New Habit Incubator: Getting Up Earlier
Updated: Sep 12, 2021
Getting up earlier is a new habit that many of my clients want to (or have decided to, for reasons of adultivity) tackle. People often want to get up earlier to have more time to themselves. Or maybe they just want a smoother, less chaotic ‘out the door’ experience in the morning. Regardless, getting up earlier is a popular goal and with good reason! Anyone can phase in an earlier wake up time, even night owls with aspirations of becoming early birds or night owls who have reluctantly accepted the daytime ways of the world.
Make a Choice!
First, you need to make a clear choice on what your goal is and how you’ll start. Please forgive my flip flopping while I dis the title of my own blog by stating that ‘getting up earlier’ isn’t clear or specific enough as a starting point.
For clarity and more powerful choice-making, consider these questions:
What’s the ideal wake up time you are striving for?
What time do you wake up now?
How big is the gap between those two times? (i.e. do you need a phased approach to this?)
What time do you go to bed?
How are you sleeping?
When will you start? (And no, that isn’t a trick question to get you to enthusiastically shout, “Tomorrow of course!” Sometimes making a plan to start later is the wisest course of action… as long as you start at that later time!)
We all tend to set outcome goals (i.e. where we want to end up) and then call it a day. But what most of us aren’t so good at is setting behavioural goals - the specific actions that, when consistently repeated, lead to habit creation. Once you have that figured out, you need to make a plan of which actions need to come first, and strategize about how to scale up in a way that builds your confidence and feels easy.
To help determine which actions to start with, let’s consider why you haven't been getting up earlier already. In my experience, the usual suspects are:
This just recently became a priority for me until now
I hate mornings and daylight in general and in fact might be a vampire but I also have a day job so need to do this
I am up late bingeing the internet in an endless, eyeball drying scroll and/or stuck in an autoplay loop on Netflix (or equivalent) and I can’t stop!
I get caught up doing too much work / adulting / etc. later in the evening and end up overstimulated at an inopportune time
I don’t wanna! *stamps feet* (This is called “resistance” and it’s not just for kiddos)
From here we can reverse engineer the actions we’ll need to make this thing happen. Let’s say the reason is “I get caught up doing stuff later in the evening and end up over-stimulated at an inopportune time” with a side of “I am up late bingeing the internet.”
Assuming you’re ready to change your habits (i.e. we aren’t “I don’t wanna!” territory). It seems like what you need to do is ‘break the chain’ of staying up too late and develop a plan of helping yourself wind down and get ready for bed. This way you can build a new chain: feel sleepy at night, go to bed on time, sleep soundly, wake up in the morning without cursing the day, go forth and prosper.
Even though it may seem counterintuitive to be focusing on nighttime when your goal has to do with morning, by making it easier to take the action you want to take (i.e. getting up earlier) you’ll be more likely to do it more consistently and without resistance.
What specific actions will get your butt into bed and your body asleep on time to facilitate the new, earlier wake up time? Of course, this varies from person to person, but here are some of my fave strategies:
Pre-Bed Routine: Yes, you need one. About 1-1.5 hours before bed, start preparing your body for sleep. That means less screen time (sorry, Netflix!), dimming the lights, putting on the PJs, and doing relaxing things like having a bath or meditating or drinking chamomile tea in the bath while meditating. P.S. It also means making the choice (hey, there’s that choice stuff again!) to resist the urge to check those emails one last time or get sucked into a ‘bad trance’ of infinite scrolling or eating that sugar-y snack at 10pm.
Pro Tip -Know Your Why: Of course, you can always ignore your own rules. Fortunately when you have your ‘why’ all sorted out (“I’m doing this so I can get up earlier and I’m getting up earlier so I can enjoy my mornings/get to work on time and not get tired/beat traffic/exercise/steal my neighbour’s newspaper before they wake up/etc”) it’s easier to get yourself to follow through, even when you don’t fully feel like it (which will definitely happen from time to time!)
Go To Bed!: I know, duh, but how many of us don’t get into bed until we need to be asleep (or even after we need to be asleep)? Physically getting into bed 30-60 minutes before you want to be asleep takes the pressure off of ‘falling asleep quickly’ and allows your body to wind down more naturally. You’ll still want to reduce your screen time and light exposure so if you absolutely need something to do consider: knitting, meditation, yoga, puzzles (on paper), pet cuddles, journaling, writing a handwritten letter to send someone, Lavender foot massage, etc.
Redecorate Your Evening: Maybe you’re in the habit of rushing home from work, doing all the chores you have to do and then crashing onto the couch for all that Netflix. What if you got home and allowed yourself a limited amount of mind-numbing Netflix time (That’s okay! Just be intentional!), with an alarm set to remind you to get up and wash those dishes or pack your lunch for the morning? It is likely easier to walk away from the screen before you’re utterly exhausted and completely out of willpower, and doing those chores gets you up on your feet, making it easier to walk into that bathtub or that bed before it’s (literally!) too late.
Remember that integrating new actions to form a new habit is a transition and transitions can be weird. It’s not all bad, but there are definitely some awkward times. If you’ve given one strategy a fair shake and it’s not working, either tweak it or move on to something else. In this way, you’ll discover the right combination that will work for you. But sitting around and thinking and planning will not take you to that point. Action fuels motivation just as motivation leads to action!
Form a Habit!
Once you’ve got the right actions in place, voila! - you’ve formed a new habit! Good times!
However, forming the habit isn’t the end of your story. You’ve got the habit started, now you have to keep it going so it really sticks. It’s a damn good idea, especially at first, to track your habit’s actions using a bullet journal, an app like HabitBull or make a game of it. You know your habit is sticking when you find yourself doing it without the prompt or incentive to check the box on your tracking system.
There are drawbacks to habit tracking. The main problem to look out for is if you find yourself only doing the thing in order to check the box. The larger purpose of tracking is to give an extra layer of support and accountability to a new habit when it’s too easy to let it slip away. After 8-12 weeks of nurturing your new habit, you should be able to keep it going without formally checking in every day (unless you really enjoy it, in which case, you do you!).
If you spend one month solidly tracking your habit adherence and / or making a fun game to keep yourself on track, you’ll be in fine shape and it will start to feel like your actions are becoming automated (i.e. forming a habit). The magical thing about this habit chain is that by setting yourself up for success at night, you’ll get to work less hard to get yourself up in the morning - and that’s smart because morning brains are notoriously troublesome.