Habit Rebooting: Waking Early, Again

Last week I wrote about restarting habits one at a time, based on the insight that my previous attempt to restart them all at once wasn’t working. Thus, I outlined a sequence of habits that I believe will be conducive to greater productivity; it’s a framework for maintaining a working store of time and energy. The habits are:

  1. Regular Sleep Schedule
  2. Regular Gym (multiple habits here)
  3. Drinking Water at Regular Intervals
  4. Eating Regular Healthy Meals
  5. Regular Home Chores

The common wisdom is that it takes about two weeks to form the foundation of a habit, assuming you are practicing it diligently. Armed with this belief, I have been working on reclaiming my early-morning routine. I have a tendency to be a night owl, which I had previously assumed was just the way I was. However, I’ve found in the past that the early morning routine has many benefits: not only do you stay in sync with other people, you also have more time to goof off and still get a lot of work done :-) Not to mention that I’m finding that the early morning is a magical time; I’ve grown to love the sun more in my old age, a change from my youthful preference for the stillness of the night.

permission to experiment

Once I accepted that focusing on one habit at a time was OK, I decided to also not beat myself up when I wandered from my ideal sleep pattern: 8 hours of sleep a night, up at 6AM so I could be at Starbucks at 7AM. Every time I didn’t get to sleep early enough to get 8 hours of sleep, I would still try to wake up at 6AM and note how successful (or not) I was; it was enough that I was really mindful of it regardless of actual outcome. This had the unexpected side benefit of provided me with a collection of excuses that I could analyze for patterns. For example, I became aware of some common-sense rules I hadn’t been following:

  • don’t eat too late, and don’t eat acidic foods.
  • make sure the bedding is comfortable.
  • don’t read in bed…this leads to more thoughts and more wakefulness.
  • be showered and ready for bed an hour before “eye shut” deadline, so I have time to settle down.
  • don’t use the damn computer in bed. Leads to more surfing and thoughts.

When I didn’t go to sleep by 10PM, this had an impact on the success of the next day. This feedback helped reinforce the habit, especially since I could identify the cause and effect relationships.

surprising regularity

After about a week and a half, I found that my body had started waking up at 6AM even when I went to sleep later than I should have. This indicates to me that there is some wiggle room in the pattern; so long as I’m mostly getting to sleep at the right time, there is enough “momentum” in the body’s imprint that it starts to maintain itself. Cool!

Toward the end of the second week, I’m also noticing more the benefits of waking up early in the form of increased socialization, because I have more time during the day to meet people.

I’m also “pre-testing” the next few habits I’d like to develop, such as the morning planning ritual and going back to the gym, but am deliberately NOT trying to practice them as habits. In the past I would have been tempted to start both these habits at the same time as I was establishing my sleeping pattern once it started to take root. That would have been too early, I think. It’s possible that one huge advantage of One Habit At A Time is that the successful day is achieved more easily: I either got up early, or I didn’t. The diagnostic evaluation is really simple, and still satisfying. If I had been also trying to get back to the gym and the planning habits, a successful day would have required three inter-related evaluations, which is tougher to cleanly diagnose. Not only that, statistically the odds that you will pull off a 100% successful day are correspondingly grimmer because there are more ways to fail. You could beat the odds, of course, but it requires greater fortitude and energy…if you have the time, why make things harder? I’m trying to make this easier for myself, after all.

front-end and back-end mindfulness

The habit forming experience reminds me of a concept in software development: for every “front-end result” there is a successful “back-end supporting action”. In terms of software development, the “front end” is the visible part of a piece of software. It’s the user interface. It’s the functional benefit. It’s the result you like when you press the button that says DO THIS NOW. The “back end” is all the stuff you don’t see that makes the magic possible: the algorithms, databases, graphic assets, libraries, glue code, and other stuff that people who use the front end couldn’t care less about. And so it was with waking up early.

By analogy, waking up early is my desired change. It’s the shiny part of establishing a new habit. When I wake up early, without drama and muttered curses, I immediately reap the reward that I’ve been seeking! However, as I found out with the supporting habits, I had to do a lot of boring things to make it possible. For example, going to sleep early feels like a punishment because I can’t indulge my whim to keep going until I drop from exhaustion. And NOT READING in bed? That sucks too, as reading in bed is one of my great pleasures. However, the whole reason that I’m doing this habit thing is because I’m chasing that work-life balance, and I am testing the theory that having some tuned systems and habits in place will lead to me getting more done. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I’ve had to learn to relax about not doing everything I want, a necessary focusing of energy. My boring “back end” actions are making the front end change possible, a necessary re-engineering of long-standing practice. I may decide later that waking up early is not all it’s cracked up to be, but for now my working hypothesis is that it is a Good Thing.