How I Started Waking Up Early: Tales From a Former Night Owl

A couple of months ago I decided to experiment with my sleep.

For five days I would stay up all night, eventually going to bed at about 5am, rising at about 10am. For the following five days I would go to bed between 12am and 1am, and rise at 6am.

Up until this point I’d always been a night owl with no real morning routine to speak of, often working late into the night (3am being the norm), getting up 6-7 hours later.

It was no huge leap to go from sleeping at 3am to 5am. I had a lot to work on that week, therefore the time was greatly appreciated.

After eating dinner and watching a few television shows with friends I would settle down at 11pm to six hours of work, often getting funny looks as I sipped on my black coffee. I liked it.

It’s incredibly peaceful at 2, 3, 4am in the morning. I could work away without any distractions, making sure to be quiet whenever I ventured around the house.

The only real issue with this way of working, I found after a few days, was the 10am ‘mornings’. They killed me. I’d wake up after five hours of sleep feeling awful. Often I’d wake earlier to the noise of the traffic outside, the sound of chatter and buses as the real world made their way to work.

Was a productive night worth a wasted (in both the time sense, and the ‘how my head felt’ sense) morning? Time for the second part of the experiment.

The next night I went to bed at 12am, the earliest I’d done so in months. I’d spent some time researching sleep in the past, and had decided on a couple of methods to tackle the inevitable sleepy mornings.

The Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock iPhone App

Edit: I’ve since written a hugely comprehensive review of Sleep Cycle (including screenshots) over at My Morning Routine:

With 3833 reviews, a combination of 4.5/5 stars on iTunes, and official status as the number one paid app in 10+ countries around the world; this is the Goliath of alarm clocks.

In short, this app is designed to both monitor your sleep and wake you up in your lightest sleep phase so to avoid waking you during deep wave sleep.

Deep wave sleep is what would be described as ‘heavy’ sleep. This is the period in which you’re most likely to dream. Those mornings when you wake up to the terrible sound of the alarm clock in your ear, when all you want to do is smash it again the wall and go back to sleep, that’s an example of waking during deep wave sleep.

It probably also spoiled your dream.

Once you’ve set up Sleep Cycle, you have to place it face down on the corner of your bed so it can record your movements overnight using your phones build-in accelerometer (the tool also used to rotate the screen when you turn it on it’s side).

By measuring how much you moved about, the app can tell what level of sleep you were in during different stages of the night.

Sleep Cycle’s best feature is it’s a ability to wake you during your lightest sleep phase, which is why it is my number one tool for becoming an early riser.

You set the time frame in which the alarm clock has to wake you (from 10 to 90 minutes – I usually opt for 15-20) then you set the final time you have to wake up. For example, last night I set the alarm clock for 6.30 am, so the alarm could sound any time between 6.15 and 6.30. I must have moved about at 6.22, as this indicated a light sleep phase and I was woken up pleasantly at this point.

I can’t stress enough how much this app has changed my mornings. The first night I used it (the night in the story above) I couldn’t believe how awake I felt at 6am. I looked out the window, at the dark street with barely anybody on it and I literally sprung out of bed.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to go back to using a regular alarm clock for one night, just to see if Sleep Cycle was still having a positive impact. I couldn’t have felt worst if I’d tried, waking up at 6am to a ‘regular’ alarm clock attacking my ear with sound. Seriously, get it ($0.99).

Strike the Half Military Crawl Position

This idea was first bought to me by Tim Ferriss of The 4-Hour Work Week fame, in his new book The 4-Hour Body.

Known as the half military crawl position, I use this method if I need to get to sleep ASAP.

In Tim’s own words… “Lie on your chest with your head on a pillow and turned to the right. Both arms should be straight by your sides, palms down. Now bring your right arm up until the top of your right elbow is bent at 90 degrees and your hand is close to your head (alternatively place your right hand under the pillow under your head). Next bring your right knee out to that side until it is bent at approximately 90 degrees”.

The reason this position works so well is simple: you can’t move. To toss and turn from this position you have to first lift your entire body off the bed. The less you move, the quicker you get to sleep.

After two nights of rising at 6am, I knew I already had my winner. Sleeping 12am-1am to 6am was ten times more fulfilling than sleeping 5am-10am. When I get up at this time I can do anything I want, often opting to write something (more and more of my blog posts are being written at this time of day), start work on my business, or even watch an episode or two of House to start the day.

I don’t know if it was the change in alarm clock, sleeping position, simply the time of day or a combination of all three, but walking up at 6am (okay, okay, 6-6.30am) has been a complete success. It’s what I do now. I am an early riser. Goodbye my night owl past, you will be missed.


I also experimented with consuming several foods, outlined in the 4HB, before bed in a bid to increase the quality of my sleep.

If you regularly feel very tired in the mornings (despite a decent nights sleep) this is probably due to low blood sugar.

To experiment in combating this I took two tablespoons of organic almond butter every night for three weeks, as well as two Flaxseed oil capsules (2x 1000mg), both of which are designed to increase the rate of cell repair during sleep, decreasing fatigue in the morning.

It worked, for sure, I just don’t believe it bought enough of a benefit for me to continue with. I’ve kept up the flaxseed oil however, as I’ve discovered one capsule in the morning is a very good way to settle your stomach.


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Posted March 28, 2011 — Subscribe to keep up to date with my latest posts.

7 thoughts on “How I Started Waking Up Early: Tales From a Former Night Owl

    1. I think I read somewhere if you get up at the same time every day for a long period of time (in other words, you form a habit of it) you can make your body wake yourself up at this time every day without the need for an alarm clock or any other special tricks.

      It sounds like a hugely productive idea, but I’m not sure how much fun it would be in the longer term!

  1. Don’t you find it a pain in the arse to have to plug the iphone in when using sleep cycle?

    I know (most of us) sleep with an alarm/phone on the dresser, but I’m not sure how good it is having the phone that close to you when you’re asleep?

    Saying that, I’ve been using sleep cycle the last few nights, the deep sleep graph is interesting.

    Note to future users: Don’t set sleep cycle then get busy with it in the bedroom, it’ll show an alarming pattern of awake!

    1. I discovered a couple of nights in that there’s no need to keep it plugged in every night, despite the constant reminders. It drains about 15-20% at a time, so I usually only plug it in every other night.

      It’s really bad to keep a phone that close to your head as you sleep, this is where airplane mode comes in! I should probably edit that into the post for everybody’s safety…

      It’s really interesting when you have a really good nights sleep and you can confirm it with your flat-line sleep graph in the morning. Weirdly, I also use it as a way to tell what time my housemates leave in the morning!

      Let me know how you get on with it. I genuinely can’t imagine using anything else.

  2. I liked your article. Im definitely going to try this, since I’ve always been a night own, and I need to work on rising early. Sometimes I get a great night of sleep and don’t know why. its easiest for me to sleep on my back but Ill try this…

    Just curious if you recommend 4HB. My doctor recommended it to me because I have problems with lower back pain and issues that make core strengthening difficult. A lot of the reviews criticize it for being too good to be true, or a “book of empty promises.” Just curious if you think its a worthwhile read.


    1. Thanks Drew! It’s funny, since I wrote this I’ve moved to Spain which makes early rising a lot more difficult, but I still wake up relatively early compared to the people around me!

      I would recommend 4HB. It’s great to hear that your doctor recommended it to you! I’m sure that will please Tim. I can see why the book would attract criticism, that’s only to be expected, but I’ve personally got a lot out of it. I like how, as Tim mentions at the beginning of the book, it’s more of a buffet of information rather than one long read. I’ve probably read less than 50% of it by dipping in and out of chapters that are relevant to me at a particular time in my life, and that’s the best way to do it in my opinion.

      I hope that helps. Feel free to get in touch on Twitter (or comment again here) if you want any extra information :)

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