“Lose an hour in the morning, and you will be all day hunting for it”
I’m a night person. No matter how tired I am in the day if something catches my attention, I can happily be up until the early hours. However, no matter how early I go to bed, I can always sleep in later in the morning. I’m sure this is familiar to many of you who want to know how to wake up early. A significant proportion of the population have a genuine diathesis for staying up late, and others for rising early. However sleep-wake patterns are a complex physiological-behavioural trait and predispositions are not ultimately defining. In this article, I explain some simple neuro-hacking techniques which will help you wake up early and hopefully break you into becoming an early riser. Some of them are long-term strategies to keep you on track and others are short-term solutions for when you really want to wake up early but know you will struggle.
The circadian hack
This is probably my most highly recommended technique. It is safe, shows long-term efficacy and takes advantage of your innate biological rhythm. To do this you need to get one of these sunrise alarm clocks, these get steadily brighter as you near your alarm time until they light up your whole room. They have special bulbs that shine full-spectrum light to mimic actual sunlight. The concept is based on the natural human circadian rhythm, whereby sunlight stimulates your HPA-axis and causes physiological arousal to feel naturally awake. Read more about this system here. It is however slightly more expensive; these clocks aren’t cheap but they really do help you become an early riser.
Classical conditioning with dopamine-hacking – this is based on the famous Pavlov’s dog experiment which I’m sure most people are familiar with. The neuroscience behind this is actually pretty fascinating but too complicated to go into here, but in very simple terms it is the neuroscience of learned behaviour and it involves the process of training specific neuron groups to fire in synchrony to achieve a learned pattern. What I am proposing here seems pretty silly and far-fetched but it is actually grounded in very solid science. For a few weeks, as often as you can, you set your alarm when you are fully awake and get into bed for a minute and when it goes off you get out of bed, stand up and drink a sip of orange juice (or your sugary drink of choice). The idea is that you begin to learn the habit of immediately standing up when you hear the alarm, and additionally the orange juice triggers the mesolimbic dopaminergic system which acts as a reward. This type of activation is a powerful tool and is the basis of forming addictive behaviours. Obviously orange juice is not enough of a trigger to induce an addiction, but what you are doing is hi-jacking the brain’s systems for learning behaviour to encourage and enforce the behaviour of waking up to the alarm, it sounds ridiculous but is surprisingly effective.
The pharmacological alarm clock
There’s 2 ways of doing this, 1 more extreme than other. The simple, everyday one involves setting 2 alarms, 1 of which is about 30 minutes earlier than you need. Next to this alarm you leave a glass of water and a stimulant (e.g caffeine tablet, such as Smart Caffeine). When you wake up and go to turn off this alarm you simply take the caffeine while you’re there and go back to sleep. By the time the second alarm (your regular one) goes off, you’re much more awake with the caffeine in your system and getting out of bed is easy!
The other way is a powerful technique to wake you up early but not one I would recommend making routine. You simply take Modafinil about 2-3 hours before you wish to start the day, as that’s how long Mod takes to reach peak plasma concentration. For me, this either means taking Mod just before I’m falling asleep the night before or leaving the tablet and some water next to my bed and setting an alarm for 4/5am, waking up and taking it and falling back to sleep immediately. Then 3 hours later you will rise on your own, ready to take on the day. For more info on how to boost your productivity with modafinil, read my guide to taking modafinil effectively and safely.
The locked-up alarm clock.
This is one of my most effective (yet brutal) strategies for waking up the next day when I really know I will struggle – it’s very simple too. Get your alarm clock/phone/whatever you use as an alarm and set it to loud and then before you sleep put it in your rucksack and then use a simple padlock to keep the zips together. You can then put the key for padlock anywhere (my preferred place is in my kitchen, next to my coffee machine so I grab a coffee while I’m down there hunting for the key). It sounds silly but it is incredibly effective! Anything that extends the time you are awake for before you can physically go back and snooze will maximise your chances of staying awake. Your brain activity increases steadily as you wake up and so you feel exponentially more awake the longer you are conscious for in the morning. So prolonging the time period before you can snooze again really makes it easier on your will power.
In addition to these neuro-hacks, there may be many more reasons you struggle to get up in the morning. Often it is due to a poor routine and staying up too late. These days, many of us are guilty of drinking way too much coffee after lunch time and caffeine has a half-life of about 6 hours (but more in certain individuals). This means that the double espresso you took at 2pm to get you past the lunch time crash is still in your system and is equivalent to taking a single espresso at 8pm!