#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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Achieve Goals By Gamifying Them

Benoît Bossy

Illustration by Behance member Benoît Bossy

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits suggests the secret to successfully achieving goals is working up to them level by level, video game style. The idea is that you make incremental changes to your existing behavior over a period of time, pausing along the way to master each level before progressing to the next. He took this approach to losing weight:

Like a video game, the way to changing your health habits is by starting out at the first level, and only going to the next level after you’ve beaten the one before that. The problem is that most people start at Level 10 and fail, and wonder what happened. Most of us want to skip several levels, but we’re just not ready.

So the secret is to start at Level 1, and only advance once you’re done with that level. One level at a time, you’ll master the game of losing weight and getting healthy….

Level 1

1. Start walking just for a few minutes every day.
2. Reduce your eating by a little bit. A very little bit.

Level 2

[D]on’t go to this level until you’ve had a streak of seven days of doing Level 1.

1. Walk every day for a few minutes more. If you’ve been going around the block twice, make it three times. Or add 5 minutes to your walking.
2. Eat a little less than in the previous level. Just a little less — not really noticeable.

Level 3

If you’ve successfully done Level 2 for another week, you’re ready to add more:

1. Walk a little more.
2. Eat/drink less of something that’s empty calories — less soda, sugar, bread, pastries, sweet coffee drink, chips, cookies, pizza. Don’t drop any of these completely, just eat less of it.

And so on. Minor tweaks collectively add up to major changes. The trick is having the patience and diligence to stick with those small shifts and implement them week after week until you’ve achieved your ultimate goal. To stay motivated and track your progress, try using a goal-centered app like Coach.me, LittleBit, or Chains.cc or a more analogue system like Jake Lodwick’s Standards self-management technique.

There’s no bonus round in real life, so make the one you have count.


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How to Deal When You’re Disappointed In Yourself

By Burnt Toast Creative

By Burnt Toast Creative

Creatives are no stranger to experiencing crushing disappointment. No matter your medium, it’s easy to equate your work with yourself, since your product is a reflection of your inner humanhood. Whenever you’re disappointed in something you’ve produced, or else your failure to actually produce that thing, that feeling of frustration may bleed into general dissatisfaction with yourself as a whole.

Of course, self-disappointment does nothing but further quash your motivation and productivity. If you feel like what you create is worthless or falls frustratingly short, you lose your inspiration to create anything at all. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits offers a few poignant suggestions for overcoming this feeling of not living up to your own standards, including:

See the Greatness of the Present

Let’s turn from the self we haven’t been, to the self we have been. This self might have “failed” at X, but it has also succeeded in lots of other ways. This self has tried. It has gotten a lot done. It’s not perfect, but it has good intentions. This self has been the best it can be, even if that means imperfection. This self has cared, has loved, has strived for better, has made an effort, has wanted the best for others. Not always, but it has. This self deserves that kind of recognition, and love for being the best self it can be….

Work with Curiosity

[G]oing forward, let’s practice tossing out our expectations of how we’re going to do today (and in life in general), and instead adopt an attitude of curiosity. We don’t know how we’re going to do at work, or in our relationships, or with our personal habits. We can’t know. So let’s find out: what will today be like? How will it go?

Be curious, in an attitude of not-knowingness.

It’s fun to find out things!

Yes, expectations will come up for us, and we will fail to live up to them, and we will feel frustration and disappointment again. This will happen, and this too will be a bit disappointing, because we want to be perfect at being curious and present. We’ll have to repeat the process when we notice this happening. That’s OK. That’s how it works — constantly renewing, never done.

But as we get better at this, I promise, we’ll learn to see things with a new curiosity, with a gratitude for every moment that we meet, and with a more loving and kind view of constantly failing but constantly striving selves. These selves are wonderful, and that realization is worth the ever-constant journey.

This combination of mindfulness, self-compassion, and curiosity enables you to move forward in your creative process and continue thinking and making. To take it one step further, you can dig out of a self-disappointment hole completely, as you use the above tactics, by removing direct internal fault-finding from the equation. As Janet Choi comments on what psychologist Ethan Kross has found, avoiding the first person, and addressing yourself as “you” instead, can have powerful positive consequences in silencing that inner critic:

When you get out of “me,” “myself,” and “I,” you mentally gain distance from yourself and get out of your own head. Much like you can gain perspective on a piece of art by stepping back a few feet, you can gain added insight on your thought process by putting some mental distance between your present mindset and your typical nervous, anxious self.

As you’re focusing, per Babauta, on thinking about your next project with a sense of possibility and openness, do so by asking yourself, “Who are you most excited to talk to about this piece?” or suggesting in your head, “You should carve out an hour tomorrow morning to work on this first thing, while you’re fresh.”

Just as you require multiple artistic implements at your disposal to complete a creative project, you need a variety of self-help techniques in your toolkit to conquer inner disappointment.


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When You Should Design “Badly” On Purpose

By Yen Divinagracia

By Yen Divinagracia

As a talented creative, you probably shudder at the thought of purposely designing something badly. Why would you possibly do such a thing, other than out of passive aggressiveness towards an infuriating client? (Bad idea.) UX content strategist Jerry Chao suggests that purposely designing badly can be a great tactic for conquering creative block:

There’s a big difference between having no good ideas, and no ideas at all. Chances are, the more bad ideas you have, the more pressure you apply to come up with good ideas. In these cases, the best way to beat designer’s block is to get all the bad ideas out of your system.

Try designing a mockup in which you make all the wrong decisions on purpose. You may find it strangely productive.

For starters, you’re exercising your design muscles a lot more than just staring at a blank screen: designing badly is better than not designing at all. On a deeper level, designing a purposefully bad mockup forces you to think critically on the same topics, but from a different perspective. If you can figure out the worst place to stick a call-to-action, for example, that will shed some light on the best place. This kind of productive distraction allows you to think about solutions without actually thinking about them.

This process uses the same mental muscles as when an editor considers a piece of writing by placing it upside down or backwards, forcing him- or herself to focus on the bare bones of the work: paragraph structure, word choice, syntax. The technique makes it impossible to glaze over while reading, and can surface interesting patterns or qualities of the work.

Coming at a project from an intentionally awkward angle can offer a refreshing new viewpoint that affords that much-anticipated creative breakthrough. Just don’t publish your bad-on-purpose project to your portfolio–at least without an explanation of the exercise.


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Use The Right Work Tool For The Right Purpose


No matter your field, your communication style, or your organizational habits, you’re likely bound to the holy quartet of organizational work tools: email, conference call, chat, and calendar. On Blinkist’s blog Page 19, Caitlin Schiller diagnoses a lot of the wasted time and unproductiveness that plagues the modern working world as misuse of said work tools. Consider the common problems of workplace chat that likely plague you, as they do all modern professionals at one time or another:

The main problem with office chat is that people feel freer to write off-the-cuff questions because they’re not technically interrupting—the recipient can still choose whether or not to respond. The thing is, we’re reactive creatures, and we feel that we need to stop what we’re doing and attend to the people who ping us. Even though your intention with getting in touch by chat is to be unobtrusive, you have little control over whether your colleague’s work is interrupted. If she sees a message notification, chances are she’ll look. Even if she doesn’t respond outright, a portion of her focus will now be diverted by your remark or question. In general, chat should only be used for quick questions that are keeping you from moving forward with your work, or to set up a time with a co-worker to talk through a larger issue. Anything else, put in an email so you’re not disturbing your colleagues.

When in doubt, only chat if you would want to be chatted. The caveat, of course, is that, best practices aside, everyone has slightly different preferences and affinities when it comes to work tools. So: ask the handful of people with whom you work most closely what their specific inclinations are when it comes to using chat, and also email, phone call, or calendar invites, so you can maximize your collective productivity. One person may prefer that you email them even with yes/no questions rather than interrupt their workflow with a drive-by. Another may want to untangle a project snafu together over chat rather than phone so that there’s a written record he or she can refer back to later. For most creatives, especially when it comes to work tools, getting sh*t done is a team sport and there’s no one-size-fits-all uniform.


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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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