How The Elite Early Risers Do It

Early Risers and Coding
Photo: Steve Halama/

You’ve know those people who just “do more”? The people working on crazy side projects, drilling projects at work, and rocketing to the top 1% of whatever they do? A lot of them wake up early, before 6 AM.

Moving your body clock back two hours isn’t easy. You steal naps at work. You leave parties before most people show up. Your relationships end because your schedules don’t work.

There are a bunch of articles online on how to wake up early, but I don’t see any that tackle specific problems that people face.

So I interviewed tons of early risers about how they do it.

They woke up early for different reasons: writing a book chapter, doing extra work for their job, meditating deeply, and more.

I asked people to talk about what they actually did, not what they heard someone else say or what they read. Most of the articles I read are about getting in the right “mental state” or “believing you can do it” — that’s not specific enough for me. So instead I asked about the exact words they use, how they physically structure their world, and how they use their time.

I’m including the top answers I got to my questions, with a short summary for each question. I’ve also added solutions that I use myself.

You’ve probably hit some of the same problems they have. Don’t go after them alone.


What did you do, step-by-step, to instill the habit of waking up early?

Two larger themes popped up here. One was that people found one thing that made them really excited to wake up early. For example: brewing delicious coffee, learning about a topic they’re obsessed with, treating themselves to their favorite breakfast, or building something they really want to make.

The other was that people really loved the feel of being awake early. Many people mentioned a soft glow and stillness to the day. Many people also loved feeling like they were the only ones awake and that the rest of the world was still sleeping. For some people, there was a vibe of getting ahead of everyone else.

Appreciating these parts of the morning weren’t helpful when they started the habit, but it helped them KEEP THE HABIT GOING once they started.

Practical answers:

– I wake up at 4:30am but it didn’t start that early…I started with 6am and worked my way earlier over the span of a few weeks.

– I take half a caffeine pill from Walgreens

– I put a calendar block for [early morning time] into my schedule, so that I was reminded of my commitment every time I look at my calendar.

– I put my workout clothes and/or work clothes out of the closet the night before. Usually lunch is in tuperware ready to go as well.

– I picked a Sunday and blocked off my entire schedule for that day. I set my alarm for 5:30am that Sunday and forced myself to stay awake the whole day. Then I set alarms for 5:30am for the rest of the week. I was dog tired that first Sunday and then it was easy to wake up after that.

How do you deal with friends who want you to stay up late?

The most common answer I got was that people did stay up for good friends or fun events. The second most common answer was: “I just leave early. Screw ’em if they don’t like it.”

Practical answers:

– I actually will stay up late if I think it’s worth it. Just not every night.

– I am proactive about being the social organizer. If I let other people plan events, they’ll do what’s convenient for them – which often means staying up late. But if I’m willing to organize, I can do things like get together for brunch on a weekend or have lunch during the week.

– I say “I have to wake up at 5 AM to do __________. I don’t function well on little sleep, so I have to go.” Friends are usually motivated by my answer and encourage me to sleep.

– “Sorry, it’s a work night.”

– “I’d love to join, but I won’t have much fun after 11pm. Tell me all about it tomorrow!”

– “Can’t tonight, I’m tired”

– Think of how terrible you’ll feel the next morning (like being hungover)

Does your significant other (or a good friend) ever want you to stay up late?

Or are your schedules compatible? What are effective ways you’ve found to handle those conversations if they pop up?

Almost every answer here was “my significant other knows that I wake up early and we make it work”. The habit was built into the relationship from the beginning. It was hard for people to remember the first conversations they had with their SO about waking up early.

Practical answers:

– We take intentional days off of work to be with each other.

– Say “you stay up and do you. I’m gonna do me and get under the covers.”

– We agree ahead of time which mornings we’ll wake up early (usually once a week), which means we’re both trying to go to bed early the night before.

– We had two conversations about this: the logistics conversation, and the feelings conversation. The logistics were about who takes our daughter to daycare (him), when we each get alone time (for him after I go to bed, for me in the late afternoons), and how he avoids waking me up when he comes in (earplugs).

Do you get drowsy in the middle of the day? How do you deal with that?

The most common theme here was “go to bed early the night before.” 30% of my interviewees napped during the day.

Practical answers:

– Work standing up/use a standing desk. Stand in the back of the room during meetings.

– I hide in the server room at work and take a nap

– Caffeine pills

– Coffee/Tea/Piece of fruit

– Talk with coworkers/do something social

– Do something active: volunteer to run the meeting, run around outside, pretend to go to the bathroom

– I mapped out my energy levels during the day and scheduled light tasks during my low periods.

What do you do if you want to stay up late during the weekend, but wake up early on Monday?

A lot of people said this wasn’t a problem for them. They were able to fall asleep early on Sundays even if they were up late on Friday and Saturday.

Practical answers:

– I sleep in as late as I want on Saturdays and meet myself halfway on Sundays to ease back into my schedule.

– I don’t shift my schedule more than an hour or so on weekends.

– In general, I think 24 hours in advance and plan my schedule out from there.

How do you make sure you fall asleep early?

Practical answers:

– I make sure my room is cold (easier to fall asleep under the covers) and I read for at least 15 minutes

– I get everything done the night before: make lunch, review my schedule, and leave a note to remind myself the first thing to work on when I wake up

– Having tea, bath, or getting into comfortable clothes puts me in the mood.

– No screens after 9:30pm

– I schedule my day on Google Calendar and make sure it ends early

What happens if you wake up early and still feel sleepy? Do you go back to sleep or still try to work?

Most people went back to sleep unless they had a deadline at their job.

Practical answers:

– I go back to sleep

– I snooze the alarm up to 30 minutes

– If I know for a fact that I’ve gotten 9 hours of sleep but feel sleepy, I’ll get up.

What issues have popped up that kept you from sticking to an early morning schedule? How did you solve them?

Practical answers:

– I hate having too much light early in the morning. I bought clip-on LEDs to put on books I’m reading. It’s a really nice focusing glow. The rest of room being dark helps you focus on what’s important.

– It’s cold early. I plugged a state heater into a Wiimote to turn on at 4AM before I wake up to get the room warm. I also wear sweats and big sweater and lay it out.

– Not dawdling over breakfast. I take public transit to my office so I keep a big variance window in my schedule.

– Back pain. I take painkillers.

– Traveling. After a long trip and I’m jet-lagged, I try to get my body into sunlight on Day 1. I also eat and sleep when I want Day 1, then get back on schedule Day 2.

Why did you start keeping the early morning schedule? When?

Practical answers:

Started it in college. I would like to go to the gym when it wasn’t crowded and found that I could get more done when my energy was higher (in the morning) and the majority of people were starting later than that. Felt like I was pulling a fast one on folks. I would do work in the morning too as my energy faded as they day wore on and found myself fighting myself to stay up late and do a paper and go to the library and drink caffeine. I thought pulling all nighters was stupid and unnecessary and within my control to avoid.

– To trade when the stock market opens. Jan. 2, 1980.

– When I started teaching. I have to prepare for my classes every day.

– Because I wanted to build more cool shit and I finally unlocked the secret of being a morning person by starting to have caffeine. About a year ago.

– I started a faculty job in January 2014. After the first chaotic semester, I realized that if I didn’t protect deep work time, I would never actually have any. Mornings were the only feasible way to do this, as I have lots of collaborative meetings that have to be scheduled during times that other people are available.

During business school. Most of the class started competing to see who would wake up earliest the most.

– I started learning calculus and math fundamentals I had never learned about. This was three years after college.

– About a year ago, when I realized I needed uninterrupted time to work for myself and it was hard to come by at work.

Is there anything counterintuitive you do that you think is key to sticking to your schedule?

Practical answers:

– The dog has me on her schedule so I have adapted to that instead of setting the alarm whenever I want.

– If I start or stop doing something, I’ll do a meta check on the “reasons” I think it happened. I’ll try to think about what environmental reasons are influencing me instead of a more immediate cause that jumps to mind.

Do you have friends/role models who also wake up early? How did you meet them?

The most common theme here was coworkers or co-students. It was helpful to be around other people who woke up early.

Practical answers:

– I googled info on waking up early and changing one’s schedule. I like to write and writers often have wacky hours and drink and take naps and none of that really worked.

– Other stock traders have early hours. I met them usually while trading.

– Other Zen meditation students who were training with me. We meditate at 4 AM.

– A guy who was a student with me at coding bootcamp.

– Some of my colleagues stay up late to work; those of us who get up early sometimes do a co-working session early in the morning, so we get the same camaraderie our friends get at 2am.

– The rest of the MBA class.

– At the time, I didn’t know anyone else doing it. I read stories about various authors, composers, and writers waking up early. It was nice to know that SOMEONE else had done it and that their real work was early in the morning.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot of bilge online about early morning habits. Try doing a Google search for “how to wake up early” and you’ll see what I mean.

If you read these articles, it might seem like waking up early is the one and only way to be productive and successful.

That’s not the case.

For many people, if you wake up early, it’s because you want to do something: you want to build, to work deeply, or to learn on your own terms.

There are plenty of ways to do these without waking up early. Many people find time to work late at night, or in evenings, or during a 9 to 5 workday. I recommend reading Daily Habits: How Artists Work to learn about other working styles.

Waking up early is one tool and it doesn’t work for everyone.

It can be easy to lose focus of why you’re waking up early. So remember what you want to accomplish and stay focused on it. Whether it’s furthering your field, learning calculus, meditating, or walking your dog.


Thank you to Dana Pede, James Flaherty, Jason Benn, Jessica Hammer, Joanna Jast, and my other anonymous sources, for being wonderful human beings and sharing their tactics.

Do you wake up early? Have an idea to share? Email me at [my initials]@[my site] or contact me through my company, Bell Curve.

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Written by Asher King Abramson

I'm a partner at Bell Curve, a growth marketing agency. Bell Curve is directly responsible for tens of millions in revenue for a bunch of companies. I also lead sessions on growth at Y Combinator.

I used to be on the leadership team at App Academy, a top coding bootcamp in San Francisco. I've literally taught truck drivers and teachers to become software engineers making $100K+ at Google and Facebook.

Before that, I was a software engineer at Minerva, a new university competing with Harvard, MIT, and Stanford for extraordinary students.

I’ve also worked in neuroscience, accounting, customer development, and was an All-American in international quidditch.

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