I'm one of those chronic sleep-laters. A night owl, internet-rabbit-hole-until-3AM type person. Or at least, I was.

But I've also fascinated with self improvement and one of the biggest tenets of personal growth is waking up early. There are countless examples of CEOs and world leaders who swear by waking up at 5AM. Or even 4AM. Disgusting.

So of course this was something I wanted to master, and which I failed miserably at for over a decade.

Not failed as in couldn't get up on time, failed as in I tried dozens and dozens of strategies and nothing worked. My senior year of high school I was close to failing classes not due to performance, but due to having too many tardies.

And in college the struggle continued. After freshman year I took classes that all started after 1PM, but still, that's not exactly addressing the problem. After college, same deal. And it was the same lame pattern, every day.

Before bed, I'd psyche myself up. Tomorrow's a new day! I'm going to start my new routine tomorrow! Rise and shine! It'll be great! And then…

Brrzt, brrzt!
Brrzt, brrzt!
[many hours later]
Oh shit!

I tried math alarm clocks. "Optimal wake up window" sleep tracking alarms. Splash my face with water immediately after waking up. Chugging water before sleeping. In high school I even had my mom take all the covers out of my room every morning to try to wake me up. She was patient as could be, but the only thing that happened was I became comfortable sleeping cold.

Mechanical alarm clocks. Digital alarm clocks. Visualization. Early to bed. No technology in the bedroom. Reading. Not reading. Brute force willpower. Uber man sleep cycles (it was awful and awfully interesting).

10 Freaking. Years. No luck.

And all of those 10 years were filled with an undercurrent of self-loathing. Why can't do I do this simple thing? So many other people can wake up early, why can't I? What's wrong with me?

And then...

I have no idea where I finally found this routine (probably at 3:11AM on an obscure forum), but this is the only technique that has consistently produced results for me. And fortunately it doesn't require a lick of willpower.

With out further ado, I give you my:


Pavlovian Wake-up Conditioning

Prep:

At some point before you start practicing, write down your wake up routine in precise detail. For example, I will hear my alarm, turn it off, do a big stretch, yawn, get out of bed, go to the bathroom, pee, brush my teeth, splash water on my face**. It doesn't really matter what your wake routine is, so long as it starts with waking up and involves a few actionable steps.

Then, once you have your blueprint, practice the following daily:

  1. Set aside 20 minutes at some point during your day. It doesn't matter when and you don't have to be consistent in the time of day, just do it every day for at least a week.
  2. Set your alarm for 5 minutes from now. Lay down in bed. Pretend you're asleep. It doesn't matter if you drift off or not in this 5 minutes, just enjoy the 5 minutes of down time. Relax.
  3. When you alarm goes off in 5 minutes, do your the wake up routine that you wrote down. Big stretch, yawn, brush your teeth etc. And yes, literally brush your teeth. It doesn't hurt to make 'em extra clean.
  4. Repeat 3x per day, thus getting you the 20 minutes of practice.
  5. Keep doing this daily until you see results. Then keep going for another few weeks to lock it in.

I saw results in 3 days. Ridiculously awesome results. A night and day difference (pun intended).

See, the problem with alarms and the rest of the tactics is that they involve your thinking brain and/or willpower. You need to will yourself to get up. To get going.

But for us late sleepers that part of the brain doesn't want to start quite yet, so it rationalizes why you should stay in bed. It's warm. The day will be hard. Just a few more minutes.

While alarms can work for some for many others they're just things we excuse away. We'll get up when "we" (in actuality our brains) feel like it. Or when the consequences and stress of lying in bed exceeds the pain of getting up.

But this conditioning works because it takes a shortcut around the brain. If you've read anything about habits, this makes sense; habits are automatic responses to stimuli. You don't have to think when you're following a habit. Different parts of the brain take over, and you go through a memorized routine without any conscious effort.

Do you need to actively think about how you back out of your drive way when driving or how to brush your teeth? No, it's an automatic response. A habit. Your hands know how to put the toothpaste on, brush your teeth, spit, rinse, all without explicit instructions from your prefrontal cortex.

Removing the need for willpower or conscious effort in waking up is the same thing. But the trick of this tactic is that you practice when you're conscious already.

It's easy to take 20 minutes during your day to practice waking up when you're already awake. And when that alarm really does go off in the morning, you can start your day without effort because of all your practice reps.

If you find yourself going back to bed after you finish your morning wake up routine, lengthen your routine. Make sure it's long enough so that when you're done, you're awake enough to have your consciousness take over and start making decisions.

Let me know if this was helpful! Shoot me a message on twitter @elijahmurray or email me at elijahmurray@gmail.com.

Keep on hustling,

–Elijah