How I Finally Succeeded After Years of Failure (Case Study)

How I Finally Succeeded After Failing Miserably Over and Over Again: The Story Of How I Became An Early Riser and the Lessons I Learned about How To Overcome Failure, Cultivate An Unstoppable Spirit, Start Your Day Right, And Succeed At Anything In Life.

male in field with starry sky

Today, I’m going to swallow some pride and share an embarrassing story with you so that you can benefit from my mistakes. Here goes nothin’.

This is a story about how I became an early riser. But if you read between the lines, you’ll realize that this story is about much more than waking up at a certain time. And if you apply the lessons I learned from this experience to your own life, I believe that you can achieve anything that you set your mind to.

So, over the past several years, I’ve tried and failed over and over again to become an early riser. This was one nut, that for the longest time, I just couldn’t crack. It was an incredibly frustrating process because, in my mind, I was doing everything right, except I wasn’t. And I was blind to it.

After I first set a goal to become an early riser all those years ago – and every time I mustered up the courage to go after it again – I’d do research and make a list of all the tips and strategies I could find to succeed. Things like making changes gradually, moving my alarm clock away from my bed, and giving myself something to look forward to in the morning. I’d set goals and baby steps to achieve them. I’d also ask my wife to hold me accountable. You know, the usual stuff. And yet, even with a seemingly-bulletproof plan, I would blow it over and over again.

I couldn’t even tell you how many times I committed to succeeding – and felt, deep down – that THIS was the time I would finally make it happen. I’d make checklists and spreadsheets. I’d tell my wife, “I’m gonna start getting up early…again.” And she’d roll her eyes just like she did every other time. I literally lost count of how many times I’ve failed at this one goal because it happened so many times. And I’ve got the incomplete spreadsheets to prove it! If I had to guess, I’d estimate that I failed to achieve this goal somewhere between 2-3 dozen times.

It’s pretty embarrassing, actually, not only because I had such a hard time with it, but also because I had been an early riser for most of my life.

Between school and work, I usually had to be up between 5 and 6am for over 15 years. And there were seasons of my life when it was much earlier (not good seasons for me!). All of that changed after I had kids. I started sleeping for however long I could, and it wasn’t long before I was snoozing right past 6am, and sometimes past 7am, which is “sleeping in” for a parent of young kids.

And yet, once I decided to make a habit of getting up earlier of my own free will (and not because I had to be at work at 5am, as it was in the past), it seemed like no matter what I did, I’d always crash and burn eventually – usually within 2 weeks. And often within a few days. And after awhile, this recurring pattern totally perplexed me. I’d be thinking:

WHY CAN’T I DO THIS?!? WHAT AM I MISSING HERE?!?

But all that changed this summer. I’m proud to report that I finally succeeded. It was inevitable, of course, if you know me – but it didn’t always feel that way! But I’m happy to report that I am an early riser… again. And I executed my plan perfectly this time around (i.e. with 100% compliance to the guidelines I gave myself). I didn’t miss the mark once.

So, what was different this time? How did I succeed when I’ve failed so many times in the past? What was I missing?

Well, in this post, I’m going to explain how I did it, and how YOU can apply what I’ve learned to your “big scary goal,” whether it’s to become an early riser, finish a fitness program, improve your diet, or anything else.

But before we get to the how-to stuff, here’s a scan of my “early riser log/journal/progress-tracking-thingy.” I know it looks like a mess, but there’s a method to my madness. And you can read about it below, if you’d like. Or, skip ahead because this article is long enough as it is.

early riser log

Note: the entries during the month of May were just a time log of when I was getting up – to give me a baseline starting point. I didn’t start my plan until June.

In case you’re interested, the check marks indicate that I got up at the designated time with my alarm. And the stars indicate that I got up before my alarm (i.e. I woke myself up). If there are two times listed, it’s because I woke up and then stayed in bed until the second time listed (e.g. snoozed).

Now, if you look closely, you’ll only find one day that does not have a check mark or star next to it. That was during a family camping trip when I just don’t know what time I got up because my kids got to me before I got to my phone and my journal. But I suspect that I got up before my goal of 5:48am because the sun was up, but only just.

Eventually, I started putting smiley faces to indicate that I was well-rested. Frown faces mean that I felt like death and was probably still asleep by the time I made it down the stairs, but at least I was moving! And the “M.R.” indicates that I successfully went through my morning routine, which I didn’t require of myself, but I completed it almost every day because I enjoy it and my day’s are so much better when I do.

You’ll also notice that I had a really good start in June. Lots of stars there! I attribute that to two things. First, I had just started. And so, motivation was high. But it was also by design because I wanted to make the initial steps so ridiculously easy for myself that I’d amass an abundance of “little victories” to build some momentum. That’s why I started with a 7am wake time, which was like “sleeping in” for me. Easy-peasy.

Physically-speaking, July was the toughest period for me to get through – not many stars in there. But once my body started to acclimate to the earlier times, it got easier.

Why did I fail in the past? Two reasons…

  1. I was trying to take shortcuts and hack the process.
  2. I was missing one critical component that was right under my nose.

So, now that you know why I failed, let’s look at what I did differently to succeed this time around.

The 12 Strategies I Used to Become an Early Riser After Failing Dozens of Times

sunrise

1. I recorded a sleep log for two weeks prior to starting.

For the last two weeks of May, I just let myself sleep as long as I usually had, and would record my waking time in a journal. Sometimes, I’d record both a waking time and a “when I actually dragged myself out of bed time.” But during this time, I was not “performing.” There were no expectations of when I should get up. I just wanted to quantify my habit and get a baseline to start with. I was doing my research.

2. I made an incredibly easy, gradual plan to become an early riser.

Here it is: Get up two minutes earlier each day for 60 days straight. That’s a total of 2 hours – from 7am to 5am in two months. I know they say that it only takes 21 days to form a habit, but recent research has shown that it may be closer to 66 days. And I wanted to be sure. Thus, the two month timeline. And starting at 7am was incredibly easy for me because that was considered “sleeping in.”

3. I allowed myself two “grace days” per month.

I did this for two reasons. First, I didn’t want to feel like a failure if I blew it for a day or two. And second, I wanted to set realistic expectations and lower my standards enough where perfection was not expected. In other words, I was giving myself a little grace. And in the end, I didn’t need any “grace days” at all.

4. I put my plan on a one-page checklist so that I could view and track my progress.

I wanted to be able to easily record my results and track my progress in a very simple way that wouldn’t take a lot of time. And for me, physically writing something down is more effective than using an app or some other tech solution.

5. I used my phone as an alarm clock and placed it across my bedroom (i.e. far away from me!).

This was HUGE for me because I despise smart phones and have never liked the idea of having a phone in the bedroom anyway. So, what I did was turn on a “blocking mode” so that I don’t get any audible notifications (i.e. beeps, vibrations) except for phone calls from my emergency contacts list. So, if my buddy decides it’s a good idea to text me at two in the morning, I’m not losing sleep over it.

I also put my phone on the other side of the room – not right next to my bed. So, I actually have to roll out of bed, stand up, and walk to the other side of the room in order to turn it off. This helps me wake up, and keeps my marriage relationship healthy because I suspect that my wife – who is the mother of our four young children – appreciates my prompt attention to this matter!

Oh, and one last thing: I disabled the snooze option. This was like giving myself an ultimatum. I’m either doing this or I’m not. And I’m going to decide right here and now. Failure is not an option.

Hint: I had actually made that decision before I even woke up each day – see below.

6. I asked a friend to keep me accountable every single day.

Namely, I asked if I could send him a text message when I got up each morning to confirm that I was up when I was supposed to be. It was either day 1 or 2 that I was “late” by 15 minutes in texting my buddy because I was doing my morning quiet time (I just figured I’d text him when I was done). And he chewed me out! Like a good accountability partner would. So, be sure that you find someone who will do the same for you.

Now, that simple system worked well for me. But after a few weeks, my friend experienced the death of a loved one. So, I decided to stop bugging him first thing in the morning. By this time, I had built up the momentum I needed to carry on, but I did give some thought to the fact that my accountability partner was gone. I ultimately decided that I would probably be okay because I had resolved in my mind that I would succeed, come hell or high water. The smart thing to do would have been to find another accountability partner for the time being.

7. I gave myself something to look forward to each morning.

Specifically, I mentally linked this goal and the unpleasant action of getting up early with my morning routine, which includes a quiet time, reading, and exercise, among other things that I enjoy.

I’ve always said that I hate getting up early, but I love BEING up early. So, with so much to look forward to, I wasn’t dreading being up.

Up until this point, my morning routine had been very consistent for years, but I didn’t have enough time to do all of the things I wanted to do each morning. So, the discipline of rising earlier provided me with the extra time I needed to enjoy something special, like reading a good book or spending some extra time on exercise. I know that might sound crazy to some people, but I actually do enjoy exercising. It’s one of the highlights of my day. One of my favorite things to do is to go for a walk or run before civilization has woken up. It’s simply amazing.

8. I implemented two key mental training strategies that I think made all the difference for me.

In the beginning, and on nights when I was particularly tired (and knew getting up would be really hard the next morning), I made it a point to do two things:

  1. Review the latest iteration of my purpose, goals, and the reasons why I wanted to do this.
  2. Visualize myself succeeding – both at getting up the next morning (and being fresh, energized, etc.), and in becoming an early riser, in general.

This mental training increased my confidence and clarity and definitely contributed to my success. I suspect that it was this one area that made all the difference for me (see Self-Confidence video below).

9. I offered myself an enticing reward for successfully completing this challenge.

On top of the daily reward of more time to spend on the things that matter most to me, I also came up with a big reward to give me just one more reason to succeed, and also to practice delayed gratification. I don’t usually use this strategy in my day to day life. But since I had so much trouble with this particular goal in the past, I decided that a reward would be helpful – maybe even necessary. And it’s certainly true that rewarding yourself for compliance to your plan is an effective strategy. I’ve often taught my “low-motivation” clients to do just that. So, I told my accountability partner what I had cooked up.

But interestingly enough, I had a change of heart a few weeks before achieving my goal. I decided that being an early riser would be enough of a reward in-and-of-itself. And so, it was unnecessary for me to drop a couple hundred dollars on something to “treat myself.” Perhaps that’s a sign that I was really in this with my heart. It wasn’t about an external reward anymore. The experience, and the benefit I was receiving from it, in-and-of-itself, was enough.

10. I gave myself a handful of key guidelines.

Here are three of them:

  • Be in bed by 10pm most nights.
  • Get up two minutes earlier each day, with no exceptions.
  • No more than two “grace” days would be allowed per month.

So, if I made a mistake (e.g. forgot to set my alarm, or if my phone was completely silenced, battery dies, etc.), I had a little leeway. But if I deliberately chose to sleep in, or chose to break from these guidelines, I would have forfeited my reward.

11. I made a list of why I want to become an early riser, which I reviewed most mornings.

Here are some of the things I wrote down…

  • To enjoy the peace and quiet of the morning (my favorite time of day)
  • To start my day with a quiet time (and never feel like I don’t have enough time for the important stuff in life)
  • To get a head-start on my day
  • To manage my time better to maximize efficiency and productivity
  • To set a good example for my family

So, as you can see, it was a fairly simple plan: get up two minutes earlier each day for two months. But a lot went on “behind-the-scenes” to make this happen.

And as I mentioned, I had done many of these things during my failed attempts in the past.

But there was one last thing that was different about this particular endeavor to become an early riser – something unique from all of my past failed attempts.

12. I laid it all out on the line.

Soon after beginning this endeavor, I caught myself thinking, “if I fail this time, after I’ve done everything I can possibly think of to succeed, that’s really going to affect my morale in the future. And it may have lasting consequences on my confidence and self-esteem, among other things.

Remember that I had failed to achieve this goal so many times before this. I had been stuck in a rut for years. And for the first time ever, I was starting to have serious doubts about whether or not I could actually pull it off. It was the little gremlin sitting on my shoulder telling me that I couldn’t do it.

So, I put him in his place.

I decided that failure was not an option. I made a decision to choose to believe what I’ve always believed, and that is that I can do anything I put my mind to. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that, but it’s the truth.

So, once I understood the sheer magnitude of the situation, and the potential catastrophic consequences of failure, I got serious.

What Made All The Difference: The Secret Sauce

With the exception of numbers 8, 9, and 12 above, I had tried ALL of the other strategies in my failed attempts of the past.

The major difference between all those failures and this sweeping success was this…

This time, I felt ready, but not just ready – I felt confident that I was going to succeed this time. I felt that not only COULD I do this, but that I WOULD do it. No. I AM DOING THIS. And it was this subtle change in mindset that was largely the reason for my success.

And you know what’s funny? I actually drafted this article that you’re reading right now a month before I had even achieved my goal because I was so confident that I would succeed.

And the necessity of that self-confidence was right under my nose the whole time because I KNOW THIS STUFF. Heck, everyone knows that you have to believe in yourself if you want to succeed at anything in life. And so, looking back, it’s obvious why I failed. I didn’t really think I could do it. I’ve always been a big believer in the power of self-talk. I’ve taught these concepts and strategies for years. And yet, in this case, there was the tiniest shred of doubt in my mind that was too small for me to notice. I was too close to the situation to determine the missing element. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess.

So, how do you cultivate faith in yourself to the point where you feel destined to succeed?

There are two main ways:

  1. You fake it til you make it.
  2. You prove to yourself that you CAN do it with little victories.

In my experience, the first strategy can get you started, but it’s the second strategy that you should focus most of your energy on. You attack one small goal. Then another. And another. You reach this milestone, then that one. Every step of the way, your confidence builds until you feel unstoppable. And it’s when you have this level of self-belief that anything seems possible. And eventually, you feel as if succeeding is not only guaranteed, it’s your destiny.

And when I realized this during my endeavor to become an early riser, I was so pumped up that I filmed this video for you…

This Self-Confidence Trick Changed My Life: How I Finally Succeeded After Dozens of Failures

“Change happens in an instant. It happens the moment you DECIDE to change.” ~ Allyson Lewis

So, the obvious lesson is that if you want to succeed in fitness or any pursuit, you must have faith in yourself. You must believe that you CAN achieve your objective. And if you don’t have the faith, you will not succeed.

What isn’t so obvious is that sometimes, we think that we can do what it takes to succeed, but there can be doubt, unbeknownst to you, that secretly undermines your efforts. And if you don’t realize that that’s the problem, you’ll think that something else is wrong. And until you figure out that it’s the lack of faith, you’ll continue to struggle.

That’s what happened to me. And it was right under my nose the whole time!

What I Did Wrong

I may have had a perfect track record when it came to complying with the “2 minutes earlier per day” rule, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t make mistakes, too. I’ve already alluded to a few of them, but I also wanted to point out that one mistake that I made over and over again was getting to bed too late, especially on consecutive nights, which usually caught up to me after 2-3 days. Whenever I’d put a frownie face on my log, that usually meant I hadn’t slept enough for at least two nights in a row. And it took every ounce of my willpower to pry myself out of bed and get going on those mornings. I remember one morning where I spent more time staring off into space than going through my morning quiet time. I just kept zoning out without even realizing it…but I got up!

So, even though I was getting up earlier and earlier each day, my night time habits didn’t change much, which was a big mistake that made the journey very difficult at times. I was still going to bed at the usual time, but sleeping less and less. And eventually it caught up with me. There were some nights when I’d be all-but-useless after dinner and finally getting the kids to bed. So, I’d crash early to catch up on sleep.

My wife would tell me, “you might want to rethink your strategy.” Or, “just go to bed.”

Live and learn, I guess.

Wrap-Up

Before we wrap up, I’d like to share a short story I posted on Facebook a few years ago.

Got up early this morning to get a head start on the day and take the dog for a walk. After my morning grumpiness wore off, I spent some time soul-searching and praying most of the way home – working through some issues that have been on my heart for a few years now. Upon returning, I was drawn – almost hypnotized – into our back yard where I looked to the horizon. It was pitch black outside, and the horizon of trees was even blacker – the sky above a charcoal grey from the night’s cloud cover. But straining my eyes, I saw on the very edge of the horizon, the faintest – and I cannot stress this enough – the faintest glimmer of deep purple – the most beautiful purple I’ve ever seen. I would have missed it had I gone about my morning routine, but that moment was no accident. Coincidence does not exist in my world. That tiny sliver of purple was a message of hope. Today is a new day, and a new beginning for anyone who would take it. What would you do with a new beginning?

That brief moment was so simple, and yet so profound for me. Just seeing that purple light on the horizon in my back yard stirred something powerful in me. I actually went inside and immediately sketched out an outline of the tree line just to have a visual reminder of that experience to stick in my journal. I’ve posted a photo of it below. And yes, feel free to point and laugh at my lack of art skills.

mad art skillz

Final Words

So…I’m an early riser…by choice. I get up earlier than I need to because I want to, because it’s important to me. And it’s crazy that I can say that. Funny enough, I was organizing my office last week, and I discovered a note card I must have written a few years ago that says:

“If I can force myself to start getting up at 5:00am each morning, I can do anything.”

3x5 card scan

And that’s exactly how I feel today. Despite the fact that I’ve always been an ambitious, Type-A, overachiever, who can “do anything I set my mind to,” this one little goal was a source of fear and doubt that had rooted itself in my psyche and was causing all kinds of trouble, often unbeknownst to me. But no more.

And here’s the best part: now that I’ve accomplished this goal, I’m tackling another one that is even more daunting, that for awhile, seemed almost impossible (because nothing is impossible, if you ask me). And maybe it’s a little crazy, too. But I’m well-on-my-way to achieving it. And it’s this faith that makes all the difference.

So, it’s a new day. What are you going to do with it?

“Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without power to change our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.” – Steven Pressfield (from his excellent book The War of Art)

“Small shifts in your thinking, and small changes in your energy, can lead to massive alterations of your end result.” – Kevin Michel

“The final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” ~Anne Frank

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P.P.S. So, what do you do first thing in the morning to set yourself up for a successful day? Here is my formula with some unconventional ideas…

Your New Morning Fitness Routine to Build a Better Body

good morning

Photo credit 1, 2.

2 Responses

  1. Norman Pate

    Thank you for having this blog. I look forward to each of your post.

    Getting up just got easier. I recommend reading the book “Power Sleep”.

    My big takeaway was… to plan your sleep around 90 minute sleep cycles. So, if you wan’t to be the most awake (in the morning) go to bed in multiples of 90 minutes. I usually give myself an additional 10 minutes to go to sleep. You never want to set your wake time in the middle of a cycle, when you are in deep REM sleep.

    There are lots of other good points in the book, but that one seems to relate to your post.

  2. Marcin, 35 from Poland

    Hi John!
    Great article! I’m a father of two little kids (almost 4 year old boy, and 14 months old girl) and I know what you mean by saying that snoozing after 7am is sleeping in. I laughed reading this :-p
    I’ve completed your 3 months pull ups program ( I’m in the middle of round two of months 2 and 3), and have just begun adapted month 1 with push ups…so I can be an early riser too:-D …Sorry, I WILL BE an early riser, right?;-)
    Take care John!

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