Waking Insights

Waking Insights

At the coffee shop for the 4th morning in a row, I was a bit tired but otherwise alert. I sat facing a large window so the sunlight would hit me in the face and imbue me with some additional energy.

I’ve been keeping a “morning notebook” in which I plan the day, and as I settled into day 4 of this new morning ritual I had the following observations.

Taking Control of the Day

By waking up at the same time every day and performing a ritual, I am in fact taking control of my day. Before, when I was waking up at a late hour, I had the feeling that I was playing “catch up” with work. The solution to that would be to schedule a marathon work session and burn for a long period of time, which would lead to me waking up even later. I’d characterize the difference as follows: waking up early at the same time is me conforming to a scheduling framework that aligns my activity levels with the sun and by extension, everyone else. Waking up later, whenever I wasn’t tired anymore, was me conforming the day around my natural impulses. This can work also, and on the surface seemed rather clever, but in hindsight it was my IMPULSES that were in control, NOT my MIND.

Sleepiness versus Fatigue

It seems that my energy levels are still fluctuating, but I’ve come up with two ways to help balance that out over the day. First, I can always take a nap as several readers have suggested, when the ability of focus is eluding me. Secondly, I am starting to be able to tell the difference between sleepiness and fatigue. When I’m sleepy, it’s easy to restore energy through a nap. 15 minutes seems to be good for about 4 hours, and at night when I go to bed I can sleep maybe 6 hours and be OK. When I’m fatigued, however, I’ve pushed myself beyond what can easily be restored with normal sleep, and additional hours are needed. This might explain why on Monday with 6 hours of sleep, I felt OK, but on Thursday with the same 6 hours of sleep I felt groggy. The difference perhaps was that I had worked past the point I was merely sleepy on Wednesday night, until my eyes hurt. Food for thought.

I am reminded of the farm simulation video game Harvest Moon, which implements a dual-level “energy” meter for your character to encourage pacing of the work. You get 100 units of stamina and 100 units of fatigue, and during the normal course of the day you use up stamina until you reach 0. At which point you fall down, and are now fatigued. You can continue to work past the fatigue point; if you use up all 100 points you actually pass out and lose half your money, not to mention waking up at noon which gives you less time to get the daily farm work done. What’s interesting about their energy meter is that while all 100 points of regular stamina come back with a night of sleep, only a fraction–25 points in the DS version of the game–of fatigue is restored per night. And when you have significant points of fatigue, you use up stamina faster. It’s an interesting way of modeling the (apparently controversial) idea of sleep deficit.

Changes in Level of Productivity…or not?

I’m not sure if I’m more productive or less productive. While it seems that I’m not getting the long burns of time on projects, I am nevertheless knocking things off my list in a measured manner. The morning planning does seem to be helping.

I am getting about 70% of my morning plan done, which consists usually of 3-4 main chunks and 1-2 minor “would be nice” things. Some tasks have gotten bumped to to the next day for 4 days in a row.

The missing 30% is coming from unexpected calls and client requests. So long as it moves their project forward, or pays a fair rate, I am willing to do it. This probably is not ideal, as it means I lose focus on my “main project” of the day, and it therefore finishes later. Which means I go to sleep later, or one of the “would be nice” things don’t get done. I’ve also found that I have to consider when I schedule tasks, because certain ones leave a “wake of unproductivity” after they complete because it takes a while for my brain to reset. Either I have to commit to a nap (which takes time) or I have to do a task that doesn’t require the particular type of thinking that has been exhausted. For example, in the past I have typically scheduled face-2-face meetings in the morning, because this used to be a good strategy for making sure I was up early. However, face-2-face meetings also tend to run longer than planned, and the interaction itself both energizes and drains me. Therefore, I am thinking of scheduling meetings later in the day, AFTER I have gotten some main chunk of work done.

Another difference is that I am doing a lot less impulsive blogging, and am being more methodical about having something to post for every morning. I have mixed feelings about this, because I’m feeling like this week’s writing has been confined to this single topic instead of ranging more broadly.

I’m also doing less impulsive design. There is a laundry list of projects I want to address, like updates to the Calendar pages, the ETT Online, an algorithm update for the Procrastinator’s Clock, and that resource planning form, and I’ve kept myself focused on the Morning Plan. Figuring out when to schedule these in is a topic I’ll tackle next week.

So in one way, it feels like I’m getting less done because I’m tackling projects in smaller chunks to pace myself over several days. However, I am getting started on those chunks more quickly, and that feels pretty good. If I was writing down everything that happened throughout the day—I’m not using any of my forms for the moment, relying on the notebook to see how it evolves through use—then I might see a lot more work than I feel. I do annotate the morning plan with descriptive sidenotes, but so far I have just used them to get a sense of how quickly time is flowing.

Matching Task to Particular Hour of the Day by Energy Level

I’ve noticed that the early morning planning is a good way to focus my energy, particularly if I am writing in my notebook. In the morning, I don’t bring a laptop computer, so I’m forced to be at the table with just pen and paper. There is something nice about this.

I have found that I need to force myself to write slowly and clearly. This makes the words more deliberate, which feels good, but most importantly it means I can read the notes the next morning when I might have forgotten what I meant. When I’m taking notes quickly with a pen, I sometimes write down different words than I was actually thinking, and my penmanship tends to degrade into expressive-but-illegible scribblings. Today was the first day that I really slowed myself down, and in fact this blog post is being partially transcribed from my morning notes.

After the morning planning, I have been tending to settle into an email answering / comment answering cycle; this is an important aspect of my day, because the blog represents a kind of contract between myself and the world. It’s not an entirely rational thing; I believe that so long as I keep posting new things, the world will give back to me. The email and commenting aspect of blogging is part of this.

My most productive “work” times seem to be between 10AM and 3PM, after which I tend to get a little tired in the neck and sides of the head. Eyestrain starts to set in too. A power nap clears that up, or I can choose to do tasks that I find come more easily to me: researching, maintenance web work, finding things for the next day, client update emails, and so forth. It’s the tasks that require more focus for me—writing code modules that implement a system, architecture, some forms of technical documentation, and any sort of visual design—that I have to save up for the peak hours.

After 5PM I’ve been pretty tired, and I’m trying to do my blog posting in this time. However, I’m also finding it a good time to just watch TV…there is so much good TV out there right now that it’s a problem keeping up with it.

How Food Affects My Clarity of Thinking

I am sensitive to complex carbohydrates, so I have to be careful about scheduling tasks that require a lot of focus (e.g.: programming) after eating. I can control this to some extent by eating only protein, vegetables, and avoiding rice, bread, and sugar. Sometimes, though, you really do want that piece of chocolate cake. I have to strongly consider what that impact will have on the next two hours. Too much sugar will make me sleepy, and I will tend to nod off. This can be counteracted with a cup of coffee, but I try not to do this regularly because I will pay for it with later jitteryness. The ritual of making the cup of coffee, however, is a fun break since I got one of those Senseo pod coffee makers for $15. The design of the system is very pleasing.

I’m also much more aware of my hydration levels too. When I wake up, I drink a big glass of water, and when I start to feel myself losing my mental edge I try to remember to drink more water. In the cold weather I have a tendency to not drink much liquid, and there is a particularly kind of headache (a sort of sharp-edged weariness in the head) that I think is the sign of this.

On the ritualistic side of things, I’ve been trying to figure out the perfect morning drink for me at the coffee shop. The usual coffee drinks are too sweet and cloying, so I’ve been trying Chai. It’s a drink I don’t like to like for some reason, being more of a “pour the hot water over the leaves” tea purist, but I’m finding the Chair actually quite comforting while not being overly sweet…damn it.

Social Synchronization

I have been pretty hermit-like this week, with the exception of meeting a friend for coffee. Tomorrow I’ll be finishing up a prototype so my day will be full. However, in the evening I’ll be hanging out with another friend I haven’t seen in a while.

In a general sense, I’ve felt a weird kind of peace from being in synch with the world. It’s probably just the novelty of doing this…will I feel the same 4 weeks from now? For the moment, however, I’m enjoying it.


  1. warren 13 years ago

    My wife has started work again last week (she’s a teacher) so I’m now getting up at 6am every morning when she does. It does change your perception of things a little when you see the sun rise each day, and there’s a certain peacefulness about that time of the day, before everyone starts rushing about.

    The downside to it is the post-lunch slump I’m having now, I spent 2 hours of my focus this morning writing a blog post (gratuitous plug), which in hindsight would have been better spent working on other projects. Hopefully this coffee will wake me up now and I’ll get back to it shortly!


  2. karen from georgia 13 years ago

    beverages of choice for mornings:  steamed apple cider, steamed milk, wheatgrass juice from the cooler.  You can ask for a glass of water – they won’t kick you out.

    You can alter your experience by hitting McDonald’s or sitting in your car near one of those Chock Full’o Nuts kiosks in the morning.

  3. David 13 years ago

    Haha, I never expected to be getting great Harvest Moon tips from here… I was wondering my guy is getting tired faster and faster and faster… Great work though, I really hope to be ‘taking control’ starting tomorrow.

  4. Mike 13 years ago

    Keep it up David, what you are doing is important. Even if it doesn’t work out in the end, it is an important self lesson.
    I should warn you, next week may be worse and maybe even the third week. I’ve fought this battle more than once and it takes a while to adjust. There will be a tipping point where you don’t feel like you can get up that early again, if you relent, you won’t get up that early again. If you push on then it will start to happen for you.
    I think they say it takes 90 days to make a habit so bear that in mind as your experiment proceeds. Best of luck.

  5. Amanda Himelein 13 years ago

    This isn’t strictly relevant to the topic, but I feel compelled to point out that all of the carbohydrates you mentioned – rice, cake, bread, sugar – are in fact “simple” carbs, not “complex” carbs.  (With the possible exception of brown or wild rice and whole-wheat bread.  But I’m guessing that if you’re getting the same results after rice and bread that you do after cake and sugar, that you’re eating over-processed bread product.)

    Vegetables (as you’ve discovered) are an excellent source of complex carbs that will keep your energy level stable for hours.  You might also try wild/brown rice or a bread made with 100% whole wheat flour such as those from Great Harvest Bread Company or Atlanta Bread.

  6. Emily 13 years ago

    I’ve always heard it’s good to eat small meals/snacks throughout the day…you’ll constantly be feeding your energy this way, but not eating so much that you get exhausted from it. Perhaps you could use your “Invisible Clock II” that you posted about a while ago to set times to eat a little healthy something at regular intervals.

    I have the same problem with post-bread exhaustion. I’ve recently switched to a flourless, low glycemic bread made of sprouted grains that doesn’t seem to have that effect on me. It sounds gross, but it’s actually tasty. :)

  7. Lynn O'Connor 13 years ago

    I’m in my—I think—9th day of waking up at 5:30AM. A few times I didn’t make it up until 6, but either is miraculous. As I mentioned last week, I have done this by promising myself that if I stayed up past 3 AM, I simply wouldn’t go to bed until the next night rolled around, meaning I won’t let myself fall asleep at 4 or 5 AM, because if I do I definitely will sleep until 11AM or noon. It’s not that hard for me to stay up all night and go right through to the next evening. Until tonight I fell asleep by 1AM every night, and quite a few nights I drifted off earlier.

    Tonight was different; I couldn’t do it. I had promised someone who isn’t even my student that I would analyze her data for her, and I kept putting it off because I knew it was going to be a four or five hour job, not on my own work, and not helping one of my own students or clients. Don’t even think to ask how I got into this mess of overwork, its too complicated and boring. I am fast to feel guilty, and so, it is very hard for me to say “NO.” I started working on the data set around 5:30 PM. Friends came for dinner, my husband cooked, friends brought dishes as well, and I rudely didn’t show up until everyone was well into dinner. I stayed at most 30 minutes, if that, they all watched a movie through my presentation projector, its like being in a movie theater, while I retired to my home office, with finally enough quiet and alone time. The phone didn’t ring with some emergency or other, and I could focus on analyzing statistics. I think that part of my work is something like what you describe for writing code. I actually love it, but I can’t do it if anyone is yammering for attention. I have to be alone or with a collaborator who specializes in statistics.

    I have not been keeping a notebook of this experiment, getting up at 5:30 AM, but I should have. I’m not even sure if its day 9 or day 10 or what day it is, how long its been. I’m going to say its night #9 and start now. I think I was trying to believe it wasn’t such a big deal to start getting up in the morning like a normal person, despite the obvious fact that I have worked at night my whole adult life. But it is a big deal. One thing leads to another. I’ve felt more disciplined (almost). And I’ve had a few insights about my work. I need more time alone than I’ve allowed myself. I’m weird, I’m a scientist with a lab (and we have a lab meeting coming up in 8.5 hours), an educator, and I also have a small practice. When clients or students need something I try to give it to them. Sometimes its good business, but often its because I’m too guilty to say no. I have to change that immediately and I can’t figure out why it took me this long to have such an obvious realization.

    I haven’t had time to read a novel in years. I have data backed up that should have been written up literally years ago. Instead I take care of clients, students, and family. I’m not going to stop entirely because teaching and clinical work is my major source of income, but its getting in my way. I had to decide to get up with the rest of the world to realize it. I don’t know what I’m going to do about it, but I’m going to do something. I absolutely don’t know how to plan. In the methodical vs. impulsive dichotomy, I’m an impulsive scientist and I view my work, including empirical research, as art. I waste time mind mapping my to-be-done and to-do lists because I use them as a form of art and it relaxes me. It’s like analyzing data or writing though writing is easier I suppose. I’m waiting for the new form to help teach me how to plan. Meanwhile I think I’ll imitate you Dave, and try the morning notebook along with the emergent task planner form, with a different one each day taped to the calendar. I keep looking at that picture combining the calendar and the ETP and thinking, “that will teach me how to plan.” I can’t imagine sketching things out for three weeks, but that’s what I want to do, I think it will lead to greater productivity, a greater ease with saying no, and a much more peaceful satisfied me. It’s a real piece of luck that you are doing this at the same time. Thank you for putting yourself out there, it’s making it all more fun. I may be a bit tired today but the lab meeting will energize me and at least I won’t be laying around in bed until noon.

  8. Jo Ann 13 years ago

    First, let me thank you most sincerely for your excellent products and engaging blog. I am a big fan of yours.

    However, I am COMPELLED to write about your Harvest Moon reference! I was just thinking TWO days ago that I learned more about economics (management of finite resources) and time management from my habitual playing of Harvest Moon on the PS1, PS2, and Gameboy Advance than any other source.

    I truly think that everyone should spend a small but solid amount of time playing this game as it so clearly illustrates the benefits and consequences of different planning and management strategies.

    (I still think the PS1 is the best version…)

  9. Jo Ann 13 years ago

    D’oh. I was so excited by the Harvest Moon talk I forgot…

    If you need a hot beverage in the morning, try hot cranberry juice (real juice, not that cocktail sugar-stuff) or lemonade. I had to eliminate caffeine because of my stomach, and I had good luck with these beverages.

    And, oddly, chicken stock or miso. My fatigue is directly related to not consuming enough protein, and these “beverages” always give me a quick and sustained boost in the morning.

  10. John Hoffoss 13 years ago

    On task/energy pairing:
    This, I think, was covered by The David in GTD, and seems obvious and basic, but like you, I still don’t consciously manage scheduling tasks with varying mental requirements that well.

    On food / @Emily:
    Yes, food has a huge impact on your energy level. Emily’s suggestions are spot-on and focusing on more complex carbs (brown rice, sprouted or 90-gazillion-grain bread) helped me balance my energy level. Another technique I’ve begun using is to pay close attention to the portions I’m eating. I eat much smaller portions than most people, even if it means I’m dining out and toss part of what I ordered, or have to shlep a doggy bag home. I also eat 3-5 times per day, every 2-3 hours. This allows me to maintain a higher energy level without simple carb/sugar spikes. THe complex carbs sustain longer without letting my energy level bottom out. That, and a tall glass of water every time I eat, helps avoid much of the typical ‘food coma’ effect I used to feel.

    The fact that I eat every ~2 hours also benefits my work style, wherein I can handle only about 2 hours straight before I need a break. If I don’t break, I tighten up in the shoulders and neck, as you identified, causing a severe headache that feels totally different from the dehydration headache you also noted. So a suggestion, David: pay closer attention to your posture. If you are craning, slouching, etc. as I usually do, this may be a large part of your end-of-day fatigue and headache. I’m still working on kicking that myself…