How to Overcome Morning Peevishness: Advice from an Antarctic Explorer

by Brett and Kate McKay on February 2, 2014 · 33 comments

in Health & Sports, Wellness


There are many lessons to be learned from the divergent ways Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott led their teams in the race to be the first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen’s success was due to his attention to details and the way he extensively planned for every possible exigency, including his men’s morale. One way he kept up their motivation was by giving them a consistent mileage goal each day – a “20 Mile March.”

He also came up with a scheme to ward off cases of “morning peevishness” – the grumpiness and reluctance to get going after waking up. His little tip for battling this common malady is something I’ve tried myself with success since reading about the expedition, and I wanted to share it for those who often wake up on the wrong side of the bed – especially since it’s so apropos with all the polar-esque weather the country’s been experiencing this winter. And really, I just want to disseminate the delightful phrase “morning peevishness.”


During the winter months before Amundsen’s expedition was to begin, the Norwegian explorers holed up in a camp at the edge of the Great Ice Barrier and made preparations for their journey in the spring. Amundsen understood that for a small, isolated group, deprived of creature comforts, and living on a bleak sheet of ice, maintaining morale was paramount, and that how the men started each morning would set the tone for the rest of the day’s efforts. If you think you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, imagine motivating yourself to crawl out of your warm, furry reindeer skin sleeping bag to face another day of toiling in a tiny workshop built into the snow, as –70 degree winds howl through the barren landscape outside. As Amundsen’s biographer puts it, in such a situation “morning peevishness is a considerable emotional hazard.”

Amundsen told the men that he was holding a competition in which they each had to guess the temperature of the outside air each morning. Prizes were awarded to those who came closest to getting it right, and a telescope was promised to the man who had made the most correct guesses at the end of the season. The aim of the exercise, their clever leader told them, was to develop the men’s ability to assess the temperature intuitively, in case their thermometers broke during the forthcoming expedition.

But the real purpose of the competition, Amundsen wrote in his journal, was to motivate the men to step outside soon after getting up:

“Because of the prizes, everybody insists at going out to look at the weather. And that’s why the prizes have been put up. But nobody knew it. I find this little morning visit out in the open so beneficial. Even if it is but for a minute or two, it is unbelievable how that short time helps to wake a sleepy man and bring feelings into equilibrium before [the day’s first] cup of nice, warm coffee.

Even the best-humoured person in the world has a touch of morning peevishness and that has to be removed as unnoticeably as possible.”

Amundsen’s tip then for nipping morning peevishness in the bud was to step outside for a couple minutes of cold, fresh air. I’ve tried it, and it does indeed strip away the remaining cobwebs of sleep and give you a quick shot of vigor.

Of course the trick for us is getting motivated to step outside on a cold morning without the benefit of Amundsen’s whole “let’s guess the weather!” subterfuge. Although, and maybe we’re weird, trying to guess the weather each morning actually sounds kind of fun; after awhile you’d probably get quite good at it, and who knows, maybe the skill might even come in handy one day.

But if that kind of thing isn’t your bag, and sheer discipline won’t do it for you either, having to retrieve the morning paper or take your dog for a walk can certainly help get you out the door.

What if you don’t live in a cold clime, or have trouble getting going in the morning during the summer season too? Well, you can always splash your face with cold water, or even better, take a cold shower – guaranteed to shock you into full alertness! If you want to make such methods even more invigorating, try an “energizing” face wash like Chief’s for Men. The eucalyptus scent and chilly menthol add even more tingling zip to a cold water wake up call.

Try exposing yourself to a shot of cold air when you get out of bed tomorrow morning. But don’t attempt to cajole your grumpy wife or roommate into stepping outside with you; as Amundsen wisely observes: “If a morning peevish person notices that you are putting yourself out to remove his burden, he becomes double peevish.”

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

1 tom February 2, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Great article! Ive been looking for something to get me goin in the morning, as ive just got into a morning routine.

Im not a morning person. My first alarm is at 6.45, 2nd alarm at 7, and third alarm at 7.10 am. The last alarm bein an ACDC song, and guess what, it aint enough! I get up at half 7 for shower etc, so this might be my next step to kick my morning blues!

2 Nathanael D. Johnson February 2, 2014 at 8:21 pm

I was on the verge of a “Hey Honey! Guess what you need to do with me in the morning!” prior to finishing the article. The final warning most assuredly just saved our marriage.

3 Wilhelm February 2, 2014 at 10:35 pm

The “Scottish Shower” works equally well as you guys have already covered in a previous article:

4 Devin Duke February 2, 2014 at 10:45 pm

What he says makes sense! I work in northern Alberta as an apprentice steamfitter. Ive noticed that few things wake your mind up better that stepping out in -35 Celsius to kick start your day.

5 Nick February 2, 2014 at 10:51 pm

Interesting article, reminds me of Thomas Jefferson starting each morning by dunking his feet into an ice bucket.

6 JT February 2, 2014 at 11:34 pm

I live in SK, according to the forecast in the morning its going to be -21C and with the wind chill it will feel like -33C, having to get out of bed and go start the trucks to warm up really gets you motivated to go back to bed.

7 Findo Gask February 3, 2014 at 12:30 am

Double Peevish

8 Austin February 3, 2014 at 12:51 am

Morning peevishness is, I believe, the number one thing holding me back from being successful in life. What I need is for someone to throw a bucket of cold water on me each morning. I think that’s about the only thing that’d do the trick.

9 Brenan February 3, 2014 at 3:23 am

Wow! Very simple advice but logically sounds very effective and is very practical too. Will definitely try this as I try to motivate myself to get up and going at 5:00am now as a university student!

10 Chris Smith-Hale February 3, 2014 at 5:44 am

Great article! Instead of going outside to guess the weather in the morning. I go outside immediately after waking up to walk the dog. We stay out for only a couple of minutes. He usually comes back inside and goes right back to bed. But it helps me get up and start my day. Great advice, thank you!

11 ben m February 3, 2014 at 8:02 am

Raising 3 daughters, I set down only one hard and fast “rule”, and I quote: No being bitchy in the mornings.
It was kind of a joke, but I cannot overstate what a difference it’s made in our lives.

12 M. Catlett February 3, 2014 at 8:14 am

This is an excellent tip that I’ve been sort of unintentionally doing each morning anyway – I’ll see about making a habit of it.

I wouldn’t want to be known as peevish, now. :)

13 L. Tomlin February 3, 2014 at 8:16 am

I can attest that a blast of cold will get me going in the morning and does indeed help with my overall mood.

What I do is start with a hot shower and then a last minute blast of cold water. Then, when shaving with a DE razor, shaving brush, and lather, I start out with hot water and finish up with cold water rinses. Ice cold.

By the time that is over, I am ready to dress and hit the road with some freshly ground and brewed Columbian coffee. While coworkers come in looking rough, I am the chipper one cracking jokes and laughing. Some have commented that they have never seen me in a “bad” mood.

Your mileage may vary but this has become my go to routine….and it works great!

14 Kloogster February 3, 2014 at 8:46 am

Perfect for Minnesota! We’re some hearty stock up here.

15 the fool February 3, 2014 at 9:57 am

Brett, You’ve had several articles about the pole expeditions — can you recommend a good book?

16 peter pen February 3, 2014 at 10:28 am

I Just try to imagine my Boss’s face when arriving late at work – nothing more motivating to get up quickly and start your day ASAP.

17 Mr.Bab February 3, 2014 at 10:34 am

I felt a similar way waking up during boot camp and combat training in San Diego for the morning (0500) hike. Unmotivated to face the day, not to mention the freezing, humid air, just catching a nip of the cold breeze definitely woke me up and provided the necessary energy for the rest of the day.

18 Nikola Gjakovski February 3, 2014 at 11:19 am

The prize is the trick, no one would lend me telescope hahaha. I would prefer your Cold Shower suggestion since it has lot of benefits to shake and stir your comfort zone in the beginning of the day

19 GW February 3, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Country folks know this works but maybe not for the same reasons – rain or shine – hot or cold we get up at 05:00 or before to tend livestock. There is something invigorating about mucking horse stalls in sub-freezing weather before the sun comes up!

20 Sander February 3, 2014 at 2:06 pm

I’m going to try it tomorrow morning.

21 Klepto February 3, 2014 at 2:51 pm

I’m personally quadruple peevish. Here’s my trick to wake up before my double shot of espresso:
I take my dried out coffee grounds from the day before & scrub the caffeine hell right into my sleep-ified face.
The Caffeine & smell works like a charm.
Then next step of drinking the coffee from the stove sends me out the door.

22 Matthew February 3, 2014 at 3:04 pm

For those like myself who have a terrible time getting out of bed, i finally found an alarm that works pretty good! Its called Wake N Shake and the function of this alarm is you have to shake your phone violently… like VIOLENTLY until you shut of the alarm. It usually takes me about 30 seconds or so of vigorous phone shaking before it finally turns off and by that point I’m pretty darn awake. And I stand up to do it so that my shaking doesn’t annoy the wife or wake the baby. There are plenty of difficulties within it, some I am not even sure can be beat… Try it out seriously…

23 Mike L February 3, 2014 at 3:38 pm

There is nothing like the love of a good dog. And, of course, after relieving yourself first thing in the morning the dogs is next. So, out you go with your best buddy. At least you’re not facing the elements (cold or warm) alone.

24 Coach Mike February 3, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Great article and great new look on the email version!

25 Alexander Lee February 3, 2014 at 5:26 pm

hahaha “double peevish.” Great article!

26 Anthony Howard February 5, 2014 at 12:26 am

Could I suggest that Amundsen’s insight is not to get oneself a breath of fresh air first thing in the morning, but rather that the way to overcome boredom/sluggishness, or what he calls peevishness, is by creating some form of game or competition – even with oneself.

This accords with the research into ‘flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, with which has been well documented.

For some people, the idea of taking the morning air could reinforce the warmth and comfort of bed, and offer little encouragement. But they could construct a game for themselves. It could be as simple, for example, as beating my previous time from when the alarm goes to when I sit down for a coffee, or challenging myself to be out of bed before the alarm goes off, … There is no shortage of ideas one could develop.

I think this is the essence of Amundsen’s insight: that holding some form of competition puts people in a different frame of mind. And he very cleverly combined that with development of an important skill.

27 Brett McKay February 5, 2014 at 2:09 pm

It’s really a fascinating subject, which is what fuels my continued reading. But unfortunately, it’s one of those areas where each book has its own pros and cons, and one just hasn’t stood out as the best and one I could unreservedly recommend. If pressed, I’d say my favorite was South by Ernest Shackleton, as I always enjoy reading about an adventure in the explorer’s own words and you can learn so much from his inspiring leadership.

28 Michael Milligan February 5, 2014 at 8:18 pm

My solution has been to create a life where I can follow my own schedule and internal clock. This means, if I feel like laying in bed longer, it’s because I want to sleep more. So that’s what I do. I don’t believe it’s manly to drive our bodies like some kind of machine. What is manly is marching to the beat of your own drum. And if that drum doesn’t start until after noon, it’s because I’m doing important work lying in bed. I’ve conceived many new projects and had incredible insights letting myself enjoy and respect the incredible creative energy which exists just below being fully awake. There are much more interesting treks to take than going to the South Pole in my opinion. Most of them don’t even require getting out of bed. This being said, I work harder than most when I do work, and when I rest, I rest deep and long. Most people honestly don’t want to look into the real causes of their “Morning Peevishness” because they are too busy treating themselves like a machine. If they stopped for a moment, they would be overwhelmed by the purposelessness of their activities.

29 Jeff February 6, 2014 at 7:08 am

The single best thing to get me motivated in the morning is a dog, especially one that sleeps in bed with you. My dog would wake up around 5:30 or 6 (latest), get a vigorous scratch going, then start looking to go pee and have his breakfast. On a cold morning, taking him out to the bathroom always gave me a good rush of cold air to wipe the cobwebs away. Of course, he’d go back to sleep after breakfast, but I’d be up and going.

30 Brian February 9, 2014 at 7:18 pm

When you have a dog you are out every morning regardless of the weather.

31 Max February 10, 2014 at 8:52 pm

The way I finally started to overcome the morning grogginess was through my phone. Recently I have been trying to get learn and get better at playing chess so I downloaded an app for it. This particular app has a a couple of pre-set boards that you can play for a few moves to improve your tactics. Since I use my phone as an alarm anyway and already have it out it does not take much more effort to boot up the app and do a few quick puzzles. It usually takes less than 2 minutes to complete and is a good way to get my mind awake for the day.

32 Andre February 17, 2014 at 5:15 pm

One gentle way to get out of the morning peevishness is having a glass of cold water next to your bed. If you drink it as soon as you wake up, you will get an energy burst enough for getting up quickly. then morning exercise and then cold shover – perfect way to start the day

33 Ryan February 17, 2014 at 11:50 pm

Great Post!! I have a load of trouble getting awake and aware in the morning. I’m going to give this a try right away tomorrow!! Throw in a chill face wash/shower and I think I’ll be ready to go.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter