#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:

 cheatinlabrat

advicelabrat

sunriselabrat

drawinlabrat

beardedlabrat

nyclabrat

1stdaylabrat

mydtdlabrat

 sketchinlabrat

sketchinlabrat2

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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Richard Feynman: What Counts as “Worthwhile” Work?

Problem Solving designed by Rob Maslin from the Noun Project

Problem Solving designed by Rob Maslin from the Noun Project

How can we know which projects are worthwhile for us and which are trivial? At Hotel Genius, a letter from the late quantum physicist Richard Feynman explains why the humbler projects are also some of the most important for us to work on:

The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to…

I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile…No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

The advice Feynman gives is simple enough, yet how often do we feel like we need to work on something colossal in order to feel validated and purpose-driven?

While you may feel pressure to revolutionize the race to mars, to write a #1 best-selling novel, or to start a business and sell it for billions of dollars, the real worthwhile work to be done is any work that you can realistically do now. The problems you solve and the work you do now may not be work “close to the gods” (to use Feynman’s words), but that doesn’t make it any less important.

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Avoid Playing Email Ping Pong With “If…Then” Statements

Ping Pong by Janina Reinhard from The Noun Project

Ping Pong by Janina Reinhard from The Noun Project

Scheduling meetings over email is like playing ping pong, where a simple “Can you meet at 4:00 pm?” could easily turn into an endless volley of back-and-forth replies. 

In The 4-Hour Work Week, author Tim Ferris suggests a simple strategy to streamline things:

Email communication should be streamlined to prevent needless back-and-forth. Thus, an email with “Can you meet at 4:00 pm?” would become “Can you meet at 4:00 pm? If not, please advise three other times that work for you.”

Get into the habit of considering what “if … then” actions can be proposed in any e-mail where you ask a question.

The “if…then” statement preempts follow-up questions and prevents them altogether. By avoiding separate dialogues, you dramatically reduce emails sent. Let the other person give you some options while you get back to doing real work.

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Weekend Reads: Should We Only Work 4 Days a Week?

Calendar designed by Phil Goodwin from the Noun Project

Calendar designed by Phil Goodwin from the Noun Project

As we do every Friday, we’ve collected our best stuff from the past week for your weekend reading pleasure.

What We’re Reading

The 2nd richest man in the world thinks you should only work 3-4 days a week (and his employees are testing it out for us).

How creative hobbies make us better at, well, basically everything.

If we constantly think “failure is good” what does that make the CEO who cuts over 10,000 jobs?

From 99U

In the “Information Age” everything gets measured. So how can we stay sane? “The real work,” Brain Pickings founder Maria Popova says, “is how not to hang your self-worth, your sense of success and merits, the fullness of your heart, and the stability of your soul on numbers.” Read the rest of our conversation with the internet’s hardest working curator.

Post-its made for your phone, a Stay Home Club tee, and the best headphones for those 12-hour days. Every now and then we round up our favorite tools that make us want to get to work. Get your wallets ready, kids.

Catch more links like these by signing up for our weekly newsletter below, which features our best content, delivered fresh every Sunday.


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Headphones Are Shortening Your Career

Headphones designed by Emily Haasch from the Noun Project

Headphones designed by Emily Haasch from the Noun Project

It’s said that the average “prime” of a creative career is just 10 years. After that, the ideas dry up and with them the motivation to work outside the box. How can we extend our creative potential to last 20, 30, or even 50 years? Over at Wired UK, John Hegarty shares his insights on the matter:

Remove the headphones. Inspiration is everywhere — you just have to see it. If you accept that creative people are “transmitters” — they absorb all kinds of stimuli, thoughts and ideas and they reinterpret them and send them back to the world as pieces of inspiration — then it’s obvious that the more you see, connect and juxtapose, the more interesting your work will be.

The more you stay connected and stimulated, the greater the relevance of your work. By walking around in a digital cocoon you push the world away; great creative people constantly embrace it. You need to nourish your soul and your imagination.

Headphones—whether metaphorical or literal—block out the very stimulus that keeps us inspired as creatives.

While blocking out the world and focusing on our work allows us to accomplish more, it also hinders our ability to receive new input and utilize the world around us for generating even more creative ideas.

Hegarty explains how taking off your headphones isn’t the only way to strengthen (and lengthen) your creative career though. If you want to have a long and productive career as a creative, you need to avoid cynicism and its ability to undermine belief in your work, Hegarty explains. It’s also important to mix with the best creatives around us, to not hide our work or ideas.

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Pixar: How to Create a Creative Culture

Pixar_Wallpaper

Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar, shared with Harvard Business Review how to create a work environment that encourages creativity in everyone. The interview is long, and well worth the read, but his three main takeaways are:

Anyone can talk to anyone: Individuals from every department should have the ability to speak with each other without having to ask for permission. Keep the communication lines open so people can learn and be inspired by each other.

Everyone has ideas: Learn to give and receive feedback in a positive way on unfinished work. Early criticism provides the freedom to try new things because it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. Ensure that every department, regardless of discipline, has the opportunity to comment.

Build subcultures: Break up formal departments by creating new ones. Pixar University offers classes for people to try a new discipline or something unrelated (like pilates or yoga). You never know what may come from a chance encounter with another department.

Barriers between people can easily spring up in any industry. Catmull warns that, “in a creative business like ours, these barriers are impediments to producing great work, and therefore we must do everything we can to tear them down.”

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Related: How to Build a Collaborative Office Space Like Pixar and Google

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Get More from Your Day by Using 90 Minute Blocks

Tetris designed by Emily L from the Noun Project

Tetris designed by Emily L from the Noun Project

On photographer Chase Jarvis’ blog we get a look at how to best schedule our days in order to utilize what Tony Schwartz calls “strategic renewal.” It’s the concept of participating in short activities throughout the day in order to energize us both physically and mentally:

The theory boils down to the fact that we can’t increase the hours in the day, but we can increase the energy with which we make the most of those hours. Taking short, scheduled breaks throughout the day rejuvenates and restores us physically and mentally, helping us plow through those assignments and to-do lists in a third of the time.

Inspired by Schwarz and the studies he cited, I created a Daily Schedule that broke up my day into 90-minute Work Blocks, separated by 30 minute Breaks and, in the middle of my day, a 2-hour lunch. I know some of you just spit your coffee out. But you read that right.

While your Daily Schedule blocks may be different from what is set in the article, the concept remains the same: break your day into 90 minute blocks (which research has shown is the ideal length of time for any focused activity), then sprinkle in a few short chunks of restorative activities. Activities can include everything from walking, working out, a short nap, or anything that gets you away from the work for a short while.

For more information on how to schedule your ideal day to achieve strategic renewal, read the full write-up on the concept over on Chase Jarvis’ blog.

Related: How to Accomplish More By Doing Less

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