In the beginning of September 2019 (roughly two weeks from when I'm writing these words), I started yet another attempt at trying to wake up early in the morning and spending time productively. I have tried trying it (you read it right) a few times in the past: every time I was inspired by someone's story about how great being an early bird was, I made a mental note to myself: would be great to try it myself! And that was it. There was even a heavily limited number of times when I have actually tried. Unfortunately, it didn't last for longer than just a few days, as the real life kicked in with all of its interruptions.

And yet, I'm doing it again now.

Let's explore this topic and try to identify why I failed all the other times, and what might be different today to give me hope for myself.

Why I failed so far

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Going back into my memories, I can identify several potential reasons why I wasn't able to succeed. Each time, one of them, or a combination of, contributed to me ultimately giving up.

Lack of purpose for waking up: getting up earlier than usual, and especially shifting from your current habits, requires motivation and discipline. But why would you do it in the first place? Is there any specific activity you want to partake in in the morning? Simply saying that it would be nice is rarely a sufficient purpose. It definitely wasn't enough for me. After a day, or a few days in the best case, I realised that even though I wake up earlier, I don't know what to do with the time I gained in the morning. And it's easy for sleep to win when compared with an idleness and lack of focus. After all, sleeping is a specific activity, and it's very easy to justify it being the most important thing to do in the morning.

The commitment that's not strong enough: the trick is not to wake up once at 6am and declare victory. The trick is to do this every day for, let's say, a month, without any excuses. It's very easy to skip it just this once because of whatever reason, and make an empty promise to yourself that you will totally wake up on time the next day. Chances are this is not going to happen, because you'll have already learnt that the world will not crash if you sleep in again. And the warmness of your bed is really tempting. After three mornings like that you can forget about your habit.

External disruptions: every now and then, something happens that will make you feel like there's no way around breaking your routine: a trip, a party, or friends coming over. These don't happen every day, so it's normal you might bend your rules... just this once. (Now where have I seen this phrase...) So instead of going to bed at 11pm, you'll stay late until 2am, and given you still need about 7 hours of sleep, you'll wake up at 9am instead of 6am. But the next day you'll make sure to go to bed at a proper time... on the other hand, your waketime just shifted. You'll be less tired than usual at the time when you usually go to sleep. It will be tempting to prolong whatever you're doing and cut into your sleep time again, which means waking up later next morning, and so on... Your mind is going to have a field day convincing you to sleep in.

My nature to stay up late: the most extreme case I remember was during summer holidays somewhere in the middle of high school. Enjoying almost no life obligations and no external pressure to wake up early, every day I delayed my bedtime for a bit, then for another one, then once again... until I reached the state when, for a few weeks, I finished my day at 6am and started it around 3pm. Even though that was 15 years ago, I can still see a similar pattern in my behaviour. If I went to sleep at midnight one day, the next day it'd be 20 minutes past midnight, the next day that'd shift to 1am, then 1:15am, and so on... There are just so many interesting things you can do, especially on the Internet. When are you supposed to do them—in the morning, when your mind is occupied with not being late?

No external motivator: my wife has always had strict working hours, where everyone was expected to be in the office at 9am. Being late was simply not an option. Because of that, she could easily force herself to go to bed early enough, so that she can wake up early enough (7am in her case), so that she could make it on time. I, on the other hand, have always had a somewhat flexible schedule. It didn't really matter if I came to the office at 7, 8, 9, 10, or 11, as long as I didn't miss any meetings I had. So even though I thought that waking up early was a rad idea, there was no external penalty for me for not doing it. Needless to say that it contributed a lot to choosing the warm bed over getting out of it early.

No wake-up ritual: even if you open your eyes in the morning, it's not enough. It's very easy to close your eyes just for a second. But if on top of that you're positioned horizontally (ie. lying on the bed), and under your warm and comfy quilt, it's very easy to use the "just one more minute" card, and end up not waking up. The trick, I believe, is to do something which purpose is to awaken your mind and your brain, so that it doesn't have any chance of falling asleep again. After you do the first step and succeed, it's much easier to continue.

What's different this time?

Whilst on a walk in the Dorset countryside this Summer, I came across a field with sheep in it.  All but one of the sheep were lying down in the heat of the day.  I just thought, what a great photo that sums up being different or standing out in the crowd.  It is a great analogy for life, do you want to be part of the flock or stand out as being different?  The choice is yours and yours alone.  As an international conference speaker, I always like to stand out!!
Photo by Nick Fewings / Unsplash

Majority of this post was written over a span of several days, usually in short sessions happening around 6:30 in the morning. At the moment of publication I'm nearing 3 weeks of waking up at 6am-ish every day and 7am-ish on weekends. I'm not consistent yet with the time I get up: sometimes it's 6:05, sometimes 6:15, other times 6:20. I want to focus on it slowly, as well as also wake up at 6am during weekends.

This is what I feel is different when compared to my previous attempts:

I do it with purpose in mind: a few weeks before I started this whole thing with waking up early, I set up a goal for myself: spend at least 20 minutes every day writing posts for this blog. This way, I'm producing content somewhat consistently. I'm also polishing my language skills, and working on how I express myself. Initially, I was writing when commuting to the office by bus, but it stopped working after the weather improved and I switched to bike. A few days of empty promises to myself to write in the evening didn't work, so I switched to writing in the morning.

I discovered an interesting side effect of doing something purposeful just after waking up: regardless of what happens throughout the rest of the day, you've already been productive. In my case, even if I hibernated after my morning routine and regained the consciousness in the evening, I'd already have written at least a paragraph or two on my blog.

It's more important than sleeping well: whenever an external disruption happens (like a party), or when—due to my own negligence—I fail to finish the day at appropriate time, I don't delay my wake up hour. I aim to wake up at the same time every morning. I know that if I do it, it'll be very easy for me to do it again, and delay it further, and stay up later, until the entire idea is wasted. I'm conciously choosing to be deprived of sleep for a day, partly hoping and partly knowing that my body and my mind will give up after one day, maximum of two days and decide at appropriate time in the evening that sleep is more important than whatever is happening on the Internet.

I have a routine: this entire activity has been kick-started by me receiving a copy of the 5 Minute Journal, a diary that aims at helping you with finding and expressing gratitude for small things. That's not the most important part here; a crucial thing about this journal is that it asks to be filled immediately after waking up, and immediately before going to sleep. I thought the morning section will perfectly fit my needs, and so far it's played that part perfectly. Instead of waking up every day at 6am and fighting my brain telling my body juuuust fiiiive mooooreee minuuuteeees, I now wake up and half-asleep force myself to open the journal and start writing. That's the first thing I do every day, and it's enough to wake my brain up as well. And when I'm done, I'm concious enough to get out of the bed.

Once I wake up after filling the diary, I do two another things:

  1. I try to medidate for a few minutes. "Try" is a good word here, as I'm not an expert in this field and I find my mind wandering away suspiciously often, instead of keeping it clear or focusing on breathing. On some days it feels like it's helping, on others I feel like I wasted 10 minutes sitting still.

  2. After the meditation (or attempt at one), I open my laptop and spend roughly 20 minutes writing posts for my blog. Including this one. I noticed that it's hard to get started and I need to force myself to write the first sentence or two, but after that it goes really smoothly.

How I feel after those two weeks

Photo by camilo jimenez / Unsplash

I feel like this should be the most important part of this post. And yet, it's somewhat hard to summarise my feelings. Initially, during the first few days, I felt empowered and filled with joy. I could instantly see and talk about the benefits of my new routine. But then I guess my motivation reservoir depleted, and I started to feel exactly the same before this change. That is, I wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of waking up early anymore, I accepted it as a usual thing. I came back to my normal state of happiness. This is actually pretty well described and known as the hedonic treadmill.

When my motivation and excitement came back to normal levels, first cracks started to show up—cracks that were covered before by the extraordinary amount of energy. For example, around 10 days in, the very first draft sentence I wrote in this section was:

Just kidding. This was the second sentence. The first one was the customary "Blah" which I write when I create the outline of a document.

I wrote above words on a particularly mediocre morning, when I neglected to go to sleep early enough for two days straight. I knew then that there was the risk of me being more grumpy than usual, and that I'd need more coffee than usual. This is the evening me not being motivated to stop whatever he was doing and go to sleep, and the next morning me doing his best to maintain discipline and keep the habit up. I found a good explanation of the difference between motivation and discipline online.

I feel that what I'll need the most in the upcoming days is self-control to push through with the changes, and resist falling back to my previous patterns. After all, at the end of day the same person making the concious choice of waking up early can also easily overrule it and decide that it's not that important anymore. My goal right now is choose not to use this power even though I'm fully aware I wield it.