The habit of waking early really starts with your evening routine.

And so let’s talk about evening routines, and then get to some questions about sleep.

Evening Routines

If you don’t have a (fairly) consistent bedtime, it’s tough to form the habit of waking early. And so the place to start is what you do before you go to bed.

The biggest problems most people have with bedtimes revolve around computers/TV, and spouses/kids.

And so the first recommendation is to have an alarm (send yourself alerts/emails/reminders if necessary) for a time to shut off all screens. That means phones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers, video game systems, TVs.

It’s easy to let yourself slip when it comes to the screen shut-off time, so having a big commitment and some accountability really helps. Tell other people in your house about your screen shut-off time, and ask them to help you. Do a challenge with a friend (or your spouse or kid), with consequences for not shutting off screens on time.

The next recommendation is to talk to your significant other about your desire to wake up earlier, and go to bed earlier, and try to express why it’s important to you, and ask for their help. If the late evenings are a time you spend together (watching TV perhaps), try to find another thing you could do together, like reading in bed or going for an evening walk or having a cup of tea or glass of wine together. Or see if you can enjoy a cup of coffee in the early mornings together instead.

A third recommendation is not to put chores in your planned evening routine. If you plan to do a lot of cleaning up before bed, for example, you might find yourself putting off the routine. You don’t want that. Instead, put something you’ll enjoy, like reading or having a cup of tea. Look forward to it, even in a small way.

Here’s my routine, in case it’s helpful:

  1. Evening alarm goes off, shut off screens.
  2. Clean up a bit. Just a small bit of tidying so it’s nice to wake up in the morning.
  3. Brush teeth, floss.
  4. Decide my Most Important Tasks for tomorrow.
  5. Read to bed.

You might even have a shorter routine than this, if that seems like too much. Drop the cleaning and MITs or brushing.

Sticking to your exact planned routine isn’t that important either — if you don’t feel like doing one of the things, go ahead and skip it for now. Play with the routine to see what works best for you. Just don’t compromise on the screen shut-off time.

Questions About Sleep

As we work on the habit of waking early, we need to talk about sleep.

Let’s dive into the questions.

Q: What happens if you can’t go to sleep earlier?

Leo: Give yourself time to adjust. This is why I suggest only 10 minutes earlier at first, or 20 minutes at the most. I also find that exercising during the day helps get me tired so that I really want to sleep at night. And giving myself 30-45 minutes to unwind and read helps as well. Finally, try my insomnia method — it really seems to work.

Q: What happens if you have to stay up for social or work reasons one night?

Leo: Almost no one has a completely consistent schedule — sometimes we go out with friends, or have a late work night that throws us off our routine. Or there’s family emergency that keeps you up late. That’s OK — you’ll be a little thrown off your new waking habit, but you can adjust. It usually takes a couple days to get back on track if you have to stay up late.

There are a couple methods of handling a late night — my usual method, if I can get at least 5-6 hours of sleep, is to still try to wake early but maybe give myself an extra 30-60 minutes instead of trying to wake up exactly at the usual time. This leaves me a bit tired but I try to stay up or perhaps take a 20-minute nap so that I’m tired at night and ready to sleep. By the next morning, I’m mostly back on track.

The other method is to just sleep in after a late night. That’s fine too, and you’ll be well rested, which is good. It’ll just be a little harder getting to sleep the next night, but you’ll adjust after a couple of nights probably.

Q: What happens if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go to sleep?

Leo: I do this a lot when I start going to bed earlier — wake up in the middle of the night, wide awake. I’ll usually just try to lie there and close my eyes and think of all the things I did the day before, in detail, starting from when I woke up. Or I’ll do breathing meditation, lying with my eyes closed. Sometimes this doesn’t work because something is going through my head, so I write it down on paper and that helps get it off my head. Other times I’ll read (with a booklight that doesn’t disturb Eva).

Whatever you do, just know that this isn’t anything to stress out about. It’s a small bump in the road and you’ll adjust with time.

Q: What do you do if you wake up too early (like 4:30am when you planned on 6:30)?

Leo: Actually, I like to just get up, unless I’m super tired (and then I’ll try to go back to bed). If I feel wide awake really early, I’ll get up and start doing some work. I see this as bonus time. It means I’ll probably be really tired later, but that’s OK. I might take a short nap in the afternoon, or just tough it out and stay awake until bedtime, and by that time I’m exhausted and I fall asleep easily.

Again, this little irregularity isn’t that uncommon, and it’s a small bump that will smooth out with time as you adjust to your new schedule.

Q: What if you take a nap in the afternoon and then can’t go to sleep at night?

Leo: Just do your best to sleep, using some of the methods I mentioned above (meditation, reading a book, etc.). Don’t stress out about it. You’ll adjust.

Q: What if you travel?

Leo: This can be difficult. I try to arrive in the evening tired, and then go to sleep early (like 9pm) or arrive in the morning fairly rested (after sleeping on the plane) and then try to stay up all day. Either way, I try to wake early the next morning.

After a few days, I can usually get into a decent sleep routine, but there’s definitely going to be adjustment time, and also another adjustment when you get back home. Some people have reported good results with melatonin pills, or sleeping pills (using them lightly, not overdoing it).

Q: How do you deal with a sleep deficit?

Leo: I like to take a 20-30-minute nap in the afternoon, and/or stay awake for as long as possible before collapsing exhausted at bedtime. Sometimes if my sleep deficit is really big I’ll let myself sleep in one morning, to catch up, and then try to get back on track that night with the proper bedtime.

Q: What if a weekend or holiday changes your routine?

Leo: I try to stay fairly consistent on weekends (still get up early), but I understand that social stuff can change your routine. It’s not ideal, but go ahead and sleep in a bit if you stayed up late. Then adjust back to your normal schedule as soon as you can.

Q: What do you do if you keep falling back to sleep in the morning after getting up?

Leo: That’s OK. I used to get up, really tired, and try to do some reading or work, and then fall back to asleep within an hour. I did this for almost a week but eventually adjusted.

Sleep takes time to adjust. You’ll have a bunch of little hiccups along the way. You’ll have irregularities in your routine. Just know that this all smoothes out over time. Give it time, and keep at it. Be forgiving. Change gradually. It’ll come.