Article by Michael Pietrzak
I woke at noon and saw no reason to get out of bed. It was a Wednesday, and I had been drinking wine until 5 a.m. that morning at a publishing industry living room party — a weekly occurrence for me. Eventually, I shuffled to the kitchen, made a little coffee, and then sat on the couch. My roommate had already been at work for three hours.
“How did I fall into this horrible routine?” I asked the walls. Then I had a nap.
In 2012, I had quit my day job to give this “being a writer-entrepreneur thing” a shot, but without the structure of a 9-5 job, I had started behaving badly.
Flash forward to yesterday, when I got up at 6 a.m., ran three miles to the beach, lifted weights, and meditated with the sunrise. After that, I ran home, devoured a healthy breakfast, scribbled a few journal pages, and made a list of what I would accomplish that day. By 9 a.m., I got down to writing this article. A fairly standard morning for me these days.
I was a Lebowskian wreck in 2012, one step away from writing 69 cent checks in my bathrobe at the supermarket. How did I turn myself into a predawn Zen master in seven short years? I’ll share my secrets, but let’s start with a more interesting question:
Why Bother Starting the Day Strong?
Getting up early can seem as fun as chewing glass, so why do it? My simple answer was that I was tired of feeling low. Our quality of life is determined not by the things we collect or even our day-to-day exploits, but by the feelings we experience. In 2012, I was unhappy enough to try anything.
Rising early with strong habits unlocks a kind of joy that has to be experienced to be believed, and it is only when we live with joy that we can become our best selves.
The greatest people throughout history were early risers, too. Ben Franklin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Ernest Hemingway, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, The Rock, and Gary Vaynerchuk were or are down with the early bird hustle. Sure, there are outliers who buck the trend, but are you really one of them? Do you really get much done on days you sleep in?
So … How Do I Do It?
Life hacks have started to fall out of fashion. “There are no shortcuts, man, you just gotta do the work,” people now say.
That is dumb. What’s right is what works, so here are some miraculous shortcuts that will help you become an early riser:
1. Start the Night Before
• Set a wind-down alarm: Mine goes off at 10 p.m. to let me know it’s time to cut screen time and stimulation. This alarm is a “zeitgeber,” an environmental cue that regulates the body’s circadian rhythm.
• Cut screen time: The blue light from our devices disrupts sleep akin to the way caffeine does. Cut it out before bed.
• Decide why you’re excited to wake up early: Having a compelling reason to put feet to floor is the best motivator.
• Read in bed: I’ve always got a good book on the nightstand; voracious reading is a killer habit in itself. After only 20 minutes of this calming activity, I’m ready to saw logs.
2. Buy a Wake-Up Light
Traditional alarms use obnoxious noise to jolt you awake, whereas a wake-up light simulates sunrise over 30-60 minutes, activating your circadian responses. As a result, your body naturally and peacefully wakes up. By the time the soothing fake birds start chirping, you’re wide awake. I swear by this model.
3. Use Mel Robbins’s 5-Second Rule
When you find yourself ready to reach for the snooze button, count down from five instead. By the time you hit one, you’ll be upright. Robbins stumbled onto this technique, but it is grounded in science. Counting backward activates your prefrontal cortex, the brain area that regulates behavior and attention, not to mention your will to live.
Sometimes caffeine is the best medicine. Set up your coffee maker the night before and let it percolate while you meditate or hit the shower.
5. Cold Showers
My Personal Recipe for a Bulletproof Morning
Like I said, the purpose of a powerful morning routine is the joy it brings. You unlock that feeling by investing in four areas of your life, all before 9 in the morning: the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realms.
1. Physical Activity
I’ve always loved exercise, but until recently, I never enjoyed doing it in the morning. When I read Robin Sharma’s book, The 5 AM Club, that changed. Sharma suggests spending the first 20 minutes of your day sweating. It hadn’t occurred to me that a workout didn’t have to mean trudging through February snow to the gym for an hour of weights. Light bodyweight exercise like squats, push-ups, and planks works for me, and I still get to the gym when I can.
Sharma explains that exercising for just 20 minutes first thing in the morning will “significantly lower your cortisol” (which is highest in the morning), the hormone of fear that hurts your cognitive performance. It will also release brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supercharges your brain (that’s not the technical language, but you get the picture). As if that weren’t enough, morning exercise also releases dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters of drive and happiness.
2. Emotional Work
• Meditation: After working out, I open my heart and meditate for 10-20 minutes. I list this under emotional work, but it also has positive effects on your physical health and deepens your spiritual connection to, well, everything. I’ve shown elsewhere that more than 3,000 scientific studies have hammered home the benefits of this powerful practice. In my experience, regular meditation improves all the feels, gives you more happiness and joy, and washes away anxiety and depression.
• Gratitude: Like most people, I’ve spent a whole lot of my life focusing on what was missing. “The human brain isn’t designed to make us happy and fulfilled. It’s designed to make us survive,” says Tony Robbins. It takes conscious effort to appreciate what you have, and that’s why I spend five minutes after my meditation thinking about what I’m grateful for. Feeling gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus and ventral tegmental areas in our brains, reducing stress and producing pleasure.
3. Mental Exercise
• Journaling: After I meditate, I write. I once spent two years writing three pages every morning, and this practice unlocked new levels of creativity and productivity while improving my relationships. Science has my back on this one, too: Studies show that daily writing helps fight depression, keeps you healthier, and pushes you the reach your goals more quickly.
• Goal Setting: Like showering, goal-setting is most effective when done daily. How else will you know what you want out of your day? When you write down your goals and action items, even if they are the same as yesterday’s, you prime your brain to look out for opportunities to achieve them. Inside your brain is a bundle of nerves called the reticular activating system (RAS), which helps you home in on important information — like the car hurtling toward you — and block out the irrelevant. Writing your goals every morning sends a clear signal to your RAS to watch for opportunities to go after them.
4. Spiritual Practice
• Walking: For me, the practice of walking, especially before my neighborhood is awake, is sacred. It does provide physical benefits, but I don’t do it for exercise. I do it to see the glint of the streetlight off a frozen puddle, to feel the wind rustle through the pines and savor the silence of my quiet mind.
• Inspiring Reading: Open a book that lifts up your soul and read a few pages, or even a line or two. I’m a recent convert to the philosophy of Stoicism, so my current morning spirit-booster is The Daily Stoic. Each reflection takes about three minutes. I can also recommend the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and Rob Bell’s podcast, the RobCast.
My morning routine is still far from perfect. I realize there is no finish line, but I will continue to practice five days a week because I now know starting your day with a strong morning brings abundant joy and allows you to do your best work.
Is this a lot of work? Maybe. Most days I do all of this between 6 and 9 a.m., and some days I do most of it in an hour. You could benefit from just 15 minutes’ worth of these habits every day. Take from my experience what works for you and leave the rest.
And one last piece of advice: Building these habits takes time. Be patient with yourself and enjoy the process.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.
Michael Pietrzak is the founder of So You Want to Write? Inc., which helps writers improve their writing and get published. He’s passionate about personal development, CrossFit, and playing guitar.