Thursday, October 29, 2020

I Woke Up at 5 a.m. for a Week to See if It Would Change My Life

I’ve always been fascinated by early mornings. I often say “I wish the whole day was just morning time.” I love waking up early, taking time for myself, working on my side projects… I’ve been waking up between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. for many years now, and always wondered what it would be like to try and wake up one hour earlier. I would then enter the 5 a.m. world, which seemed so magical and somehow unattainable.

I had already read books and watched videos about waking up early, but 5 a.m. had always remained an unreachable utopia. I decided to change that.

I wanted to see if waking up at 5 a.m. was going to change my life as much as other people said it changed theirs.

The Challenge

I told a friend about my challenge idea on WhatsApp. I told him I wanted to do this challenge but wasn’t sure about it; I wondered if I was pushing myself too hard, especially considering I’m someone who needs a lot of sleep. I was hesitant, and all I needed to jump in was a little nudge. Just what friends are for!

My friend suggested we both do the challenge together: he would get up at 6 a.m., and I would start my day at 5 a.m. Every morning, we would send each other a picture of our watch showing the time. Accountability was a huge factor in my success in undertaking this challenge.

We also clarified a few rules around the challenge:

  • A tolerance window of 10 minutes— to have time to get out of bed, go to the bathroom, and take the picture. Cut off time was 6:10 a.m. for him, 5:10 a.m. for me.
  • The picture we sent each other didn’t have to be specifically a watch, but it had to show the time. This concept was inspired by Jocko Willink’s ritual morning watch picture (around 4:30 a.m.) to his Twitter followers.
  • The challenge was effective from Monday to Friday, a normal workweek.

With that in mind, we were all set, and off we started.

The Day-by-Day Breakdown

The point of waking up earlier was to make good use of that productive morning time. With that in mind, this is the routine I followed everyday:

  • 5:00 — 5:10 → Get out of bed, put sweatpants on, go out on the terrace.
  • 5:10 — 5:25 → Stretching + 10-minute walk around the park.
  • 5:25 — 5:30 → Quick journaling.
  • 5:30 — 7:15 → Full focus work, nonstop. Mostly writing, my MIT (Most Important Task) of the day.
  • 7:15 — 7:45 → Coffee, breakfast.
  • 7:45–8:00 → Shower, get dressed.
  • 8:00–8:30 → Prepare lunchbox for my 9–5 job, finish some work on the side if I have a bit of extra time.
  • 8:30 → Leave for the office.

With the quick journaling from 5:25 to 5:30, I logged my state of mind and rated my sleep from 1 to 5. I also took a picture of my breakfast, for documentation.

The routine by itself wasn’t that different from my usual 6 a.m. routine. I just had a lot more time to go through it. The only difference was that I had to grab my phone first thing in the morning to take a picture and send it to my friend. My phone usually stays off (that is, not powered) until 9 a.m. at least.

Most days I would take the picture, send it, then send a quick state-of-mind message at 5:30 after my stretching and walking. Then I would check back in at breakfast around 7:15–30. I usually try to stay away from my phone as much as possible. For this challenge, I made an exception, because without it there couldn’t be any accountability.

Monday

On the left, my iPad. On the right, my friend’s watch.
On the left, my iPad. On the right, my friend’s watch.

This is exactly what I wrote in my journal on my first day of waking up at 5 a.m.:

  • Woke up at like 3
  • Then half slept until 5
  • Was up at 5 sharp
  • Stretched, went for a 1-mile run
  • Saw two people outside
  • Feels great but weird to be sweaty in the morning
  • Expecting to be really tired tonight
  • Sleep score: 1.5/5

I slept pretty badly that first night, and my friend did too. We were too excited to start the challenge. He woke up at 5 a.m. instead of 6 a.m., and I woke up at 3 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. I was so excited that I even went for a 1-mile run (the only morning run of the week).

I definitely had a moment that first morning where I was staring out the window in the middle of my work, thinking to myself: “that’s it, I’m going back to bed”. But because I had a set schedule for this morning, I stayed in my chair and worked. I’ll get back to the power of scheduling in the learnings section.

Like every following day, my work this morning consisted of writing an article for a little over an hour, and responding to emails after that. Here is what my 7:30 a.m. breakfast looked liked that day:

Monday breakfast

Monday breakfast

Tuesday

On the left, my iPad. On the right, my friend’s watch.

On the left, my iPad. On the right, my friend’s watch.

Morning log:

  • Alarm woke me up at 5 a.m.
  • Actually feel more tired than yesterday
  • Stretched and went for a walk at 5:15
  • Saw nobody. Was nice and peaceful
  • 5:30, work
  • Definitely amazing morning, but hard on the body
  • Sleep score: 3/5

I was expecting to feel a lot more tired on Tuesday morning, because I had barely slept the night before. My body was still adjusting. This is what my breakfast looked like:

Tuesday breakfast

Tuesday breakfast

Wednesday

On the left, my watch. On the right, my friend’s watch.

On the left, my watch. On the right, my friend’s watch.

Morning log:

  • Feeling much better than yesterday
  • Woke up before alarm
  • PBJ at 5:20
  • 5:30 work
  • Will definitely be tired at end of day
  • Sleep score: 4/5

My sleep improved from that day on. I got a snack early in the morning (peanut butter and jelly sandwich) because I was hungry before starting to write.

Breakfast:

Wednesday breakfast

Wednesday breakfast

Thursday

On the left, my watch. On the right, my friend’s watch.

On the left, my watch. On the right, my friend’s watch.

Morning log:

  • I wouldn’t do this again because I get tired way too fast during the second part of the day (from 3 p.m. onwards)
  • The long-term toll is just too much
  • Had a PBJ at 5:20 a.m. (again)
  • Woke up with the alarm, I barely remember getting out of bed though, weird
  • Sleep score: 4/5

I’m pretty fast to get to full operational mode in the morning. Even when I’m really groggy, I can usually fire up in 15 mins with my stretching and warming up session. This morning was no exception, and as soon as I did my push-ups on the yoga mat, I was go-time.

My breakfast that day:

Thursday breakfast

Thursday breakfast

Friday

On the left, my watch. On the right, my friend’s watch.

On the left, my watch. On the right, my friend’s watch.

Morning log:

  • Glad it’s the last day
  • Really impressed how well accountability works
  • Sleep score: 5/5

My sleep was excellent on that last night, but I was still glad I was going to be able to stay in bed a little more on the weekend. It’s interesting to note how my sleep score consistently improved throughout the week. I usually sleep very well, but a re-calibration was required to adjust to my new schedule.

My last breakfast of the challenge:

Friday breakfast

Friday breakfast

The second point I made in this last day of logging my 5 a.m. thoughts is about accountability:

“Really impressed how well accountability works”

It did make a huge difference in this challenge, and it’s the number one learning I drew from this experiment. Let’s see what it’s all about.

Learnings

My friend and I called on Saturday for a debriefing. We both loved the experiment. After our call, I came up with a list of all the learnings we had talked about.

The power of accountability is huge

When you have to report to someone about your progress, about following through on what you said, your commitment will increase in most cases.

The American Society of Training and Development did a study on accountability. They found out that being accountable to someone bumped up your likeliness to succeed to 65%. If you hold a specific accountability appointment with someone, your chances jump all the way up to 95%. That’s huge.

For me, the power of accountability really showed on Tuesday morning. When my alarm went off, I was going to stay in bed, to sleep an extra hour or two. But then, I thought of this picture of my watch I had to send to my friend, within the next 10 minutes. I didn’t want to let him down, and I didn’t want to disappoint myself by losing the challenge only two days in. So I got up, took a picture, and went on with my day.

A routine is primordial

“To go on with the day” can be a pretty vague notion at 5 a.m. That’s why a clear routine and agenda are necessary in the early hours. Without a clear plan of what to do, there’s literally no use in waking up early.

I remember over a year ago when I started waking up early to work on my blog. I would literally wake up at 6 a.m., have breakfast, sit at my desk, and stare at my computer screen without knowing what to do. I didn’t have a plan.

I already explained my routine earlier on. The idea is to find what works for you, and to be as precise as possible. My routine is somewhat split in 30-minute intervals. If you need 10-minutes intervals to be able to keep the momentum, then do that. Just know that if you don’t have a reason to wake up this early, you’ll go back to bed, or you won’t even get out of it.

The time you gain is insane

I was honestly shocked by how much time I had. I would stretch, go for a walk, work for almost two hours, and then I would start making breakfast, thinking to myself “I need to hurry, I’m going to be late for work.” Then I would check the time: 7:30 a.m. I still had over an hour before having to leave the house.

I was surprised by this gain of time because I didn’t think one hour was going to make that much of a difference. But it did.

There are two reasons for that:

  1. From 5:00 to 8:30 a.m., that’s three and a half hours that I fully own. This time is mine. I can fit a lot more things in that timeframe than I can when I wake up around 6:15.
  2. Because of the accountability I had with my friend, there was no lingering in bed. For the past month, I’ve been gradually staying in bed a little longer. My alarm goes off at 6 but I’ll actually get out of bed around 6:15, 6:20. Then I will stretch and take a while to get ready, have breakfast… by the time I get to work, it’s actually 6:45–7 a.m.. So in reality, I only have one hour to work. With this challenge, I had to get out of bed at 5 sharp to have time to get dressed and send a picture to my friend before 5:10 a.m. Needless to say, pictures in bed were not allowed.

If you do everything in the morning, what do you do at night?

Gaining time is awesome. But I did notice that my afternoons were a lot less productive than they had been before. Before the challenge, I would work on my blog in the morning, go to the office, and then clock in another 1-2 hours on my blog once I was back home. This week, it was a lot harder to work after being back from the office.

Again, two reasons for that:

  1. My energy died down very fast in the afternoon, from 3 to 4. When you have less energy, it becomes harder to get things done.
  2. I had already done so much in the morning, I actually didn’t have much less to do at the end of the day. The rest was for the day after. All of my most important tasks were done.

I ended up being in this weird zone where I was too tired to keep working, but I also didn’t want to watch Youtube from 6 p.m. until bedtime. I still had two of my main hobbies: reading and playing chess online. I tried to work a little under an hour. But a lot of that time was spent relaxing.

It’s interesting to note that even though I now had a lot more time, the total amount I spent working was around the same as before. That being said, the quality of the work done in the morning was much higher than my daily average performance outside of the challenge.

So what do you do when you’ve done all your work by 5 p.m.? You relax, work just a bit more, and exercise.

On morning exercise

I only ran one time in the morning, on Monday when I felt psyched about the first day of the experiment. I ran one mile in ten minutes. Because I was exhausted at the end of my days, I didn’t actively exercise for the rest of the week. I went for walks, but nor for runs.

I’m always tired when I get back from work anyway, but I usually find the motivation to do some sort of exercise. This time, it was different. I was drained. I was thinking to myself: “If had I exercised in the morning, I wouldn’t have to worry about it now that I’m feeling sorry for myself.”

That’s also a big part of the reason people wake up insanely early. To work out. The best time of the day to work out is the time where you feel your best, you’re the most likely to be consistent and compliant. If I wake up early, then mornings are also the best time for me to exercise.

Conclusion

I won’t stick to waking up at 5 a.m. every day. The physical toll in the evening is just not worth it to me, even when going to bed earlier. However, this challenge has reignited my motivation to get out of bed at 6 a.m. sharp instead of 6:15–20, like I’ve been doing lately. My friend and I have decided to keep the challenge going with the same rules, adapted to 6 a.m. This means that the tolerance window (time to get out of bed and take the picture) is now 6:10 a.m.

I started waking up early (6 a.m.) over a year ago. I was able to build my blog and website from the ground up, and to get introduced to an online community of like-minded people who share a passion for self-improvement, productivity, and writing about their learnings.

Waking up early (at 6, not at 5) consistently has changed my life and I truly believe it can have the same effect for anyone willing to give it a true shot:

  • With a concrete, step-by-step morning routine,
  • By going to bed earlier, and
  • By being accountable to someone.

Thanks a lot for reading, and enjoy the journey.

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