“Early sleep and early wake up gives health and makes you grow.” – Portuguese Proverb.
A few hundred years ago, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, getting up early and reporting to work on time was challenging. We take our morning alarms for granted today, but in Victorian England, they were rare, expensive, and often unreliable. With the industrialization of the economy, factories sprung up, and it became necessary for people to get ready to go to work at the crack of dawn. As part of this industrial transformation of society, a new profession sprung up. Some enterprising people went into the business of becoming human alarm clocks. They went house to house before dawn, charging a fee for waking people up. These professionals, called knocker-uppers, tapped on bedroom windows with long sticks, rapping a few times before moving down the street to the next window. Some, like Mary Smith, used more ingenious methods. She was famous on the streets of London’s east side, for using a pea shooter—shooting dried peas—to make enough of a sound to rouse someone out of deep sleep. The need for these human alarm clocks disappeared with the advent of inexpensive and reliable bedside alarms. But knocker-uppers continued to ply their trade in some parts of England until the 1970s.
These days it is hard to imagine being woken up by someone knocking on the bedroom window using sticks, hammers, or dried peas. Smartphones have taken the place of dedicated alarm clocks. We can set any melody we want as our wakeup call, and a convenient snooze button gives us a few more minutes in bed. Although modern-day alarms are fail-safe, the challenge remains, which is getting out of bed before sunrise. Not everyone is a natural early riser. Sleeping in is a hard habit to overcome. As we transition from sleeping to the waking state of consciousness, the willpower is not under our complete control. Consequently, we fall back into our unconscious patterns of behavior, such as turning the other way and going back to sleep.
Sleep is essential to our wellbeing. It is one activity that we undertake every day of our life. It refreshes the mind and rejuvenates the body, which heals and repairs itself during sleep. When the mind rests, we reclaim much of the energy we lose during our daily activities. However, too much of anything can be detrimental. Sleep is no exception. Although widely accepted that six to eight hours of sleep is essential for the average human being, some people need more than others. Our attitude towards life determines how we use our mental energy during the day, which impacts the intensity and frequency of emotional surges. Physical activity or lack thereof during the daytime also affects our sleep quality and has a bearing on our sleep-wake cycles.
There is something magical about waking up early. In the early morning hours, the mind is more pliable, and distractions arising from the world are few. It is the perfect time for deep contemplation. Between four and seven in the morning, everything in nature is quiet. Fresh from a restful sleep, the body is full of energy, and the mind is alert and empty of unwanted chatter, which allows for more in-depth and sustained levels of concentration. By jump-starting the day, even by an hour earlier than our routine, gives us extra time to accomplish tasks we set out. The mind is at its quietest when we wake up, and there is a lesser tendency to procrastinate.
It is no surprise that many successful entrepreneurs, artists, sportspersons, and thinkers start their day early, well before the sun rises and the world wakes up. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, wakes up at three forty-five in the morning. He said this about his habit, “I wake up at three forty-five, I do e-mail at four-thirty. I’m in the gym at five. And I work straight until eight or nine at night. And then I do it all over again the next day. But I love it. It’s my life.”
In the pre-dawn hours, the mind has a light and airy quality. It is like a balloon that floats effortlessly. When we take a ride in a hot air balloon, there is a sense of freedom. High up above ground, floating like a cloud, surrounded by emptiness and silence, we get a taste of the deepest essence of our being. The early morning hours allow us to get in touch with our inner selves. It is the most important appointment of the day, helping us understand who we are and our place in the world. We cannot do this while multiple competing streams of thoughts contaminate our attention, which frequently happens in the daytime.
Awakening even an hour earlier than what is customary for us gives us more time, which is our most valuable asset. We take time for granted until we have very little of it left. Time moves at the same pace for everyone, but what sets successful people apart from the rest is how they use their time. High achievers are not born. They work harder than the rest and take advantage of every available opportunity. To do this consistently, day in and day out requires a degree of mastery over the mind. By dedicating an hour or two in the mornings towards cultivating the mind and shaping its growth through meditation, mindfulness, or any other means that bring about inner clarity, we set ourselves up for success in life.
It is essential to wake up with an appreciation for the gift of life and the time existence has given us, for gratitude is a powerful tonic. Expressing this emotion has the immediate effect of moving our attention away from our narrow, little self—the conditioned personality. It is like a small pond with stagnant water. In contrast, when we harbor a deep feeling of gratitude, we join a forceful stream of energy, which increases our happiness, vitality, and willingness to work hard. Physically we may be distinct entities, but at a mental level, our energies commingle. Joy is infectious, as is sadness. It is our responsibility to manage our attitude towards life and other living beings properly. When we express gratitude, we can easily change our perspective for the better.
The first few thoughts we entertain in the morning sets the tone for the rest of the day. When we are grateful for the time given to us, we are less likely to waste precious seconds, minutes, and hours. No matter who we are or what we are worth, time that is lost, never returns. Each day is a chance to do something special with the time and opportunity we have.
The Dalai Lama said this about waking up early. “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”
These words encapsulate gratitude and awareness of the precious nature of life, setting an intention—improving oneself and helping others, seeding the mind with kindness, and avoiding negativity—the fundamentals of lasting happiness.
Being an early riser is a common trait of successful people. Sir Richard Branson, Chairman of the Virgin Group, wakes up early to exercise and spend time with his family, before dealing with any business-related matters. He says that prioritizing his day in this manner allows him “to start each day with a fresh and organized slate.” He further adds, “I have always been an early riser. Like keeping a positive outlook, or keeping fit, waking up early is a habit, which you must work on to maintain. Over my 50 years in business, I have learned that if I rise early I can achieve so much more in a day, and therefore in life.” Others, such as Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, also attest to the positive impact of being an early riser.
If waking up does not come naturally, we can cultivate it as a lifestyle. The older we get, the harder it is to develop new habits and erase old ones. However, the mind is pliable, and the more we try, the easier it becomes to change our behavior. There is significant variability in how long it takes to encode a new habit. Motivation and persistence are the key elements to initiate and maintain new behaviors.
Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon, observed that it took his patients, on average, twenty-one days for self-esteem and self-confidence to rise following facial surgery. In his book, Psycho-Cybernetics, a bestseller that has sold over thirty-five million copies, he outlines various methods for changing one’s self-image.
To change one’s self-image, he says, “…reserve judgment—and go on practicing—for a minimum period of 21 days. It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery, it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated, ‘the phantom limb’ persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to ‘seem like home.’ These and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
These observations, which Dr. Maltz made in the 1960s, became the source of the popular theory that it takes twenty-one days to form a new habit. Word soon spread, and it became widely adopted. It has a nice ring to it, “In twenty-one days, form a new habit.” But is it that simple?
For thousands of years, both Eastern and Western religions have known that it takes significant time and effort to integrate new behaviors. For example, Hindus have the concept of a Mandala, a period of forty-eight days. They arrived at this number using a combination of the zodiac—twelve, the number of planets—nine, and the time it takes for the moon to complete one revolution around the earth—twenty-seven days. Adherents practice a ritual or a new practice for a minimum of one Mandala. Often it takes more than one such period to solidify a behavioral change. Such daily adherence over several weeks builds willpower, persistence, and one-pointedness of the mind, all of which are integral to further self-growth.
Similarly, Christians observe Lent, forty days of prayer, fasting, and abstinence, reflecting the time Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before starting his ministry and the forty hours that elapsed between his crucifixion and resurrection. Muslims call their annual period of fasting and prayer Ramadan, which follows the lunar calendar and lasts for thirty days.
Whatever the behavioral change or habit we wish to incorporate into our lives, it is essential to recognize that it takes time and effort to make it last. These days, we look for quick results and easy fixes. When we harbor such expectations, we set ourselves up for disappointments. Every little effort in the right direction will ultimately bear fruit. Just as a seed can not grow into a tree overnight, the body-mind unit can’t change instantaneously. We start as a tiny cell, and after spending forty weeks in the womb, we emerge into the world as a fully formed human. Every new habit starts as a single thought, and when we persist, there is the recruitment of other thoughts, and eventually, it becomes a new behavior.
Taking a vow to follow a daily practice of rising before sunrise is one of the many transformative changes we can incorporate into our lives. Our body chemistry and the mental makeup will also change once we take charge and make our willpower the driving force. It is easy to succumb to old habits and say that we are weak-willed, and we can’t change. Once we successfully change one behavioral pattern, we build the necessary inner infrastructure to modify other life areas.
We know that actions carried out repeatedly become habits, and when we persist with such practices, they become second nature, an automatic process. Would it not be wonderful if being kind, compassionate, grateful, happy, and content were second nature? Initially, it may take effort, and we may have to remind ourselves to stay on track continually. With persistence, we begin to embody these qualities.
The process of habit formation in real life and the time taken for automaticity to set in was studied recently by human psychology researchers at the University College London, who showed that it took an average of sixty-six days to form a new habit. Phillipa Lally and her team recruited ninety-six volunteers, most of whom were postgraduate students. All participants had a habit choice—eating, drinking, and exercise—which they performed for 12 weeks. Some of the examples chosen were eating fruit with lunch, drinking a water bottle with lunch, and running for 15 minutes before dinner.
Although individual habits and circadian rhythms influence the time at which we awaken each morning, persistence in the practice of being an early riser makes it an automatic behavior. It all depends on how we condition the mind and body. We can also employ autosuggestions. Just before falling asleep can set an intention to wake up at a particular time. Along with this, if we mindfully set a wakeup alarm on our phones and clocks, there is a better chance that we will overcome the most challenging part of waking up early, which is opening our eyes and getting out of bed. The more we practice, the easier it gets. We have many inspirational personalities in various walks of life to look up to who can attest to the benefits of waking up early. The decision to wake up early, kick start the day when the rest of the world is asleep is an easily accessible life hack. It will enhance our productivity and creativity.