A complete step-by-step guide to waking up early and building a morning routine

Waking up early changed my life. So, should you too wake up early? The call is yours – but let me try to help you make an informed choice. 

And if you choose to build the habit of waking up early, I will give you a step-by-step guide for that. 

I first started waking up early in 2017 when I was going through a low point. My startup was on the brink of a disaster and to save it, I had to radically change my startup’s direction and raise funds. But how could I win this uphill battle when I barely had the energy to fight?

So to find that energy to fight back, I changed my routine. I started waking up before 5 am and finishing my workout in the gym by 6:30 am, ready to start my day early. And I found that every time I finished my workout, I felt energized and calm, ready to start my day before most people had even woken up. 

In the early morning, I got the time to organize my thoughts and plan for the day. Also, I could get a good amount of work done in the quiet of the morning. 

This brings us to the advantages of waking up early:

  1. At night, we just waste a lot of time mindlessly scrolling on our phones or binge-watching Netflix. Very rarely do we use this time well. By sleeping and waking up early, we swap the time wasted in the night with high-focus time, early in the morning.
  2. Waking up early gives you a win that comes from doing hard things. And once you start your day with a win, you want to maintain that winning streak and push yourself much harder. An early morning builds grit and self-discipline.
  3. Since there is very little disturbance in the morning, you can think calmly and plan your day. 
  4. If you want to do outdoor activities like running, waking up early is a must since you can’t run once the sun is out and traffic is heavy. 
  5. Waking up early gives you time for self-care – meditation, journaling, workout, etc. 

In summary, waking up early is a great way to energize yourself and break the rut of lethargy and procrastination. With all this loaded in favor of waking up early, why should everyone not wake up early?

Here are a few reasons for not waking up early:

  1. Waking up early works only if you sleep early since your body does need 7 or more hrs of sleep.
  2. If for some reason you can’t sleep early (e.g., late-night work calls), then waking up early is not an option.
  3. Some people are biologically wired to sleep and wake up late (the ‘night owls’). 

But for a good number of people, waking up early (or at least earlier than they now do) is a great option. The best way to know whether waking up early is right for you is to just try it out. 

Now, let us talk about what comes in the way of waking up early. 

Challenges in waking up early

The battle for waking up early starts not when the alarm goes off but the previous evening when it is time to go to sleep. 

Unless you sleep early and consistently, your body will never fall into a routine. However, some people might think, “How does it matter when we sleep? Just set an alarm and wake up at the same time.” 

You can do that for a day or two but our goal is to make it a daily habit. If we sleep late, waking up early will make us miserable and tired, and very soon, we will quit saying “Waking up early doesn’t work for me.” 

Quite often, things like work-related calls, late-night socialization, or binge-watching Netflix prevent us from sleeping early. So that is what you need to fix first.

In summary: Sleep on time consistently and rarely make exceptions. 

The other big issue that might come in the way is poor sleep quality. It could be due to things like snoring or the bedroom being too hot or cold, or medical issues like insomnia. In these cases, find a fix, be it a medical intervention or making appropriate lifestyle changes. 

Find your reasons for waking up early 

Waking up early is hard, especially in the initial one or two weeks. But if it feels rewarding, then you can sustain this habit, no matter how hard it feels. And a good way to make waking up early rewarding is to have a morning routine. 

Based on my own experience, here is an excellent morning routine for a happier and more productive day:

  • Meditation
  • Journaling
  • Workout

HabitStrong’s Become A Morning Person bootcamp helps you build a morning routine that includes guided meditation and journaling, followed by a workout on your own

Of course, you can modify this routine to suit your needs – e.g., you might add activities like reading a book, working in your garden, listening to music, etc. Once there are things you look forward to, waking up becomes easy. 

A step-by-step process for waking up early

Assuming that you have slept early enough the previous night and set an alarm for an early wake-up, say at 5 am, here is the waking-up process I recommend. 

  1. Keep the alarm device (e.g., the smartphone) a few feet away from you so that you can’t switch it off or snooze while in the bed. 
  2. When the alarm goes off, to break the grip of sleep, put down at least one of your feet on the floor. After that, put the second foot on the floor. 
  3. Get out of the bed, and only then, you may switch off the alarm. 
  4. Go to the washroom and splash some cold water on your face. 
  5. Once you freshen up, now you are ready to start the morning, be it with meditation or a workout. 

This step-by-step process described above is what I used when I was building my early morning habit. Here is my video on this topic.

Remember — in the beginning, it will feel hard and you will have a strong desire to quit. But don’t quit — stay the course for at least 15 days.

Acclimatizing to the new schedule

When you change your routine to this new ‘sleep early, wake up early’ schedule, it will take time to settle down. 

Initially, you may not fall asleep quickly even when you get into the bed and switch off the light since your body would not be acclimatized to sleeping that early. But thankfully, this problem goes away in about 10-15 days. So just stick to this new routine for two weeks and you will start waking up early, without an alarm. 

Another challenge you will likely face is grogginess and tiredness, especially after lunch. In that case, if you feel very miserable, you could take an afternoon nap. However, if you have difficulty falling asleep at night even after switching off the lights, avoid a nap. 

Maintain consistency in the routine

To help the new routine settle down, I would advise you to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, including on weekends, if possible. This will help reset your circadian rhythm (your internal body clock). 

Also, even on days you don’t fall asleep on time, set an alarm and get up at the same time, regardless. Once you wake up, don’t worry about how many hours you slept or what time you fell asleep the last night – just wait till evening and sleep early.

Understand your biological clock and chronotype

Inside our body, we have a biological clock that determines our natural sleep and wake cycle. We sleep when it is dark and wake when the sun rises.

Different people are genetically hardwired to wake up at different times – we call these preferences ‘chronotypes.’ Those wired to sleep/wake early are the ‘early birds’, others are wired to sleep and wake up late are the ‘night owls’. These chronotypes don’t change. 

So if you find that even after trying for 15 days or so your body clock has not reset and it is hard for you to wake up early, you may have a ‘night owl’ chronotype. The only way to find out is to experiment and see what is the earliest wake-up time that works for you, and then stick to it. 

How to get a good night’s sleep (5 step wind-down)

The biggest enemy of sleep is all the worries and anxieties swirling around in our heads. Also, often, our mind is still very active even when it is time to sleep. 

To overcome these problems, I suggest you follow this 5-step wind-down process:

  1. Switch off all your devices or put them outside your reach. The device screens have a blue light component that keeps you alert and disrupts the sleep pattern. There should be no exposure to a smartphone or computer screen for at least 1-2 hrs before sleep. If you cannot avoid your laptop/smartphone screens at night, install apps that filter blue wavelength light at night — Flux is a good choice.
  2. Instead of carrying a ton of thoughts and worries in your head, jot them down on a piece of paper, maybe your diary. Then let go of them – remind yourself that you can attend to them later. We call this process ‘brain dump.’ 
  3. From the to-dos you listed above, if you need to act on them soon, earmark some slot when you will work on it. That will relieve your anxiety and let you sleep better.
  4. Spend screen-free time with your family, read a book, or write a journal.
  5. 15-30 min before your sleep time, switch off the lights. 

Here are a few things that can help:

  1. Do not snooze when the alarm goes off because it perpetuates a mindset of compromise. And those few extra minutes of sleep will not help in any way. Instead of snoozing, immediately get up and start your day.
  2. Embrace the challenge of waking up early. Look forward to it as an opportunity to change your life, not as a punishment. 
  3. Waking up early is a new way of life – commit to it firmly. When the alarm goes off, don’t revisit the decision regardless of what you “feel like” at the time.
  4. Get exposure to bright light as soon as you get up. So switch on the lights after you wake up. Also, as soon as the sun is out, get some morning sunlight – it reduces melatonin production and boosts attention, and lowers stress and depression.
  5. Ensure you’re getting 7 hours of sleep or more – find out how much sleep your body needs. Chronic sleep deprivation affects your memory and hurts your health in many ways.

Final summary

Waking up early can be a superpower if it does not go against your chronotype and is feasible. 

All the theory in the world is useful only if we translate them into action. If this seems something you want to try, don’t overthink it – sleep early, set an early morning alarm, and get started. 

It is time to change our life. Good luck with everything.

***

The author of this article, Rajan Singh, is the founder of HabitStrong.

HabitStrong Newsletter by Rajan Singh

In this fortnightly newsletter, Rajan shares inspiring lessons and stories from his career as an IPS officer, McKinsey consultant, investor, and now, as a startup founder. Join 25,000+ subscribers.

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