That used to be part of my daily awakening ritual too. When my alarm would blare its infernal noise, I’d turn the damned thing off right away. Then under the cloak of that early morning brain fog, I’d slowly ponder whether or not I should actually get up:
It’s nice and warm under the covers. If I get up, it’s going to be cold. That won’t be too pleasant.
Oh, I really should get up now. C’mon legs… move. Go, legs, go. Hmmm… that isn’t how I move my legs, is it? They don’t seem to be listening to me.
I should go to the gym. Yeah. Hmmm… I don’t really feel like working out right now though. I haven’t even had breakfast. Maybe I should have a muffin first. Banana nut. Now that’s a good muffin.
Maybe I’m trying to get myself up too early. I’m still sleepy, aren’t I? Maybe getting up with an alarm is unnatural. Won’t I function better with more sleep?
I don’t have to get up right this minute, do I? Surely I can relax another five minutes or so. The world isn’t going to end if I don’t get up right now.
I’ll bet my wife is toasty warm right now. She told me she hates it when I try to snuggle her at 6am, but so what… she loves me enough to forgive me, right? I know… I’ll start massaging her back and shoulders first. She can’t resist a good massage, even so early in the morning. Then I’ll transition to a head scratching. Yeah, that’ll do it. And then slide right into the spoon position. Won’t that be a pleasant way to start the day?
[ Scootch… scootch… Zzzzzzzz ]
Two hours later…
Me: What time is it? I don’t even remember the alarm going off. That was a good snuggle though. Oh well, guess I’ll have to skip exercise today.
Wife: Why do you keep setting your alarm if you aren’t going to get up when it goes off?
Me: Oh, did you think that was my wake-up alarm? It’s actually my snuggle alarm.
OK, so I wasn’t really intending for it to be a snuggle alarm. I had intended to get up when it went off, but my foggy brain kept negotiating me right back to sleep.
Fast forward to present day…
My alarm goes off sometime between 4:00 and 5:00am… never later than 5:00am, even on weekends and holidays. I turn off the alarm within a few seconds. My lungs inflate with a deep breath of air, and I stretch my limbs out in all directions for about two seconds. Soon my feet hit the floor, and I find myself getting dressed while my wife snoozes on. I go downstairs to grab a piece of fruit, pop into my home office to catch up on some emails, and then it’s off to the gym at 5:15.
But this time there’s no voice inside my head debating what I should do. It’s not even a positive voice this time — it’s just not there. The whole thing happens on autopilot, even before I feel fully awake mentally. I can’t say it requires any self-discipline to do this every morning because it’s a totally conditioned response. It’s like my conscious mind is just along for the ride while my subconscious controls my body. When my alarm goes off each morning, I respond just like Pavlov’s dogs. It would actually be harder for me not to get up when my alarm goes off.
So how do you go from scenario one to scenario two?
First, let’s consider the way most people tackle this problem — what I consider the wrong way.
The wrong way is to try using your conscious willpower to get yourself out of bed each morning. That might work every once in a while, but let’s face it — you’re not always going to be thinking straight the moment your alarm goes off. You may experience what I call the fog of brain. The decisions you make in that state won’t necessarily be the ones you’d make when you’re fully conscious and alert. You can’t really trust yourself… nor should you.
If you use this approach, you’re likely to fall into a trap. You decide to get up at a certain time in advance, but then you undo that decision when the alarm goes off. At 10pm you decide it would be a good idea to get up at 5am. But at 5am you decide it would be a better idea to get up at 8am. But let’s face it — you know the 10pm decision is the one you really want implemented… if only you could get your 5am self to go along with it.
Now some people, upon encountering this conundrum, will conclude that they simply need more discipline. And that’s actually somewhat true, but not in the way you’d expect. If you want to get up at 5am, you don’t need more discipline at 5am. You don’t need better self-talk. You don’t need two or three alarm clocks scattered around the room. And you don’t need an advanced alarm that includes technology from NASA’s astronaut toilets.
You actually need more discipline when you’re fully awake and conscious: the discipline to know that you can’t trust yourself to make intelligent, conscious decisions the moment you first wake up. You need the discipline to accept that you’re not going to make the right call at 5am. Your 5am coach is no good, so you need to fire him.
What’s the real solution then? The solution is to delegate the problem. Turn the whole thing over to your subconscious mind. Cut your conscious mind out of the loop.
Now how do you do this? The same way you learned any other repeatable skill. You practice until it becomes rote. Eventually your subconscious will take over and run the script on autopilot.
This is going to sound really stupid, but it works. Practice getting up as soon as your alarm goes off. That’s right — practice. But don’t do it in the morning. Do it during the day when you’re wide awake.
Go to your bedroom, and set the room conditions to match your desired wake-up time as best you can. Darken the room, or practice in the evening just after sunset so it’s already dark. If you sleep in pajamas, put on your pajamas. If you brush your teeth before bed, then brush your teeth. If you take off your glasses or contacts when you sleep, then take those off too.
Set your alarm for a few minutes ahead. Lie down in bed just like you would if you were sleeping, and close your eyes. Get into your favorite sleep position. Imagine it’s early in the morning… a few minutes before your desired wake-up time. Pretend you’re actually asleep. Visualize a dream location, or just zone out as best you can.
Now when your alarm goes off, turn it off as fast as you can. Then take a deep breath to fully inflate your lungs, and stretch your limbs out in all directions for a couple seconds… like you’re stretching during a yawn. Then sit up, plant your feet on the floor, and stand up. Smile a big smile. Then proceed to do the very next action you’d like to do upon waking. For me it’s getting dressed.
Now shake yourself off, restore the pre-waking conditions, return to bed, reset your alarm, and repeat. Do this over and over and over until it becomes so automatic that you run through the whole ritual without thinking about it. If you have to subvocalize any of the steps (i.e. if you hear a mental voice coaching you on what to do), you’re not there yet.
Feel free to devote several sessions over a period of days to this practice. Think of it like doing sets and reps at the gym. Do one or two sets per day at different times… and perhaps 3-10 reps each time.
Yes, it will take some time to do this, but that time is nothing compared to how much time you’ll save in the long run. A few hours of practice today can save you hundreds of hours each year.
With enough practice — I can’t give you an accurate estimate of how long it will take because it will be different for everyone — you’ll condition a new physiological response to the sound of your alarm. When your alarm goes off, you’ll get up automatically without even thinking about it. The more you run the pattern, the stronger it will become. Eventually it will be uncomfortable not to get up when your alarm goes off. It will feel like putting on your pants with the opposite leg first.
You can also practice mentally if you’re good at visualizing. Mental practice is faster, but I think it’s best to run through the whole thing physically. There are subtle details you might miss if you only rehearse mentally, and you want your subconscious to capture the real flavor of the experience. So if you do use mental practice, at least do it physically the first few times.
The more you practice your wake-up ritual, the deeper you’ll ingrain this habit into your subconscious. Alarm goes off -> get up immediately. Alarm goes off -> get up immediately. Alarm goes off -> get up immediately.
Once this becomes a daily habit, you won’t have to do anymore daytime practice. This type of habit is self-reinforcing. You only have to go through the conditioning period once. Then you’re basically set for life until you decide to change it. Even if you fall out of the habit for some reason (like an extended vacation in a different time zone), you’ll be able to return to it more easily. Think of it like muscle memory. Once you’ve grooved in the pattern, it will still be there even if you let some weeds grow over it.
Any behavior pattern you experience when your alarm goes off will become self-reinforcing if you repeat it enough times. Chances are that you already have a well-established wake-up ritual, but it may not be the one you want. The more you repeat your existing pattern, the more you condition it into your subconscious. Every time you fail to get up when your alarm goes off, that becomes ever more your default physiological response. If you want to change that behavior, you’ll need to undertake a conscious reconditioning program such as the one I described above.
Beating yourself up about your bad wake-up habits will not work — in fact, you’ll just condition these mental beatings as part of the very routine you’re trying to change. Not only will you not get up when your alarm goes off, but you’ll also automatically beat yourself up about it. How lame is that? Do you really want to keep running that dumb pattern for the rest of your life? That’s exactly what will happen if you don’t condition a more empowering pattern. For good or ill, your habits will make or break you.
Once you establish your desired wake-up ritual, I recommend you stick with it every single day — 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And for the first 30 days, set your alarm for the same time every day. Once the habit is established, then you can vary your wake-up times or occasionally go without the alarm if you want to sleep in, but until then it’s best to keep the pattern very tight. That way it will become your default behavior, and you’ll be able to stray from time to time without serious risk of deconditioning it.
I’m confident that once you establish this habit, you’ll absolutely love it. I consider this to be one my most productive habits. It saves me hundreds of hours a year, and it keeps paying dividends day after day. I also found this habit extremely valuable during my polyphasic sleep experiment.
Think about it — if you oversleep just 30 minutes a day, that’s 180+ hours a year. And if you’re at 60 minutes a day, that’s 365 hours a year, the equivalent of nine 40-hour weeks. That’s a lot of time! Now I don’t know about you, but I can think of more creative things to do with that time than lying in bed longer than I need to.
I encourage you to give this method a try. I know it seems silly to practice getting out of bed, but hey, what if it works? What if you knew with total certainty that if you set your alarm for a certain time, you would absolutely get up at that time no matter what? There’s no reason you can’t create that for yourself over the next few days. Practice makes permanent.
And if you want some tips on establishing the habit of getting up early, I encourage you to read these two articles:
Make it so. You won’t regret it!