#labrat: Become a Morning Person

Rat Race designed by Luis Prado from The Noun Project

Rat Race designed by Luis Prado from The Noun Project

My name is Sasha, and I am not a morning person — but I wish I was.

Every new study seems to be on the infinite benefits of waking up early, with endless examples of historical geniuses to prove it. They all seem to get their best work done in the early hours. And while some studies claim that there’s a gene needed to be an early riser, more say that it’s just a matter of resetting your internal clock. 

So, for a week starting on Monday, November 4th, using a set of specific rules and lessons learned previously (see our article on “The 1-Step Plan for Super Productivity”), I am going to do what my mother swears is the impossible; I’m going to become a morning person. And if any of this is feeling awfully familiar to you as well, I want you to join me. If you’re game to take part in the experiment, bookmark this page and follow us on Twitter, and use #labrat on your tweets so others will be able to find you. I’ll be updating and tweeting daily, so why not give it a try? We can do this, or cry through it, together.

Taken from those linked articles above and a bunch right over here, here are the rules:

  1. Must wake up at 6 a.m. You hardcore people can go earlier, but any later and to me it’s just normal wake-up-for-work that the masses have, not real “get sh** done” time.
  2. No snooze button. Not even once. If you are like me and will often hit it, or even turn off your alarm entirely, in your sleep, this will mean putting your phone or alarm clock across the room so you have to get up to turn it off.
  3. Must be exposed to sunlight. This can be difficult if you live in a place surrounded by outside lights at night, but getting natural light in the morning is key. You can also buy “dawn simulator” alarm clocks to fake it for you.  For the sake of my sanity (I live in NYC), and this experiment, I purchased this one.
  4. No working allowed in the bedroom. No laptop or cell phone left next to your bed. If your cell phone is your alarm clock, just put it at the farthest point of the room from you before you go to sleep.
  5. A strict-bed time. Since I’m getting up at 6am, in order to get eight hours, I am pledging to be in bed by 10pm. Oof.
  6. A routine starting an hour to half an hour before bedtime, so you can make the most of your early morning. Deciding and planning out what you’ll be working on with your extra time (this is super important!), laying out your clothes for the next day, as well as some down-time before turning off the lights. No blue-screens allowed though, many studies show that looking at laptops or TV screens before bed can make it harder to fall asleep. If you’re gonna read, you’re gonna have to do it the old fashioned (though better for reading comprehension) way — paperback! 

Note: You’ll have noticed through reading any of the links above, that most suggest waking up a little bit earlier every day until you hit your desired time, and that you need a full month of sticking with it (weekends included!) to properly switch your cycle over. For experiment’s sake, and because I’ve never been one to “ease” into anything, we’re just going for it.

Make sure to check back here starting on Monday for daily updates all week and a final conclusion on Friday! Follow #labrat on Twitter to see how others are keeping up and offer some encouragement, though something more along the lines of a cup of coffee would be very much appreciated.

Monday: Failed miserably. It start by missing my bedtime. I ended up turning off my alarm in my sleep and going back to bed! New plan for tomorrow: switching out phone alarm for a fake-dawn simulator one.

Tuesday: Woke up on time, no snooze button! It was a slow drag through the morning though. I felt like I was operating with only 20% of my brain on (for some reason it took me around 45 minutes to make and eat breakfast). I did get some work done though, and the major thing I noticed was feeling of no pressure. There’s a lot of freedom with that. I wasn’t hurtling through the street to reach my subway stop or grimacing at every slightly-slower moving human — I was one of those people strolling, taking my time to really look at the surrounding shops and people on my walk. The only downside is I just got to work but feel like half the day is already over, with 8.5 more hours to go!

Wednesday: I started this AM using a fake dawn-simulator alarm clock (this one here). It was really wonderful. I woke up naturally, on my own, with 5 minutes left before my alarm was set to go off. I tried to snooze for those last 5, but found myself wide-awake. Unfortunately I had to leave earlier for work today, so I barely got anything done on my side project, but still started the day at work feeling great.

Thursday: Stuck to my “bedtime” Wednesday night. I dragged myself there, muttering about how this was dumb and I wasn’t even tired, and yet ended up falling asleep minutes later. This morning was a bit of an outlier though, because I had to get some blood work done at my doctor’s before work, which meant fasting from midnight until then. Waking up was fine (up at 5:45am), but trying to stay awake with no coffee or food did not go well. To summarize: I fell asleep on the kitchen table. This seems obvious and like common sense, but today’s lesson is that for morning people, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. 

Friday: I feel like I’m finally getting into the swing of it. I was in bed by 10pm and read ’til around 10:30pm. Woke up 5 minutes before my alarm went off and, inspired by a #labrat tweet I saw yesterday about staying offline, I didn’t even look at my phone or computer until almost 8am. I sat in front of the kitchen window and enjoyed my breakfast while reading a book. Probably the most relaxing weekday morning I’ve had yet.

Here’s how today went for other lab rats:











Conclusion: Though I only got one work-week of this experiment in, the “extra” time I had was surprising. The separation between that, of work and creative side projects, was refreshing too. I do think the bedtime (and thus the start time) has to be pushed back a little bit for myself, as 10pm can be hard to stick with. I also wish I had been able to do it the gradual way, of moving up fifteen minutes every few days until you hit your desired start time. Regardless, as a previously sworn night owl, there’s been something really inspiring about seeing the sun rise and get brighter as I wake up; a kind of lightness that I carry with me for the rest of the day.

If you’re coming to this #labrat a little late and just reading this now, please still feel free to join! There’s a large amount of other lab rats using the #labrat hashtag on twitter with their updates, which I’m always looking through, and I’ll still be checking the comments section as they come in. You can do it!

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Screw Inbox Zero: Here’s a Better Plan


There’s never enough time. There never will be enough time. Time management is a doomed battle, especially for creatives who are constantly juggling a variety of projects. 

In an article on Quartz, writer and psychologist Tony Crabbe describes how our modern obsession with time management grew out of the Industrial Revolution, when factories needed to coordinate hundreds of people’s shifts in synchronicity. That tidal shift from the concept of task management to time management is responsible for what has today become a monumental issue: We are all way too busy, scrambling to get way too much done, in an ultimately futile effort to clear our inboxes and complete our to-do lists often to the detriment of deeper, more meaningful output:

[W]hen we complete more tasks, all that happens is more appear to take their place—send more emails, get more replies. In essence, if we do more as a result of better managing our time, we don’t get it all done—we just become busier…. When we scatter our attention across a thousand micro-activities, we prevent ourselves from engaging deeply or thinking properly….

Research by Microsoft, for example, suggests that 77% of UK workers feel they have had a productive day if they have emptied their inbox. It constantly horrifies me to see the number of blogs and books which focus on the goal of getting to an empty inbox or zero tasks, as if either achievement was worthwhile. No business or life was changed by an empty inbox.

Here’s a (not “the”, but “a”) solution: first, stop measuring your personal success or productivity by the number of emails that languish in your inbox. Accept the discomfort that comes from letting some messages go unanswered for longer than usual.

Next, consciously carve out time every single day (i.e., ironically, put it on your calendar) to X out of your Outlook or Gmail, turn your phone on silent and put it in your pocket or face down on your desk, and remove any visible clocks or timekeepers from the vicinity. Luxuriate in the absence of time-tracking, and just immerse yourself in the deep creative, contemplative thinking that can’t happen when you’re even subconsciously, subtly aware of how many minutes have gone by. By doing so, you’re taking back the power to manage your actual work, not your time.

We can’t change the basic unwritten code of how the modern working world operates. At least for the time being, the email inbox and other digital message repositories (project management software, IMs, texts, Twitter DMs) hold us accountable based on a temporal structure. You wouldn’t be a responsible working adult if you just decided to answer only the emails you felt like answering, whenever, based on your level of creative inspiration. But you can create a functional balance between task management and time management that’s short of the incorrectly-hallowed inbox zero. Take back your tasks, and in so doing you’ll take back your time.


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Great Work Engages All Five Senses

By Tony Zagoraios, Stavros Kypraios, and Georgios Papaioannou

By Tony Zagoraios, Stavros Kypraios, and Georgios Papaioannou

If you want to heighten the experience of your work, you need to appeal to more than just one of the five senses. Without realizing it, we tend to only cater to one of our senses in our work—for example, designers or web developers who focus on sight. Abstract visual artist Devon Sioui explains how incorporating even just one more sensation can change the overall experience:  

My sister-in-law Faye [Harnest] is an author, poet, and braille transcriber. She always had this idea to incorporate braille in a visual way with paintings and texture… She’ll punch her poem in a braille machine on acetate and from there we will attach it to the canvas. Then there is a lot of paint layering overtop and incorporating the edges so it doesn’t look like it’s taped on… [we want] people to come [and] explore the paintings by touch… because you don’t ever really get to do that.

By engaging the sense of touch along with sight, Sioui and Harnest are able to enhance the overall artwork experience for both themselves and the audience. Besides visually taking in the dynamic colors and composition, the artwork takes one way the audience experiences the world around them and integrates it into another, heightening the senses.

Industrial designer Jinsop Lee started evaluating his life experiences based on senses by creating a graph with a scale from one to ten along the vertical axis and the five senses along the horizontal. Every time he had a memorable experience, he recorded it like a five senses diary. He found that the best experiences engaged more senses on a higher level than others easily forgotten. Once he was aware of what made for the best experiences, he began appealing to more senses within his design work. Lee challenges us to incorporate as many senses as possible to make any experience more memorable:  

Now in the middle of all this five senses work, I suddenly remembered the solar-powered clocks projectfrom my youth. And I realized this theory also explains why Chris’ clock is so much better than mine. You see, my clock only focuses on sight, and a little bit of touch. Here’s Chris’ clock. It’s the first clock ever that uses smell to tell the time. In fact, in terms of the five senses, Chris’ clock is a revolution.

And that’s what this theory taught me about my field. You see, up till now, us designers, we’ve mainly focused on making things look very pretty, and a little bit of touch, which means we’ve ignored the other three senses. Chris’ clock shows us that even raising just one of those other senses can make for a brilliant product.

Of course, not every line of work will be able to add extra senses to a project—or at least, not without having to really sit and think outside of the box. Which in itself is the whole point: to expand your thinking about what’s involved in your work. Perfect experiences engage all the senses, so why focus on only one? See what other senses you could pull in. It could be what turns a good project into an unexpectedly great one.


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The Cool Hunting 25: Finding the Next Big Thing


Thanks to Cool Hunting, this week’s sponsor of Workbook.

Each year, Cool Hunting interviews hundreds of makers, inventors, and entrepreneurs that are just on the cusp of breaking out and becoming the next big thing. So when they selected their 25 most interesting innovators, we paid attention. The Cool Hunting 25 is a eclectic, diverse list of people that are pushing the boundaries of their field, like the chef democratizing gardening, and the recent college grade revolutionizing the way you’ll charge your phone.

You can read the entire CH25 list here. Below, the 99U Team picked three of our favorites that embody the ethos of making ideas happen.

Meredith Perry, uBeam

A recent college grad, Perry is attempted to rid the world of one of its more annoying inhabitants: cords. Already receiving $10 million in funding and interest from major brands like Starbucks, uBeam might just end the tyranny of outlet.  

Read Meredith’s CH25 profile.

Tarren Wolfe, Urban Cultivator 

As any city-dweller can tell you, growing a garden in an urban environment requires a bit of creativity. Stuffed in a window frame or planted in a nearby community space, most urban gardens aren’t as fruitful or as accessible as they could be. Enter Urban Cultivator, a self-contained automatic garden that can fit into most kitchens, giving you fresh eats on the regular.


Read Tarren’s CH25 profile.

Jonathan Sparks, Nomis

In an effort to make performances more engaging Jonathan Sparks has been on a mission to improve the live instrument ensemble. His most unique invention: the Nomis. 

Read Jonathan’s CH25 profile.

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Focus on the Little Things And the Big Things Will Take Care of Themselves

By Patswerk

By Patswerk

As a leader, it’s easy to devote most of your mental energy to tackling the “big” things: bringing in new clients, money flow, the level of work quality. But as Ben Horowitz, cofounder and partner of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, has discovered in his years advising and investing in startups, focusing on the big things is often actually to your detriment. Without intricate knowledge of what’s going on at the ground level, you can’t effect change.

For example, let’s say you and your team have been finding yourselves struggling to ship projects on schedule. Rather than simply laying out new, stricter expectations for meeting deadlines (which will not only not inspire or motivate your team, but will also not give them clear direction or address any of the issues they might be facing that caused the problem to begin with) start small.

Identify some of the factors that might be causing delays at different milestones along the project path. Is the client not delivering feedback on time? Are there too many needless meetings? Does the group need a more organized communication setup? Based on the insights you glean, make adjustments to the current conditions and take note of how they affect the outcome of shipping on time. Repeat the process until you’ve found winning circumstances, thereby accomplishing the larger goal.

Horowitz suggest getting into the weeds and really understanding that changing the little things is how you make real progress:

If you are worried about the quarter, you might think that it’s a good idea to call your head of sales twice a day to get the status. By doing so, you might think you are creating the appropriate sense of urgency. In reality, you are just distracting her from closing the quarter twice a day. In fact, by radically overemphasizing the quarter, you will likely cause your sales leader to begin focusing on the cover up — the byzantine set of excuses that she will deploy in the case that she actually misses her number….

Similarly, if you are deeply worried about engineering throughput, lamenting that your engineers don’t work as hard as other companies that you’ve heard about will achieve very little other than making your engineers think they are the “B” team. On the other hand, spending time going through their day and really understanding what’s slowing them down in the code base, where their build environment is working against them and how the communication overhead between groups slows them down might help a great deal…

You should set high-level goals, but those goals will or will not be achieved by the organization that you assigned them to. If you want to help them reach their goals, do so by focusing on the little things…. Focus on the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.

By gathering the granular data and learning the intricacies of the situation, you discover the actual mechanics that go into the process of what may seem to be a small task but, in aggregate with other small tasks, adds up to real impact. In so doing, you glean invaluable insights that end up driving progress overall.


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The Power of Taking Reading Breaks

By Denis Lelic

By Denis Lelic

Fast Company recently collected productivity tips from several dozen top designers, and one of the recurring themes was the power of the reading break to re-energize and reflect:

Joe Stewart, partner, Work & Co.: My trick is reading. The first thing I do when I get to the office is start reading. I have a stack of books on my desk, all design related, and I’ll read for a little bit. Not long, maybe 15 to 20 minutes. I switch back from different books on different days. It calms me down, gets me focused, and lets me think about the bigger picture… When I am running out of steam and I’m getting distracted, I grab a book and do the same thing. Read for 15 to 20 minutes. I find myself re-focused and fresh, it’s like taking a nap. I don’t know enough about these things, but it seems like I’m using a different part of my brain—so my design brain gets to rest and my reading brain stimulates me. I come back ready to go and feeling content.

Jared Ficklin, Argo Design: I voraciously consume science fiction and peruse several design blogs a day. It keeps the lateral thought pathways open.

Hector Ouilhet Olmos, product designer, Google: Whenever I need an extra hit of inspiration, I browse books from James Turrell, Tadao Ando, or Santiago Calatrava while enjoying a glass of scotch.

Taking a moment to read at the beginning of the day or on a break during your workflow can really recharge your brain, juicing your mental pathways with fresh inspiration. You never know what unexpected insights you’ll be able to pull from the history of Rome or Warren Buffet’s approach to investing. Bonus points if it’s a physical book; reading print is a respite for your screen-saturated eyes, and leads to greater comprehension of the material thanks to the lack of distraction. Fitting in reading breaks throughout your day also contributes to your general knowledge bank, which serves you well for future creative thinking. The more you know about a wide variety of subjects, the more nuanced thought you can apply to a slew of situations.

Keep a stack of interesting books on or near your desk and you’ll always have material on hand to nurture your mind when you need it most.


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Why You Should Carry a Notebook with You Everywhere

By Fiona Mares

By Fiona Mares

Yes, notebooks are an easy place to capture ideas inspired by everyday life, no matter where you are. More importantly though, if you begin to review the daily notes or doodles left in your notebook, you will begin to find trends and themes within your smaller ideas that can be brought together and refined. Being able to connect the dots on the patterns between your work and your life can lead to work you had never considered a possibility before.

In an interview with Stussy, Lyons discloses he has always doodled monsters but it wasn’t until his daughter refused to eat her school lunches before they were really developed. He would include daily notes in her meal with monsters saying crazy things like, “Eat your eggs or I’ll break your legs.” After an entire school year, he had a collection of monsters and began including them in his artwork. Once you start reviewing your work, you’ll begin noticing themes and trends like Lyons. According to author Austin Kleon in his book Show Your Work, this is the way to really make use of all your ideas:

When you detect these patterns, you can start gathering these bits and pieces and turn them into something bigger and more substantial. You can turn your flow into stock. For example, a lot of the ideas in this book [Show Your Work] started out as tweets, which then became blog posts, which then became book chapters. Small things, over time, can get big.

The first step: Always carry a notebook. If you don’t remember your ideas, you can’t revisit them later. Second: Keep all your ideas together in one notebook. As a creative, it’s tempting to start multiple sketchbooks under different themes or mediums. Try to limit yourself so you don’t have to round up multiple books for your review. 

By using one notebook, you’ll find a lot of smaller ideas that otherwise might have eventually gotten pushed aside for the meatier, well developed concepts. Those are the real gems. Creative director and illustrator Kevin Lyons explains how he tries to use every one of his ideas:

No matter what I’m doing, I’m not an artist. I know I say that and people think that I’m being sarcastic or facetious or whatever. But I am really not because I approach things always with a designer’s mentality, even when I am doing so called ‘art’. I’ll do a zine that’s all the post it notes of me making monsters while I’ve been on the phone… Almost everything I do will eventually get seen. I’m like an old time chef that uses the entire animal, you know, cooks every part of the animal.

Alternatively, you can consolidate your concepts on an online platform. This includes the additional benefit of gaining public feedback and the help of others in recognizing trends. Once you notice a common thread, develop it and see where it takes you. Don’t let any of your work go unused.

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John Waters: “Go Out In the World & F*** it Up Beautifully”

Director John Waters, of Hairspray fame, recently delivered the 2015 RISD graduation speech and charmed the audience with his thoughts on the necessities of creative rebellion:

Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before — is there a better job description than that to aspire to?… Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully. Design clothes so hideous that they can’t be worn ironically. Horrify us with new ideas. Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living. Make me nervous…. It’s time to get busy. It’s your turn to cause trouble.

If you need help pushing your own creative boundaries and locating that place of artistic discomfort, try some of these tricks gathered by Fast Company:

Create a surprise journal: Julia Galef, president of the Center for Applied Rationality,… keeps [a Surprise] journal with her at all times, writing down when something surprises her and why.

Get a weird side gig: For the past seven years, editor and designer Brian McMullen had a dream creative job as [a] senior art director…. And in his spare time, he’s a Lyft driver. “Lyft has offered me a drastic change of pace and scenery,” says McMullen. “I think it’s probably useful for all creative people to put themselves into new and strange situations from time to time.”

Get serious about your coffee: It may sound frivolous, but Circa CEO Matt Galligan devotes a good chunk of his mornings to making coffee. It’s a routine that’s paid off in helping him intensely focus. So whether caffeine is your muse, or something else, take it to the next level.

Whatever you’re working on now, push the envelope a little more than you were planning on. Go one step further. Take one more risk. If you feel uncomfortable, and you think you might stir shit up, you’re doing it right.

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