The Zen of Waking Up Early: 10 ways to solidify a morning wakeup ritual

Takeaway: To solidify a morning wakeup ritual, find your “purple pill”, reward yourself when you wake up early, take it easy on yourself in the process, create a nighttime ritual, shut off your devices past a certain time, reduce your exposure to blue light 2-3 hours before bed, stop consuming caffeine 4-6 hours before you sleep, ease into the ritual, anticipate obstacles ahead of time, and be honest with yourself in the process. Whew.

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes, 11s. But it’s pretty skimmable.

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Something worth thinking about before you read this article: waking up early has been shown to have no impact on your socioeconomic standing or productivity. That said, I think waking up early is most definitely a keystone habit that has the potential to create a chain reaction to change and rearrange the other habits in your life. Before you read this article, I think it’s worth seriously thinking about what you want to get out of waking up earlier. Personally, I love the feeling of having worked out, meditated, and planned my day before breakfast, but your mileage may vary.

Since I started A Year of Productivity about ten months ago, I’ve been slowly chipping away at my habits and routines to solidify a ritual to wake up at 5:30 every weekday. And let me say: even though I’ve woken up at 5:30 for the last two months, getting there has been anything but easy.

But I have learned a ton along the way.

The ten methods below have worked better than anything else to help me solidify a morning wakeup ritual. I’ve picked up a few of these strategies through research, but stumbled upon most of them through pure trial and error, and by throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall to see what stuck. Your mileage may vary, but I personally believe that most, if not all, of the items on this list will help you solidify a morning wakeup ritual as well. Good luck!

1. Find your “purple pill”

3102_1784Every morning, right after my alarm clock wakes me up at 5:30, I take two purple creatine (workout) tablets that will help me work out longer. But here’s the thing: the bottle for the tablets clearly states to take them only 30 minutes before a workout, so as soon as I swallow the pills, they become a ticking time bomb that force me to be at the gym for 6. It does the trick every morning.

Even if you don’t have a morning workout ritual, you likely have a similar “purple pill” that will get you out of bed every morning. Here are a few examples:

  • Buy a time-based coffee maker that will automatically brew you a fresh pot of coffee when you want to wake up
  • Drink a huge glass of water right before you go to bed. You won’t have a choice but to get out of bed to use the bathroom in the morning!
  • Don’t check your email past 6pm. If you’re anything like me, you’ll practically spring out of bed to see if you received anything new and exciting

Your mind is a stubborn beast, so often you have to trick it into submission. Finding your “purple pill” is one of my favorite ways to convince my mind to get out of bed every morning.

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2. Reward yourself

When I interviewed Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, he talked about how important it is to reward yourself when adopting a new habit. He used the example of exercising more. “Even if you think you want to start exercising, your brain essentially thinks that you’re a liar and that you don’t actually like exercise. So what you have to do is train your brain so it knows that exercise is linked to something you know that you enjoy, like a piece of chocolate, taking a nice long shower, or spending 15 minutes on Facebook. It doesn’t matter what the reward is. What matters is it’s genuinely rewarding, and that you allow yourself to enjoy that reward.”

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Every time you wake up early, reward yourself with something that is genuinely rewarding to you. My reward for waking up early is drinking a coffee. It’s genuinely rewarding to me, which has helped me a ton in solidifying my morning wakeup ritual.

3. Take it easy on yourself

The harder you are on yourself when you integrate a new habit into your life, the less likely that new habit will actually stick. 

For example, think about how a lot of people form a habit to wake up early. They might not have a decent nighttime ritual, so they watch TV until late at night, and wake up tired the next day. Because they didn’t get enough sleep, they drag their feet all day long, are way less productive and happy, and are essentially worse off because they woke up early.

It’s worth repeating: The harder you are on yourself when you integrate a new habit into your life, the less likely that new habit will actually stick. As another example, don’t be hard on yourself when you hit the ‘snooze’ button 10 times in the morning; instead, think about what would make you spring out of bed in the morning, or ask yourself why you’re tired in the first place.

4. Create a solid nighttime ritual

I think when people ritualize waking up early, they have the tendency to focus too much on getting up early, as opposed to heading to bed early. But the two are inseparable–like two sides of the same coin. If you don’t create a solid nighttime ritual to go to bed earlier, you’re going to hate yourself the next day when you wake up early. If you’re average, your body needs a solid eight hours of sleep every night, and getting less than that will discourage you from adopting the ritual.

I personally think your nighttime ritual should include activities that:

  1. Serve as cues that tell your mind that it’s time to head to bed soon
  2. Help your mind rev down before you head to bed

What you include in your nighttime ritual is obviously up to you, but here’s what has worked well for me:

  • 8pm: Put my smartphone and tablet on airplane mode, and put my computer to sleep
  • 8pm: Take a shower or a bath
  • 8:30pm: Meditate
  • 9pm: Diary three things I’m grateful for, and one positive experience I had during the day1
  • 9:15-9:30pm: Read in bed, then go to sleep

All of these routines help me rev down my mind, and provide me with a cue that I should head to bed soon.

Tip: All habit cues fall into one (or more) of these five categories: a certain time of day, a certain place, the presence of certain people, a particular emotion, and a preceding behaviour that’s been ritualized. For example, if you set your running clothes beside your bed at night so they’re there for you in the morning, that morning cue includes a time of day (6am), place (by your bed), and preceding behaviour (waking up).

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5. Shut off your devices past a certain time

One of the habits I’ve recently adopted that has helped me wake up early is putting my smartphone and other devices into airplane mode from 8pm to 8am (1.5 hours before I go to bed, and 2.5 hours after I wake up). Airplane mode shuts off all of the radios on your devices (wifi, cellular, and bluetooth included), which prevents any emails, texts, tweets, Facebook messages, and other updates from getting in.

This ritual will take you a week or two to integrate into your life (if you decide to integrate it, that is), but once you do, its benefits are incredible. Here are a few of them:

  • It will give your brain a chance to rev down before you head to bed, which will help you fall asleep much faster
  • It forces you to tackle more valuable activities before you head to bed and after you wake up (like journaling and planning), instead of spending time on useless stuff like email and social media
  • It serves as a cue that you should head to bed shortly after you shut your phone off
  • It will allow you to be more mindful before you head off to bed, because your phone and other devices won’t hijack your attention
  • Not having a phone by your bed means you won’t have any distractions to lay in bed with in the morning
  • The ritual forces you to deal with you notifications when you actually have the energy to deal with them–when you’re not easing into the day, or tired from a long day

I could keep going, but I think you get the point. Shutting your devices off past a certain time will make you sleep better, and will make you much more calm and mindful before you go to bed and after you wake up.

You might have noticed that there aren’t any ads or sponsorships on AYOP–that’s because articles like this one are totally made possible by people like you. If you found this article valuable, please considering pitching in! Three new friends that have pitched in recently: Jonathan Guillotte-Blouin, Kęstutis Mačiulaitis, and Riccardo Caimano!

6. Reduce your exposure to blue light 2-3 hours before bed

Exposing yourself to blue light is detrimental to your sleep. This one might sound a little weird, but it’s true.

Blue light has been proven to inhibit melatonin production, a happy chemical in your body that helps you sleep. In fact, one study found that participants who were exposed to no blue light before bed (they wore blue-blocking sunglasses–$10 on Amazon) slept 50% better, and were 40% happier after they woke up!2

Most of the blue light you see before bed comes from your electronics, like your smartphone or tablet. The solution? Pick up a pair of blue-blocking sunglasses, stop using your smartphone/tablet 2-3 hours before you go to bed, and limit your exposure to energy-efficient lighting before bed, which also emits a lot of light on the blue end of the spectrum.3

7. Stop consuming caffeine 4-6 hours before you sleep

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According to the FDA, “[a]fter drinking caffeine, it usually reaches its peak level in your blood within one hour and stays there for four to six hours”.4 In other words, if you consume caffeine less than four to six hours before you go to bed, caffeine is literally coursing through your veins as you’re trying to fall asleep.

My rule for making sure caffeine doesn’t compromise my nighttime and wakeup rituals: stop consuming caffeine six hours before I sleep.

8. Ease into the ritual

It’s near-impossible to will yourself into making huge changes to your life overnight, and I think this rule is especially true with waking up early.

The slower you ease into waking up early, the more success you’ll have with the ritual. For example, instead of waking up an hour earlier than you did yesterday, wake up just one minute earlier than you did yesterday. By easing into the ritual, you’ll create a series of small wins for yourself along the way (which helps in habit formation), you won’t discourage yourself, and best of all, you’ll practically be jumping at the chance to wake up earlier the next day if you ease into the ritual slowly enough.

Waking up earlier shouldn’t be a change you make overnight. Especially when the ritual is something you may practice for years–if not decades–it makes sense to integrate it into your life slowly.

9. Anticipate obstacles ahead of time

When I interviewed Charles Duhigg, one of the things he talked about was how important it is to anticipate where your breakdowns will occur as you form new habits. For example, if you’re heading on a business trip three weeks from now, that’s easy to anticipate and plan for in advance, but it’s way more difficult to figure out how you’re going to wake up early after you leave for the trip.

When you ritualize waking up early, make sure you look out on the horizon for any obstacles or commitments that might get in the way of your ritual. Chances are there will be periods when you don’t even want to wake up early–like when you’re on vacation–but planning how you’ll deal with obstacles ahead of time is another great way to solidify your morning wakeup routine.

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10. Be honest with yourself in the process

I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when they try to integrate a new habit or routine into their life is they’re not honest with themselves in the process.

I’ll admit that sometimes it’s necessary to play tricks on our brains to accomplish more (like finding your “purple pill”), but when you integrate any new habit into your life, I think it’s crucial that you’re honest with yourself about why you’re succeeding and failing.

For example, chances are there’s a very good reason you hit ‘snooze’ six times every morning, like that you’re too tired, or that you’re trying to move your wakeup time back too quickly. Or if you constantly have trouble going to bed at a decent time, chances are there are constraints that you have that keep you from getting to bed on time. Is Jimmy Fallon’s show simply too funny to not watch? Are your kids keeping you up late into the night?

Being honest with yourself about what’s preventing you from going to bed and waking up early will not only help you recognize what improvements you need to make to wake up early, but it will also help you with the other tactics in this article.

The items in this list are what has worked for me, but I’m confident that these tactics will work wonders for you, too.


  1. These habits have been proven to train your brain to be more grateful, and to look out for the positive things that happen to you. 

  2. Source: http://ayearofproductivity.com/smartphone-light-keeping-you-up-at-night/ 

  3. Source: http://ayearofproductivity.com/smartphone-light-keeping-you-up-at-night/ 

  4. Source: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/drugs/resourcesforyou/consumers/buyingusingmedicinesafely/understandingover-the-countermedicines/ucm205286.pdf 

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  • http://www.tailoredfit.co Nathaniel Eliason

    I picked up the blue-light-filtering glasses you mentioned in an earlier post. They actually made a big difference! I only wish they went over my glasses so I could take out my contacts…

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Awesome brother! Yeah, I hear you; I find myself wearing contacts later into the night because of that, or awkwardly layering the glasses on top of one another when my eyes get dry haha

  • http://www.highperformancelifestyle.net/ Kosio @ HighPerformance

    Awesome article! What has also worked for me with adopting an easy waker habit is to roll the back the wake up time gradually. It used to be 7:30, I made it 7:20, 7:10, 7:00 and so on. Gradually easing into it makes it more manageable to adopt and kills the resistance.

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Thanks man! I agree (and covered it a bit in #8!); something interesting I’m finding with the project is the smaller the change I try to make, the more likely the change will actually stick. I get so anxious to keep building upon any successes I have, but making tiny, incremental positive changes seems to channel that energy into making new habits stick :)

      • http://www.highperformancelifestyle.net/ Kosio @ HighPerformance

        This is usually true for me too, the smaller the change, the easier to stick to it. Sometimes though, just to spice things up, I like to dive in with both feet and overhaul something completely. Variety is the spice of life they say :)

        • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

          Agreed, especially when you have a good reserve of willpower left over at the end of the day :)

  • http://rockstarfinance.com J. Money

    I think I need to take some of these pointers… I’m on a two day in-a-row 5am wake up record. And I’m dyiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing…. zzzz

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Man, the hustling business just keeps getting more and more demanding, eh?

      • http://rockstarfinance.com J. Money

        More like someone is testing out new experiments like someone else he knows ;)

  • http://hackdigital.net/ Luke Marshall

    Really enjoyed this. Nice to see that some of the things I already do articulated as well. Getting into routine and bed early is the best, and really sets you up for the following day.

    I’ve followed this project of yours for a while now, and am really enjoying it.

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Thanks a lot man! Happy you found that :) I should have talked to you before I started this several months back, sounds like you could have saved me quite a bit of trial and error! ;) What time do you usually get up?

      • http://hackdigital.net/ Luke Marshall

        Haha, not at all, it’s a great article. I get up at 630, it seems to be the best balance between getting stuff done and blends well with what time I go to bed – 930pm.

        Great stuff!

  • Rob Elliott

    FYI Creatine Timing doesn’t matter. Hate to ruin you ‘purple pill’ but when i see misinformation, I just gotta!

    Source:
    http://examine.com/faq/when-should-i-take-creatine.html

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Damnit Rob!!

      Interesting link though, thanks a lot for passing it along. I especially liked the linked article on how creatine and caffeine interact with each other (I take a caffeine-based pre workout drink most mornings). Might have to down a litre of water before bed from now on..

  • http://www.psycholocrazy.com/ jamie flexman

    You know, shutting of devices after a certain time is ridiculously difficult. It goes to show how many addictions we carry with us on a day to day basis. With a list like this however, the more we tick off, the easier it is to tick more off. For example. turning of devices at say, 9pm will reduce exposure to blue light etc..

    I really need to wake up earlier.. who knew it would be so difficult :p

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Tell me about it.. I started to try to integrate the change into my life back when I started AYOP (in May), and it only stuck a couple of months ago!

      Agreed that cutting back on using your devices gradually can be a really good idea :) Especially if you make the changes on the list gradually, I think you can really set up a series of small wins for yourself which can snowball to help you make the big change even faster.

  • Jess Whittlestone

    Nice post! I really like getting up and getting things done early – the main thing that I think stops me from establishing a good early morning routine is that even if I manage it in the week, often at the weekend I socialise and go to bed late, so wake up later – which breaks the routine. (Often I end up underslept because I go to bed late but still wake up early because my body is used to it.) I haven’t come up with a good solution to this yet…

    Also, for reducing blue light exposure, I use this app: http://justgetflux.com/ – it cleverly adjust the colour of your computer screen to the time of day – blue light during the daytime, and a warmer colour as it starts to get dark.

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Thanks Jess! I hear you–that’s why I totally don’t get the people who wake up super-extra early, like at 4am every morning. Like, what the hell do they do for fun? It essentially makes it impossible to do fun things on the weekend. I’ve been experimenting around the idea, and lately I’ve been heading to bed around midnight on Friday night, around 10:30-11 on Saturday night, and at 9:30 again on Sunday, and it seems to do the trick. :)

      • Li-ling

        Hahaha…Chris, I’m one of those super-extra early people :) 4am is about my usual these days. I love the quiet and the me time. It also seems to be the time I’m most ‘productive’. I should add I suppose that it has become somewhat routine and habit for me. I do fall in and out of it, depending on what the day/night before was like, but generally I find going to sleep feeling good really helps to get out of bed in the morning.

        • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

          That’s insane! What do you do on weekends? When do you have your fun? haha

          • Li-ling

            hahaha…depends on how you define fun i guess. :) Weekends are ‘down time’ and we go out and do things in the day, but with a child who’s up at 5.30 most mornings – getting up even earlier, allows me to have some quiet time for myself. I am naturally a morning person, in that I don’t even use an alarm clock (I never have).

  • http://theaipaproject.com/ Daniel Aipa

    Awesome Post. I’m usually a morning person, but lately it’s been hard getting up in the mornings. I may have to create a better night ritual because obviously it’s not working for me. Thanks for the ideas! Aloha.

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      You betcha man, happy it helped! Good luck–cheers!!

  • Dan Erickson

    I’ve got the early to rise down. It’s the sleep I struggle with. But I don’t have good evening rituals and am overexposed to screens before bed. Good tips, Chris. I need to work on less screen time in the evening and more exercise.

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Awesome man! Just be careful about the exercise a couple of hours before bed; from what I’ve read it raises your body temperature before you sleep, which makes it more difficult to fall asleep at night (when you sleep, your body’s core temperature drops). It’s the same reason why taking a hot shower or bath before bed helps you sleep better–because it helps your body eliminate heat and cool down before bed.

  • http://www.hitenvyas.com/blog Hiten Vyas

    Hi Chris,

    This is a brilliant post. The methods you’ve shared to help create wakeup rituals are really practical and useful.

    In particular, I appreciate what you wrote about easing into the ritual. It makes sense to do this in small bits, so as not to become overwhelmed.

    Thank you.

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Happy it helped man! I love that approach to pretty much everything. I think it’s so easy to get caught up in jumping into a change, even though that’s usually the least effective way to rewire your habits. Thanks for reading!

  • Tomas

    Great suggestions there Chris. One thing I like to do in my bed time ritual is slowly begin turning off the lights – around 8:30pm I begin dimming the lights here and there, so by the time I am ready for bed it’s almost dark. I don’t know if it is placebo or not but it’s been working really well for me. I get to sleep much quicker than I used to.

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Probably not just a placebo, especially if you have a lot of energy-efficient lighting (which emits a lot of blue light, which is pretty harmful to your sleep)! Hell, even if it’s just a placebo, they’re pretty damn effective by themselves..

  • Karen

    Chris, to build on the Purple Pill and the Night Routine, here’s an idea that blogger Dean Dwyer talks about for building willpower to get up early:

    Dean told a story he’d heard of a guy who actually *practiced* his morning routine several times the night before – literally physically walking through the steps. Turn off the alarm, sit right up, stretch, slippers on, to the john, teeth, dress for the gym, coffee from the pre-set pot, pick up keys in the bowl on the end table, walk out the front door. Put everything back, get back in bed, repeat the routine. All of this for several nights in a row so that really it was automatic behavior in the morning. I look at it as a way to accelerate the adoption of a new habit by rehearsing it more often and closer to Game Time.

    As silly as that sounded, I tried it. It’s 80 degrees by 8am in Dallas in the summer so if I want to run, I have to get up before the sun. I tried the technique in July and I’ve been getting up without an alarm between 5:30 and 6:00 daily, even on weekends, but then I’m not like you youngsters who have exciting things to do after 10pm on weekends ;-).

    I guess the point is that when something is important enough, we don’t leave it to chance: we set ourselves up for success through preparation and rehearsal.

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Really interesting! I know that most athletes use the same technique before they have a big race or event, but they walk themselves through the step mentally (I’d imaging both would have similar results). I’ll have to look into the idea more!

  • http://danblackonleadership.com/ Dan Black

    Amazing post Chris!

    I’ve had my normal night time ritual for several years now and it’s really helped my body turn off. Before the process I make sure not to drink caffeine 4-5 hours before going to bed (which is such an important aspect that you mentioned). I spend some time reading, reflecting, and praying before bed. It’s really helped me to relax and sleep well.

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Thanks a lot my friend! Sounds like a lovely routine :) Not drinking caffeine is one of the more difficult parts for me, but definitely worth it in the morning!

  • http://www.vishnusvirtues.com/ Vishnu

    Chris – I’m a morning person and tend to wake up earlier most of the time. In order to get up at a certain time everyday, I just start waking up at that time with the help of an alarm. Then what happens is I get more tired earlier at night and fall asleep earlier. You do this for 2-3 weeks and you have a habit! I have to say that caffeine is my reward for waking up early too. This may only become a problem for those of us (most likely you haha) who are trying to wake up early and not drink caffeine at the same time.

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      I think that would work for someone who is naturally a morning person, but most of the folks I spoke to when writing this piece have had huge challenges integrating the ritual into their lives with pure willpower alone. If a change you want to make isn’t aligned with your habits or motivation, I think it’s pretty hard to will yourself into upending your morning and evening routines!

  • http://maxhodges.com Max Hodges

    interesting that you extoll the virtues of an early morning workout and meditation but then ruin it with caffeine ;)

    “Creative insights and imaginative solutions often occur when we stop working on a particular problem and let our mind move on to something unrelated. In one recent study, participants showed marked improvements on a task requiring creative thought—thinking of alternative uses for a common object, such as a newspaper—after they had engaged in a different, undemanding task that facilitated mind wandering. The more their mind wandered when they stepped away, the better they fared at being creative. In fact, the benefit was not seen at all when the subjects engaged in an unrelated but demanding task.

    In other words, a break in intense concentration may increase unconscious associative processing. That, in turn, allows us to perceive connections that we would otherwise miss. Letting our minds wander may also increase communication between the brain’s default mode network—the parts of our brain that are more active when we’re at rest—and its executive areas, which are used in so-called higher reasoning and decision-making functions. These two regions become activated right before we solve problems of insight. Caffeine prevents our focus from becoming too diffuse; it instead hones our attention in a hyper-vigilant fashion.”
    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/06/how-caffeine-short-circuits-creativity.html

    • http://ayearofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      You’re totally right, caffeine has been shown to inhibit your creativity, but I usually do my creative tasks in the afternoons and evenings :) Caffeine has been shown to significantly boost your focus and concentration, which helps me a lot with staying on track at the gym and planning out my day!

  • http://thoughthouse.org/ Micah

    The thing I just love about this blog. Every time I come here (and this is no exaggeration) I learn something new. Something practicable that I need to implement into my lifestyle. A wake up routine. I have one, of course, but it’s more a habitual thing. Never something I’ve thought of being intentional about and optimising to get the most out of my day. Great stuff, dude. Thanks.

  • MG

    Thank you. :)

  • James
  • hani

    some one help me !!!! I cant never ever get up early but I go to school and i have too so its too bothering !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!