The sun was barely up, but I’d already chugged my pour-over coffee, been turned down for sex by my wife (again), and hit the gym for a dumbbell circuit. With the rest of the world still asleep, I found myself a little hungry, slightly jittery, and trudging into a self-prescribed ice-cold shower—not related to the sex thing—only to yelp like a wounded animal.
I was just one week into a monthlong quest to test as many scientifically backed practices as I could for becoming a productive morning person, which I’ve never really been but which I’ve been told (via social media, regular media, and, uh, everyone I’ve ever met) is the key to killing, crushing, or otherwise surviving in these crazy times. Think of it as Morning Culture 2.0, a sort of new-age approach to productivity embodied by everyone from the Rock, whose 4:00 a.m. workouts hit Instagram like a sweaty fever dream, to Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, whose own ritual involves rising at 6:15 a.m. to meditate. The list of super-early risers with mornings tagged as “me time” includes former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Disney CEO Bob Iger. Both rise around 4:30 a.m. and slow-roll, their successes providing the rest of us with our coffee and cheer, and neither of them—and this is the real kick in the pants—seems to mind it. In fact, they seem to like it.
All this morning mojo is a natural extension of today’s prevailing hustle culture—our society’s collective inclination to celebrate long hours and extreme workdays as a badge of honor. But what about all the data telling us that most guys aren’t getting enough sleep? (The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Many people, like me, might need more than that minimum.) Or the countless studies that show how too little sleep and too much productivity can quickly spiral into burnout, depression, and all manner of physical woes? What about those of us whose personal rhythms and metabolisms aren’t naturally suited to early rising? Is it possible to become a morning person without torturing yourself, and given what we know about the importance of sleep, do we really want to?
So. Many. Questions. And I needed answers. After moving from the suburbs to Manhattan last year to supercharge my career, I started working late, sleeping late, and feeling hopelessly behind. It was no way for a grown man to live, so I tapped a half dozen researchers and the impractical power of the Internet to see if I could transform myself into a morning person. I also reached out to a former night owl named David Osborn, who credits changing his sleep-wake cycle with helping him co-own one of the largest real estate companies in the U. S. He coauthored the self-help book Miracle Morning Millionaires. “Mornings are everything for me now,” he says, and those mornings often include reading, making his family breakfast, and hot-tubbing with his wife. (Seriously.)
With Osborn & Co. as my guides, I would spend 30 days rethinking how I slept, woke up, had sex, ate, got centered, and worked in pursuit of a better me. I picked a relatively quiet time of the year for my experiment—minimize stress, minimize distractions. Life had other plans.
Day 1: Rise with Simulated Shine
Waking up, like everything else we do, is a skill, and some people do it better than others. A morning person should be able to get out of bed without too much effort and without feeling too exhausted. While others hit snooze, he should hit the day firing on all cylinders so that he can be more productive and feel more satisfied as the day progresses. Osborn uses a handy acronym to help people improve their wake-up habits: It’s called SAVERS, short for activities that involve Silence, Affirmation, Visualization, Exercise, Reading, and Scribing (the make-it-fit way to say “journaling”).
Before I did any of that, I’d have to get better at the actual eye-opening, ass-out-of-bed part. To kick things off, I bought a new alarm clock, the doctor-recommended SmartSleep and Wake-up Light by Philips. The SmartSleep was supposed to tap my body’s innate sensitivity to daylight by pairing an alarm clock with an artificial-sunlight lamp: It wakes you by glowing brighter over a period of 30 minutes, just like a sunrise. In theory, artificial light would help adjust my circadian rhythm, the biological clock that determines when you’re tired or energized, to wake me gently from the lightest phase of sleep rather than rip me straight from REM or deep stage IV sleep. “That means you’ll usually wake up feeling more alert,” says Erik Peper, Ph.D., a professor of holistic health at San Francisco State University.
Philips SmartSleep Light Therapy Lamp
My first night, I set it for 6:15 a.m., expecting to rise less than seven hours later bathed and energized in warming light. Instead, I woke up to the sound of birds chirping—the alarm clock’s fail-safe. I had overslept. So the second day, I hopped into bed earlier than usual, skipped electronic screens, and intended to read until I fell asleep. My wife, Kiera, even tucked in beside me. Kiera is a natural early riser, and she was already planning to get up early for marathon training. She welcomed the idea of finally matching sleep schedules. It took a few days for my body to acclimate, but going to bed early seemed to help. As the week went on, I found myself rising peacefully with the fake sun and heading into the office early. A coworker whose reputation hinged on always being the first one there saw me sitting at my desk and stared slack-jawed: “What, did you sleep here?”
Day 5: Rise and Attempt Some Grinding
After nearly a week of getting up early, I realized that some Osborn-approved tactics made me sort of sleepier. I wasn’t excited about repeating positive mantras (Affirmation) or mentally playing out big meetings (Visualization), not to mention I was already reading (yep, Reading) at night. I wanted a stronger, more immediate incentive to open my eyes each day.
At least one part of my body was paying attention. Turns out men get an extra wake-up call from their testosterone, which peaks in the early hours of the day. “That’s why a lot of men wake up with morning erections,” says Jenni Skyler, a certified sex therapist who also wakes up at 6:15 a.m. I might not have been a morning person yet, but I foresaw a new benefit from sleeping beside one.
The way I imagined it, I’d open my eyes, roll over, and enjoy a sensual bone session with Kiera. When I tried to explain my plan, she offered her own terms: “Well, I’m leaving the house at 6:15,” adding that she had an extra-long run planned the next day. (That this run was literally away from me went unsaid.) “So you’ll have to do it before then.”
Once we dutifully checked our Google calendars, we found a weekday morning where sex fit nicely. Actually, it was a few days, just to make sure we had a proper baseline. And then . . . we did it! And it was great! The only downside: Whatever hormonal floodgates sex opened in me shifted my mental calendar straight to Sunday. For half an hour afterward, I’d lounge around naked, then have to race to my morning meetings. Hump days still hurt.
Day 7: Get Hungrier for Success
In a 2016 study from the Netherlands, 3,018 people agreed to end their daily showers with a blast of ice-cold water. Afterward, these hearty folk reported having more energy and were nearly a third less likely than nonparticipants to call in sick to work. That’s how I ended up shivering in my bathroom. I’d run the water first, then jump in and try to jog in place to keep from freezing. And though the showers definitely woke me up, I came to resent them. The dread I felt in the pre-shower moments erased any positive feelings on the other side.
Osborn powers up with a more controlled kind of masochism: He fasts intermittently, restricting food intake with the classic 16:8 protocol. (Don’t eat for 16 hours, then pack what you want into the other eight.) “Fasting makes you feel great!” he told me with honest enthusiasm. “I get more energy, so my mornings are way more powerful.” His window of eating is 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., so I adopted that, too.
Early on, forgoing food made me feel noticeably sharper throughout the day. That’s because after ten to 12 hours without food, the brain increases production of two compounds: brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The first enhances cognition, and the second induces calm, so they’re essentially priming you to stay sharp despite the stomach growls.
That effect sticks around until you break your fast (aka breakfast), so prolonged hunger can actually jump-start your mornings. “GABA is well-known to have an antianxiety effect,” says Mark Mattson, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University who wakes before 7:00 a.m. “And it can enhance learning and memory.”
I still drank my black coffee in the mornings, but to ward off hunger, Osborn recommended I down a glass of water right after waking up. Some days I’d even slurp a tablespoon of olive oil, a Mattson-approved cheat to also feel fuller. Whatever got me to 11:30, right?
Day 9: Work Out Early and Often
At this point, I was feeling pretty good, with my fancy alarm clock, new fasting regimen, and just plain more sleep helping me get out of bed that much quicker. I’d even added gym time to the agenda.
Before the experiment, working out was the first thing I skipped if the day got too busy. But exercising early is a great way to readjust your circadian rhythm: In a study of 100 fit people, researchers from Arizona State University found that early workouts moved people’s body clocks earlier, while late workouts—the study looked specifically at 7:00 to 10:00 p.m.—delayed their body clocks.
Thomas BarwickGetty Images
Such hacks are called “zeitgebers,” a term German researchers came up with to describe environmental influences on circadian timing. The light from the SmartSleep is one. Cuing your thermostat to rise gradually to about 80 degrees over 30 minutes—to mimic indoors how the world warms up around sunrise—is another. Exercising is an über-zeitgeber, because it conditions your body to be alert for action. “We found that exercise was about 75 percent as powerful as light for shifting the circadian rhythm,” says Shawn Youngstedt, Ph.D., the 6:00 a.m. riser who led the study. Being one of the first through the door at my gym certainly felt inspirational. The morning shift happens to be extremely jacked, although the obvious question still gnawed at me: Who in their right mind leaves a warm bed for a cold CrossFit class?
Day 14: Pile on “More of” Everything
My brain likes to wander, so Osborn’s prescription for Silence (meditation) and Scribing (still just journaling) filled me with trepidation. FMRI studies show that meditation increases blood flow to parts of the brain associated with attention and decision-making. Carry that focus into your workday, the logic goes, and you’ll be far more productive.
After several skeptical attempts at sitting quietly without fidgeting, I called Jeff Warren, coauthor of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. “Yeah, it sucks,” he said. “Even for me, sitting meditation is a hellacious struggle.” Warren suggested I try an app called 10% Happier, from MH contributing editor and meditation guru Dan Harris. It just so happens that Warren himself guides some lessons.
During his ten-minute meditation, I sat cross-legged on my couch and tried to ignore my cat while Warren’s soothing baritone urged me to inhale and exhale, and relax by “slowing down the whole body clock to match the timelessness of the end of the out breath.”
For journaling, I tried a simple Osborn exercise to help me figure out what I really wanted from my life: Divide a page into two columns and write “more of” and “less of” on either side. My “more ofs” included time with friends, acts of kindness, and leisure time. My “less ofs” were weekend work, social media, and clutter—our new apartment is tiny. Now mornings seemed to flow together, one task encouraging me to try another, and so on. Each day felt a little more cheerful and optimistic.
Day 17: Rethink Your Relationship with Work
Waking up with energy and vigor is great—but then what? How do we make the most of our hours when everyone else is sleeping? I might have felt purposeful, but I still ended up aimlessly scrolling through Twitter, so I called Cal Newport, Ph.D., a professor at Georgetown University. Newport, another 6:00 a.m. guy, is the author of Deep Work, a book that examines how online distractions often kill our ability to be efficient. He thinks the best way to breed success isn’t just to get up early. You need to create dedicated chunks of undistracted work time, free from any communication.
“Before 10:00 or 11:00 a.m., people aren’t generally expecting you to be accessible,” he said. So you can dive in without affecting the rest of your day. Doing deep work has become so rare that just two hours a day could provide a massive career boost. “You could pick up a complicated new skill or put together a new business strategy that will boost your standing within your organization.”
10’000 HoursGetty Images
After downloading a website and app blocker called Freedom to disable Instagram, Twitter, and Gmail on my phone and computer, I used early deep-work sessions to tackle the day’s biggest concerns. Concentration-enhancing cortisol tends to spike after sunrise. That’s a bonus for early risers and may even play into maintaining your willpower, which tends to decrease as the day goes on. Soon I was wrapping up work before dark and feeling okay about ticking off the “more ofs” by playing guitar or honing my DIY tattoo skills. (I use my upper thigh as a canvas, but you’ll have to pay to see it.)
With work no longer crowding my evenings, Kiera and I spent more time cooking together. We’d hang out and talk about random stuff, almost like we were dating again. I was so happy that I didn’t realize she looked tired for once.
Day 20: Forget About Stupid Life Hacks
“I think I’m pregnant,” Kiera told me one night while we were cooking. She’d been feeling inexplicably exhausted for a couple days and figured our unprotected sex might have had something to do with it.
I was skeptical, but the next morning she emerged from the bathroom with a pregnancy test in her hand. “Holy shit!” I said. I thought those things worked on an ambiguous plus-or-minus system. Not this one: It just said, pregnant.
We threw out the worst baby names we could think of—Babadook, Nardo, Kingslayer.
And we began scheming ways she could avoid alcohol without raising suspicion at her birthday party in a few weeks. (Seltzer and lime: the booziest-looking nonalcoholic drink available.)
By that point, the basic architecture of my mornings was firmly in place. I was up at 6:00 a.m. every day, with reliable doses of deep work, exercise, and mindfulness to propel me forward. I was almost a morning person!
A week after the positive pregnancy test, Kiera had what seemed like a period—which, as far as either of us knew, wasn’t supposed to happen. So we spent our third wedding anniversary in the emergency room, eating cheese and hummus for dinner, running through tests that would ultimately confirm a miscarriage.
I went to sleep late that night. And the next morning, I slept in—which at that point meant I was up at 7:00 a.m. I skipped the gym. I didn’t journal or meditate. But I still had work to do, so I did it. The pregnancy ended before we’d even told anybody.
Day 25: Simplify The Formula
The day after, I didn’t want to get up early, either, but I did. There was a strange familiarity to it, and I was happy to have the routine to guide me while I worked through my thoughts. It provided some much-needed clarity on just what the hell I was really getting up early for.
Stanton j StephensGetty Images
Dispatches from the cult of hustle, which often come in the form of Instagram memes or self-congratulatory posts from people who seem to have their shit figured out, send the message that high gear is the only gear that matters. You work hard to work hard. That’s the game: You’re either redlining or you’re behind.
But when life happens, you’re reminded of a higher calling. Early wake-up times, gym sessions, cold showers—if they’re not serving something bigger, they’re not serving you at all. I didn’t need to be making more work for myself. I needed a routine that would help me focus on the things I care about by setting the daily grind on autopilot. As self-interested as it all seemed, that left space for me to be there for Kiera. She didn’t need that necessarily—I’m not going to speak for her—but being available felt important.
Moleskine Classic Notebook
If days got harder, I wanted to be out ahead of them. It was time to streamline. I started by cutting out those cold showers. And because I never really loved working out early, I moved my gym sessions to early afternoon. Youngstedt’s research shows that working out as late as 4:00 p.m. can still affect circadian timing. To spend more time in the sun—the strongest zeitgeber of all—I just walked instead of riding my bike to the gym. Elizabeth Murnane, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, had recommended at least 25 to 45 minutes of natural sunlight early to make waking up a little easier. By slowing down, I found I could finally get it.
The SmartSleep and intermittent fasting? Those stayed. Meditation and journaling? Okay, but only on those days when I felt beyond stressed or directionless. For what it’s worth, that’s all fine with Osborn: “If you do everything, you’re crushing it,” he told me. “But doing half the things you expected is still a pretty great day.”
Day 32: Just Keep Going
My experiment ended, but I’m still waking up early and knocking out my hardest work in the morning. By the time I hit the gym, I’ve already accomplished something meaningful each day. And when it’s time to log off, I can do it fully.
I started my morning journey hoping it would make me more productive at work. Now I realize that what I really want is balance. I want a routine that weights my priorities accurately so that work has its proper place alongside everything else. When I’m working, I should be working hard. And when I’m not, I shouldn’t even be thinking about it.
Kiera had some follow-up appointments at the hospital, and when she came home, I was able to turn off all things hustle. Successfully front-loading my day gave me more time to be present when it mattered. And on the night of her 31st birthday, we stayed out late with friends for the first time in weeks. We went to a beer hall, then a taqueria. We all drank a little too much, and I didn’t worry at all about how early I’d wake up the next day.
This story appears in the March 2020 issue of Men’s Health.
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