I felt nothing after the first coffee, so I made a second. After gulping it down, I still felt tired. I looked outside, and it was another cloudy and rainy day in London. As I opened up my laptop to start writing, I started to wonder if all these attempts at becoming a morning person were really worth it.
Since my first job, I’ve wanted to become a morning person. I would arrive at my desk at Google’s NYC offices around 9:30 each morning, and find my co-worker Chad finishing the morning paper.
I knew his routine after working with him for a few months. He’d hit the gym first thing, be at his desk by 8am for an hour of quiet work, then he’d read the paper front-to-back looking for insights that would help him plan out new marketing campaigns.
I was envious. I wanted to have that same sense of focus and accomplishment he achieved each morning.
So I tried setting early alarms, signing up for morning gym classes, and even taking cold showers. While I would manage for a week or two, I’d eventually hit the snooze button and fall back into my old routine.
I felt I wasn’t destined to be a morning person, and it wasn’t from a lack of trying.
lightbulb sunlight moment
Years later, I came across a piece of advice from Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman who said that getting early morning exposure to sunlight was vital to wake up the body and brain.
It seems so obvious to me looking back (“bright sunlight wakes you up!”), but I had totally overlooked this simple piece of advice.
Even though JZ had written about the importance of light in becoming a morning person, and I had experimented with his method of “coffee, light, and something to do,” the change didn’t stick for me.
I woke up early, I turned on all the lights, I got to work, and I drank coffee. Lots of coffee.
And this soon became a problem as I needed more and more coffee just to feel normal. Soon my double shots of espresso became triples, and I still felt sleepy in the morning.
But armed with this new nugget of wisdom about sunlight, I started switching up my morning routine, replacing my coffee with a morning walk to get some sunlight.
I was living in London at the time, where the sun is an infrequent visitor, but I found that even walking on a cloudy day left me feeling awake and energized. It turns out that the sun is so powerful that even on cloudy days, plenty of light energy is still bursting through those dreary gray skies.
During the winter months, when the sun didn’t rise until a couple of hours after I woke up, I got into the habit of using a light therapy lamp to “top up” some of that missing sunshine.
Within a few weeks, I started to notice some real differences in how I felt each morning.
First, I began waking up consistently without relying on alarm clocks. It felt like my body naturally synchronized with the rhythm of the day.
Second, I felt alert and energized just after waking, which minimized my dependence on caffeine. By prioritizing getting outside for the morning walk and sunshine, I reset my default and delayed my first cup of coffee, which also has helped me avoid afternoon crashes. (This was another Make Time tactic — #70, Wake Up Before You Caffeinate — that I had experimented with but never stuck to!)
Third, I started to notice it was easier to fall asleep at night. It turns out that’s not just me, but it’s actually the downstream effect of morning sunlight. By getting enough light in the morning, you effectively kickstart your circadian rhythm, so by nightfall, your body more naturally gets ready for sleep.
And a final hidden benefit of this new routine is that I’ve caught more sunrises in the past couple of years than in all my previous years combined! Even though I’m not always up at sunrise, those days that I am have made this new routine that much more worth it.
It’s been nearly two years since I first started this morning routine, and I can happily say I’m a better morning person because of it.
What I learned along the way
Here are the lessons I’d share with anyone who wants to try this out:
Embrace the outdoors. Aim to get outside within the first hour after waking. As the day wears on, the beneficial effects of light exposure diminish. So try to step outside on the earlier side if you can, even if it’s cold and dark. I’ve found those brisk mornings can be beautiful in their own way.
Don’t discount a cloudy day. On a bright sunny day, you might only need a few minutes of sun exposure to kickstart your circadian rhythm (an internal clock that regulates your energy). On a cloudy day, you might need 15-30 minutes. I use an app called Light Meter on iPhone to check the strength of light (measured in Lux). A good aim is to try to get 100k Lux in the first 2 hours after waking.
Find a friend. Almost any new habit will be easier when you team up with someone. Invite a family member or friend and you’ll get the added bonus of social connection. My wife Claire and I take a walk together almost every morning, so it’s become a part of our routine, not just one more thing we “need to do.”
Beware sunglasses & windows. According to the light scientists (they do exist!) it’s best to avoid sunglasses in the morning because they block the beneficial blue light waves. Windows are the same. Even though it can feel like you’re getting sun, a window can diminish the blue light by 50x.
Create your own sunshine. If you’re waking up well before sunrise in the winter months, you can experiment with a light therapy lamp. When I lived in London, we had one that I would use in the darker months. These provide a lot more beneficial light than your normal overhead light, so it’s worth considering if you’re in a darker place. The Wirecutter recommends a few models.
Don’t stress over missed days. The great news is that your biology works by the law of averages. If you miss a day or two, it won’t make a huge difference. I try to get outside most days, but I don’t fret if I can’t keep a perfect streak and you shouldn’t either.
Give it a try
This new routine has changed the way I approach my mornings and leaves me feeling naturally more alert and energized.
It’s hard to think back to a few years ago when I simply dreaded the morning alarm clock compared to how I feel waking up now.
My morning walk to chase the sunshine has become not just something that makes my day more focused and productive, but it’s a moment I deeply enjoy.
I hope you’ve found it useful and if you try this out, let me know how it goes!