Health + wellbeing

Challenge: From night owl to early bird in seven days

- November 12, 2012 9 MIN READ

Benjamin Franklin famously stated, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” This week I plan to test this theory for myself. Care to join me?

All my life I’ve been a ‘night owl’. Whether it’s reading crime novels, cramming for exams, copywriting to hit deadlines or mindlessly watching crappy TV – ‘lights out’ flicks my productivity light on.

So far I haven’t questioned this ‘natural’ rhythm. But what if I’m wrong? A consistent theme I’ve observed from productivity maestros the world over is that early morning is where the gold is.

An article called 10 benefits of early rising and how to do it has stuck firmly in my mind ever since I read it years ago on one of my favourite blogs, Zen Habits.

In it, writer Leo Babuta explains how he changed his sleep habits, and his life: “for me, switching from being a night owl to an early riser (and yes, it is possible) has been a godsend. It has helped me in so many ways that I’d never go back.”

Why be an early riser?

Some of the benefits that most appeal to me are enjoying the quiet time before the world awakes, feeling ahead of the game, seeing the sunrise, sipping a coffee in the peaceful early hours and getting high-priority tasks knocked over.

For Babuta, who now rises at 4.30am, the result has been dramatic. He used to start his days “late… rushing… [and] grumpy,” but getting up early means that “by the time 6:30 rolls around, I’ve done more than many people do the entire day.”

How to do it?

Some of his recommendations for making the transition are to slowly adjust your waking time in 15-minute increments, allow yourself to go to sleep much earlier, ban the snooze button, reward yourself for getting up and ensure you use the extra time wisely by having an important task lined up.

Here’s my daily plan:

I’m going to follow most of Babuta’s advice, but in the spirit of a quick-fix modern world I’m going to try cold turkey and set the alarm a good two hours earlier than normal from day one.

  • Night before: Select one high-priority project to focus on – NOT email and admin
  • 5am sharp: Jump out of bed for a quick shower – resist the lure of the snooze button
  • 5–5.30am: Toast, coffee and pondering life on the back step – that’s the reward bit!
  • 5.30–7am: Get to work (on weekend days I’ll use the time for exercise and reading)

I will start this tomorrow morning and will leave a comment on this article every day to track my progress over the next seven days.

If you’d like to join me in the challenge, please share your experiences in the comments. Or, just let us know your thoughts on the benefits (or folly) of rising early. 

Want more articles like this? Check out the work styles section.


I’m pleased to report that a few of us completed the challenge 🙂 The comments section below charts the progress, and I’ve summarised my daily updates below. Thanks for getting involved!

Day #1 – Tuesday:

Thanks so much for all your great comments, tips and ideas! Looks like plenty of potential benefits but also a few challenges to make the transition.

Well it was dark when I got up at 5am, which is unusual for me but I guess not surprising. Very overcast so not much of a sunrise but peaceful outside none the less. As a few people mentioned getting to bed early was the challenge. It was probably around 11pm before I got to sleep.

Anyway, I’m here and feeling fresh so far. If I’m not mistaken from the comments Melissa, Susan, Zos, Wendy, Megan, Marina and a few others who have accepted the challenge should be here with me!!

If you need some tips, a big thanks to Susan Jones who posted this excellent article

Enough comments reading, better do some work! I’ll keep you posted each day.

Day #2 – Thursday:

Good morning 🙂 In bed around 10.30 last night and up at 5am again so two from two. Good to hear that a number of others are also in on the challenge and great to read your comments. Not feeling quite as fresh this morning and could easily go back to bed but coffee will kick in shortly.

Here’s a quick summary so far…

Positives – really enjoying the peace and quiet of the mornings, yesterday did feel much longer in terms of having time to get everything done, by lunchtime I was well over half way though the to-do list, I was able to finish at 5.30pm and not do anything more in the evening which was a nice change.

Negatives – as a few people have said getting to bed earlier is harder than getting up earlier, this means I’m getting less sleep overall that usual (and drinking more coffee), I find I still get distracted by email/news/comments etc and don’t achieve as much as I was hoping before 7am.

I think earlier to bed the key tonight. Right, back to work!

Day #3 – Friday:

Morning all. Pleased to report that I made it out of bed again this rainy morning, but by far the hardest snooze button to avoid so far. Struggling to get to bed much before 10.30, so running on less sleep than ideal which can leave you a little flat. Would have to sort both ends of the sleep time to sustain an early bird routine.

Generally the days definitely feel much longer (in a good way) and by 2pm I’m pleasantly surprised by how much has been done with the rest of the arvo to go. Also good to be in a position to shut down at the end of a day with a free evening.

Hopefully Julie, Simon, Joss, Jennifer, Melissa, Gillian and a few others that I’ve missed are also up! Catch you tomorrow 🙂

Day #4 – Saturday:

As the alarm went off this morning (and I did hit the snooze button, but just once) my main question was why on earth I thought this ‘early bird’ caper would be a good idea to do on the weekend! But now that I’m up with a coffee with the sun coming up it’s feeling great. Finally managed to get to bed a lot earlier last night (9.30) so that would be the difference.

Nice work yesterday Melissa, Susan and Wendy, and hopefully we’ll see you still on the bandwagon on Monday morning along with Gillian 🙂

While I was tired by the end of the week, overall I definitely felt a lot more productive and in control than usual. However I did miss having lots of time to myself at night after the kids went to bed. Off to see if I can catch a worm or something. I’ll keep you posted.

Day #5 – Sunday:

5am Sunday is a new experience for me! I suspect the commitment I’d made to comment on here each day is the only thing that dragged me away from trashing the alarm this morning. I’m not sure if veteran early birds soften their routine on the weekends?? Will have to check. With probably three hours until anyone else wakes up around here I’m off for a bike ride.

Matt: A by-product of going to bed at 9.30 on a Saturday night is much less Corona time, which no doubt has something to do with the productive, clear-headed mornings!

Day #6 – Monday:

After getting over the early alarm, it was nice getting up early and enjoying the weekend days. With the days feeling much longer it seemed you could fit in a lot more which was good. However I did tend to get somewhat snoozy in the afternoons, and tired in the evenings – not conducive to sparkling dinner conversation! While I think getting up early on weekends is better, the schedule could probably be a little more relaxed, particularly if you’re planning a later night.

The alarm didn’t seem to get any gentler this morning, still a long way from a natural early bird, but I don’t have any sense of a Monday morning drag. While not strictly in my rules, I’m going to shut down the computer and head out for a run this morning to kick off the week.

One more day of the challenge to go and then I’ll need to decide whether to keep it going or not.

Day #7 – Tuesday:

Morning! Anyone still with me this morning? 🙂 Thanks to Jennifer, Melissa, Zos, Wendy, Gillian, Susan, Marina and others that joined and to lots of others for good advice.

Made it to the last day and I’d have to say that this morning was easier than any so far – perhaps I’m getting used to the 5am alarm, or more likely it was because I was tucked up before 10pm.

Looking back over the week I’ve most definitely seen benefits in productivity. The main benefits are a feeing of more control over the day/organised and generally feeling ahead of the game rather than ‘catching up’ all day. The other unintended side effect has been noticeably more exercise, particularly on the early weekend days which makes a difference. The only real downside is getting used to getting to bed early enough so that you don’t crash by mid afternoon. I also think the occasional late-night marathon can be good for working on certain tasks. One important lesson I learnt was to be very clear on what you’re going to do with the extra time first thing, it’s still very easy to get distracted by reading the news, checking email and generally wasting an hour or two at that time of the morning. In that case you’d be better off with the extra sleep.

Conclusion: Overall I think early bird has shown advantages over night owl for work productivity and life balance. Whether I can overcome a lifetime habit is another thing!! As a few people have said one week isn’t long enough to form a new habit. For now I’m going to carry on until at least the end of this Friday and see how it goes from there. At the moment the idea of getting up at 6am each morning for some exercise seems a healthy compromise. I’ll drop in again with an update.

Thanks for reading and commenting. Now back to work 🙂

Day #10 – Friday:

Morning Jennifer, Melissa, Susan, Wendy and Marina 🙂 Thanks for following up.

I’m happy to report that three days after the challenge and I’m still going on the 5am starts. The weirdest thing is that the last two mornings I’ve woken up 5 minutes before the alarm even went off! That’s a first for me. At this stage I plan to carry on, even with weekends, but if it’s not sustainable I might settle on some sort of compromise long-term depending how it goes.

Day #32 – Friday:

Morning all! Just checking in. It’s been about a month now, and to my great surprise I’ve persisted with the early starts. I have to admit that I have skipped a couple of Sunday mornings, and that 5am has nudged back to 5.30am, but the concept of early to bed early to rise is really working well for me.

I still feel much more in control of the day and more productive overall – also the afternoon fatigue has calmed down as I’ve got used to the new rhythm. For now I’ve no plans to revert back to being a night owl, but I suspect cold winter mornings might provide a true test. Wonder if any other challenge night owls have become early birds? Either way, fly well 🙂

A year on… Mon 11 Nov 2013:

I can’t believe it’s been a full year since I did this early bird experiment! I can report that I did last for a couple of months as a summer early bird, but when the winter hit I fell off the wagon again. I wonder if anyone else lasted the distance? Well, I’m going to give it another try this week. Care to join me? I’ll post updates here as I go…

Take 2, Day #1: 

So far so good. Getting up in the dark is easier said than done, but well worth the effort. Just like last time, I failed to get to bed early enough. Coffee is brewing and all is quiet and peaceful.

Take 2, Day #2:

Really had to drag myself out of bed this morning – much more difficult than yesterday, but still made it. Still didn’t really get to bed much earlier than usual so need to fix that tonight. Like last time, I was very surprised at how much longer yesterday felt and how much you can get done in a few extra hours in the morning! So far so good. Off to to get coffee 🙂

Take 2, Day #3:

Very unusually I woke up before my alarm went off this morning – not that it really made it any easier to drag myself out from under the doona. I think that unless I’d committed to this challenge I would have rolled over for an extra hour or two of sleep today. It’s amazing the power of accountability for getting things done! A sunny day and great sunrise has made it well worth it.

Zos: Thanks for joining up 🙂 It’s 10 to 6 now so I expect you’ll be up and at ’em in a few minutes. Good luck.

Take 2, Day #4:

Happy Friday! Once again I woke up before the alarm! Finally managed to get to bed a lot earlier last night at about 10pm which helped make this morning the easiest yet – perhaps I’m starting to acclimatise. The fact that the weather is a little warmer also helped. Feeling very good on a Friday morning. It feels like no coincidence that I’ve had a very productive week. Feeling more confident of keeping the early bird around than I was yesterday morning.

Take 2, Day #5,6 & 7:

The early bird teetered on the perch over the weekend! It was my wife’s birthday, so a couple of get-togethers had me ditching the alarm clock in favour of an extra hour or two of sleep. It was a shame because last time I did this challenge I found the early weekend mornings the most enjoyable aspect. However, I’m back in action today, day #7, on a wet and windy Monday morning. Once again, I do find that the early mornings do set up noticeably more productive days. Having done a week now, I plan to continue!