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Becoming an Early Riser

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Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. 

-The man no child likes to hear about when being awoken by their parents

Getting out of bed is a struggle. I’ve spent the better part of twenty four years setting my alarm as late as possible so I could have a few more minutes of sleep.

I fight myself with tenacity. My first tactic is to subconsciously turn off my alarm, so I don’t even get to think about getting up early until two hours later.

Next, the fog of sleepiness is heavy upon me, and I’ll try to hit snooze a few times.

Did I set a two minute snooze, or a fifteen minute snooze?”

I’ll hit it three or four times either way.

Next, I talk myself out of the very need to get up early.

Do I need a shower in the morning?

Nope, I took one the day before yesterday. Breakfast? Overrated. I’ll get some Dunkin Doughnuts on my way to work. I don’t need to wake up early just to read a book. I’ll do that while I eat breakfast. It’s mean for my alarm to go off when my wife doesn’t even need to get up yet. I’ll just turn it off, for her…

I have gone through those steps above so many times. I’ll dutifully set my alarm for 6:30 or 7:00 on a weekend, and earlier during the week. I’d plan my whole productive morning out. I’d go to sleep, and next thing I know, it’s time for me to go to work, or each lunch (on a weekend) and I have a vague recollection of hitting the snooze button a half-dozen times before my alarm just stopped going off. Whoops

I couldn’t even think about the alarm in the morning. I couldn’t create enough mental alertness to even begin the struggle to wake up early. My subconscious was waving a white flag without me being awake enough to notice.

And then I had a few realizations…

Unnecessary early morning decision-making #

My approach to sleep and waking up has been shifting the last few months. Here are the reasons why:

Polyphasic Sleep #

I learned about polyphasic sleep. In a normal eight-hour period of sleep, the average person gets two hours of REM sleep, which is the stage where most of the benefits of sleep come from. As you sleep throughout the night, you cycle in and out of REM.

You can train your body to more quickly drop into REM sleep, and as you do this, you can remove the rest of that time you spend asleep. There are many varieties of sleep schedules, and a community of people who pursue these patterns.

The ultimate extension of this principle of needing only two hours of REM sleep a day is something called the “uberman”, and it is six twenty-minute naps every four hours. Two hours of REM sleep a day, and nothing else. The adaptation period looks rough.

My perspective on sleep changed - I don’t have to feel tired just because it’s early. I may actually be tired, or, more likely, I have not yet reached a stage of alertness, because technically are the most rested immediately after waking up.

Listening to my body #

I learned to pay closer attention to my body and energy levels. I noticed that I sometimes felt wide awake when my alarm when off, even if it was very early, while I could just as easily feel very tired and not want to wake up, but that feeling was not related to how much sleep I got.

I started recording if it was easy or hard to get out of bed in the mornings (I’d simply write down a check or an x, depending on how it felt getting out of bed.) The benefit if this was two-fold: First and most importantly, I am training myself to not dread the morning (or being up early) simply because it is the morning and early. I no longer hate the idea of waking up at 5a. I am not always, or even often, able to easily get up at 5a, but the idea does not make me want to die.

Second, I am growing to pay attention not to absolute time (whatever time my alarm goes off) but energy levels. I can wake up at 7:30a with a worse energy level than when I wake up at 5:00, and I am learning to try to avoid simply low energy levels rather than the earlier time.

Don’t trust willpower #

I dramatically changed my understanding of willpower. My original attempts to wake up early took a Herculean expenditure of willpower. I would fight to drag myself out of bed, and on the rare occasions that I was successful, I’d spend the morning wasting time on Facebook.

I’d drag myself out of bed at 6a on a weekend so I could watch youtube videos and waste time on Facebook!

I’ve learned that willpower is like muscular power. It can be exhausted, and I was exhausting myself. If I spent all my willpower getting up, I had none left over to intelligently direct my activities to productive uses.

The goal is to “automate” early rising so it takes no willpower, leaving me to use it intelligently throughout the day. When my alarm goes off early, if I don’t really want to get out of bed, I just turn it off and go back to sleep. No guilt, no disappointment, and no wasteful expenditure of willpower. On the flip side, if my alarm goes off and I feel energetic, I happily begin my morning - no wasteful expenditure of willpower.

Setting the stage for the habit #

I want to make it a habit, to wake up at 5a every day. I’ve been experimenting more heavily over the last two weeks, and have woken up by 5:30 almost half of the days. I see myself as practicing and laying a groundwork for this habit, because right now I don’t fully understand. My energy fluctuates during the day, and if I am sleep deprived, its hard to get up early the next day.

I am learning to work a 20 minute nap into my day in the early evening, to see if this reduces the fatigue I feel the next day.

I am learning how coffee affects my sleep schedule, and how much leeway I have in when I go to bed.

Eventually, when have build a solid understanding of my own sleep requirements, I will have a 30 day “trial” where I will implement this habit every day, but I’m not ready for that yet. I don’t want to set my expectations too high, fail to meet them, and then feel bad about the whole thing.