Habits: Waking Early Summary

This is week 3 of “rebooting” a habit that helps me maintain a certain level of productivity: getting up early. This is one of a series of habits that I am planning on starting, but am doing one at a time on the advice of The Power of Less.

Getting up early requires extra effort, particularly if you like to stay up late and sleep-in as much as I do. The life of a freelancer is very flexible (which I like) but this comes at a price: there’s a tendency to lose touch with your friends and family. The primary reason I want to wake up early is to help me stay in sync with everyone else, an increasingly important requirement for me. A major side benefit, as my friend Robert points out, is that I also have a lot more time to goof off in the morning. While I might use a more marketable phrase like providing adequate time to marshal one’s creative energies and ramp-up for a busy day, it is an accurate statement. I tend to lumber down the runway of productivity like an antique cargo plane, fueled only with the best of intentions. With a good tail wind at my back, a cup of coffee in my hand, and the Grace of God as my copilot, I somehow manage to lift my creaking body into a sky filled with possibility. If my energy holds I might actually get somewhere before falling back to earth. In short, the act of takeoff requires a lot of effort from me, and I need a commensurate amount of runway (e.g. time) to assure that I don’t crumple back into the ground before achieving liftoff. Getting up early is an essential part of the formula, because it gives me the runway length I need for a productive day.

Anyway, here’s the short list of what it takes for me to stay on track, roughly in order of dependence.

1. First, You Gotta Want It Enough to Really Do It

Motivation! The key to everything! My motivation is to maintain sync with my friends. Otherwise, I tend to cycle on a 28-hour day, which has me looping in and out of people’s lives like a wraith. When I’m out of sync, I spend a lot of time in “vampire mode”, sleeping during the day and working at night. Sometimes that’s OK if you just want to get things done and don’t care about or need people. Your motivations will probably be different.

When I first tried this, it was for the sheer novelty of the experience, but I learned a lot of things about the early morning that I got to like. This has given me extra motivation to get it going again.

2. You need to do the prepwork before you go to sleep

Behind every successful action is a supporting action. In this case, I need a certain amount of sleep (8 hours) which means I need to make sure I’m asleep by a certain time

  • …which means I need to be IN BED at that time, eyes shut. If I want to wake at 6AM, that means in bed at 10PM.
  • …which means I am READY TO GO TO SLEEP beforehand. That means I have already showered and brushed my teeth.
  • …which means I am MENTALLY WOUND DOWN. I need about an hour of deliberate non-thinking beforehand.
  • … which means I should be letting go of the details of the day at around 9PM.

I have a natural tendency to seek intellectual stimulation, which contributes to late nights. I like to look up things on the Internet. I get drawn into a line of inquiry or design experiment. I get sucked into a magazine article. I might be halfway through some project work. If I don’t stop that mental activity by 9PM, I am not going to be asleep at 10PM. I have had to learn how to turn off my brain, which requires (somewhat ironically) some mental effort. I don’t like to medicate myself, so enforcing the habit is an exercise in just saying no to myself; even though I’m not a Dad, I end up having to take care of my inner child.

There are four other factors that affect the success of my sleep schedule:

  • I have to stop working at 6PM at the latest, otherwise the winding-down process doesn’t have enough time to work.
  • I have to eat dinner at 7PM at the latest, and not too much. Otherwise I will not sleep well due to stomach issues.
  • For the first week, I have to decline late night invitations to stay out with friends. Otherwise the habit will not set.
  • I have to also maintain the same hours on the weekends, to some extent.

3. You need to trump the pleasure of the moment

Getting to sleep on time is half the battle. NOW IT’S TIME TO GET UP! If you aren’t required to wake up early by an external force (like a job), then you will need a compelling reason to get moving. Otherwise, you’ll just fall asleep again. Here are the things that I look forward to in the morning, which helps me get out of bed.

  • I have had friends to meet regularly at a local coffee shop for a few minutes before work. This works particularly well if they are new friends who you think might become really good friends. Just keep the interaction short if you have things to do later. It’s kind of like waiting for the school bus in the morning, hanging out with your bus-stop buddies. It also helps that over time I got to know the people at my Starbucks, and they seem glad to see me and know my name. It took about a year because I’m an introvert by nature, but it was totally worth it.
  • I was curious enough to experiment with waking early just for the experience, for at least two weeks. Two weeks isn’t bad, and it doesn’t make you feel trapped by a habit you may be unsure about. That makes it easier to commit to, and if it sucks you can always stop.
  • I knew from my previous two-week sleep experiment that being up before everyone else was kind of neat. You see different people, and I find the early morning sun quite agreeable.
  • I added a planning ritual to the beginning of the day, on a regular paper notebook (this is how the Emergent Task Planner was born, incidentally). I avoid email until I get my head clear, because it’s too easy to get sucked into it.

4. And you have to get out of bed first

I can remember several very productive mornings at Starbucks that sadly, took place in dreamland. I once cycled through this three whole times, each time dreaming I had looked at the alarm clock, jolted out of bed, showered, and gotten to the door before realizing I was actually still asleep.

There are three countermeasures that work for me, though I don’t deploy them all at the same time:

  1. I set multiple alarm clocks. Loud ones, from different sources, at varying positions and distances from your bed. If they don’t have a standard position, your body won’t be able to perfect the slam-and-snooze maneuver automatically. Don’t overdo it, though; if they are too far away you just might learn to sleep right through them. To mix things up, I sometimes use my cell phone’s alarms, set at 6AM and 607AM. The regular alarm clock is set at 6AM, and at 615AM my Voco Good Morning Sir Clock (yet another awesome present from my delightful sister) reminds me that I have important gentlemanly affairs to tend to. It’s a little too quiet to serve as a primary alarm clock, but the quiet authority of Stephen Fry challenges me to be my best.

  2. I force myself to immediately open my eyes, keeping them open for 30 100 seconds. This is the minimum-effort action I can take without having to shift my entire body, though it is surprisingly difficult. Once my eyes are open. For extra credit, I look toward the window and try to determine what the weather is. This sometimes requires additional body movement. If I keep my eyes open for long enough to look around the room, that seems to start the mental processes going. It’s sometimes helpful to position interesting things within eye’s glance the night before. Maybe something to do? Something to remember? And if I get tired of counting to 100 seconds, I can always just get up :-)

  3. I drink 16oz of water before I go to sleep. The amount of water varies, but when I’m serious about waking up I drink enough of the stuff to ensure I have to go to the bathroom. I believe this is an old soldier’s trick for waking up in time for their watch. A full bladder is plenty of reason to get up. If I drink TOO MUCH water, however, I end up getting up in the middle of the night, and that kind of defeats the purpose.

5. Follow-through with the habit for two or three weeks


p>Two weeks is about the minimum time it takes to establish a habit, though for this habit I have decided to go for three weeks. The extra week gave me time to confirm the theories I had regarding habit maintenance. Some rules of thumb:

  • I gave myself permission to screw up, so long as I could identify the root cause of the screw up. For example, staying up late with friends would cause me to get to sleep later, and sometimes wake up later. However, as my reason for waking up early is to stay in sync with my friends, it’s hard to really consider this a failure (at least in a holistic sense).
  • I told people I was starting this habit. The more people that know, the more they are likely to inquire about it, and keep you mentally on-the-hook for following through with your word. Some of them will even go along with you, as my friend Robert chose to do. He even started going to the gym! Awesome!

It took about 3 or 4 days before I was waking up just before the alarm clock. Frankly, I was surprised at how quickly my body adapted to the rhythm. The prepwork helped, I think.

After about a week, my body developed an affinity for staying to the schedule, and this built up a kind of sleep equity that I could “borrow against” for unusual circumstances. If I stayed up late with friends, for example, my body would still wake up early because it had been conditioned to do so. However, it would become important to adhere to the schedule the next day, otherwise I would start to slip back into a later waking cycle. I have actually been a recovery mode for the past three days, due to some ill-advised late weekend nights. However, because I have been identifying the root causes of the slippage, I know what I need to do to correct my mistakes.

During this third week, I am realizing that I need to apply the same rules to the weekend. When the weekend rolls around, I implicitly give myself permission to do anything I want, which means I stay up really late. After two days of this, my Monday and Tuesday is pretty much shot. This weekend I will try to relax the schedule a bit but still maintain a regular waking time. We’ll see.

Next Habit

I’m either going to do the Gym or Drinking Water. Probably the Gym, as I’ve done this before, and I actually have discovered that the noon-time workout is a nice break from the early morning work I do writing and emailing people. Juggling TWO new habits will be a new experience in itself…we’ll see how it goes.