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.
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!
Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter and CEO of Medium, is a big believer in constraint as a driver of creativity, focus, and getting shit done. Condensed, focused team time is, after all, the concept behind 24-hour hackathons and team retreats. Through it, the communication delay (waiting for an email response) and scattered focus (working on multiple projects) of normal work routines become neutralized and everyone can zero in one project.
For those of us who can’t routinely hold hackathons, Williams advocates the “one-dayer,” wherein a small group tackles a project with intense focus for one day:
As in: “Should we do a one-dayer on this on Thursday?”
When might you say this? Perhaps:
When you’ve been kicking around an idea for a while, have discussed several different directions, but aren’t sure which is best yet.
When you have a project that’s been going for a while and you just want to get it out the door (and it’s not inconceivable to do it in a day).
When you have a crazy hunch you can’t get out of your head.
It might even make sense to have a one-dayer at the beginning and end of big projects.
We often forget that we actually do control our own time, and it’s within our power to apportion it best. Next time you’re craving to dig deep into a project with your teammates, block off a single day devoted to it and see what happens.
We often romanticize ideas as an isolated ‘aha’ moment; however, they are built upon a foundation of multiple thoughts and information sources coming together. Bodong Chen, an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, describes ideas more as a swarm than of a single entity.
Great ideas come from a collection of hunches and “half-baked” ideas waiting to be connected with each other. These are thoughts that look promising, but are perhaps missing that key piece to make them ready to stand alone. It is tempting to throw them away as trivial or irrelevant, but they are the ingredients to your next big idea. Chen says the best thing to do with your swarm is to catch it:
Keeping a slow hunch alive poses challenges on multiple scales. For starters, you have to preserve the hunch in your own memory, in the dense network of your neurons. So part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down… We can see Darwin’s ideas evolve because on some basic level the notebook platform creates a cultivating space for his hunches; it is not that the notebook is a mere transcription of the ideas, which are happening offstage somewhere in Darwin’s mind. Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications. His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper.
Luckily, it is incredibly easy to catch your hunches — it can be as simple as carrying around a physical notebook or using the multiple functions of your smartphone. Mobile apps like Evernote and Pinterest allow you to collect web clippings and upload your own data. Alternatively, cloud services such as Google Drive and Adobe Creative Cloud make it easy to access your achieved hunches wherever you are. Even your camera phone is an excellent visual recorder (and is probably always on hand).
he key here is to record the information, but not spend any time categorizing it. First of all, who has the time to shift random information into preorganized categories? Secondly, you want all the information and hunches to mix together. Great ideas come from combining two seemingly unrelated hunches. In order to accomplish this, Chen says you need to keep the hunches alive by rereading through your notes. After all, it’s hard to connect hunches together if you no longer remember them.
The studio Formafantasma’s motto is never to have stereotypes or prejudices. This is particularly true of their design work as they question absolutely everything and why it has been done that way. In an interview with Designboom, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Formafantasma explain how they avoid clichés through their design process:
We, as designers, work almost like filters. Our projects are the result of a process of distillation. We always know where we start but never where we are going to end. As designers, every time we begin a new project, or we investigate a material, our first intention is to questions stereotypes and clichés. Often more than giving solutions, we propose questions or possible alternatives.
In their ‘botanica’ collection, commissioned by PLART foundation, Formafantasma began with the material of plastic and investigated its industrious history. Modern plastics, as a material of the future, have been largely utilized for their smooth surfaces. Instead of following along with this common finish, the studio transformed the material into a collection of handmade vessels that highlight natural textures and colors. It completely transforms how you think about the material. Instead of using a material, typeface, or any other design element as it always has been, investigate it’s counter. Why has it been used that way, and why not try the other?
Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta has a great recommendation for those times when you’re wallowing in self-doubt, consumed by stress over your work and paralyzed into inaction. Just start doing something:
[J]ust pick something to work on. Write something, draw something, program something, animate something, sew something. It doesn’t matter. Anything that your heart is drawn to.
Set an intention for this activity: I’m doing this out of compassion for others, out of love for myself, to meet my commitment to so and so.
Now get started: begin actually doing it. Don’t worry about whether you’ll do it for 10 minutes or an hour. Don’t worry about how good you’ll be at it, or what people will think of it, or whether you’ll succeed or not. Those are not relevant to the task.
Just do. Put your mind completely in the activity, in the motion and ideas and emotions, in your body and breath and surroundings. Be completely mindful, completely immersed.
When all else fails, you can always fall back on the work itself. Strip away the complicating factors that live strictly in your whirring, buzzing, mile-a-minute brain, and just focus on the actual work. The work shall set you free.
Research shows that your ability to persevere is directly correlated to your likelihood of success. Those who can hang in there when things get tough, studies show, are the ones who regularly succeed. It’s no wonder why this is the case: those who persevere are the only ones who come out on the other side, while everyone else has called it quits.
One primary reason why many of us quit anything is simply because sometimes things are difficult — but only to a point. By definition, things that are difficult are things that can be overcome, understood, and dealt with. Part of our ability to overcome difficult things is linked to our close personal network, but it’s also a matter of whether or not we’ve set the right expectations for the challenge ahead. When we pursue a new habit, start a new job, or otherwise undertake a new challenge, our assumptions and expectations about the work required of us is one of the most important factors for ensuring we’ll make it through to the end.
Ben Casnocha gives us the playful anecdote of learning how to draw an owl:
I believe a key reason so many people on the road to mastery call it quits is not because drawing a beautiful owl in pencil is superhumanly hard. It’s because they thought it would be easy.
Drawing an owl can be difficult (particularly if you aren’t an artist by trade), but—like starting a new job, trying to create a new habit, or working your way toward prominent success—it can be done. The first step isn’t simply to start, it’s to set your expectations and ensure you’re ready for the task in front of you. I call this step zero.
If you’re starting a new job, step zero for you is to talk to your manager or team about exact expectations for you from day one. If you’re starting a new habit, your step zero may be to create a list of everything you’ll need to do in order to make the habit stick.
As Casnocha explains:
Step one is always start, and step two is always keep going and going and going until you’ve nailed it.
Before you start any endeavor, focus on the step before starting: establishing the right expectations and planning how to tackle them.
Disagreeing with your boss is awkward, but expressing that divergent viewpoint is important in your professional growth as well as the forward progress of your company. Social scientist Joseph Grenny shares with Harvard Business Review how to express disagreement with your superior without coming across as a jackass:
Discuss intent before content. When the boss gets defensive, it’s… because she believes your dissent is a threat to her goals. Defenses are far less often provoked by actual content than they are by perceived intent. You can be far more candid about your view if you frame it in the context of a mutual purpose that the boss already cares about. If you fail to do this, the boss may believe your disagreement signals a lack of commitment to her interests.
Show respect before dissent. Most of us assume that if you want to be respectful, you have to dilute your disagreement, and if you want to be honest, you’re going to have to hurt some feelings. But this is a false dichotomy. You must find a way to assure your boss that you respect her and her position. When that sense of respect is secure, you can venture into expressing your views openly and honestly.
Basically, the trick is to frame your disparate view in the context of your team or company’s larger goals, while also conveying respect for your higher-up through the language you use and the attitude with which you use it. Disagreement can even be productive in the workplace, if and when it is communicated properly.