#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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The Best Work Cultures Use the #1 Problem-Solving Technique: Candor

By Les Éclaireurs, Elizabeth Laferrière, and Sarah Ouellet

By Les Éclaireurs, Elizabeth Laferrière, and Sarah Ouellet

Whether you work at an agency, startup, traditional corporate company, or for yourself, one essential value to cultivate in your work environment is candor.

Former SquareSpace COO Jesse Hertzberg credits professional candor, in other words a culture centered around speaking the truth, with the nourishment of courage and risk-taking in employees as well as the crucial enlightenment of decision makers about their risks and opportunities. Candor surfaces valuable ideas that might not be expressed in a less open environment, and asks hard questions so every important choice is fully informed. Candor builds “reservoirs of trust” among teammates and clients, and between managers and employees, that fuel maximum performance.

Hertzberg’s seven principles for furnishing candor in business include:

Admit What You Don’t Know. If you don’t know, say so. There is no crime in missing a deadline, screwing up, or being wrong on an educated assumption. The only sin is not admitting what you don’t know and trying to fudge your way through it.

Be Vulnerable. It’s not a weakness to show weakness. The fear of failure gets in the way of creativity. Once you accept perfection is an impossibility and that you don’t need it to be successful, you will start risking more to achieve more.

Be Nice. Candor can be the most powerful instrument in your toolbox, but don’t be a jerk. Blunt isn’t the same as candid…. Being candid is about being open with your cares and concerns, and giving advice with pure intentions. We are actually showing respect when we assume someone has the strength to hear the truth and the character to learn from it.

Speaking the truth, let alone hearing it, is not always easy. But making candor a core part of your approach to work will only benefit you.


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Prioritize Better by Asking the Focusing Question

By Stefano Marra

By Stefano Marra

Making things happen requires focus, especially when you’re a creative professional. But in a world of increasing distractions and multiple competing priorities, achieving focus is often easier said that done. Being overwhelmed paralyzes our productivity.

In The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, Gary Keller says that you only need to ask one question in order to move in the right direction. The Focusing Question “helps you keep your first step from being a misstep,” writes Keller. Ask yourself:

What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

The Focusing Question requires you to identify a single action, and helps you to see how it helps to advance a larger project. It’s important to know what you must focus on, and what your next action needs to be. What’s your one thing?

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Here is Your Official Permission to Be a Copycat

By Neo Dhlamini

By Neo Dhlamini

On Aeon, Kat McGowan reveals research that suggests copying others’ work isn’t only undeserving of its reputation as a professional cardinal sin, it is essential to innovation:

Throughout human history, innovation – including the technological progress we cherish – has been fuelled and sustained by imitation. Copying is the mighty force that has allowed the human race to move from stone knives to remote-guided drones, from digging sticks to crops that manufacture their own pesticides. Plenty of animals can innovate, but no other species on earth can imitate with the skill and accuracy of a human being. We’re natural-born rip-off artists. To be human is to copy.

Of course, the imitative behavior in question does not include outright plagiarism, which is always wrong. Rather, the echo-like actions McGowan’s argument concerns comprise of taking cues from and building off of others’ innovative advances. Babies learn to walk by imitating adults. Writers learn to string sentences together by reading shelffuls of books. Entrepreneurs found game-changing companies by studying the successes of existing organizations.

The history of technology shows that advances happen largely through tinkering, when somebody recreates a good thing with a minor upgrade that makes it slightly better. These humble improvements accrue over generations, so that the Bronze Age straight pin becomes a toga fastener becomes a safety pin. Money begins as seashells, evolves into metal coins, diversifies as paper, and eventually becomes virtual as bitcoins and abstruse financial derivatives. In this way, technologies arise that no one person could possibly invent on his own.

Innovation isn’t the result of a lightning bolt of genius. It’s the outcome of iterative improvements on existing knowledge. So go ahead, borrow a line of code from another developer on GitHub. Thank them for it, and build something new with it. And don’t feel guilty that you couldn’t have done it without the help of another member of the community. If our ancestors felt that way, there wouldn’t even be code to borrow in the first place.


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Overcome Anxiety by Creating Your Personal Buffer

Photo by Wan Mohd via Flickr

Photo by Wan Mohd via Flickr

Being overwhelmed can create a vicious cycle: as a result of feeling anxious, you then spend all of your energy worrying about your anxiety, which in-turn makes you even more anxious, repeating the cycle endlessly.

To break the cycle, we must find or create a place for ourselves where we can go to get away from it all, both mentally and physically. This is particularly true of the modern-day work environment, where we not only worry about criticism from our boss or co-workers, but also have to deal with conflicts and competition, staying in-the-loop with an endless stream of emails or notifications, and managing complaints around our work, performance, and product.

Researchers like Sandra L. Bloom, a psychiatrist and trauma expert, explain that high levels of stress in the workplace are akin to a stressful environment for children. Neither allow for healthy development:

To develop normally, children require environmental stress sufficient to promote skills development and mastery experiences (positive stress) combined with sufficient buffering to prevent them from being overwhelmed.

That buffer is a way of building a foundation from which we can better manage the stress we’re likely to encounter. The key, says entrepreneur and author Tony Schwartz, is in finding somewhere safe and reliable where we can relax, escape our fears or worries, and most importantly: get some a rest from the stress.

The more energy we spend defending against perceived threats — most often to our sense of value and worthiness — the less energy we have available to create value and the more damage we’re likely to create. The most fundamental, powerful and enduring fuel for performance, it turns out, is a feeling of safety and trust — in ourselves and in the world around us… Building even short periods of time into every day to collect and reset yourself makes you more resilient in the face of the challenges and threats that inevitably arise.

Create daily buffers by taking a physical step away from everything, to breathe and relax. Maybe your personal buffer is going to your favorite coffee shop, finding a private room to meditate in, or going for a walk when things start to get overwhelming. Or build it into your daily schedule, such as finding a quiet place to take your lunch alone with a good book.

As Schwartz concludes:

“The enemy of sustainable productivity is not stress. Rather, it’s the absence of intermittent rest and renewal.”


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Turn Your Obstacles into Secret Weapons

By Golden Wolf

By Golden Wolf

As professional snowboarders from the flattest province in Canada (not exactly ideal for a downhill sport), Mark and Craig McMorris understand that creative problem-solving is fundamental to following your passion. In a mini-documentary presented by Red Bull, Craig explains how they made their passion a reality despite the glaring set backs:  

We grew up without that traditional path or guys that went before us and became pro snowboarders where we’re from. We didn’t get that, but what we did get was a different set of skills from wake boarding and skateboarding and also scratching tooth and nail to get on the snowboard as much as possible. I think that’s what drove our passion. So we had to be creative, very innovative and we just found different ways to do it. We are continuing in our snowboarding to find different ways of reaching that next step.

Mark and Craig needed to be creative out of necessity to acquire the skills required for snowboarding at a professional level. This necessity, however, also led them to excel due to their different approach to the sport. Often we think we need to practice one skill, and that one skill alone to make us great. However, by improving other similar talents, you improve overall and continue to be inspired. As Craig relates, “what really inspires us and gets us to where we’re at is also doing different sports outside of snowboarding.”


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How To Navigate Difficult Conversations

By João Abraúl

By João Abraúl

Sooner or later you will have a difficult conversation with your team. Research shows that 80% of managers believe that difficult conversations are a part of their job. Yet 53% said that they avoid conversations due to a lack of training.

Communications expert Dr. Marcia Reynolds, author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs, shares her insights on what it takes to have difficult conversations: 
Don’t tell the other person what to do.
You’re there to discover what it would take for the person to want the result you want…Once you discover what they want, you can help motivate them to move forward.

Put the other person first.
Enter the conversation with the purpose of helping the other person discover solutions…If they sense you’re there for yourself alone, they will not engage.

Set an emotional intention for the conversation.
If you’re angry or disappointed from the beginning, the other person will never open up. What do you want him or her to feel? Inspired? Hopeful? Use this word as an anchor during the conversation.

Show authentic respect.
Recall the person’s good work and remember that they’re doing their best with that they know how. Even if you disagree with their perspective, honor the human in front of you.

Dealing with conflict isn’t easy, but it’s costly to avoid.

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