How to Build a Habit of Waking Up Early

When it comes to his advice on sleep, good ’ole Ben Franklin was wrong.

“Early to bed, early to rise,” is not a universal recipe for health, wealth, and wisdom; it simply doesn’t work for everyone.

For some people, though, it’s quite effective. Even though it isn’t easy, I’ve been getting up around 4:45 A.M. recently; right now, it’s the time the aligns best with my particular goals and energy levels.

Waking up early can be really helpful for people who want to start establishing strong habits and building a morning routine; however, all the raw morning routine-building ambition in the world can easily meet its match when the alarm clock goes off at an hour most normal people don’t even believe exists.

If you’re one of the brave souls determined to rise at these allegedly existent early hours of the morning, but you’ve been having trouble doing it, this article is for you.

In my mind, there are four elements that go into the formation of a consistent habit of waking up early. Each of these four elements is meant to strengthen the ability of your brain’s rational side – the side that’s in full control at night when you’re getting excited about all the productive stuff you’ll do the next morning – in its inevitable fight against the sleepy side of your brain that starts the moment your alarm goes off.

Those four elements are:

  1. Getting adequate sleep
  2. Having a compelling reason to wake up
  3. Building an automatic wake-up response
  4. Bolstering your efforts with tools and help from other people

Last week’s video on how to get to bed on time covered the adequate sleep factor of the equation pretty well, so I don’t think we need to spend any time getting into it here. Check it out if you need a refresher:

I will say that adequate sleep is the most important part of the equation, both in terms of your ability to get up when your alarm goes off as well as its effect on your overall energy levels and cognitive abilities.

You can learn from my past mistakes on this one; I’ve found time and time again that while I can force myself to wake up after only a few hours of sleep using various commitment devices, doing it regularly is a terrible idea. I can push through if it happens just once (maybe for an early flight or something), but anything more than that and my body starts showing signs of sleep deprivation.

With that being said, let’s talk about the second part of the equation…

Have a Compelling Reason to Get Up

If you think back, you can probably remember a time in your life when you were extra super motivated to get out of bed. It could have been for a good reason – maybe getting up to open presents on your birthday – or for a bad one like realizing you’re late for a test.

Thomas' Birthday

On that note, sometimes birthdays can also motivate you to never go to sleep again.

The point is that, when there’s something sufficiently motivating thrown into the mix, getting up early is a heck of a lot easier. That’s why you need to establish a compelling reason to wake up in the morning – something that gets you excited.

A lot of people decide to wake up early because they want to build productive morning routines – and that’s totally fine. If you’re an ambitious person, though, your morning routine will probably consist of habits and activities that help you make progress on long-term goals – meaning they require self-discipline, might not be enjoyable or fun, and don’t always have an immediate reward.

My suggestion is that you try adding just one habit to your routine that you truly enjoy doing. Once you do, every morning will hold something that gets you excited to get out of bed; you won’t be waking up just to go through a disciplined routine of productive habits. There will be at least one splash of fun in it.

Right now, my compelling reason for getting up is figure skating – a sport I chose to pursue after a friend convinced me to take a beginners’ Learn to Skate class and I realized that it’s actually a ton of fun. Since the rink only has practice hours early in the morning, I have to get up at 4:45 so I can make a good breakfast and get there on time.

Skating

All the morning practice is paying off – this picture with my coach was taken just after I passed my first official skills test a couple weeks ago.

Is 4:45 A.M. the time I’d normally choose to wake up? Heck no – but the enjoyment I get from skating overrides any urge to sleep later.

Now, you don’t need to join a sport with early-morning practices just to have a compelling reason for waking up. Before I picked up skating, I had a much simpler reason for doing so; part of my morning routine involved going for a 30-minute walk while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Listen Money Matters (which I now co-host).

Back then, the show released new episodes every day – so I always had a new episode to look forward to each morning. Listening to it while walking was my favorite part of my morning routine, and it made getting up at 6:00am (man, that seems late now) so much easier.

Build an Automatic Wake-Up Response

When your alarm goes off in the morning, you have three options for how to respond to it:

  1. Lay in bed for a few seconds, trying to convince yourself to get out of bed
  2. Immediately jump out of bed, as if a hard-ass drill instructor had just dumped a bucket of ice water on you
  3. Using sheer willpower, covert your body into a substance so acidic that you melt through the bed and eventually work your way down to the earth’s core, where no alarm clock can disturb you (buy my ebook on how to do this; only seven payments of $19.95)

Option #2 is what I like to call an automatic wake-up response, and conditioning yourself to do it as soon as your alarm goes off will go a long way toward helping you build that consistent wake-up habit.

The reason that this works so well is because it gets you out of the soft, warm confines of the bed right away, which makes your sleepy brain’s inevitable excuses for going back to sleep far, far less tempting.

Remember, we’re focused on that small window of time after your alarm goes off when your brain is at war with itself. It’s almost like a Jekyll and Hyde situation; the rational part of your brain – the one capable of acting on long-term plans – has to fight against the impulse-driven part that, like Veruca Salt, wants what it wants right now. And it wants to go back to sleep.

Mr. Hyde

A medically accurate depiction of your sleepy brain

Scientifically speaking, this war metaphor is actually pretty accurate.

If you’ll indulge a quick delve into brain biology for a second (this will be quick), the specific part of your brain that’s most involved in making long-term plans is your prefrontal cortex. When you decide you’d like to get up at the buttcrack of dawn to practice a foreign language or hit the gym, that part of the brain is the one making the decision.

This relatively new (and quite weak) part of your brain is constantly trying to wrestle control from other, older parts of the brain that operate more on instinct.

The suprachaismatic nucleus is one of those parts, and it controls your body’s internal clock – which doesn’t necessarily sync up with an external alarm clock. Your body also releases hormones when you’re asleep that work to keep you asleep during the night; when your alarm goes off, they don’t magically disappear.

However, jumping out of bed and moving around essentially jolts your brain back to a more wakeful state. Additionally, what I’ve found from personal experience is that if you keep moving for a little bit, the window of time when you feel super-groggy and tired really shrinks down.

My personal automatic wake-up response is:

  1. Jump out of bed immediately and turn my alarm off
  2. Stretch a little bit (mainly just my arms)
  3. Kiss Anna and tell her I love her – she sorta half-wakes up when I do it and then falls right back to sleep; it’s really cute
  4. Walk upstairs and drink a glass of water
  5. Start boiling water for tea and go brush my teeth

I’ve found that the automatic response needs to last a few minutes before I’ll really work through the grogginess and truly perk up, so I try to do all these things right away before I pause for anything.

However, you don’t have to emulate my entire response yourself; in fact, you might be better off just starting with the first step. BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits concept is a good thing to remember here:

  1. Have an epiphany (in this case, we could re-frame this as “have a compelling reason to get up”)
  2. Change your environment
  3. Take baby steps

That suit-wearing bear in Muppets from Space had it right:

“Baaaaaby steps, sir. Baaaaby steps.”

If you can get yourself to simply jump out of bed in the morning right away, you’ll make a lot of progress towards waking up consistently.

How about that second step in the Tiny Habits sequence, though? How can you change your environment?

Well, one thing you can do is get a better alarm clock. That’s right; it’s time for some app recommendations!

Use Technology to Your Advantage

Whether you’ve got an iPhone or an Android device, there are hundreds of different alarm clock apps available – all touting their own unique set of features/gimmicks designed to get you out of bed.

Most of these apps try to force you out of bed by making you complete a specific task before they turn off; however, there’s one app that takes the opposite approach.

Instead of trying to annoy you out of bed, Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock (iOS and Android) uses your phone’s microphone and accelerometer to analyze your personal sleep cycle.

Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock

It then uses this data to gently wake you up at an optimal time within a window that you set. This might be even more effective than calculating your wake-up time using sleepyti.me, since the 90 minutes is only the average time it takes to complete a sleep cycle – your personal cycle might deviate a bit.

ton of people suggested this app in the comments of the previous video, so you might want to give it a try.

Aside from Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock, most of the others I found on the App Store try to force you out of bed by making you do something. Here are the ones I covered in this video. I’ve included prices, my overall thoughts on each, and linked the Android alternatives for the ones that are iOS-only.

  • Alarmy (Sleep If U Can)iOS ($1.99) / Android (Free or $3.99 for Pro) – Quite a full-featured app. The alarm goes off for a few seconds, and then you get a 30ish-second grace period of quiet time to complete a specific task. You can either take a picture of something in your house (it just matches up to a semi-transparent overlay of a picture you previously took and set), shake your phone, or solve math problems. Probably the most professionally-designed of the ones I tried.
  • Step Out of Bed! – iOS ($1.99) – Makes you take a certain number of steps before the alarm turns off. It’s got cheat detection as well, so you can’t just shake your phone to make it turn off. Overall, it’s a pretty good app – though I liked Alarmy’s “grace period” feature; walking around my house while the alarm blared loudly was pretty annoying (though effective). Android alternative: Walk Me Up
  • SpinMeiOS ($1.99) / Android (Free) – I’m starting to notice that iOS users kinda get shafted here on pricing… anyway, SpinMe makes you spin in circles to turn it off. Want to wake up and be dizzy? I have to practice spins every morning at skating, so I’m used to it. Regardless, it does wake you up!
  • Barcode Alarm ClockiOS (Free) – really cool idea, but this app’s fatal flaw is that you have to leave your phone screen on in order for it to work. Other apps have updated to get around that previous 3rd-party app requirement. I’m listing it here because I put it in the video script before I knew about this limitation. If you like the barcode feature, maybe try…
  • FreakyAlarmiOS ($1.99) – does the barcode thing, along with QR code and picture support. More modern as well, so you should be able to close your phone screen at night. Android alternative: Morning Routine Alarm Clock
  • Math Alarm ClockiOS (Free) – requires you to solve math problems to turn the alarm off. I like that it’s got voice recognition and multiple difficulty levels; however, it’s also got the same open-screen problem that Barcode Alarm Clock has. Luckily, Alarmy lets you do math problems. Android alternative: Math Alarm Clock (same name, different developer)

Overall, my pick for the best app among these is Alarmy. With its multiple task options, great design, and lack of an open-screen problem, it’s the best of the bunch.

You’ve got other options besides phone apps, though. For instance, the method I used to force myself out of bed for a really long time involved combining Twitter, Buffer (a tweet scheduler), and Beeminder:

People have told me this method is overkill and insane, but it had one benefit over all the smartphone apps I listed: it was nearly foolproof.

Technically, you could defeat all the apps above by forcing your phone to power off. It’s a lot more inconvenient than hitting a snooze button, but it’s an option.

I couldn’t do that with my method. I purposely didn’t have the Buffer app on my phone, so the only way I could prevent my tweet from going out was to wake up, go upstairs to my computer, turn it on, and delete it from there. After going through the process, I was always wide-awake and far from my bed.

If we want to talk about methods that are actually insane, may I present to you… the Ejector Bed.

Colin Furze, you’re a mad genius. (Seriously – he made a working hoverbike too).

If an early morning concussion isn’t your thing, though, I’ve got one more suggestion.

Form an Accountability Group

When I was a sophomore in college, I decided to sign up for a 6 A.M. ROTC physical training class in order to force myself to wake up early. Each weekday morning, I’d have to march my civilian butt over to one of the campus gyms, where an hour of push-ups, burpees, and running awaited me.

…I dropped out of the class after two months. Yep, I was a wimp.

Taking that class gave me an idea, though; what if there was a student club that had literally one purpose – to make sure its members were awake on time? It could be called the Early Risers’ Club, and it would work like this:

  • Each member pays a large amount in “dues” at the beginning of the semester
  • Every day, all the members have to meet at a central location on campus to confirm that they’re awake on time
  • People who skip too many days forfeit their dues, which would go to a pizza party or something. If you didn’t skip, though, you’d get yours back after finals.

I never started that club (mainly because I figured no one was as insane as me), but I did use the idea as inspiration for the AMpanic app I built during my senior year, which would send an embarrassing email to your mom if you didn’t wake up on time (which, in turn, was the precursor to the tweet-based system I showed you above).

Still, the idea of the Early Risers’ Club was a good one, if a little over the top. The simple fact is that you’re more likely to stick to your goal if you’ve got other people holding your feet to the fire.

So why not form one of your own? You don’t have to create a full-fledged school club to do it; in fact, you don’t even need to find people in your local area. All you need is a group of people who have the same goal as you – to wake up early.

There are several subreddits dedicated to waking up early, which you could probably hit up to find potential partners:

..and, you know, the College Info Geek community would also be a great place to find people. There are already several threads dedicated to starting Jedi Council groups.

Once you’ve found a group (or even just a single partner), there are plenty of ways you can keep each other accountable. If you’re in the same time zone, you could do a daily wake-up call using Skype, Google Hangouts, or FreeConferenceCall if you’d rather do a phone call.

Another option would be to use Habitica (formerly HabitRPG), which supports party-specific challenges. Form a party with your group, then set a challenge to wake-up early.

Habitica Challenge

An example of a party-specific challenge.

Whatever you do, make sure each group member commits to a specific wake-up time up front. Write down each member’s goal so it’s in stone at the outset.

Do You Really Need to Wake Up Early?

The main purpose of this article has been to show you how to wake up early, but you’ll notice that I didn’t really make a great effort of persuading you to do so.

I love waking up early (despite it being tough), and I know many other people that do as well. However, it’s not a prerequisite for success in life, despite all the “Early to bed, early to rise” aphorisms that get thrown around.

You don’t have to wake up early to achieve your goals – doing so doesn’t give you a universal advantage. It may have done so 200 years ago, when most of us were farmers; today, though, we have a lot more flexibility for when we do our work. All that matters is getting it done.

In fact, science has show that different people are wired to sleep at different times. Your natural urge to sleep at a certain time is known as your chronotype, and while most people can be flexible with it, the built-in defaults will vary from person to person. That’s part of the reason some people are larks (early risers) and others are owls (late risers).

Furthermore, there’s evidence that owls hold several advantages over larks, some of which are explained in this Fast Company article. For instance, owls may actually be a bit smarter than larks, and the article presents evidence showing they may be better at sports, too.

On the opposite side of the coin, the article cites evidence that shows larks may be less prone to procrastination and bad habits.

However, the most important finding is that neither group is any healthier, wealthier, or wiser than the other – despite what ole’ Ben Franklin might have told you. Here’s the conclusion of a 1998 research paper published in the BMJ:

“These findings do not support Franklin’s claim. A “late to bed and late to rise” lifestyle does not seem to lead to socioeconomic, cognitive, or health disadvantage, but a longer time spent in bed may be associated with increased mortality.”

In conclusion, my main recommendation is that you pay attention to your energy levels and adjust your schedule accordingly. If you find that you get your best work done late at night, awesome! Choose a later bedtime, and get up late enough in the morning to get adequate sleep.

Personally, I find that if I wake up past 8 A.M., my brain irrationally feels like the day is wasted, and my motivation levels plummet. That’s why I get up early – it simply makes me feel better and work better.

If you’re unable to see the video above, you can view it on YouTube.

Looking for More Study Tips?

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades - Thomas Frank

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my free 100+ page book called 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less).

The book covers topics like:

  • Defeating procrastination
  • Getting more out of your classes
  • Taking great notes
  • Reading your textbooks more efficiently

…and several more. It also has a lot of recommendations for tools and other resources that can make your studying easier.

If you’d like a free copy of the book, let me know where I should send it:

I’ll also keep you updated about new posts and videos that come out on this blog (they’ll be just as good as this one or better) 🙂

Video Notes

How to wake up early and make it a habit

Here’s a Pinterest-worthy image for sharing this video 🙂

Here are some more resources if this article just wasn’t comprehensive enough 🙂

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Images: Mr. Hyde

Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Instagram

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6 Comments on "How to Build a Habit of Waking Up Early"

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amy

Join this group for waking up early
https://www.facebook.com/groups/378222242547395/

John Black

Thomas, you’ve made amazing post. And you advices are precious. But honestly I am gonna hate my life if I have to wake up early.
I’d rather optimize my time to do everything I have to do faster and more effectively.
Anyway thanks a lot)

Laura

Hi Thomas,
as someone who feels much better when getting up early who lives with a “night-owl”-type, thank you for this post! Helpful advice 😀

Mauricio Gatgens

Awesome Content as Always Thomas!
To be honest, I’ve never really been an early bird…but, waking up early is one of the best habits I’ve developed in the past few months!
My days just seem to last forever now! haha
Can’t wait for more content!!

Lexi

Hi Thomas,
Thank you very much for this great article. As always, it’s pretty clear. I’ve been using SleepBot (for Android) for the past 2 years and it’s been great – plus, the nerdy part of me is so glad to have quantified data about my sleep patterns!
Lexi

Rick Lamprecht

Thomas- Great stuff. Using all your videos with my high school kids who are in a Study skills class. Keep them coming we have great conversations after these views, and you are entertaining . the kids are really paying attention. Have shared with other teachers at my school. Great stuff!!!

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