How I trained myself to get up earlier

Picture of Matthew Stibbe
Posted by Matthew Stibbe

I am not what you would call a morning person. At heart, I’m a writer, for heaven’s sake! But getting up early has become really important for me. When I have a lot of work stacking up, it feels as if there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

These are the techniques that I used to make a new habit and learned to get up earlier:

Seize the morning 

  • Decided what time I wanted to get up. In my case 6 am so that I could do a couple of hours, write my blog and catch up on my email before everyone else started work (and started sending me emails and phoning me).  The point is to set a time and stick to it.
  • Set myself a goal. Initially, I aimed to get up early every weekday for a month. I read somewhere that if you can make a new routine stick for a month, it becomes a self-sustaining habit. It proved true in this case.
  • Promised myself a reward. I always wanted to learn clay pigeon shooting so I promised myself I would book a day’s shooting if I got up early for a month.
  • Tracked my progress using Joe’s Goals. The more I use this little website app, the more I like it. I used to track these kinds of routine, habitual things using recurring tasks in Outlook but it was a bit fiddly and, addicted as I am, I didn’t have Outlook open all the time. I also used a little Post-it note on my monitor and ticked off the days, convict-style.
  • Get clothes, computer and breakfast ready the night before. Don’t want to trip over everything trying to do basic tasks when I’m half-asleep.
  • Alarms. I set my bedside alarm for 0600 – and this is the clever psychology – I also set my telephone to ring at 0605 but I put the phone on the other side of the room so that I have to get out of bed to stop it ringing. In the UK, you dial *55*0605# to do this. What happens is this: either I wake up and cancel the alarm or I get up and answer the call to stop it from ringing. First, we’re strongly programmed to answer the phone*. Second, I’m very strongly programmed not to wake my wife up! A ringing phone will do this so I have powerful motivators at work: guilt and fear. This technique works every time but I had previously reserved it for early morning trips to the airport and things like that.
  • Naps. Sleep is like money in the bank. If you overdraw by getting up early, you have to pay in some other time. Initially, I did this by having short naps after lunch. I suspect that over time the body adjusts to less sleep – most army people get by on less sleep than the rest of us, for example – but this seems to happen over a longer period than a month.
  • Earlier nights. In the long run, going to bed an hour or so earlier and having lie-ins on weekends meant that I was getting the right amount of sleep. Like jet lag the adjustment is a little painful but it only took a week or two to get used to the new routine.
  • Boast widely about your new early-birdiness. It makes feel good to tell people ‘oh I get up at 6 am’. Also, my friend Stuart says ‘we are the stories we tell about ourselves.’ If I describe myself as a punctual, early-rising, efficiency robot then maybe that’s what I’ll become (when I’m not a bohemian, entrepreneurial writer genius ).

To cut a long story short. It worked! I wake up at six, feel fresh and hop right out of bed without any alarms or bribery. I get two or three extra prime working hours a day.

None of this is rocket science, but I reckon if it can turn a lay-a-bed writer into a member of the dawn chorus, it’s got to be worth sharing. Your mileage may vary.

* This is the source of the classic joke: “The phone rang in the absent-minded professor’s house at 3 am and he got up to answer it. Wrong number! ‘Sorry to disturb you,’ said the embarrassed called. ‘Oh, that’s alright, I had to get up to answer the phone anyhow,’ replied the absent-minded professor.” (The old ones are the best.)

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Update 16 April 2021. This post is very ancient and it’s been wandering around from place to place. It was first published on my Bad Language blog way back in 2006. Then it migrated to the Articulate Marketing blog. And I have moved it over to Geek Boss today because it doesn’t feel either recent or relevant enough for our techie marketing audience over there. At one time, it was hugely popular, getting tens of thousands of views a month but not so much now. But I think the advice and the joke are still good. Enjoy!