Checkpoint: Two Weeks of Waking Up Early

POSTED Fri Mar.02.2007 by Dave Seah UNDER Productivity, Visual Arts

Today is the last Friday of the two-week experiment, and it’s been very illuminating. I think this is probably the first time I’ve actually documented a habit-building routine, and that may have had something to do with it being so interesting. It’s also very cool to read about other people’s experiences with the process via comments…thanks everyone for participating! I’ve allocated 30 minutes to write up my thoughts on the past two weeks, and by the end of this I’ll probably know if I’ll continue doing this or not.

An interesting insight is that creating a routine is not unlike graphic design.


It’s Actually about Routine

Waking up early was a focal point for…actually, I wasn’t sure. It just seemed to me that if I woke up early, increased productivity might follow. I had the vague idea that if I had a morning routine, that would help me get my body and mind working enough so that I would stay awake. Plus, I figured morning exercise would be good for me.

What I actually discovered was that forming a routine is its own reward. An analogy that comes to mind is graphic design. Think of your day as a big blank sheet of paper to be filled with an “interesting” design. If you’re like me, big blank pieces of paper are terrifying unless you know what pieces of information need to go on it, then you can prioritize and arrange them and make things look nice. That’s essentially what graphic design is to most people, even many designers. There’s a little more lurking beneath the surface.

To make an effective piece of design, you need to understand who’s going to be using it (psychology), and understand how people are hardwired to perceive certain visual arrangements. There are certain things that we can not help but notice, and I would divide them into to broad camps: things that “stand out” from the rest, and things that look like groups, figures, and lines. The things that stand out—say, saber-tooth tigers rushing out from behind the sawgrass—tend to grab our attention until the phenomenon no longer “stands out” in our minds (we get used to it, or we identify it as a non-threat). The things that look like groups, figures, and lines…our eyes tend to follow them automatically without thought. A good designer knows how to combine the attention-grabbing to create a starting point for moving your eye all around the page, in the order that she wants to appeal to the particular psychology of the anticipated audience. You won’t even know it’s happening…you’re just experiencing the design and digesting information. It’s like telling a good joke: by controlling the sequencing and timing of information, you can create a bigger and more entertaining impact.

The reason I bring up design is that I’m seeing daily habits in the same light, and I think that time is analagous to the blank page. Without habits or routines, what I end up doing is filling up the page with a lot of things that happen to come to mind. Because I’m not thinking ahead, I end up filling the page with a ton of little things that just happen. This is much like just pouring a ton of text and images onto a paper. The result is unstructured and difficult to read. The only thing that’s apparent is that a lot of things happened, but the utility of the result, as well as the legibility, has suffered. This is very similar, in feeling, to having what seems like an unproductive day.

In graphic design, one of the best things you can do is prioritize what you really need to say in the fewest number of elements, and then lay down some strong structural elements. A strong left-aligned edge of text, for example, creates order and a natural direction for the eye to follow. If you’ve placed a striking image somewhere that stands out, drawing some lines (or implying them through grouped elements) out to the right creates a natural place for your eyes to go. By introducing clear linear elements in the layout, you establish conventions for your viewer to follow, and it is from those linear elements that you can attach other pieces of information. The creation of these lines are the supporting pillars or framework of your layout; this part of what composition is all about. If you create a good framework with clear lines for your eye to follow, you have something that is capable of supporting your content. The result: clear and effective information transmission. This is just what we want in a productive day of our own.

I would go so far to say that events are the equivalent of “things that stand out”, and routine is the equivalent of “lines, shapes, figures”. In design, you generally pick the places you want to emphasize first (I think of these as “anchors”) and string the structure through linework and grouped elements from them. For daily planning, planned events like waking up, going to the coffee shop by 8AM, and lunch become convenient anchors, and the little routines that support them naturally help structure the time around them. At least, that’s my theory. I have a few more weeks to go before I can say for sure.

Things I Liked about the Routine

  • The morning exercise. I’ve varied this in length, but it’s based around something my sister gave me to follow and gets my entire body moving with a low-stress routine. I’ve started to even look forward to it, doing large body movements. There’s something really nice about it…it helps me connect my mind with my body, or something. Over the weekend I didn’t do it, I felt groggy and stuck in my head. So now I’m more inclined to do something…I had lapsed on this.

  • The coffee shop. This may be actually the most important part of the routine, though I didn’t anticipate it: talking to people early in the morning. Just 5-10 minutes of idle conversation help keep me in-touch with the world, and it’s nice to see people you recognize every day. Today was the first day that the morning shift manager, Pat, acknowledged me for the first time, so now I feel like I’m a “regular”. That feels surprisingly cool.

  • The morning planning. The coffee shop is a good place for it, away from email and computers, my mind fresh and ready to face the day. There’s nothing else to do but think and focus, and it’s a little like meditating. Right now I have to admit I am feeling like falling asleep (I probably shouldn’t have had that muffin sandwich). Having the notebook is helpful in providing continuity too for the week. I only use it for planning the day, and it’s giving me some ideas about a new version of the ETP that is in Rollabind format. I’ll have to look into that.

What’s Been Hard

  • Getting out of bed. Waking up at 6:30 seems to be happening by itself, but getting out of bed takes some doing. It varies between 15 and 30 minutes of lolling around. Lately the cats have taken to pushing the door open and arraying themselves on the bed, and their efficiency in snoozing has a splash effect on me. I think I probably need to get to sleep before 11AM at the latest…I am feeling undercharged every morning. Napping has helped in the afternoon, but this morning I’m feeling distinctly fatigued. The question is: power through it and have an unproductive morning, or take a nap and get enough of a charge to have a more productive late morning? Tough call.

  • Maintaining wakefulness after 1PM. I get sleepy around 1PM, and by 4PM I am getting pretty fried. If I take a 30 minute nap, that seems to help. I’m amazed that people do this EVERY DAY and raise children at the same time. Maybe another couple weeks of the routine will help…I gotta toughen up!

  • Staying focused. The luxury of waking up early is having a lot of time to get things done. This hasn’t exactly lead to goofing off, but I am noticing that my decision to write this blog post in the morning is actually sapping my focus energy for the rest of the production work I need to do today. I should probably write later in the day, or in the evening, and not allow distractions to occur between the Morning Planning of First Designated Task and the Actual Performance of the Designated First Task. I’ve broken the continuity between planning and execution…it’s surprising how fragile it is. It is easily re-established with a minute of refocusing, but if I can avoid having to refocus I could have been done by now.

Miscellaneous Things

  • Snoozing. I love snoozing, especially when it’s cold out. I probably wouldn’t miss it as much if I actually went to sleep early enough.

  • I miss my night owl friends. It occured to me this morning that I haven’t talked to several people via IM in some time, because I’m usually away from my computer by 5PM or so.

  • Dramatic pacing. In the past, my sense of productivity tended to come from spending 12-16 hour shifts crunching on one thing, sleeping a lot, then getting up and doing it again. It also came from impulsive acts of creativity. By establishing a routine, I’m learning to pace myself, but I have to reassess the way I qualitatively gauge my productivity. Looking back at the week, I did do work every day, kept in touch will various prospects, and got a few chores done.

    I am probably still wasting 10-15% of my time doing things I don’t have to do (blogging doesn’t count as a time waster for me), but even if I could achieve higher efficiency I am coming to believe that there is a finite amount of work I can do in a day. When I worked without a routine, it felt like I could do a LOT in a day, but this impression came from working 20 hours in a row. That is not sustainable. To maintain a sustainable pacing, I have to settle for getting less done in a single 24-hour period, but trust that overall productivity will improve due to the establishment of good process. The natural energy patterns of my day may also dictate doing things like household chores after work, because I’m mentally tired after 5PM…this would be quite a bonus.

  • Blogging and spontaneous creativity. With the unstructured day, I would sometimes drop things and make up a new form, or write a new widget, or research some topic of interest that came to me and then write something up and stick it on the blog. This post is an example of that old spontaneous behavior. You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting anything like this in the past two weeks, and it’s probably caused a few people to drop their subs. What I need to figure out is how to bring back these projects as a regular activity, instead of something that’s superceded by paying work.

    I think that this routine I’ve established is a separate issue from scheduling project work; having a routine starts to make accurate scheduling possible, but it does not provide a methodology for creating a system that encourages both business and creative development.

What’s Next?

My schedule will be hugely disrupted come next week, when I end up in Austin, TX for South by SouthWest Interactive. I have a lot of prep to do, and I may have to spend some late nights getting all my gear together. I can’t believe it’s coming up so soon. I’m going to try to obey the daily wakeup routine for the next four days, and maybe through SXSW. We’ll see what happens.

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