How a Night Owl Became a Morning Person
I got up to a 5:00am alarm today. My Dad was on his way out the door pouring coffee into his thermos and asked me why I was getting up (I sleep in the living room).
“I’m going to go on a run when the lake gates opens at 5:30,” I said.
I drank a small cup of coffee, binge ate some cereal as I shook my head at Ryan Braun’s admission on ESPN, and went on a lovely 5-mile run around the lake near my home while listening to indie remixes on UberHype. I was dressed and ready to go before 7:00am and I started writing my notes for this blog entry a shade before 8:00am at my favorite coffee shop.
This is pretty much a typical weekday morning for me now, but it wasn’t always like that.
When I was in college just a couple of years ago, every night I’d have the intention of going to bed by 1:00am (this was early for me) to get to my 8:30am shift at the bank. Instead, I would find myself up at 4:30am doing absolutely nothing and saying to myself, “fuck, I can’t believe I did it again”. Lucky for me, I had a pretty forgiving boss and our bank branch was one of the slowest ones.
How did this transformation happen? I’ll lay out my story in a series of limiting beliefs that I overcame in order to become more effective with my time.
Myth #1: Going to sleep early would make me a boring person
There’s a popular mentality in our culture, especially among youth, that becoming a career-driven morning person (and therefore not a spontaneous night owl) will make you dull. Accepting a job with steady hours and a decent wage is akin to accepting your fate in The Matrix. Hell, just listen to Fitter Happier by Radiohead and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Having morning obligations means not having random nights on the town. It means not being able to get drunk with your roommates while going on a Mad Men binge on Netflix. We think of spontaneity as a phenomenon that cannot occur before 10:00pm. These are fun things, and if we can’t do fun things, that essentially makes us boring people, right?
I’m convinced that this is the precise cultural mentality that has led to rising numbers of people my age suffering from quarter-life/existential crises.
Fact: My life isn’t boring precisely because I can pack so much more into a day
After a while of holding that fear, I later realized that it was bullshit. Sure, I had the freedom to act on every desire I had as long as I was meeting my obligations for work and school, but it wasn’t fulfilling. I had all of these long term goals that weren’t being worked on precisely because I didn’t have a set schedule. I wanted to write more, learn online marketing and programming, and I wanted to wake up every day knowing that I was getting closer to being where I wanted to be. I tried to pursue these endeavors at night, but with the stress of working at a startup weighing on my mind every evening, I could never commit myself mentally to the necessary tasks.
The solution was simple: get up earlier and get all of my extracurriculars done before work.
Now, I get all of my reading and writing done in the morning. When I’m done with all of that, I go to work and crank out what I need to do. At the end of the day, I’m incredibly satisfied, and then I crack open a book or watch a movie before falling asleep. Of course, I still set time every week to drink and have fun with friends once a week, and while that might not sound like much, I’ve become so satisfied with what I can do in a day that it really is.
Myth #2: By nature, I was just a night owl
Ever since I was a kid, I hated getting up early. I only took one 8:00am class in college and it was in my first semester. In high school, I was so convinced at my nature as a night owl that I believed it was psychologically impossible to even start on my homework until the sun was down. In the summertime, as a kid and unemployed college student, I happily got up at 11 or 12 every day. The idea of getting up before the sun perplexed the hell out of me – why would anyone subject themselves to that kind of living?
Fact: I was a night owl because my habits and values made me a night owl
The nighttime always allured me as a child. It was like the unexplored parts of the ocean to me. My Dad strictly enforced being in bed by 10:00pm and would yell at me if I wasn’t. I remember waking up to get a drink of water and seeing my brother watching Jay Leno. He was doing Headlines and I laughed uncontrollably. I wanted to watch Jay Leno, too.
Getting older allowed me greater autonomy and that childhood desire to be up at night never left me. I loved being up at 3:00am chatting with friends on AIM or talk shit as I owned some nubz on Jedi Outcast at night. Being up late was totally cool – until it wasn’t.
The older I got, the less I valued autonomy (autonomy is now just a fact of life) and the more I valued doing things. In a month’s time, I look forward to having a body of published entries that I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. For my startup, I look forward to pitching investors, talking to business owners, and coming up with strategies for driving user acquisition.
New values call for new habits. For me, this involves optimizing the hell out of my day, and that can only get done of I’m up early.
Myth #3: I was more artistic at night
I remember reading this on Tumblr a while back: “Night owls are more creative”. I remember thinking, “yeah, that totally explains my propensity to do my best thinking at night – I’m simply one of those people who are more creative at night”.
Now that I look back on it, regardless of its validity, I see the way people reblog this quote as a sort of justification for bad habits. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I’m ineffective during the day, but it’s simply because I’m a night owl – my creative juices just don’t get flowing until the rest of the world is asleep”.
Fact: I felt more artistic because my output was greater, but my body of work was about things I wasn’t proud of writing about
I’m not going to lie, I read some of my 3:00am musings about doubt, self-loathing, depression, fear, anxiety, and hope and some of my entries are incredibly eloquent and lucid. I read some of my passages a year after I wrote them and thought, “Oh my God, I must be losing my writing chops – I couldn’t write that entry again if I tried”.
Instead of being fearful, I should have been thankful. The reason I could never write any of those entries was because I became disassociated with the person who had written them – myself, from a former time. Here’s a part of an entry I wrote:
When you hate the perception by which you taste the world and hate your bad habits that hinder you from experiencing all that you want to experience, being infatuated with your potential for greatness just makes the chasm between reality and your own imagined ideal so… vast. So, so, so, so vast.
Is that the kind of artistry I want to replicate? Is that the part of myself that I want to put out into the world to be empathized with? Of course not, and it’s the reason why I’m getting up at 5:00am to write about how I feel it no more instead of writing it restlessly at 3:00am about how I’m experiencing it now.
Like pretty much any twenty-something, I found myself interested in existential and nihilistic thinkers. I read E.M. Cioran in class and thought, “why would anyone want to kill themselves when they write so damn well about things?” I can go into way more detail on this, but I think our art is the way we choose to solve and or escape our problems, whether that problem is as troublesome as existential depression or as ambitious as starting a revolutionary business. I’m happy to say that the latter is my primary focus today.
Myth #4: I wouldn’t get to experience my 20s
When I go out, I’m surrounded by people my age who drink a bit too much booze, spend a little too much cash, and put responsibility on the back burner for just one more day.
A lot of them (especially in this city) are incredibly attractive. They go on road trips that wouldn’t be cool to go on later in life and and create memories and relationships that they will always look back on fondly. These are the best years of their lives, and so they’re going to live the hell out of them – life can wait.
Fact: You can experience your 20s while preparing yourself for the future
I went to Coachella this past year. I’ve wanted to go since ’09 and finally had the financial means of going. I went on Craigslist to find someone to ride up with and had every intention of hanging with friends I would meet there but I ended up hanging the entire time with my campmates. I got to see FOALS for the third time, fell in love with Tame Impala and trap music, and went fucking nuts when RHCP played Give It Away as one of their encore songs. We took a photo Monday morning before departing and I counted 11 people I had never once laid my eyes on just 4 days earlier.
The day before I went, however, I was scrambling to make shit happen. I stayed at my office ’til about 1:00am shooting and editing sales pitches for a couple of local music venues and uploaded a few of the videos to my Dropbox from the community computers at Coachella. As soon as I got back, exhausted and dirty and really, really dark, I got to work immediately again on those sales pitches and meeting with local businesses.
A lot of people I meet approach life as if it’s an either/or situation – you either choose to “live it” or you choose to settle down. I don’t think that’s the case at all anymore. Work and play are but designations to components that belong to the entire pie chart of life, and so there is an inescapable commingling of the two. Any kind of dissatisfaction in one leads to dissatisfaction in the other, and my life goal is really to lead a sustainable life - one that is fulfilling in all categories based on its balance.
Myth #5: You can get just a little more done tonight
When my mental accounting is off and it’s 10:30pm, I think to myself, “damn, now that it’s nighttime and I have complete solitude, I can spend an hour on x and feel really good about myself!”
In the end, almost without fail, I don’t nearly have enough energy to focus for an entire hour on x and I end up spending that hour (if not more) at half ass attempts of trying to get it done. It fucks over my sleeping cycle and essentially becomes an hour (if not more) lost and a detriment to my good habits.
Fact: It’s more effective if you do it in the morning
Every time I try to get a little more done past my bed time and wake up later or a little groggier than usual the next day, I think of that blanket proverb for daylight savings time:
When told the reason for daylight saving time the old Indian said, ”Only a white man would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket and sew it to the bottom of a blanket and have a longer blanket.
I’m not saying that you should drop your next-day deadlines completely in favor of sleep, but when you do a breakdown of the choice you’re making, it’s quite simple. If you choose to do something now when you’re at the tail end of your energy, you will get a tail-end of energy effort and attention span. If you choose to do something tomorrow after a nice night of rest (perhaps even after a morning work out) you can get the same exact task done with a renewed source of energy to fuel you. It’s really a no-brainer.
Tips for Success
As valuable as empathy is (and I hope some of you can see where I’m coming from) it’s really nothing without an action plan, so here are some tips I used.
Tip #1: Work backwards from the time you want to get up and the amount of sleep you need to function
When I tried to force myself to get up at 5:00am or 6:00am every day, I still failed every time. I figured with a desire to wake up, 3 loud alarms, and a bit of discipline would be enough, but it never was. I’d sleep right through or stop them in a half-awake stupor.
My problem was that I was trying to force myself up despite keeping the same sleeping schedule. Changing the habit of waking up early is hard itself, but trying to do so on 5 hours of sleep when you’re used to 6.5 makes it even harder.
One thing I realized was this: while it was easy for me to oversleep when my alarm was set for 5 hours later, I couldn’t sleep longer than 8 hours even if I tried. So, one night, I lay in my bed at 10:00pm determined to get to sleep early. Besides laying in bed for an hour, I easily got up to my 5:30am alarm, which fell completely in line completely with my typical sleeping schedule.
Tip #2: Turn off screens
This is a pretty common tip, but I cannot emphasize it enough. Not only do backlit screens keep you up in a sort of zombie mode, but the type of content you find on a computer, smartphone, or television are made to be consumed passively requiring just enough attention to keep you awake.
Tip #3: It only take a few days
I think the funniest thing about establishing a habit – especially a “hard” habit like waking up early – is that it really only takes a few days. If you’re productive with your morning and feel accomplished, this is just the type of feedback that creates the desire to do it all over again. To top it off, it’s pretty tough to sleep at 2:00am when you’re up at 5:00am (again, unless you’re staring at screens).
I hope this helps. This is one blog entry in a string of many over the next month.