Early Mornings: The Key to a Productive Day

When my school year ended a little less than a month ago, my body quickly entered a vegetative state caused by a week’s worth of sleep inertia. While trying to recover from all the sleep I was deprived of during the school year, it seems I did myself more harm than good.

In the first week of summer vacation, I can vividly recall my daily routine of eating, sleeping-in, binging Netflix, and pulling many record long video game marathons. For some, this may seem like a life of relaxation, but for me, this was something that I was not accustomed to. By attempting to decompress from school, I became the antithesis of productivity. Compared to my life as a student a few days prior, I had completely derailed. 

I would consistently push my body to its limits when it came to my daily “tasks.” I was awake at hours that I didn’t think possible and woke up at times that most people would begin lunch. I was beginning to develop a routine that consisted of alternating between Netflix and video games as a way to prevent burnout from either task. This became so problematic that I lost my sense of time and self. Things were not looking so great from an outsider’s perspective. 

After a week of this, I couldn’t take it any longer. Believe it or not, I was actually tired of receiving too much sleep. I could feel my brain cells decaying as each hour elapsed. With the amount of summer work that I had to complete, I knew I needed to make a drastic adjustment to my lifestyle. Since my biggest guilt had been my poor sleep schedule, I decided to start with that first. Unfortunately, this would prove more difficult than I had anticipated.

As a genetic anomaly, I was the world’s first (self-proclaimed) nocturnal human. This meant an early start to the day would be my gateway back to the world of both productivity and daylight. There was only one problem: never before have I voluntarily decided to wake up early on a consistent basis. It felt like an enormous undertaking that would stand as a testament to my mental strength and willpower. But if I wanted that pile of work to be done by September, this would be the only option. 

After some trial and error, I finally conquered my inner night owl and reaped the benefits of an earlier start to the day. From my recent experiences, I vehemently stand behind an early start to the day as a sure-fire method to boosting productivity. During the first week of vacation, one of my biggest frustrations was wasting away half of the day sleeping. By getting back those hours, I freed up more time for myself to get work done. I quickly found that I was able to accomplish more during each day and still maintain a healthy sleep schedule. 

One of the unintended benefits of this experiment has been an improvement to my overall mood. It may be acting in combination with the sunny summer days, but I know that I have rarely felt this level of excitement and energy before. While some people could spend their extra hours exercising, I spend mine preparing myself for the upcoming day, either by reading or checking my daily tasks. I find that it helps me become more proactive and prevents me from deviating too far off my daily schedule. In both cases, there is a gratification to be felt by doing something productive other than getting unnecessary sleep. If there has been any lesson that I’ve learned thus far, it’s that an early morning mood can dramatically help jumpstart your workflow. Without the help of this mindset maker, I would quickly lose all motivation to do anything. 

After doing some research in an attempt to uncover what other hidden benefits lie ahead, I found out that I’ve only skimmed the tip of the iceberg. Aside from an improved mood and increased productivity, other benefits include:

  • More time for an early morning exercise
  • Increased concentration
  • Heightened mental alertness
  • Fewer interruptions
  • Increased motivation
  • Increased confidence
  • Proactivity

And when it comes to academics, it seems that the early bird does, indeed, get the worm. According to a Texas University study, “college students who identified themselves as “morning people” earned a full point higher on their GPAs than those who were ‘night owls’ (3.5 vs. 2.5).” The better the academic record is, the more career opportunities that are revealed in the future. It appears that no matter the occupation or purpose, an earlier start to the day can work wonders for anyone. It’s no coincidence that successful people like Tim Cook, Oprah Winfrey, and Mark Wahlberg all begin their day before the rest of us.

The only problem with starting the day early is that it’s easier said than done, especially if you’ve an evening person like me. Luckily, after some self-experimentation, I’ve come up with tips that have worked for myself. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the key to an early morning starts the day before. 

The unknown powers of an early morning can be impossible to describe with words. However, the effects of a sleep deprived day can be described by simple observation. In other words, waking up earlier does not mean cutting sleep to wake up early. For one reason or another, workaholics sometimes like to brag about their early starts to the morning and their 18-20 hour work days. While an impressive feat, it’s also extremely misleading and unhealthy. Do yourself a favor and try to fall asleep 8 hours before you want to wake up. There is no point in trying to force a productive day into a sleep deprived body. Trust me, I was once a sleep deprived high schooler forced to sleep late and wake up early, and it was a recipe for disaster. 

During the school year, I used to be so exhausted from school that I would take hour long naps as soon as I got home. While this recharged me with the necessary energy to complete my nightly work, it also meant that I received a full sleep cycle before actually falling asleep for the night. So when it came time to rest my eyes, I couldn’t. In fact, I wasn’t tired at all. The result? I would fight my sleep insomnia well into the night and feel its wrath the next morning. In order to be able to build up a consistent sleep schedule, I found that if you limit your naps to short power naps, it prevents your body from entering the early stages of deep sleep. 

After your short power nap, try to limit the caffeine intake that your body receives before bed-no matter how tempting it may be. You don’t want to be ready to complete a study marathon once you sink into the comforts of your pillow. There’s a time and place for that and underneath the blanket is not one of them. 

Once the night sets in and you find yourself approaching the hour of sleep, set your alarm for the next morning, but be careful not to push yourself too hard quite yet. Depending on how early your goal is, try to ease yourself into it by increments of 30 or 15 minutes, depending on how you see fit. In the same way that you wouldn’t start with the heaviest weights possible at the gym on your first day, you wouldn’t wake up hours before what you’re used to on the first morning. These things take time.

Since I become familiarized with an unchanging alarm sound, I use the help of AlarmyPro, which is essentially an app for those who absolutely cannot wake up. In short, it randomizes the alarm sounds to insure sleep interruption and stimulates my brain with short mental tasks that are required to stop the alarm. As an added safety net, I schedule 3 alarms, all in 15 minute successions, across the room. 

Prior to falling asleep, it’s recommended that people refrain from blue light (screens) exposure, as it can trick your mind into thinking it’s still daytime. Rather than picking up your phone or laptop, try switching it for a book or some other activity that doesn’t involve electronics. I’m the furthest thing from a technophobe and even I believe that this has its benefits. 

Now comes the hard part: waking up. The reason most people fail is because of a fault in their mental mindset. As Barbara Oakley, author of A Mind for Numbers and productivity expert, explains, “if you find yourself avoiding certain tasks because they make you uncomfortable, there is a great way to reframe things: Learn to focus on process, not product.” In other words, don’t dread waking up, instead create something to look forward to, like the work that could be done or the tasty breakfast that awaits you. For me, it’s the fear of sleeping through half the day.

In summary:

  • Start slow and adjust little by little
  • Waking up early is pointless if you sacrifice sleep for it
  • Try to limit exposure to blue light and caffeine shortly before falling asleep
  • Change your mental attitude if you are having trouble waking up

Although this hasn’t been like our other productivity blogs that offer more tangible advice, like bullet journaling or kanban boards, getting a headstart to your day can work wonders when you need it to. Not to mention that the effects are almost immediate and arrive in full force. Even if you’re a natural night owl like me, sometimes it’s better to go against what feels right, and instead, do what will make you feel better.