I woke at noon and saw no reason to get out of bed. It was a Wednesday. I had been drinking wine until 5 a.m. that morning at the publishing industry living room party, my weekly routine. Eventually I shuffled to the kitchen, made a little coffee and sat on the couch. My roommate had been at work for three hours.
“How did I fall into this horrible routine?” I said to the walls. Then I had a nap.
In 2012, I had quit my day job to give this “being a writer-entrepreneur thing” a shot, but without the structure of the 9-5 routine, I started behaving badly.
Yesterday I got up at 6 a.m., ran 3 miles to the beach, lifted weights and meditated with the sunrise. After that, I ran home, devoured a healthy breakfast, scribbled a few journal pages and made a list of what I would accomplish for the day. Then I got down to writing this article. It was only 9 a.m., and a fairly standard morning for me these days.
I was a Jeff Lebowski-an wreck in 2012, one step away from writing 69 cent checks in my bathrobe at the supermarket. How did I turn myself into a pre-dawn Zen master in seven short years? I’ll share my secrets, but let’s start with a more interesting question: Why bother?
Why bother starting the day strong?
“One key to success is to have lunch at the time most people have breakfast.” —Robert Brault
In the beginning, getting up early can be as fun as chewing glass, so why do it? My simple answer was that I was tired of feeling low. Our quality of life is determined not by the things we collect or even our day-to-day exploits, but at the most fundamental level by the feelings we experience most of the time. I was unhappy enough to try anything.
Rising early with strong habits unlocks a kind of joy in you that is only believed when experienced. It’s only when we live with joy that we can become our best selves. Listen carefully:
The greatest people throughout history rose early with great habits.
Ben Franklin, Beethoven, Ernest Hemingway, Napoleon, Oprah, Warren Buffett, The Rock, Gary Vaynerchuk (shall I go on?) are all down with the early bird hustle. Sure, there are outliers who buck the trend, but are you gambling on being one of those? Do you get much done on days you sleep in?
So, um… how do I get up early?
“‘I got up early because I wanted to.’ — Nobody” —Jim Gaffigan
Lifehacks have started to fall out of fashion. “There are no shortcuts, man, you just gotta do the work,” they say. That is dumb. What’s right is what works, so here are some miraculous shortcuts that will help you become an early riser:
1. Start the night before.
• Set a wind-down alarm – Mine goes off at 10 p.m. and lets me know it’s time to cut screen time and stimulation. This is a zeitgeber, an environmental cue that regulates the body’s circadian rhythm.
• Cut screen time – The blue light from our devices in wavelengths in the range of 460-480 nm disrupts sleep in a way that rivals caffeine. Cut it out before bed.
• Decide why you’re excited to wake up early – Having a compelling reason to put feet to floor is the best motivator.
• Read in bed – I’ve always got a good book on the nightstand; voracious reading is a killer habit in itself. After only 20 minutes of this calming activity, I’m ready to saw logs.
2. Buy a wake-up light.
Traditional alarms use obnoxious noise to jolt you awake, often out of the middle of the deepest sleep and into groggytown. A wake-up light simulates sunrise over 30-60 minutes, activating your circadian responses. Your body naturally and peacefully wakes to this. By the time the soothing fake birds start chirping, you’re wide awake. I swear by this model.
When that voice starts rationalizing a snooze, count 5-4-3-2-1. By the time you hit 1, you’ll be upright. She stumbled onto this technique, but it’s grounded in science. Counting backward activates your prefrontal cortex, the brain area that regulates behavior and attention, not to mention your will to live.
Sometimes caffeine is the best medicine. Set up your machine the night before and let it percolate while you meditate or hit the shower.
It’s cruel and it works. Cold on your skin increases production of norepinephrine in your brain up to 5 times. This neurotransmitter is the one that spikes during the flight or fight response. Its function is to mobilize brain and body for action, and increases arousal and alertness. Let’s do this!
My Secret Recipe for a Bulletproof Morning
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” —Marcus Aurelius
Like I said, the purpose of a powerful morning routine is the joy that it brings. You unlock that feeling by investing in four areas of your life, all before 9 a.m.—the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual realms.
The results of my seven-year experiment with tending to these areas are yours to enjoy:
1. Physical Activity
I’ve always loved exercise but until recently never enjoyed doing it in the morning. When I read Robin Sharma’s book The 5 AM Club (read this!), all that changed. He suggests spending the first 20 minutes of your day sweating. It hadn’t occurred to me that a workout didn’t have to mean trudging through February snow to the gym for an hour of weights. Light bodyweight work at home like squats, push-ups and planks work for me, and I still get to the gym.
Through his characters, Sharma explains that exercising for just 20 minutes first thing will “significantly lower your cortisol” (which is highest in the morning), the hormone of fear that hurts your cognitive performance. It will also release brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supercharges your brain (yes that’s the technical language). As if that wasn’t enough, it also releases dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters of drive and happiness. Ready to sweat yet?
2. Emotional Work
• Meditation – After working out, I open my heart; I meditate for 10 to 20 minutes. I list this under emotional work, but it has positive effects on your physical and mental health, and deepens your spiritual connection to, well, everything. I’ve shown elsewhere that over 3,000 scientific studies have hammered home the benefits of this powerful practice. In my experience, regular meditation improves all the feels, giving you more happiness and joy, and washes away anxiety and depression.
• Gratitude – Like most people, I’ve spent a whole lot of my life focusing on what’s missing. “The human brain isn’t designed to make us happy and fulfilled. It’s designed to make us survive,” says Tony Robbins. It takes conscious effort to appreciate what you have, and that’s why I spend five minutes after my meditation thinking about and feeling what I’m grateful for. Feeling gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus and ventral tegmental areas in our brains, which reduce stress and produce pleasure.
3. Mental Exercise
• Journaling – One of the perks of having a human brain is our nifty cerebral cortex that gives us the unique ability among species to reflect and plan. After I meditate, I write. I once spent two years writing three pages every morning, and it unlocked new levels of creativity and productivity, and improved my relationships. Science has my back on this one, too—studies show that daily writing helps fight depression, makes people sick less often, and the unemployed find jobs faster. Many great people made journaling one of their morning habits, including John D. Rockefeller, George Patton, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill. You could start today.
• Goal Setting – This isn’t just a once a year activity; like showering, it’s most effective when done daily. How else will you know what you want out of your day? When you write down your goals and action items, even if they are the same as yesterday’s, you prime your brain to look out for opportunities to achieve them. Inside that ball of grey matter is a bundle of nerves called the Reticular Activating System (RAS), which homes in on important information (like the car hurtling toward you) and blocks out the irrelevant. Writing your goals every morning sends a clear signal to your RAS to watch for opportunities to get after them.
4. Spiritual Practice
• Walking – For me, the practice of walking, especially before my neighborhood is awake, is a sacred thing. It does provide physical benefits, but I don’t do it for exercise. I do it to see the glint of the streetlight off a frozen puddle, to feel the wind rustle through the pines and to savor the silence of my quiet mind. Aristotle said, “Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.” It’s definitely the latter. Tony Robbins introduced me to the concept of the Hour of Power, which is simply: Get up early, and get out there (he suggests run, but I walk). It’s a practice I lean on when I feel my spirit waning.
• Inspiring Reading – Pick up something that lifts up your soul and read a few pages, even a line or two. Profound inspiration does not have to come in long sittings. I’m a recent convert to the philosophy of Stoicism, so my current morning spirit-booster is The Daily Stoic Each reflection takes about three minutes. I can also recommend Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and the Rob Bell podcast.
Is this a lot of work? Maybe. Most days I do all of this between 6 and 9 a.m. Some days I do most of it in one hour. You could benefit even from 15 minutes nibbling at the habits buffet above.
I’m still far from perfecting my morning. I realize that there is no finish line, but I will continue to practice five days a week because I can promise you that starting your day with a strong morning will reward you with abundant joy, and it lets you do your best work.
My hope for you is that by sharing my seven years of trial and error, you can build your own life-changing routine faster. Take from this what works for you and leave the rest. Just one last piece of advice: Building these habits takes time—be patient with yourself and enjoy the process.
See you at sunrise.