Habit Rebooting: Waking Early, Again

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.


  1. Daryl Furuyama 14 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    I’m glad to see your habit reboot working so well. I created a morning routine checklist that makes it easier for me to do it without thinking (when I’m still sleepy).

    Are you planning on doing your other habits everyday or some other period? Do you think time for your habits will be included in your next revision of the Daily Grid Balancer?

  2. katrina 14 years ago

    I am personally rebooting my daily yoga practice.  I too think it is the infrastructure that brings balance to life.  If I can turn what I call the self nurturing, core strengthening activities into regular routines, I have a feeling balance will come about on its own.

    We will see if it will work as I imagine.


  3. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Daryl: It’s working so far, but the real test for ME will be whether I am mindful about it. I might have to create a reminder system for it…something. The checklist is probably a good optimization. Perhaps I will make the third week about optimizing. As for the other habits…those probably will be everyday things, but perhaps not very long in duration. Drinking enough water every day is more of a reminder task, and having some way of measuring it. I probably will leave it out of the Day Grid Balancer for now, as I think it’s turning into something else. But we’ll see! :-)

    Katrina: That sounds great. Do you have some way of noticing whether the balance is producing a desirable result?

  4. Lynn O'Connor 14 years ago

    Hi Dave:

    I try, succeed, fail, try again, etc. I know the benefit of waking up early, the extra hours in the day so I can be productive and flake both. That said, I can’t (or won’t) give up reading and/or computer in bed, therefore, I fail time and again. They are so much major pleasures for me. If I simply can’t read/surf/veg out (twitter) during the day, I have too much to do, I feel I deserve to read/twitter etc.  at night, while in bed. One thing I’ve found helpful (and that I don’t do enough) is careful planning—during that almost bed time—for the next day. It seems to make a difference in how I deal with the day, no matter when I awaken. Like another commenter here, I would like to get back to a morning kundalini yoga routine, again no matter what time I get up. This week (on ETP) I wrote down my hard edged appointments, my major tasks, my routine tasks, then every single thing I ended up doing, just to see where my time is going. I found out. Work, family demands, work. Very little flake out time. So it goes. What I think I can promise myself to do is the planning each night, for the next morning.

    It is hard for us “knowledge workers” who work at home, to keep ourselves moving, which is why you came up with your forms in the first place. We all seem to have the same problem(s).


  5. katrina 14 years ago

    “Do you have some way of noticing whether the balance is producing a desirable result?”

    Yikes!  You sure know how to bring a dose of reality to my mad reveries!  That is exactly the question I was struggling with this morning …” very pretty Katrina, but what does it prove?”

    Uh, I dunno … grumble, grumble … okay back to square one … a la John’s brilliant reading … what is frustrating me?

    I feel out of balance in my life.  I want more XX in it.  And XX stands for (amongst other things) enjoyment, relaxation, self-nurturance and social connection. 

    The real issue as I can see it is this … am I really as out of balance as I feel? 

    This is an important distinction … I have felt lazy when I was doing the work of twelve people.  I have felt incompetent while experimenting with technology so cutting edge only four other people in the entire country understood it … besides me.  And I have felt unacknowledged when people showered me with sincere praise and recognition.  So the fact that I feel out of balance does not mean I *am* out of balance.

    So what this model/form/exercise/process can really do to help me is to illustrate the balance that is already present in my life and nudge me in the moment of decision making toward improving my sense of balance.

    So it will be a success if it helps me to feel better about the decisions I am making AND helps me make better decisions.  So the desirable result is … contentment and reassurance.

    Hmmmm I definitely need to blog about this …

  6. Amanda Pingel 14 years ago

    Something I read on the perfect number of hours for sleep was to get up at the same time each morning, and go to bed when you want to. 

    If you’re staying up too late, your body will tell you to go to bed earlier the next night.  It takes into account if you need more sleep due to exercise, illness, or anything else.  Works great.

    Of course, it only works if you aren’t manipulating your body chemistry with caffeine, but it sounds like it would work out great for you.

  7. CricketB 14 years ago

    I second Amanda’s theory, although you also have to actually listen when your body says to go to bed. When I’m tired, the first thing to go is the common sense and energy needed to go to bed. I often feel tired and ready for sleep, but then pick up a book or my knitting.