I’ve been sleeping in since kindergarten. If there was somewhere to be in the morning, I was either slightly late or really late. Getting to school on time was a rarity and I was the worst paperboy my neighborhood had ever seen. As a grad student, my text history with my advisor was a long string of texts from me along the lines of, “Sorry, running late.”
Over the past year, however, I’ve managed to change my behavior. I consider myself a “morning person” now. I’m not doing anything spectacular, like getting up at 5:00am and going to the gym (though, perhaps I’ll get there someday). What I am doing is consistently waking up at 7:00am and performing a mildly productive morning routine. A dramatic shift from the “snooze 9 times and struggle to get out of bed at 10:00am” routine I had previously employed.
I didn’t set out to explicitly change my morning routine. There was no real pressure to do so. I have a flexible work schedule that lets me get away with sleeping in and offsetting my workday. Instead, getting up earlier happened to be a solution to an unrelated problem.
I had several daily habits that I wanted to maintain. The strategy was to do the absolute minimum, but do it every day. At least one pushup, at least one page of a book, etc. This is an effective strategy (see Atomic Habits), but I soon realized how hard it was to make time everyday. I could only achieve all my goals all if I went straight home after work and did nothing else. Any social outing or unplanned event would throw me off.
The mistake I was making was not scheduling explicit time for these habits. I was missing an implementation intention. People are much more likely to stick to goals if they set a time and place for them ahead of time. So I started doing a few things in the morning. Reading a few pages, doing a few pushups. Quick things I could squeeze in during my limited time between bed and work.
A pattern emerged. The only habits I consistently did every day were the ones I did in the morning.
Light bulb. The morning is free time. The morning is predictable and distraction free. If I get things done in the morning, I will be less distracted throughout the rest of the day (see the Zeigarnick effect). I like the morning.
Since then, I’ve been gradually expanding on my morning routine, getting up earlier to fit in more habits. Below are the strategies that worked for me.
How to develop a morning routine
1. Stop hitting snooze
In the past, I would occasionally get ambitious and set my alarm a couple of hours earlier and hope that future Russ would respect my wishes and actually get up. He never did. Morning Russ loved the snooze button. Repeatedly snoozing the alarm and sleeping until the last minute was a habit I’d been practicing for 28 years. It was foolish to think I could simply overcome such an ingrained habit immediately.
Before you start dialing back that alarm, you need to get rid of that snooze habit. Pick a time you know you will actually get up, and make your goal to get up without hitting snooze.
2. Get to bed earlier
This is probably the most important. No wonder I wasn’t a morning person, I was staying up til 2am every night. It’s much easier to wake up earlier if you are well-rested (no kidding). I had convinced myself that I was stuck on a delayed sleep schedule, and there was nothing I could do about it. Staying up late was part of my identity, and that made it harder to change. But not impossible.
Give yourself a deadline to be in bed. Be reasonable, considering your current habits. Sleep might come much later, but force the habit of being in bed by a certain time and reward yourself for it. You need to change your identity to be “a person who is in bed at a reasonable time”.
Some other things that helped: no screen-time before bedtime (put some distance between your bed and your phone), a consistent bedtime routine, a good book beside the bed, and melatonin tablets. Experiment and find the things that work for you.
3. Do something you enjoy
It’s easier to get up if you’re looking forward to something. Make a part of your morning all about you. Indulge in something you enjoy. For me, it’s reading a book I enjoy with a cup of coffee. Now there is a reason for you to get out bed earlier: to have more time for that one thing you want to do.
If you find yourself dreading getting out of bed because you hate your job. Maybe it’s time to quit your job. My mornings, and life in general, got a whole lot easier after I quit the PhD program that was making me depressed.
4. Slowly build a routine
Routine and ritual are your friends. The more you ritualize your morning routine, the less willpower it will take and the easier it will get. The goal is to make it so automatic that, even when you’re incredibly tired, you can mindlessly go through the actions.
Start simple and slowly add things on to your routine. Once you are doing one thing on a regular basis (e.g. making your bed), use habit stacking to add another habit. Once that becomes automatic, add another. Eventually, you’ll have a well-defined morning routine that you don’t have to think about.