There’s a small, but significant, online population devoted to waking up early. As a former convert, I can say it’s easy to understand the appeal. Whenever I made the habit to wake up early, I’d end up getting a lot more done.
The problem is that if you’re young, your peers probably won’t be joining you to wake up at 5am. And, if you want to have a social life, you’ll end up staying awake long enough to make getting eight hours of sleep impossible. It only took me a month of university for my 5am wake-up habit to unravel.
In the years since, I’ve done some personal experiments to seek a compromise between being productive and not being the bore that goes to bed at 9pm. The results of those trials seem to tell me that it isn’t so much the earliness that makes the habit productive, but that it creates a ritual for the morning. It’s this ritual, not the pre-dawn timing, that cascades into a more productive day.
Building a Morning Ritual (at Any Hour)
My latest iteration of this habit is waking up at 7am to do an hour of exercise before starting normal work for the day. It’s a far cry from the 4:30am zealots of morning productivity. Yet, it still rescues my day from procrastination.
Seven is also a lot more manageable if you plan to deal with other people. Staying up to 1-2am on a weekend is only a three hour deviation from normal sleep. If you normally wake up at 4:30, that’s the same as jetlag between New York and Paris, and means you’re either going to have some serious sleep adjustment issues or you’ll just be skipping drinks with friends all together.
I’ve experimented with other times: 5, 6, 8 and 9. I’ve experimented with breakfast-first, exercise-first, reading-first, studying-first, email-first and websurfing-first. It’s hard to deduce a perfect ritual that will generalize to everyone, but here’s what I’ve noticed for me at least:
1) Avoid the little vices at the start of the day.
My biggest sin was hitting the snooze button. I think I remember doing it once seven times in a row. The problem is that every time you hit the snooze button, you may delay a little pain, but you’re also priming yourself to have a lazier day.
Ditto for browsing reddit or other indulgent activities. I don’t think those activities are bad, per se, just that I’ve found my days are more productive when I start with things that prime me for working. Right now I’ve settled on reading for fifteen minutes to degrog and then exercising.
I’ve even made a conscious effort to eat an extremely healthy breakfast. Not because I believe it will give me more energy, but because eating healthy primes me to be more conscientious in other areas. Scrambled eggs and avocado makes me want to get work done. Pancakes make me want to watch television all morning.
2) Emphasize the ritual over function.
I’ve recently been reading an interesting book, Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. One of the ideas of the book is that our modern lives emphasize the meaning and function of our actions. We want our actions to express our sincere beliefs about the world. They show how this move to sincerity has both inspired the birth of science and fundamentalist Christianity.
However the authors suggest that ritual itself has a lot of psychological functions we’re only beginning to realize. Rituals allow us to navigate our imperfect worlds, and create structure in a reality that is often structureless. So while the repetitive chants of the monk may seem superfluous in a modern age, these rituals have an indirect use in creating a structure for living our lives.
I’m trying to treat my morning routines the same way. Eating healthy isn’t about nutrition. Exercising isn’t about being in shape. Not hitting the snooze button isn’t about getting an extra fifteen minutes about my day. Instead these are morning rituals that I strive to perform because performing them creates a structure. That structure carries throughout the day and makes the habits of getting my work done and not procrastinating a little easier.
3) Let your laziness grow throughout the day.
This may be an odd way of phrasing it, but it’s necessarily true. If your mornings are relatively disciplined and ritualistic, then your afternoons and evenings are relatively lazy and spontaneous.
The decision to procrastinate has a bunch of causes: fatigue, anxiety, even low blood glucose. But certainly the recent memory of other actions is an important cause. If you were just recently waking up on the first buzz of your alarm, finished a bit of exercise and ate a healthy breakfast, the impulse is to continue the pattern and work productively through the day.
I’m striving to be strictest on myself in the first couple hours after I wake up. Afternoons less so. And evenings I’m trying not to have much structure at all. Build the morning habits first and let them carry you to the end of the day.
Building a Morning Ritual
I think this grouping effect, of having one virtuous habit priming you to make the next easier to execute, is a reason why it seems easy to build a fairly complicated morning ritual in one go. I would find it difficult to build several unrelated habits at the same time: exercise, healthy eating, waking early, etc. But when they’re all paired together this way, it becomes a lot easier to construct.
A morning ritual is like the first cut on a creased piece of paper. If it’s lined up right, the sheet rips exactly along the crease, just as you’d want it to. However, if you start an inch away from the crease you’ll never get back on it, and a shredded mess is all you’ll be left with. Apply your energies to make that first cut of your day a good one.