What I Learned Waking Up For "21 Damn Early Days"

Early mornings afford you luxuries like getting to watch the sunrise from the top of a mountain with your best friends. Trust me, you can't beat that.

It’s been just over a week since 21 Damn Early Days was supposed to end. I say supposed to, because it hasn’t. 4:30AMs are that good in my life. I was initially going to write this post right as it ended, but decided to give myself some time to reflect back and see how things shaped up in the week after.

Looking back, that was one of the coolest things I’ve done in my life. Honestly. Waking up that early brought me closer to everything I want to create in my life. And I think I learned more about myself in those 21 days than in anything I’ve ever done before. It wasn’t just the getting up early that taught me a lot, it was the self-exploration I had time for in the morning, the discipline that was required to get up, the lack of discipline during the times I stumbled, and the drive I somehow found to keep going that all taught me about myself.

When G and I first sat down to figure out why we wanted to wake up at 4:30AM, most of the goals were based around the thought of having more free time in our lives. Looking back, while that was definitely one of the benefits, it was actually only a small part.

In the end, it was one of the most rewarding experiences, teaching me a lot about how I want to live my life. It’s something that will have a big impact on me for a long time to come.

While there was a ton of things I learned during those 21 days, I want to share with you some of the biggest:



A Lot Was Learned in 21 Damn Early Days:

1. The early morning affords you luxuries you can’t get any where else.

There is something very special about the early morning. I still can’t quite put it into words, but when you get up before the world, it feels like you’ve figured out some sort of secret. It feels like you’ve found this extra time that no one else knows exists. The world is standing still, the sun hasn’t risen and it feels like you’re living on stolen time. It’s beautiful.

For me, I found the super early mornings gave me the time to just be me. To explore things I never found time to do. No one else was around, no one was expecting anything of me. It was a place where I could build out whatever life or routine I wanted, even if it was just for an hour at a time. 

That’s a luxury I haven’t found at any other time of the day.


2. Getting up to get after life.

When you get up at 4:30AM, you’re getting up because you want to, not because you have to. Each morning as I got up, it felt as thought I was getting up to get after life, not waiting for life to force me to get up. This feeling, while simple, was insanely powerful. It gave me a sense of control over how I spent my day and made me want to use my time wisely.


3. Setting the right tone.

I learned that the tone I set first thing in the morning has a huge effect on the rest of the day. And the feeling of “getting up and getting after it” definitely set the right tone for full and accomplished days. By setting the right tone first thing in the morning, a bunch of normally difficult decisions throughout the day became much easier to make. I found I was more focused and disciplined, working on the stuff that mattered and getting it done more easily. At the end of it, I was left with more free time to enjoy life.

Getting the hard stuff done right away also left me feeling accomplished and made taking breaks way more fulfilling and deserved. I didn’t feel so behind the eight ball all the time, so when I took breaks, I could fully disengage for work. I equate this to saving first and then spending the rest frivolously. It feels that much more rewarding because we know we have already done what we need to do.

I remember on one Thursday, leaving work at 1PM for an afternoon workout, swim and hot tub. Two hours away from work during the middle of the day and not an ounce of guilt. That, my friends, is what bliss looks like.


4. There are no distractions in the morning.

Until I had experienced how “distraction-free” the early morning can be, I didn’t realize how many distractions existed during my day. They are seemingly endless. 100s of apps on my phone that are screaming to be checked, the internet’s endless articles to read, phone calls, text messages, co-workers questions – the list goes on. It’s impossible to avoid them all during the day.

But when you get up at 4:30AM, these distractions are cut back almost completely. There’s no one there to message with, your Facebook newsfeed doesn’t change much, and the emails just don’t come in. In this world of no distractions, it becomes much easier to break the habitual loop of checking your phone, opening email or popping open a browser.

What this meant was that I was able to get a lot of my important stuff done first thing in the morning, in half the time it would have normally taken me. Having uninterrupted distraction-free time in my life to get things done is a luxury I will do everything I can to have.


5. No one expects anything of you at 4:30AM.

This has to do with societal guilt and FOMO.

You know that feeling you get when you feel obligated to go to your friend’s week night get together, but know you shouldn’t go because you should be going to the gym. Or when you stay home to work on that project you’ve always wanted to finish, but feel anxious because you know your friends are out having fun. Yah, that doesn’t happen at 4:30AM.

Unless you have a whole bunch of friends that throw get togethers at 4:30AM, there are very few people in the world who ask or expect anything of you at that time of the morning. This gives you a ton of free time in the morning to do YOUR thing – not anyone else’s – and feel guilt-free while doing it. There is no such thing as FOMO at 4:30AM. Not in my world at least.

This was another reason I was way more effective in the morning. In the evening, there are dozens of other things I could be doing, and saying no to them sometimes creates emotional turmoil and anxiety. No one wants to miss out. But in the morning, there’s no one to say no to. I just get to do my thing.


6. Habits form easier in the morning.

I learned that it’s scientifically proven that habits form much easier in the morning than they do at night. This is because will power is like a muscle that gets fatigued throughout the day. Waking up at 4:30AM gave me both the time and will power to experiment with new habits and permanently build things into my life that I cared about. This included writing, yoga, exercise and handstands. But mostly handstands.

Given the choice between working on a new hobby in the early morning or evening, I’d choose the morning 100% of the time.


7. Free time and friends.

When I first started 21 Damn Early Days, I had a handful of people tell me that I would be kissing my social life good bye having to go to bed around 9PM. In reality though, I found that my social life was better for the simple reason that I was more focused during the day, got more done, and had more free-time in the evenings. Rather than working well into the evening as I normally did, when I got up at 4:30AM, by 5PM I was done and ready to go hang out with friends. I was also way more engaged while I was there.

On top of that, I had a lot more free time to explore the stuff I cared about. During those 21 days, I read two full-length books, did more exercise than normal, had time for yoga, got more work done, experimented more with my life, hung out in silence by myself, had many more amazing conversations with G, found time to enjoy my coffee [not just drink it], went for walks, planned my day, cooked breakfast,  and brainstormed more about life. These were all things I wanted to do but never “found” time for. It turns out the time was always there, I was just looking in the wrong places.


8. The Power of Experimentation

Hands down, this is by far the most valuable thing I learned during the 21 days: experiment with your life – a lot.

It’s how you figure out what you like, what you don’t like, what matters to you, and what doesn’t. It’s how you determine how you want to spend your days and the things you have to have in them to make them matter.

Before I started my 4:30AMs I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it when it was done. I had read a lot of articles about successful people who got up early and the impact it had on their lives, but I had no idea about what it would do for mine. While the thought of doing it was a little frightening, the desire to find out what it would be like outweighed it. Experimenting with it was the only way to figure out if it was for me.

When I started, I never had the goal of getting up at 4:30AM for the rest of my life. The point was simply to see if getting up at 4:30AM made my life better or not. If I didn’t, I would simply go back to my old routine and experiment in other ways. Either way I would be able to answer the question. In hindsight, the “gamble” I took paid off in spades. I would have never known if I didn’t try.

In talking with dozens of people about waking up at 4:30AM, I was taken aback by how many people immediately said “I could never do that”. They said it as if it was this seemingly impossible challenge. So many times I find we write off things that could be beneficial to us, simply because we do not try to experiment with them.

I think a reason we do this is because of mental habits. Once we create a comfort zone, rarely do we step out of it. The consequences of never stepping out of this is something called hedonic adaptation – stimulation to the same thing over and over renders it invisible to us. Our brain learns the pattern and you no longer become engaged by it. Unfortunately, when your whole life is determined by these mental habits, you become disengaged in life. You don’t have to consciously be aware.

Experimenting takes you out of the mental habits and gets you thinking again. I can tell you right now, 21 Damn Early Days will not be the last time I try some outlandish and new experiment in my life.

Try stuff out, mess up, all with the goal of finding something that works for you. The stumbles will be inevitable and you will certainly try things that don’t work, but experimenting leads you to places you didn’t know exist. They show you options you didn’t know were available.



The Things That Made It A Success

Reflecting back on 21 Damn Days, there were some things that definitely helped me make this a success. Things that helped me stay on track or get back up when I stumbled.


1. Having a plan.

Having both a high-level plan of why I was doing the 21 Damn Early Days and a plan of what my next morning would look like made a huge difference. It was the single most effective thing I could do to keep me on track or get me back on track when I stumbled.

When I found it difficult to keep going or noticed I was stumbling, I referred back to my plan. The plan laid out why I was doing this, the rules, what an ideal sleep schedule would look like and the types of things that could de-rail this. Re-reading this made it easy to find the motivation to get back on track or figure out why I was stumbling.

Making a list of what I was going to do the next morning got me to make the most out of getting up at 4:30AM. It wasn’t just a simple list of the 5 things I wanted to do the next day though. It was knowing in advance what I was going to do for the first few hours and in what order. It helped to be really clear in this and not leave it up to the moment to decide. The more specific I was, the more successful I was.

It doesn’t have to be elaborate and it doesn’t have to be structured, but the simple act of planning will make a huge difference.


2. Having flexibility and forgiveness.

Lifestyle is always going to be a little tough when you’re trying to get up at 4:30AM, especially if your friends like to stay out late. There are going to be times where it doesn’t make sense to get up at 4:30AM and that is fine. If I’m constantly trying to make 4:30AM happen, I’ll likely miss out on some of the best parts of life. Since the whole reason I’m doing this is to get more out of life, that doesn’t make any sense. No one will be able to tell me when is a good time to let it slide, but it’s something I figured out quickly. On the days it can't happen, just let it slide.

G put it best: “it’s about progress, not perfection”. As long as you aren’t stumbling for too many days in a row, it’s all good.


3. Listening to my body.

This was the best way to keep things on track in the long-run. There were strings of days where I would cheat on sleep and began to notice my brain and body react negatively. The quicker I became aware of it, the quicker I could change my lifestyle to make-up for it. Sometimes this meant naps, other times it meant going to bed way earlier. Whatever it was, none of it could have happened if I wasn’t listening to my body closely.


4. Learning to say no… when it’s appropriate.

There were a lot of distractions that could have de-railed my 21 Damn Early Days. Sometimes it was hanging out with friends, other times it was projects I wanted to take on that otherwise seemed like a good idea. Learning to say no to the distractions I didn’t feel were important was one of the best things I did to make sure my lifestyle was conducive to getting up early.

That said, there were times I couldn’t say no. When that happened, I just planned accordingly and had forgiveness if I slept in a little.


5. Getting enough sleep.

One of the biggest concerns I had before starting this was not getting enough sleep. Knowing that my body functions as good as a rock after a few nights of less than 5 hours, I made sure that sleep was priority one. This was way more difficult than it sounds, mostly because getting to bed at 9:30PM can feel like an impossible task. Sometimes it was naps, other times I just forced myself to make it work.


6. Surrounding myself with the right people.

Who you surround yourself is SO damn important. It’s a lesson I’ve always known, but it definitely hit home during the 21 Damn Early Days. Surrounding myself with people who knew why I wanted to get up at 4:30AM, supported me and in some cases, actually got up with me, made doing it so much easier and so much more enjoyable.

I can’t even begin to say how much easier it is to do what you want, when you don’t have outside influences that don’t align with doing so. This realization was huge and is something I know I can apply to so many other areas of my life. I sum this all up in one way: bad decisions are so much easier not to make when there is nothing around you influencing you to make them.

It was also awesome to share thoughts and perspectives about what I was doing with other people that were doing it. It helped me to get way more out of it.


7. Having a life conducive to what I want to do out of life.

I’m lucky. My life is conducive to getting up at 4:30AM. I don’t have dependents, I don’t have a ton of social obligations that run late right now, and I get to choose whatever schedule I want for work. All of this works for me when getting up at 4:30AM.

None of this is by accident though. Most of the reasons why I am able to do what I want to do is because I have created a situation that allows me to. I actively try to eliminate as many of the obstacles as I can in my life.

I understand that not everyone’s situation is as conducive as mine,  but everyone can engage in the conscious act of building out a life that is conducive to what they want out of it. I think that is a practice everyone should employ. It takes time and effort, but it makes getting where you want to go so much easier in the long run. In the end it’s worth it.


8. Having willpower.

At the end of the day, this wasn’t easy. There was no silver bullets, secrets or tricks to making it happen. It took a hell of a lot of willpower.

If you don’t have that, no one will have it for you and it’s highly likely that you’ll give up. On the other hand, if you do have the will power, use it and no one will be able to stop you.



So, Where To Go From Here?

I’m definitely going to continue making 4:30AM work for me. Without a doubt. In all honestly, I’m probably going to try it all over again at some point, moving the needle to 4:00AM. Once again, I have no idea how that will go, but there’s only one way to find out. Why not?

For me, finding the motivation to keep going is now simple. Waking up that early brings me closer to everything I want to create in my life. That fact alone is worth all the things I have to “give up” to get to it. It is about figuring out what I want out of MY life and then building a life about that.

Going forward, there will definitely be a lot more experimentation– trying stuff out, messing up, and figuring out what works for me.

I look forward to letting you know what’s next.

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Julian DeSchutter2 Comments