implausible, though some have done it.

What You Got Out Of This New Habit

Silence

A 3:50 a.m. riser, Scott Thigpen says he rises so early because he has children, and it’s the only time he can get some peace and quiet before work. While he uses the time to make breakfast for his wife and kids, he also uses it to meditate, which for him often means simply enjoying a cup of coffee in silence.

Better Writing Time

Reader Erica Wiggins says she wakes up at 6 a.m. every morning to get some writing done. The mother of two says this is the most peaceful time of the day for her, and having some time to herself and her morning cup of Joe, knocking out some writing, and even leisurely checking the news and social media gets her day off to a great start.

I can sit down to a project that later in the day would feel impossible to focus on and knock it out. Getting harder projects done earlier makes the rest of the day feel like a breeze.

Fitness

Reader Chris Smith says the rewards from waking up at 4:45a.m. every morning have exceeded his expectations. While he says it has taken discipline to get to bed by 9:30p.m. each night, the effort was well worth it. He’s since enjoyed losing weight, less road and gym congestion, cooler temperatures while walking his dog, and time to eat breakfast while watching the news.

And while reader Jorge Tovar doesn’t believe waking up early is the reason he’s lost weight and feels more energetic throughout the day, he says that without the hours dedicated to him in the morning, he wouldn’t have been able to get it all done.

Preparation For The Day Ahead
Waking up at 3:30 a.m. allows reader Mie-Na Srein to feel more alive and ready for the day ahead, she says. She uses her time to train for a marathon, and she says an added perk is being able to make early morning meetings and flights with ease.

Before I started the early riser habit, 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. were occasions only reserved for, 'Well, I guess saving $100 on a flight is worth it" or "darn those East Coast people scheduling morning meetings."

And while reader James Grunwald doesn’t completely love the idea of getting up early, he says "the silent morning, empty roads, and time to get into the office before the rest of the crowd offers a tremendous opportunity for productivity." He says getting an early start on the day keeps him feeling ahead rather than fearing that he’s falling behind.

Time To Study

While waking up at 4:30 a.m. left reader Christopher Sanchez a little wiped by 8 p.m., he says he hopes to turn the challenge into a long-lasting habit. Sanchez explains that he uses the early-morning quiet time to study for the CPA exam before work: "I can have peace of mind, not deal with the distractions of emails, roommates, loud noises from the city, and actually focus! This allows for super efficiency. No one but me, my flashcards, notebook, coffee, and Macbook."

The Verdict: I am going to keep this habit up for now. So far I like how it makes me feel, and I have a suspicion the benefits will only keep on coming.

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[Image: TAGSTOCK1 via Shutterstock]

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31 Comments

  • nice job on trying out the early wake up time! once your body gets used to the early rise and exercise rhythm, you may find yourself naturally waking up at the same time everyday - perhaps a few minutes prior to your alarm. at least - that's been my experience. great writeup.

  • This is a great article and I must say, I envy your 8:30 wake up time. I can't even imagine what that feels like.

    Waking up 2 hours earlier than normal is not just a great exercise, but if you can make it a habit, it can really improve your life. I am essentially bi-coastal, so the early morning has certain challenges when I am on the wrong coast. That said, those morning hours become "my time" and give me both the clarity and the freedom to pursue things outside my work/family/responsibility continuum. I highly recommend it.

  • I work in the media/PR space and waking up at 5:20 each morning is a huge benefit. I can check headlines, answer any emails I might have missed from last night and get a workout in, all before getting to work at 8 and therefore bypassing the usual rush-hour.

    Lucky you, being able to get up at 8:30. I would panic if I slept in like that.

  • Katharine Carlson

    Excellent article. But I'd like to add that you shouldn't recommend that people sleep with their phone under their pillow! I'm sure your partner would rather wake up to your alarm than to the mattress catching fire. (As we've seen in the news on more than one occasion.)

  • I recently started waking up at 5:30 instead of 6 to work out every morning. Some days are tougher than others, but for the most part I feel the benefits of it all day.
    I couldn't imagine getting up any earlier, I am the type of person who doesn't function well when I lose sleep. 7 hours is a must for me to maintain mental alertness, and there is no way I could get everything done and be in bed earlier than 10-10:30 on work nights

  • pal7058

    Personally, I arise at 4:00 am Monday to Friday with my wife. We go to the gym and get home before 7:00 am to start the working day full of life. On the week end we sleep in until 6:00 am, what a treat ! This routine is not for everyone and if you had kids it would be impossible. All I can say is, different strokes for different folks !

  • Greg Brogan

    Great in principle but if like me you would need to be in bed by 9pm to get up at 5am every morning, when do you ever get anything done or see anyone? I work in the design industry and rarely get home before 7.30-8pm. I've done the getting up early thing - 5.30am training for marathons - and due to work and trying to maintain some level of social life and marriage i struggled. It's not realistic to go to bed at 9pm every night so get up early but expect to be very tired, all of the time.

  • Sam McNerney

    Observer-expectancy effect likely distorting this "experiment." Actually, it's worse than that, as the observer is the participant.

  • Simon R Bone

    A good tip for waking up early is to ditch the alarm with a too easily used snooze button and buy one of those natural light alarms (philips make some good ones) they slowly wake you up over the course of an hour with pseudo sun-light

  • Paula Lozar

    I spent 40+ years of my career waking up between 5:30 and 7 AM to get to work on time. The first 2 weeks after I retired, I slept something like 14 hrs a day -- I think I was making up for all those years of sleep deprivation. My natural pattern is to stay up till 1 or 2 AM and get up at 9 to 10 AM, and now that I can honor it, I'm a lot more productive. (Even if some of my friends complain that they can't reach me before 10 AM!)

  • Christina Hütten

    By the time you usually get up at 8.30 I am already at the office replying to mails. Getting up two hours earlier than usual would mean gettin gup at 4.30 am. It wouldn´t get me anywhere. There is basically nothing I can do at home this early that would be any kind of productive, because I am a considerate person and wouldn´t want to disturb my neighbors by doing housework etc. And in addition to that I can´t get to the office early because a.) there is no propper public transport this early and b.) the office just doesn´t open before 7.30 am. And in addition to that I would have to go to bed insanely early to be able to operate at 4.30 am which will provide as a disruption of my social life and it would make doing regular thing like cleaning or grocery shopping unbearable. So waking up early to be more creative might be a good thing, but you should consider the consequences first.

  • I have tried to wake up every morning, go to the gym and workout. My only problem is that i feel very sleepy during the afternoon, what should one do about it?

  • I have tried waking up early everyday, hit the gym and workout. but the problem that arises with me is that i feel very sleepy during the afternoon. what should one do about that??

  • The key to success in early rising I have found is having a set bed time. I used to try get up early and stay up late and that kills you quickly. Especially if you rise for exercise then sleep and rest becomes more critical. At present I am training for a marathon, my first and so sleep and exercise are critical. Was great to hear how people are using benefiting from focus! One suggestion is if focus is your challenge also have power down time when you shut down phones social media etc can achieve similar things for creativity and focus!