This is an extended anecdotal description of a life change that honestly still surprises me; I went from the classic internet nerd who stays up until 3 and sleeps until noon, to a person who reliably goes to bed before 10pm and wakes up at 6:30am every morning. This didn't happen overnight (pun intended); it happened slowly, increasingly earlier and with increasing reliability, over the last *checks notes* ten years (although most of the shift is in the last four years).
This is not intended as a how-to guide for others, and probably won't help anyone with serious sleep issues.
I don't have a particular stance on whether waking up early is objectively good. But I've always had a personal aesthetic appreciation of it, and I'm not entirely sure why. I like the idea of being awake for more of the sunlight hours in the day, and especially of waking up just before the sun rises. I also like the idea of being so thrilled to be alive that you want to just cast the blankets off you and jump out of bed as soon as you realize you're awake. Which is the extreme opposite of how I would previously feel upon being woken up by my alarm.
It's entirely possible that the entire explanation here is "your natural circadian rhythm shifted as you got older" (e.g. ~20 to ~30 years old). That certainly happened to some extent, especially in the earlier phase. But I also notice that every night, I do want to stay up and keep doing what I'm doing. I'm pretty sure I could, because I never really feel super tired. And if I'm socializing, it is trivially easy to stay up, and I have to use executive function override to go to bed.
A regular social commitment
The chronologically first and possibly most significant structural change was scheduling with friends to regularly go to the climbing gym twice a week. I had gone with them a few times on weekends, and it didn't take me long to discover that I absolutely loved climbing. They then invited me to their preexisting regular climbing sessions in the mornings before work.
Climbing nights and evenings is obviously more convenient, but it also means that the gym is really full. I never liked climbing when it was busy, because there's a much higher risk of people running into each other on the wall; I could never really relax. You also have to sometimes wait for your turn. In the morning it's practically empty, so you can climb unrestricted.
She typically had to be at work by 9:30 or so, so we would usually be on our way to the gym by 8:15. Getting up early was hard for me, and I didn't like being the person who stumbles bleary-eyed into stand-up. I knew that having a super fun and socially reinforced activity would really motivate me to get up on time, so I was down.
Incentive to always get enough sleep
As a software developer, I had also learned that losing sleep meant not working the next day. This is somewhat particular to me, but if I get less than 7 solid hours of sleep, I basically cannot focus on software work. I'm so slow that I might as well not be there. This is, of course, not particularly acceptable at a high-paying office job, so it didn't take many sleepy days before I was pretty strongly motivated to make sure that I always went to bed on time.
Given that I was waking up early to go climbing on some days, and that it was extremely important to always get enough sleep, the easiest thing to do was to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
Even more regular social commitment
Later, someone I was dating moved into my group house, and we started spending daily time together. We agreed to schedule a night-time hang out, such that they were effectively putting me to bed by chatting to me for half an hour. This really helped to establish a regular habit. We still do this every night that we're both home.
On top of all that, I discovered using melatonin as a casual sleep regulator. I had previous tried it and basically hated it. It would 1) not help me to go to sleep 2) give me trippy strong dreams, and 3) make it harder to wake up in the morning because I feel super groggy.
But later I learned that that had happened because I was taking it ~45 minutes or less before I wanted to be asleep. I later read Scott's post, and then tried taking it a few hours before I wanted to be asleep. It then had none of the three bad effects above! As time went on, this useful interval seemed to shrink, such that I now take it 1.5-2 hours before I want to be asleep. But it has never since had the three bad effects. I don't take it every day; I only take it occasionally if I want to extra-ensure that I get lots of sleep, or if I'm switching time zones.
Maintain control through time changes
On that note, another thing I did was to deliberately not thrash my circadian rhythm during travel or daylight savings time changes. When I took a trip to Paris (8 hours offset from me) I spent over a week slowly shifting my circadian rhythm to match the time in Paris when I got off the plane. This was a bit silly, and not something I could have done with a regular job at the time, but it shows the kind of stance I was taking toward my sleep.
More recently, when daylight savings time changed, I didn't change my absolute wake-time. This meant that instead of waking up at 7:30, I was waking up at 6:30. When it switches back, I will probably continue to ignore it and then be waking up at 7:30.
The most recent trick I've used is Focusmate to do one pomodoro in the morning at 7am. Even though I always wake up from my alarm and stay conscious, it's pretty easy for me to spend an entire hour laying in bed on my phone. I haven't quite gotten myself to be able to consistently leave my phone outside my room while sleeping, so instead, I've been scheduling a single Focusmate session at 7, which gives me plenty of time to get dressed and brush my teeth.
This was never really a strategic, high-level master plan. It was just an incentive gradient of me paying attention to what was useful and what I wanted, and making systemic adjustments as my life went along. I also notice that it corresponds to the period of my life where I sort of gave up on trying to do self-improvement by introspective/psychological techniques, and instead tried to push on the systems/empirical/outside view side.
I start work every weekday at 9:15. Have been doing this for 2 years. Most mornings I would stay in bed until 9:05 or so, grudgingly getting up to join the day start.
About 3 weeks ago, I have started taking melatonin at 18:00 and sometimes 20:00 every day. Additionally I started blocking my access to internet starting at 18:00 every day.
I'm still baffled just how effective it has been. I now wake up naturally at ±7:00 every day. I haven't needed to set an alarm clock once in those 3 weeks.
None of the other things worked. I spent most of my adult life trying to achieve this outcome. Regulating my exposure to light, heat, food, exercising during the day, etc etc, it would only work in small ways.
Melatonin is not available over the counter in the UK and presumably various other countries, being a regulated drug. However, sour cherry juice (aka tart cherry juice, Montmorency cherry juice) has a high melatonin content.
A suitable dose would be at least half a glass of cherry juice drink (typically containing 25-30% cherry juice); maybe a glass or more if that doesn't work. Drink say half an hour before bed.
Cherry juice drink is available in the UK from larger branches of Tescos, Sainsburys, or online. If taking daily (probably not recommended) you could instead use Active Edge CherryActive Concentrate which is about 14x concentrated, so 1 teaspoonful of the concentrate would be equivalent to a glass of cherry juice drink.
(100g of sour cherry, hence presumably 100ml of undiluted cherry juice, contains around 1.3mg melatonin.)
I've always been able to find somewhere online to ship melatonin to the UK. Last time it was from lifeextensioneurope.co.uk, but a quick glance doesn't show melatonin there any more, so I might need to go hunting again next time I need to replenish :(
Or maybe I'll try the cherry juice, so thanks for the tip!
(edit: the european site still has it. I dunno yet whether they'll ship it to the UK. https://www.lifeextensioneurope.com/antioxidants/melatonin/)
A related observation that might help some: I'm fairly nocturnal because I can work better at night. (Less noise, less light, no interruptions from others, etc.) My default strategy to achieve that was to stay up very late and sleep until the early afternoon.
But at some point I noticed that getting up really early (like 1-3am) also gets you the time at night to work, except now you're going to bed around 6pm instead of staying up until 6am. Both work, with different tradeoffs. (And different friend groups being accessible at different times.)
I know now that I'm not forced to stick to the "staying up late" schedule to get the effect that I want.
When I was younger I stayed up late and woke up late and there was pretty much nothing I could do to change that without severe cognitive impact. That's still my current default sleeping schedule.
Now that I've gotten older (mid 40's), I find that over a few days I can pretty much adjust my sleep schedule to wake when I want to. I don't require an alarm. My Fitbit tells me I get high quality sleep.
I wish I could explain this, but I didn't take any conscious action to make this happen. My best explanation is just changes to my body as I age.
Another side effect of (what I guess to be) aging on sleep that I've experienced is that I get tired 3 to 6 hours before I should go to sleep. I say "should" because even if I went to bed when I started feeling tired I'd still only sleep 8 hours.
I really, really hate this as it makes a significant chunk of my day significtly less productive.
I apologize for the unsolicited suggestion, but have you tried taking naps?
I've always hated naps because when I take one it doesn't really seem to help anything, but I really need to do some experimentation and see if there's some nap schedule that helps.
Another strategy which I have tried is this: get a cat. I'm not kidding. They act as a forcing function for many of the things you describe, Alex. They are a regular social commitment (they must be fed!), and they offer an incentive to go to sleep early (because you will not be allowed to sleep late). They also maintain control through time changes, at least with daylight savings, because the time does not change for them. The sun in the sky and their own cat circadian rhythm moves them.
They externalize the human-animal in the brain into something manageable (and managing).
FYI the Focusmate link seems to be broken for me.
I worked graveyard shift for 12 years. When I got off nights and finally, about a month later, when I came out of my sleep deprivation hangover, as long as I am sleeping at night (any amount of hours between 2000 and 0400 hr I am good.( I would not recommend this approach however for sleep issues.) I set an alarm for 0500 because I like the solitude for meditation and writing in the early day before the s—- hits the fan!