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Making Peace With the First Moment of the Day

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I’m not the type to sleep late—seven o’clock is late for me—but I don’t like waking up. Being pulled from the womb of sleep by an alarm clock is almost always a jarring and disorienting experience. Unfortunately, almost every day, it’s the first thing that happens.

Each day begins in a small cloud of mild existential confusion, as it takes a few seconds to remember where this morning fits in the context of my life—what day it is, what happened yesterday, and which of my apparent life circumstances were just dream figments. Oh good, I didn’t ruin my laptop in a bubble bath yesterday. Oh right, I didn’t co-host a dinner party with Patrick Stewart last night. *This cloud of confusion can be almost comically extreme for me; optional anecdote in footnote.

Each day begins with two simultaneous upsetting developments. Not only does the glorious experience of sleep come to an end, but you’re summoned to the captain’s chair of waking life at the exact time your mind and body are least interested in the job. In a flash, the comfort and freedom of sleep transmute into the thankless conundrum of being a person who has work to do and responsibilities to attend to, the first of which is getting your groggy body to its feet. 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a very peaceful relationship with that moment. I like being awake, but I don’t like waking up.

It seems that the earlier my alarm clock forces this moment, the more jarring it is. This is unfortunate, because one of my aspirations is to be one of those early-rising crazies who has four hours of good work done by 9:00 am. As most people are just getting to their desks, I’d have the day’s toughest work under my belt, free to switch into a lower gear and spend the daylight on less-demanding activities: correspondence, light brainstorming, socializing, reading and maybe some Kirkegaardian nature walking.

The early morning hours are premium productivity time for me. The earlier in the day I do any sort of hard, mentally demanding work, the easier it is and the more smoothly it goes. An early-morning hour is worth two afternoon hours and maybe three evening hours. As the sun gets higher, the less suited my mind becomes for this “deep work,” and I gravitate towards less cerebral activities that can tolerate a fair bit of doubt and distraction.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever have half a day’s work under my belt by the beginning of business hours, but I’m ready to push the boundary a bit and see what gets better and what gets worse.

The Early Riser Project

The biggest obstacle between me and my early-riser dream is the prospect of an even more difficult moment of waking. The darker and stiller the world is when that moment comes, the more awful the alarm sounds. After I’m up it’s not bad at all, it’s just a matter of getting through that moment and getting to my feet.

If I could learn to embrace that moment of waking, and make at least some peace with it, I’d be free to move into early-riser land as far as it makes sense practically.

I already get up at sixish, but five o’clock seems like the true boundary of early-riserdom. Essentially, I’d be trading a forgettable, unfocused late-day hour for one of those quiet, premium first-thing hours, which is an amazing introductory deal. This will be my next experiment.

What I’m going to do

Starting today, for the next four weeks, I’m going to get up at 5:00, without using the snooze button.

Recently I’ve been getting the worst of both worlds, setting my alarm for 5:50, and hitting snooze three times before getting to my feet. I don’t know how I got into that habit, but it’s a hard habit to break at the moment you’re doing it.

The simple solution is to move my alarm clock to the far end of the room, making it impossible to hit snooze without getting to my feet.

The alarm will be set for 5:00 on weekdays. This will shift things an hour earlier from my current routine, not including those pointless snooze-naps I’ve been taking. On weekends I’ll set it for whenever I feel like (probably 6:20-ish). Still no snoozing.

I will have to go to bed an hour earlier in order to preserve my usual seven hours of sleep. I suspect this will be the hardest part of the experiment.

I’m especially excited to get away from the questionable institution of the snooze button. Why chop that last stretch of sleep into pieces? Do you snooze? Why?

In my case, I guess it seems to soften the blow of the moment of waking, but at a cost; my unrestrained snoozing has trained me to believe that two-thirds of the time my alarm goes, the bad news isn’t true, and the dreaded moment hasn’t yet arrived. That seems unhealthy. I’m sure I’d be better off leaving my sleep unperforated, learning instead to confront the full horror of getting up right when the alarm goes.

I already know peace with the moment of alarm-ringing is possible. On meditation retreats I’ve experienced near-equanimity in the moment of waking. Even though the moment is signaled by one of your fellow yogis ringing a chime (sometimes a cowbell) outside your door at 4:45 or 5:05 or some other normally-ungodly time, the mind has become so uncontentious from days of meditation that that little tantrum doesn’t happen.

During this experiment, whatever peace I can make with the moment of waking, I’ll take it. The bigger concern is probably how this will affect my evenings. My current rule is “Be asleep by 11:00” and now it must change to 10:00, which is pushing me into old man territory. If I’m out somewhere, I’ll have to start saying “Well I guess it’s getting late…” by nine o’clock, which is pretty lame. But it’s only on weekdays.

To smooth the transition, I’ll allow myself to shift the whole workday an hour later, once a week, so that I can stay out as “late” as ten-something one of my weekdays, if it makes sense to. This will help keep me from declining every social activity during the week and also help me recognize the difference between early-rising and super-early rising.

The first day is today, and the last day is four weeks today.

I’ll report my experiences on the Experiment Log page.

If any of you want to do your own early rising experiment, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to leave your observations in the comments on the experiment page.


*In my experience, the harder and longer I sleep on a given night, the more discombobulating the moment of waking is. One morning this effect was so pronounced I couldn’t remember anything about my real life for quite some time. It felt like I might have had the same kind of amnesia as Memento guy, and had forgotten.

I woke up on a hard, institutional bed in a room I was sure I had never seen before. It was hot, I was ravenous, and there were bars on the windows. Both windows opened directly onto the walls of adjacent buildings, but I could hear a bustling street, and a strange announcement in a Middle Eastern language coming from a loudspeaker.

I sat up in the bed, and tried to remember what this room was and why I was there, and for an impossibly long time, nothing came to me. The post-waking fog, which usually disperses in a few seconds, just hung there. 

Did I live in a jail? A hospital? A mental institution? The only thing I knew for sure was that I was no longer dreaming, and this was my real life.

After what seemed like forever (but was probably less than a full minute), the scent of frying street food reached me, and memories of the previous day finally flooded in. I had arrived in Bangkok the previous morning, exhausted from the sleepless trans-pacific flight, and got lost on the way to my guesthouse. After finally checking in in the early afternoon, I must have collapsed on the bed without even taking a moment to look around my room, and slept for close to fifteen hours. The loudspeaker voice was a call to prayer from a nearby mosque. I guess I had absorbed so little of the context I would be waking up to that my brain couldn’t connect what I saw and heard to any of my memories.


Photo by Alexander Possingham

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greg December 3, 2017 at 7:30 pm

I started getting up around 5:45 to impress a manager during an internship, and slowly rolled my (watch) alarm back to 5am M-Th, and 4am F-Sa. The 5 came naturally, but gradually. 4 came abruptly as my own commitment to something new as a coping mechanism to emotional issues in my life, and is for getting to a running group.

Doing the 4am still smacks me in the face some mornings, but simply doing it (and taking a nap later, or indulging in caffeine at 2pm) is truly amazing. Embracing the cold and dark or, at certain times of year away from the equator, uncanny brightness and complete absence of people is truly an “internally-breathtaking” experience.

Ina December 4, 2017 at 8:03 am

I’m not an early riser and I don’t intend to be; my most productive time is usually later in the day.
But I also tend to hit the snooze button a lot.
I like what you said about snoozing “softening the blow” of having to get up.
I feel like snoozing somehow gives me some power back that “having to get up” is taking from me in the first place. By snoozing, I am the one deciding that I don’t have to get up YET, so I am the one in charge again.
Of course this is misleading, as very often it’s not even a conscious decision to snooze and the 20 to 30 extra minutes of sleep I get often make it much harder to actually wake up and be present after getting out of bed.
I’m going to follow along with you not on the early rising but on the putting the alarm on the other side of the room – so that snoozing would be more of a conscious decision and I have 2 seconds to at least wonder if I really want to do this – which is the point where I’ll hopefully make a turn towards the kitchen to go make coffee.
Thanks for the inspiriation!

RJA December 5, 2017 at 4:56 pm

Why so obsessed with working? You are financially independent, right? I sometimws sense a bias in the US self development community towards work/production at the expense of leisure and consumation. Why is meaning attached to work and achievement rather than experience?

I had a moment of insight when I went to a book fair as an aspiring writer. There were thousands of books everywhere, since everyone wanted to be a producer and no one a consumer/reader. Most of those will be read by very few people. The world today needs more consumers (of quality products and quality experiences) and less producers.

Wake up when your body tells you to, take a bath, take a walk, read a book, meditate. No need to produce work whether “deep” or shallow.

David Cain December 6, 2017 at 9:33 am

Not sure where you got the idea that I’m financially independent.

I am self-employed, and that means I have a lot of leeway in deciding when and how long to work each day. But work has to be done. I want to get more done in less time, and in my experience the earlier in the day I work the easier that is.

Fleur December 6, 2017 at 6:55 am

I totally agree with the principles behind this experiment. However I can see a few drawbacks:
– The first one is you have to be really motivated to work. You must have your to-do list ready the night before, otherwise you just get discouraged by the daunting nature of all there is to do, and end up procrastinating reading some blog post.

– The second one is compatibility with life events. I need at least 8-9 hours of sleep per night. Waking up at 5 am means going to sleep at about 8 or 9 in the evening. Which is mostly incompatible with all the activities in my environment (sports, meals with other people…). So I get to choose between non-participation in social activities and a chronic lack of sleep.

– The third one is weekends. If you go partying late at night in the weekends you might just blow up your internal clock, and it takes 3-4 days to recover.

I guess depending on all those parametres (how much sleep you need, how your social life is, how late you stay up) the experiment can be adapted, not as rigid as “5 am or I’m out”. I might join in for 6 am.

In any case congrats for taking it, it means you have enough willpower to start the challenge.

David Cain December 6, 2017 at 9:36 am

I do fit those parameters decently. I do fine on 7 hours of sleep. I don’t think I could sleep nine hours unless i was exhausted. I also almost never stay up late. Luckily, I am naturally motivated to work in the mornings.

So what I’m doing might not work for you without some adjustments. My regimen is based on playing to my strengths and natural tendencies, and those are different from person to person.

DG December 7, 2017 at 6:53 am

I wake at 5:12 am Monday – Thursday. I will never make peace with that time. That snooze feels so rewarding. Sometimes one snooze, never two, for the wrath of my loving wife is only 2 feet away. After I wake, dress, eat and stretch. I stroll out the door and look up at the constellations. Recent mornings it has been Orion, guarding my back doorstep. I take a few deep breaths of the brisk wintry air and for a few moments, my mind thinks, “this early morning rising, ain’t so bad”. I look forward to that pleasant feeling of safety and warmth provided by holding and from the first sips of my coffee thermos. I then take a few steps and the motion controlled halogen exterior light turns on, invading my tranquil relationship with the early morning sky. Time to get into the car for an unpleasant 45 minute commute, to spend 8 hours at a soul sucking job. Only to endure another life sapping hour afternoon commute. Then I am quickly reminded how I will never make peace with 5:12 am and that drop of morphine called ‘snoozing’.

Mauricio December 10, 2017 at 12:02 pm

Hi David,

I’ve been reading your blog for a while (I cannot remember when I started, but it has certainly been more than two years).

Based on your posts and experiments, I’ve observed you have already gone through analysis of most topics that puzzle me and it is relaxing to read the outcome of a mental discussion about something that could have taken days or weeks for one to realize the same pattern and get to a certain conclusion. So, thanks for all the posts.

While reading this post I felt a childish sentiment, some kind of satisfaction to have gone through this experiment before you. It is nothing bad and it doesn’t have any relationship with envyness. It is just that aha moment when you say “well, for once I have done a experiment before David”. Lucky for you, I also sleep 7 hours per night and I wake up at 5am, so you can read my advices and warnings and see what makes sense for you knowing you have the same parameters to compare to you own experiment.
I wake at 5am and go to the gym, by 6:15am I’m at home again and by 6:50am I have taken a shower, taken my breakfast and I’m ready to work. (The 5am gym thing was part of another experiment I did some time ago and I’m not letting that achievement go).

Here are my advices/warnings:
Going to bed at 10pm is the hardest challenge. It is not a matter of knowing you have to be sleeping at 10pm, it is the fact that the world doesn’t sleep at 10pm so you will have to fight with your own habits and external influence as well. I usually stop any computer-related work at 9pm, otherwise I’ll find myself working at 10:30pm and when that happens, I know I’ll be lucky if I get to sleep before 23h. If you are into TV Series, this also means stopping at least 30 minutes before you go to bed.
Each person is different, but in general, you will need some time to slow down and get sleepy.
Watch the time you wake up during the weekends. I know social life must be more active for you than it is for me (I have a 3-year old son and, late for me on a Saturday night means 10pm, lame lame lame). But the weekend waking up at 7am or 8am on Saturday and Sunday can ruin your 5am-weekdays.

Good luck on your experiment!

Jill December 13, 2017 at 2:43 am

Try investing in a sunrise alarm clock – completely removes that horrible shock moment. I got one when I realise I had the ‘winter blues’ and haven’t looked back, I could get decent sleep, get up easily and improved my mind state; added bonus I also get to go to sleep with a ‘sunset’
Here in UK I got mine from Lumie.

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