Waking up early and getting to work isn’t just for workaholics

There is a substantial group of elite achievers who wake up at ungodly hours:

  • Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used to get up at 4:30 am and go straight to the gym.
  • Virgin Group founder Richard Branson prides himself on getting up at 5 am.
  • Disney CEO Bob Iger likes to get up before the sun rises.
  • Apple CEO Tim Cook usually hits the gym and does most of his email before normal human beings open their eyelids.

The list goes on. A lot has been written about their motivations. The most common reason cited is not being distracted by others during those early morning hours. Some also say the crack of dawn is the perfect moment to get some “me” time: hit the gym, meditate, read, spend some time with the kids.

It’s clear the wake-up-ridiculously-early-habit adds some valuable hours to your day, but the general consensus remains that this is pretty insane. Unless you have to catch an early flight, soothe a colicky infant, or are about to give birth, most people never lay eyes on the clock before 6 am.

When talking about their early rising habits, the elite achievers often add “heroic” boasts most of us would classify as workaholism. Let’s take this article titled “27 Executives Who Wake Up Really Early” as an example, where wake up times are accompanied with such such claims (emphasis in bold added):

  • GE CEO Jeff Immelt “claims to have worked 100 hour weeks for 24 straight years.
  • Xerox CEO Ursula Burns “uses early morning hours to get caught up on emails, getting up at 5:15 and sometimes working until midnight.
  • Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne “invented an eighth day and we work it.’ In [a] “60 Minutes” special, another exec said ‘When it was a holiday in Italy he’d come to America to work. When it’s a holiday in America he goes to Italy to work.’
  • Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey “kept up that routine during a period where he shuttled back and forth between Square and Twitter, spending around 8 hours a day at both companies.
  • Tim Cook “works late too, priding himself on being the first in the office and the last out.

Whether these boasts are worthy of glory or a bit sad you can decide for yourself. But this also brings up another question: is waking up extremely early only possible for workaholics? Those who do it tend to possess iron man skills as well. Does that mean anyone who does not aspire to a life of ceaseless work is out of luck if they want to get up earlier and be more productive?

I’m not so busy

Last year I wrote a guest post for the Buffer blog titled “A Startup Founder’s Secret Confession: I’m Not So Busy.” I described how I tend to take lots of breaks, walk almost everywhere I go, and often take naps in the afternoon. While I don’t have proof, it’s certainly hard to imagine any of the people mentioned earlier engage in such behavior.

Rising early (watch and sunrise)

Put another way, I clearly don’t fit the definition of a workaholic (at least not anymore; been there, done that). Yet I have started to appreciate waking up early. There’s something unique about those early hours of the day. Pristine is probably the best term to capture the feeling: the day lies ahead of you with a clean slate. Everything is quiet. The sun rises. The city wakes up around you. You get a head start on whatever it is you want to accomplish that day.

What does it do for you?

Since the start of this year I’ve regularly been getting up at 5 am. Two effects stand out:

  • In those really early hours, complex tasks (like writing an article or thinking through a thorny problem) seem to happen on autopilot, without much thought or resistance from my own mind.
  • It feels magical having all your important tasks done, then realizing it’s still only 9 or 10 am.

It’s not easy. You need a lot of willpower to get yourself out of bed at 5 am. In addition, your environment needs to be accommodating. I certainly require seven to eight hours of sleep per night, and since my girlfriend likes to go to bed at 11 pm or later, I hardly ever wake at 5 am when we’re both home. But when she’s traveling or I’m on the road by myself, I immediately gravitate back towards 5 am rising (because I can go to sleep at around 8 or 9 pm).

Passion & ambition

This leads us back to the workaholic CEOs at the start of this article: you need to have a very strong drive (passion) to get yourself out of bed at such early hours. Often, this goes hand in hand with extreme ambition. Both these traits are found in the corner offices at Fortune 500 companies; you don’t catapult yourself to such heights overnight, nor could you keep it up for years on end if money was your only motivator. Therefore, it’s not strange to see a willingness and ability to get up so early among these high achievers, yet it doesn’t mean getting up early is only suitable for overambitious CEOs.

If you’re passionate about what you’re doing or you feel normal office hours are too distracting, early rising might be the thing for you. Even if you consider yourself not much of an early bird, you might be underestimating your own capabilities; when I was in video production and the music business, I used to go to bed regularly at 6 am and wake up at noon or later — not quite the early riser, yet now I am one. So in my own experience and from seeing others around me, it is not an innate trait you’re born with, but more like a habit you can cultivate with dedication.

“Early Birds or Night Owls Are Not Born, They Are Made.”

– Farnoosh Brock, Prolific Living

But how?

As with any habit, different approaches work for different people. Some people, like myself, prefer abrupt change, others like to work towards their habit in small increments (whether that’s quitting smoking or getting up early). Whether you change your wake up time tomorrow morning, or arrive there in small steps — as suggested by Dan Luca of 5AM Coaching — is a matter of personal preference and hence trial and error.

Here are a few other tips to help you try and perhaps cultivate your early rising habit:

  • Since sufficient sleep is essential for most human beings, going to bed on time becomes even more important for super early risers. To remind yourself when it’s bed time, set an alarm at the time you need to go to bed!
  • As a way of stimulating and waking up the internal body, make sure you drink some water as soon as you wake up.
  • If possible, try to take a 20 – 30 minute nap in the (early) afternoon, especially when you feel tired. Make sure you don’t turn the nap into full, deep sleep by going past 30 minutes though, as you’ll have a much harder time getting back into your day again.
  • Take a shower immediately after waking up; I’ve found the water gives an energy boost and puts me in “awake” mode.
  • Make sure you do not use any devices (screens) at least one hour prior to going to bed. The light from the screens keeps your brain active and awake, making it harder to get to sleep or even causing sleeping problems.

Time to get up!

Waking up super-early is certainly not for everyone, but it does have enormous benefits. It opens a whole new world you perhaps didn’t know existed. If you give it a try, you don’t necessarily have to do this every day for the rest of your life. I find it has now turned into a skill I possess and can turn on at will. And one more added benefit: waking up at 6, 7 or 8 am suddenly seems like sleeping in!

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