60 Days of getting up at 6:20 a.m. or: What it takes to form a habit

This is post no. 3 in my series of how to get up for night-owls. So far I’ve written about what science suggests to wake up more easily and I shared some tips on how to get out of bed even when you don’t feel like it. But merely knowing what you should do does not magically make you get up every day. It’s the habit that does the trick.

I knew that to really rewire myself to become an early riser I had to establish the habit of getting up every day at the same time – even on weekends. I had heard that it takes 28 days to form a habit but I already knew that other numbers were floating around, too. So, I doubled up the number to 60 (generously added some for the nicer look) and tried to see how I would progress with my habit building endeavour: getting up at 6:20 a.m. for the sixty days – everyday – even on days off. Let me tell you how it went:

You can skip right to:

 

Preparations to make

In the past I had tried several times to set a stricter rhythm but it never lasted more than three to five days. This time I wanted to make sure that I stayed consistent for far longer. I wanted the experiment to set my sleep and wake pattern not only for the next 60 days but for the rest of my life. That’s why I wanted to thoroughly think it through.

What made the difference this time?

1. Know why

When I started I was very clear about why I wanted to get up early every day. I had the strong wish to make my life better by solving the ever-constant wake-up-struggle of my life. The decision was about me and my life – not because other people (my parents) wanted me to get up earlier. And I already had a clear idea about what I wanted to use my morning hours for. I wanted to meditate and I wanted to write. Both are very important things to me and make me happy. I’m looking forward to do them and that makes getting up easier.

For my morning routine I took my normal morning as a basis (breakfast from 7:00 to 7:30 a.m. getting ready from 7:30 to 8:00 a.m.) and allocated the time before that for writing (20 minutes) and meditation (10 minutes). Then I added another ten minutes for throwing on warm clothes, using the toilet and doing some morning stretches.

2. Include the evening

I knew I needed to also include my evenings. I wanted to give my body at least seven hours of sleep. So I set my bed time to 11:00 to 11:20 p.m. But what really made the difference was my alarm clock I set to 10:00 pm that reminded me to get ready for bed.

3. Find a method that works for you

How will you make sure you make your experiment as easy as possible? What methods or tools will help you achieve your goal? I changed my alarm clock music because I wanted it to be a new start. And I used an app that helps me with my morning and evening rituals. It’s called The Fabulous and it’s really great if you want to make big changes in your life. The app will help you to develop rituals and plan them on certain times of your day. You can also use it as an alarm clock but that didn’t work for me so well (technical reasons).

4. Make it a ritualistic pattern

My morning routine is a set-up of a few different things that I always do in the same order. I know this order by heart and I think that repeating the same habits every day make my mornings easier and more structured. But this does not mean that you have to stick to something forever. I changed it several times and adapted it to better fit my needs and wishes.

 

60 days of early rising – How did it go?

Days 1-7 – My euphoric start

I started on my holidays so I could try out my routine without stress. That’s when I realized that I needed to adjust my routine a little bit and add the extra ten minutes before meditation for all the small things like putting on socks. Also, I wanted to have my tea already when I was writing but I didn’t want to wait on the cold kitchen tiles for boiling water. So I got a thermos flask that I fill with boiling water in the evening. In the morning the water will be just the right temperature for green tea.

Other than that it went surprisingly well. I got up every morning at my set time without fail. Actually I was quite amazed at myself. I was very tired on the weekend mornings but it was better after my ritual. I have to say my app helped tremendously. It counted the days that I succeeded and it felt wonderful to add one day after the other to my chain.

What did not work as well was the going to bed. I missed my bed time twice because I met with friends and that wasn’t pretty. But I was still motivated enough to pull through.

Days 8-14 – First results and first struggles

The first days of struggle appeared around day 10. The enthusiasm of beginning a big project had faded but the first premonitions of a forming habit helped me get through. As soon as I had begun my morning ritual I felt the tiredness fade. Day 12 was the first day I was looking forward to going to bed. That was a real novelty.

My evening rituals went quite well, but I realized that I often didn’t quite know what to do after my alarm rang at 10:00 p.m. Originally I wanted to use that time for studying, reading, writing… before I had to wrap up for bed at 10:30. It was meant to be the time for “only this one thing” and then transition into the night. But now I discovered that being free to do whatever I wanted with this half an hour meant that I didn’t really know what to do and didn’t form a firm habit of it.

Days 15-21 – Go on

Day 15 was a win because I was meeting with friends in the evening and I still managed to leave early enough to go to bed on time. Day 20 was another win because it was the first day I woke five minutes before my alarm rang and I actually got up! This might seem uneventful to others but for me it was the first time in my life to get up when I didn’t yet need to and giving myself five extra minutes in the morning. (Well, it was mostly because I really needed to go to the toilet, but still, I count it.)

Everything ran so smoothly I hadn’t even realized that I had already completed one third of my challenge. Time went so fast! And it was so manageable! I had expected a motivation low or some kind of dry spell to come up pretty quickly but nothing of that sort had happened yet. I felt fine in the mornings – they felt more and more natural to me.

The evenings were harder. Those are the ones I might have to rework again but even those were quite good. Three weeks of getting up at 6:20 every day would have seemed like the biggest challenge ever when I started. But with every day I accomplished my goal and I completed my rituals it seemed more normal to me.

Only sometimes I had those irrational longings to stay up to read until 1: 00 a.m. or to just let go and let myself sleep however long I want. But maybe that’s normal.

Days 22-60 – Hello routine!

As days went by, that exceptional state of mind I was in for the first weeks left and my routines felt more and more natural. I didn’t even think of the challenge anymore and even forgot the 30 days landmark. Yet, I caught myself on Fridays thinking: “Finally weekend, I can sleep in tomorrow… Oh, no I can’t.” Which only shows that the urge to indulge in old patterns is hard to break. And I did miss some weekend mornings during later weeks. Especially at the end – which made me a little disgruntled.

Another thing that was hard throughout the challenge was the evening routine I just didn’t get right. I still had not found how to make the half hour of “doing things with words” a precious time and establishing it with the relentlessness I worked on my early mornings.

 

What I learned from my getting-up challenge

In hindsight this was one of the best things I ever did for myself. I made a huge step towards a healthier wake sleep cycle. I solved my problem of constantly sleeping in and got much more of my weekends.

The strangest thing was: discovering that there was time in the mornings – and that I could use that time. Early mornings had never belonged to me. They belonged to school or work or sleep on weekends. No I discovered that I could make these hours MY hours. And that is a wonderful discovery.

But did it really help to make me get up at 6:20 for the rest of my life? Sadly, no. To me it will probably always be hard work. Or maybe it will be hard work for the next five years. Who knows… I looked up scientifically proven answers to how many days it actually takes to form a habit. New research suggests something between two months and one and a half years. But it probably always depends on how hard you find your habit goal. I find mine very hard.

Still, this challenge was a great experience and I would not want to miss it in my life. I have not been able to keep the waking hour last year but I was able to get up easier in the morning and I got up about three to five hours earlier on my weekends. So… Win!

And I have not given up on my goal. Actually I started a second attempt 42 days ago and I’m on a good track. I’m confident that I will manage to make it much longer. This time, I’m going for a whole year!

 

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