I learned to love waking up early a long time ago. I'm a stickler for punctuality. I find tardiness to be one of the grossest breaches of decorum, one that I quietly tolerate in friends and loved ones, but disdain in others, particularly within the professional sphere. The need to stay ahead of things temporally extends to nearly everything I do. It starts with waking up at 5 a.m. every day.
Well, the other morning it was closer to 4 a.m. — when, as far as I am concerned, there's only one thing to do and that's feed the cat. My cat wakes up even earlier than I do, but aside from her, I don't really know anyone who gets up that early. As I watched the sun not rise (that would be three hours later), I began to wonder who the hell else might be up at this hour.
Then it occurred to me. There's really only one job where people are intentionally deprived of sleep and who wake up at zero-dark-hundred hours to face the day long before the rest of the world stirs.
A glance at my Twitter feed confirmed it.
Suddenly I knew exactly whom to consult for expert opinions on waking up early.
I asked U.S. Army and Navy veterans — all early birds — for their thoughts about waking up before the sun. I found that we all had similar reasons for getting the day started before the rest of the world.
The early risers all seemed to agree that it's a discipline that actually creates motivation rather than requiring it. The rewards present themselves by reinforcing and refining your "why" for getting out of bed in the first place.
"Successful people establish similar routines to ensure they apply their time to ensure no minute is wasted. In my transition (to civilian life), I have set a routine similar to what I was familiar with in the Army. I still wake up very early, conduct physical training, and professional reading."
For 20-year Army veteran Mario Rodqriquez, who wakes at 4 a.m. every day, it's a matter of habit. "All those years of getting up early are instilled in my DNA," he said.
It's a discipline that you can acquire to better your life.
In Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, co-author and former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink writes: "The moment the alarm goes off is the first test; it sets the tone for the rest of the day. The test is not a complex one: when the alarm goes off, do you get up out of bed or do you lie there in comfort and fall back to sleep? If you have the discipline to get out of bed, you win — you pass the test. If you are mentally weak for that moment and you let that weakness keep you in bed, you fail. Though it seems small, that weakness translates to more significant decisions. "
Willink isn't just talking. His Twitter feed is filled with images of his watch, usually showing the time as between 4 and 4:30 a.m.
After speaking with these highly motivated individuals, I came up with five benefits of waking up early.
1. It gives you "me" time.
This is probably the biggest benefit of getting up early. The world is still, quiet, and dark, even in the biggest cities. There are usually no crowds. Commutes are easy. You have the roads almost entirely to yourself. It's peaceful.
Scott C. Kinder, a former Green Beret and the author of the leadership manual Ground Truth, spoke with me about getting up between 5 and 5:30 a.m. to work out and prepare for his day. "I do this before having to deal with emails or family and kids issues and it is a favorite time of the day for me as it is MINE and all mine alone," he said. "I think it helps set the stage for the day (being active, not lazy) and gives me time to get straight in my head before having to deal with all the issues of life and work that pop up."
JM, an Army Intelligence reservist who writes about security and defense issues described how waking up early was a way of making up for the time he spent away from his family during 13 years of active duty. "When I first started civilian work it was beneficial because I could leave work early. That turned into time to be with family and workout: meant more at home. Time I hadn't had before getting out."
2. It gives you time to work out.
Most gyms open at the crack of dawn. At 5:30 a.m., you won't have to fight for any machines or free weights. Everything will — hopefully — have been wiped down, cleaned up, and squared away. If you don't belong to a gym, you'll have time for a run, bodyweight exercises, yoga, or whatever fitness regimen you might otherwise neglect at the end of your workday.
Mike Pritts balances this with coffee and quiet time. "My morning routine is coffee by the fireplace while doing some professional reading and then into the gym or out for a run," he said. "Same routine as when I was on active duty." He stresses the importance of fitness in a blog post, writing, "Run, walk, swim, bike or lift heavy weights. It doesn't matter what you choose to do, but do something to keep moving every day.... The better you maintain your physical condition, the less you will need help from the medical and pharmaceutical industries."
3. It allows you to make and enjoy "the most important meal of the day."
In a world as fast-paced and full throttle as ours, sitting down to breakfast is a luxury that people rarely enjoy. For most, breakfast — if they eat it at all — consists of chain coffee sipped out of a paper cup and a pastry — hardly the breakfast of champions. The problem with "fast" breakfasts is that they're often loaded with refined carbs that jack up your blood sugar and insulin levels, causing mid-morning carb crashes and promoting fat storage.
At 5 a.m. I have enough time to make coffee, bacon, eggs and spinach (no carbs), and sit down to eat while still making it out the door or getting to work in my home office just after 6 a.m.
4. Your commute will suck way less.
At 6:30 a.m., I can do what some New Yorkers only dream of doing: find a seat on the subway. At that hour, even traffic in the congested, smoggy underbelly of the Los Angeles freeway system is manageable, as I learned when I used to live there.
But if I were to wait until 8 a.m. or later, I'd be in a crush like the one you see above. I'd have to fight the crowds in and out of Midtown Manhattan's tangle of subway stops while the rest of America seethes in traffic.
5. You'll get more work done.
When I start working at 6:30 from home, I've got a three-hour jump-start on my colleagues. When I'm in the office and at my desk at 7 a.m. — before the cleaning crews have even arrived and made coffee — I have two and a half hours to work in complete solitude, which is a luxury in New York City. I can answer emails, look for trending content on Reddit, and start writing.
JM told me that waking up early impacted his career in Army Intel. "When I was in and deployed it let me get ahead of all my reports and status updates early before missions, making me more effective. Sometimes that meant long days ranging from 14-18 hours and occasionally 24 hour shifts. I think I was able to recover faster because of the routine of waking up early and having less sleep."
Jocko Willink goes further, describing in his book how waking up early in SEAL training gave him an advantage over those who stuck to conventional schedules. "If I wanted extra time to work on my gear, clean my weapons, study tactics or new technology, I needed to make that time," he writes. "The only way you could make time, was to get up early."
For former Green Beret Mike Pritts, who wakes up at 5 a.m. without an alarm clock every morning, it's simple. "I seem to get more accomplished during this time of day before distractions pick up," he tells us.
Here's how to get started.
1. Prep the night before.
If you're a coffee drinker, prep the filter or whatever other method you use. If your coffee pot has a timer, set it. If you're planning to make breakfast, make sure you've got your pots and pans cleaned and accessible.
2. Set an alarm. Or alarms.
Jocko Willink discusses his three-alarm wake-up system in Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. "Discipline starts every day when the first alarm clock goes off in the morning," he describes. "I say 'first alarm clock' because I have three, as I was taught by one of the most feared and respected instructors in SEAL training: one electric, one battery-powered, one windup." Put the loudest one across the room from you so you're forced to get up and deal with it. That way you can't really say you "missed your alarm."
3. Get your head in the game: make a timeline.
Write a list of things you plan on doing and when you want to start doing them by. If that's too much at first, break the day up into morning, afternoon, and evening, then refine the list as the day goes on.
4. Get moving.
Once the alarm goes off, get your body moving. Designate an area outside of your bedroom and do some push-ups. Do some air squats. Do whatever it takes to wake your body and mind up before you shower and dress.
Why not give it a try? Commit to getting up one or two hours earlier than you usually do for a week. See if you don't learn to appreciate the benefits.
You may never hit snooze again.
Note: the author is a civilian with no prior military service.