I’m usually hesitant to tell people what time I wake up in the morning. Sharing the time usually causes whomever I’m speaking with to say something like – emphasis usually theirs – “Seriously? WHY WOULD YOU GET UP THAT EARLY?”
That happened last week. When I told my coworkers that I voluntarily wake up at 4:22 A.M every weekday they looked at me like I was crazy. They shared that familiar sentiment of shock and curiosity, colored with the appropriate observation of “WHY? We don’t have to be at work until 9:15 A.M.”
Let me explain.
I’ve been a morning person since I was a little kid. As a young nerd I would stay up past midnight every night reading my Hardy Boys novels or writing programs in BASIC on my Apple IIGS (I really miss that computer). In the mornings, my parents would come downstairs when they woke up and often find me sitting by myself at 5:30am in the kitchen, eating Captain Crunch and watching back-to-back episodes of Mr. Wizard before getting ready for school.
There are numerous articles and guides that support the idea that mornings are a time when you’re more creative, energized and productive. The Journal of Applied Psychology even has a study that indicates a strong positive correlation between proactive people and morning people:
“Morning people were more proactive than evening types, and people with small differences in rise time between weekdays and free days were also more proactive persons. Sleep length (on weekdays and on free days) and total time spent in weekend oversleep did not show any relationship with proactivity. These results suggest that morning people are more proactive than are evening types.”
Before I share more, let me say that I do not believe that people who wake up at 8 A.M (like my wife) are lazier than others, or that people who need more sleep are some form of productivity laggards. The same study I shared above also highlights how differences in circadian rhythms, metabolism and other individual factors strongly influence the amount of sleep you need and what time you need to wake up. Sleep length and times, like nutrition and many other things about our bodies, is inherently different across each of us and requires personal experimentation to maximize it.
I do believe that even if you’re not a morning person in the traditional sense you can hack the early part of your day to make it more productive.
Like my email triage system and many other personal productivity hacks, I’ve spent a non-trivial amount of time tuning my morning routine. I don’t want to get up early and waste the time reading Twitter and Instagram (which would be super easy), so I designed my mornings around these principles:
- Get chores out of the way
I don’t get home until late and I hate coming home to chores (like taking care of the cats).
- Get my head on straight
Plan my day, get my calendar in my head, and know what I’m doing that night.
- Get smarter
Spend undistracted time learning new things. Get my tech news fix and re-share content.
- Get healthy
Exercise and eat some good food.
The times below represent the goal state for how I want to spend my mornings. I think I do it with about 90% consistency. I believe that part of having a good morning routine is listening to your body and knowing when it’s telling you things like “Hey, you’re sick. You need to sleep in today”, or the lovely “Yo dude, that fourth scotch last night was one too many. Take an Advil and go back to bed.”
4:22 A.M – Alarm goes off.
I set if for 4:22am because I believe that waking on the quarter or half hour makes it easy to say “I’ll just sleep for another 15 or 30 minutes.” Sleeping an extra eight minutes feels less useful to me and incentivizes me to get up. I take those next eight minutes to actually wake myself up, trying to do it slow and with some degree of mindfulness. I sit up, clear my head, throw some sweats on and put my contacts in.
4:30 A.M – Chore duties.
I feed the cats, clean their water bowls, scoop litter, etc. We have three cats so this actually takes a few minutes. I’ll brew some coffee in parallel and also fill a giant bottle of water to drink before class. I run the laundry (I wash and dry, Amy folds), and do a little light vacuuming (with a quiet dust vacuum – I save the Dyson for weekends).
4:40 A.M – Learn.
I’m trying to re-learn Italian this year, so I spend 10 minutes every morning using Duolingo to practice different lessons. I found that it wakes my brain up and gets my Duolingo score up for the day. I then try to practice another 10 minutes sometime during the day.
4:50 A.M – Read.
I spend about 15 minutes reading tech news sites. I like to read articles on their actual sites so I use a Chrome bookmark folder called “Daily Industry Review” to auto-open these sites and then click through them. I try to read one to two articles per site and will use Hootsuite to schedule them into my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds. Long articles get sent to Pocket for reading on the train.
5:05 A.M – House logistics
I use this time to update our budget, take care of our rental properties and deal with any household logistics that I need to via email. This is mostly managing our budget in the excellent YouNeedABudget software, emailing tenants about any issues and reviewing notes from homeowners meetings.
5:15 A.M – Plan my day
I spend the last 10 minutes of this part of the morning reviewing my calendar for the day. I move personal and work appointments around as needed and generally get my head around where I’m going to be and who I’m going to be meeting with.
5:25 A.M – Get to the gym
Get ready for the gym and bike to Crossfit. I usually get there about 15 minutes early to stretch and warm-up.
6:00 A.M – Workout / Blog
I workout at Crossfit South Brooklyn on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during the week and also on the weekend. Tuesdays and Fridays are rest days in our gym’s Crossfit programming, and on those days I use this hour to work on my blog.
Back when I first joined Microsoft I was single and had no after-work responsibilities. So I used to go to the gym after work but then wouldn’t get home until 11 P.M, all awake and energized from exercising. This isn’t good if you’re trying to get quality sleep (more on this later in the post). After a few months of dating Amy she asked me to not spend two hours per night at the gym instead of hanging out with her. A valid request, and my change to morning workouts happened pretty shortly thereafter. I quickly found I loved getting my workout in during the morning, a sentiment that has only gotten stronger since switching to Crossfit several years ago. It makes me feel energized, and I don’t have that nagging feeling of “damn it I have to go to the gym tonight” throughout the day.
7:15 A.M – Cook, Eat, Triage
After I bike home from the gym I cook a quick breakfast for Amy and I. I’m usually starving since Iwork out fasted and will make (for myself) a four-egg scramble with bacon, sausage and veggies, usually with yogurt and blueberries on the side. Yum. While I eat breakfast I take my first look at my work email, reviewing urgent threads and seeing what came in overnight. I keep Inbox Zero so anything in there is either new from the last 12 hours or returned by Boomerang.
8:30 A.M – Head to work
Leave for work. I love the R train.
9:15 A.M – Daily standup
Arrive at work for the daily scrum standup. Try to seize the day.
Small Goals, Big Results
As I mentioned earlier, this routine represents my ideal morning and I think I’m able to do it without about 90% consistency. The 10% is from things like traveling, being sick, having gone out the night before or having stayed up super late working. The times and structure for how I accomplish these task has come over time. A big part of the evolution has been setting small goals that work towards a bigger one. Many years ago I was waking up at 5 A.M but I wanted to try waking up earlier. I knew I’d like an extra 30minutes in the morning, but that’s a big jump and also has a lot of impact on your evening. So I started small: my goal was waking up at 4:45 A.M twice a week, then after a few weeks it became 4:30 A.M, then after a few weeks I spread that out to all five weekdays. More recently that has worked with tasks like Duolingo, and even finding the optimal time to leave the house for the subway.
Count All The Sheep
If you’re still reading this (sorry it’s so long), you’re likely wondering what time I go to sleep since I wake up at 4:22 in the morning. When I was a kid doing the Captain Crunch + Mr. Wizard thing in the AM I was sleeping between four to five hours a night. My father is the same way and we’ve both maintained about five hours of sleep per night throughout our lives. I’ve never been tested but I’m fairly sure I have some variant of the ‘less sleep’ gene.
My goal for the past few years has been to keep improving the quality of the sleep I get by making small hacks and tweaks wherever possible. There’s a lot of good research and plenty ofarticles that describe how it doesn’t matter how much sleep you need – whether you’re an 8 hour person or a 3 hour person – it’s the quality that makes such a big difference and enables you to be more productive in the morning and the rest of the day. Unless I’m working late or am going out with friends, I’ll try to get in bed at 11 P.M on weeknights. Here are some of the hacks I do to get try and keep my sleep quality high:
- No coffee after 3pm during the day. I’m uber sensitive to caffeine and only need my two cups in the morning.
- No naps during the day.
- I try to avoid using my computer or iPad for the 30 minutes before I get into bed to reduce the amount of blue light pulverizing my brain. I have F.Lux running on all my devices to help with winding down when I need to work late.
- I try not to eat my dinner right before bed.
- I have a tablespoon of almond butter right before bed to help balance out my blood sugars.
- I drink one full glass of water.
- I spend about 15 minutes reading on my Kindle Paperwhite after getting in bed.
- I’ve found that using a sleep mask helps me a lot. A great side effect is that I’m now conditioned such that when I need to sleep in random places (redeye flights, trains, etc.), I pop the sleep mask on and literally start to get tired.
What’s the best part about having a productive morning? When I leave work I feel like there’s nothing left for me to do except drink a glass of scotch, hang out with my wife and friends, or binge-watch House of Cards.
Image credit: CC by Francisco Antunes