Waking Up Early At 4am And The Lessons I Learned

Lessons from 30 Days of Waking up at 4 AM

I started shifting my sleep schedule a number of years ago when I went back to school for design. My time was stretched between classes, school work and working part-time. It became increasingly hard to find balance between work, downtime, relationships and exercise. To find more time, I experimented with waking up early. I shifted my alarm from 7 am to 6 am. This gave me one hour to beat most of the traffic and get to my class or my job before the rush. Eventually, I pushed it to 5 am, and I had an easier time to fit in a morning workout.

Waking up early is a catalyst for change

The push to learn and do more never seemed to cease. As I took on more challenging work, I was also looking for ways to optimize my schedule. Drawing from inspiration I found from resources such as My Morning Routine and Morning Miracle, I started to ask the question, “How can I not only get more time but feel more in control of my day?” The starting place was to take the leap and move my wake up time to even earlier. I have been experimenting with getting up at 4 am for the past 30 days. Here are the three lessons I have learned.

I learned to power past that voice that told me to go back to bed

1. Control your schedule and space

One thing I noticed from being the first person in the office was that I had time to think. I could catch up on emails, slack messages and shifting meetings. The next things I could do was prioritize the top six things I needed to do that day on my personal Trello board. As the normal buzz of the workplace picked up around 9 am, I was more proactive about reaching the people I needed to talk to first.

waking up early personal trello board

Personal Trello board for prioritizing the top 6 things I needed to get done.

Compared to days when I came in later, I always felt I was playing catch up and in reactive mode to a schedule someone else decided for me.

2. Value time as your most precious asset

I discovered this more the earlier I got up. With the three hours I added in the morning, I made sure to use them productively. After my workout, I was working with a fresh mind. I didn’t want to waste it on mindless talk radio or never ending social media feeds. I decided to focus on writing. Much of the work for this blog took place during the early morning hours.

In order to maintain my early morning schedule, I needed to go to bed earlier. If you do the math, I needed to be to bed at 8 pm to get a full eight hours of sleep. That bed time is unheard of for an adult. It seemed as if I was crossing social norms every time I mentioned it in public.

Just as ripping myself out of bed at 4 am took discipline, learning to shut down at 8 pm took dedication. I cut out most TV watching and became selective with happy hours and networking events. In short, I had to make conscious decisions about my activities during my waking moments.

Waking up early side hustle calendar and schedule

Schedule to map out my daily activities per day

3. Learn to power through

Waking up at 4 am was painful. I wanted to quit and go back to bed every time the alarm went off. One of the biggest insight was that we have internal battles everyday. We bargain with ourselves over eating the right food, going to the gym, and doing the one thing that will make us better. The right answer is often the hard thing to do. I learned to power past that voice that told me to go back to bed.

This experiment really came out of the need to change how I approached my day. Until I realized I could control how I started and ended my days, I had very little power on setting priorities and effectively accomplishing goals. Waking up early is difficult for a lot of people. 4 am is asking the World for some of us. However, I would argue that to accomplish anything worthwhile requires doing things that may be painful.

Matt Eng

UX Research Team Lead at IBM Design. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.

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