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Forming New Habits: Waking Up At 4am

4am Start – Fewer Distractions, More Me-Time, A New Habit

Doctors at some point had a lot of discipline which is why they made it through the process of becoming doctors. We had to learn how to study more effectively than our peers, we sought out research, we got involved with volunteer-work and we squeezed in standardized testing into an already crammed schedule.

I recall that each medical student had their own study habit. Some would skip lectures and study at the library before it got packed. Others would study the lecture material ahead of time and then study for a few hours after the lecture to cement the knowledge. And then others would spend the majority of their time at coffee shops, studying while listening to music, away from the chaos of the study rooms and labs.

As we get older it gets tougher to learn new habits, likely because we have tried many times to plug a new behavior into our daily routine just to fail, habituation due to decreased neuroplasticity. Examples are getting up and exercising, running before or after work, quitting smoking, reading for 30 minutes every day, volunteering at a clinic once a week, painting in our sketch book every weekend.

Getting That One Thing Done

From the book The ONE Thing, it’s important to me that I get that one particular thing done which will make the rest of my day easy and decrease my mind’s worry-level. Sometimes it’s writing a letter of recommendation that’s due or needing to get a document notarized and submitted so I stop thinking of that to-do task.

The book’s author, Gary Keller, talks about having a limited supply of willpower in any given day making it paramount to expend that mental energy on what matters most at the beginning of the day.

He goes on to mention that success is built one habit at a time, “Super-successful people aren’t superhuman at all; they’ve just used selected discipline to develop a few significant habits. One at a time. Over time.”

Plenty of studies show that for most of us the early part of the day is when we are most productive and have the strongest will-power. It’s easy to succumb to fatigue, exhaustion and stress as the sun starts setting. That’s around the time when I feel like lounging in front of a brainless video or eat something unhealthy. Any serious food binging I’ve done has been really late at night.

By waking up at 4am today I managed to catch up on a lot of small tasks, mostly replying to emails and completing small projects which needed just a touch of willpower in order to stamp them as ‘done’. My ONE thing for the day, however, was applying for this consulting position which I was able to cross off my list.

Why Wake Up At 4am

Seems like an arbitrary number doesn’t it? The main reason I picked 4am is that my buddy is a surgeon and he wants to get up early enough to have some time before he has to start cutting up people. In a recent post I mentioned what a pleasant experience it is to have a buddy system in order to achieve goals.

I suppose I am just that sort of person, though I consider myself internally driven it’s just easier to have someone who can motivate you and keep you accountable when you suffer motivational fatigue.

My normal wake-up time has been 830-930am. Most days I go to bed when I feel like it because I don’t have anything pressing to get to in the morning. I can’t help but have that feeling that I missed out on a really beautiful part of the day, when the weather is still cool, when there is no sound pollution or distractions and my mind is calm and receptive.

My partner wakes up at 5am most mornings to head out for work and because she doesn’t have a morning routine I don’t get to spend much time with her even if I wake up to see her off. By the time my brain and mouth can make a connection we’re talking 30-45 minutes and even then it’s a crap-shoot.

Why Shift Sleep From Later-Later To Earlier-Earlier

I don’t care to look for any scientific proof as to why shifting my awake-time to earlier might be beneficial. I am fairly in tune with my body and know that this brain isn’t good for much else except watching porn or Netflix come 8pm. For those of you who have butts to wipe, vomit to clean up and fights to break up in your household perhaps there is still some productivity left in you but being the pseudo-retiree that I am it’s even more important that I have structure – and I want the time dedicated to my highest priority tasks, the mental tasks, to be when I have the most mental energy.

By waking up early I can have a few hours to myself without the interruption of emails, phone calls, chores or other external distractions. Naturally it’s my job to make sure that I don’t have too many internal distractions either; our minds can often be the biggest source of distraction which appear in the form of repetitive/disruptive thought.

The Challenges of Waking Up Earlier

The first thing I thought about is that I need to now start going to bed earlier which can be tough since my partner is a night-owl. I enjoy being lazy later in the day and have a habit of having late dinners. Normally my wind-down routine begins with putting away reading or writing material and watching a little Netflix. Moving forward I plan on starting this routine around 5-6pm.

This morning I had a strong urge to want to jump back into bed between 5am until around 830am. After a shower and a walk down to a local coffee shop I no longer feel tired. I’m sitting here working on 2 posts and reading a recent book I purchased, How To Be An Explorer Of The World. I figure fighting the urge to go back to sleep will be part of adopting this new habit. I promised myself that the earliest I can take a nap is 10am. 

Procrastination will no longer be a convenient option. In the past I left whatever I needed to get done for right before bed-time. But now that I will need to be in bed by around 8pm I will have less time to spend with my partner or do things with friends who have more traditional hours. This means I will start taking care of my work earlier in the day and not leave anything for later which will just give me an excuse to go to bed late.

If I decide to make this my routine then I’m gonna have to properly deal with friends who are going to want to have a late-night meetup. Socializing in the American culture is often done later in the day due to the long work hours. Many of my friends don’t get off work until 5-6pm. I figure I’ll advertise my new routine to friends and family and if they still expect me to meet up late with them then I’ll just have them return the favor by hanging with me at 4am next time around.

Preventing Habit Extinction

In this last part I want to talk about making habits stick. I realize not everyone has an easy time downloading a new habit. The difference though, in my opinion, isn’t that it’s harder for one person vs another rather that some create barriers of entry for themselves. 

  • Focusing more on negative rather than positive outcomes.
  • Failing to allow for wiggle room.
  • Trying to milk too much out of the new habit.
  • Not reinforcing the underlying reason behind wanting this new habit in the first place.
  • Forgetting to set the alarm.

When I decided to be vegan I met some resistance from friends which I overcame by being a bit less strict when dining out with them. Some weren’t comfortable eating out with me because they felt bad chewing flesh… don’t quite get that one.

I became vegan by first being a vegetarian and then cutting out animal products from my diet. It was an easy transition and I allowed myself to falter plenty without punishing myself or feeling like I failed. After all, I’m not a vegan for the sake of satisfying the criteria outlined in a dictionary.

If you want to master anything then be great at failing. Sure, it might hurt your ego a bit but fail with authority and focus on your goal. My friends will attest to my many failures.

Becoming a vegetarian was easy, it took me just 1-2 weeks to make it stick. Becoming a vegan was an on and off ordeal for about 4 months and sometime around month 5/6 I didn’t have any problems with the concept and it felt very natural.

Other things I didn’t have a hard time adapting to are being active through exercising and becoming a minimalist. The main reason I was able to adopt these new habits was because I stuck with them despite the occasional hiccups and I stuck with them because they had important underlying meanings which I didn’t lose sight of. The action of getting up at 4am is somewhat irrelevant, it’s what you accomplish with it that should be your focus.

I wasn’t excessively hard on myself if I fell off the bandwagon and I constantly journaled as to why I was doing what I was doing. If I ate a beef sandwich I would just restart the next day by reminding myself that I didn’t care for animals to be ill-treated in farms. On occasion I would watch online documentaries to remind me why I was vegan. I make it seem very deliberate, in reality these reinforcing behaviors came naturally.

When I downsized to a micro-apartment I started out with pretty much 2 suitcases worth of stuff but slowly started buying shit I didn’t need to the point that when I moved out I was scratching my head wondering how the fuck I had collected so much crap (by my standards). If I bought something that I ended up not using much I would simply remind myself why I had downsized and sell the item as soon as it wasn’t serving an immediate purpose. That’s how I got rid of a an e-reader tablet, an extra bicycle and a fancy kitchen gadget within weeks of buying them.

How Long To Practice A Habit Until It Imprints

I researched this topic quite a bit and came across this supposed magical number which to me doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. How the fuck are you all of a sudden gonna go from “Someone please turn that fucking alarm off!” to “Oh joy, 4am and it’s freezing, I can’t wait to embrace the world with my retracted testicles!”. 

Sure, the longer you do something and stick it out the more likely you are to adopt it but there is an underlying reason that’s not purely temporal. Since most of you are edumacated and some can even read let’s skip the generic time-frame fuckery and jump to the how/why you can important new habits successfully through sensitization.

Needless to say that short of breathing nothing is a fully imprinted behavior. It’s easy to fall off any kind of bandwagon and I don’t care what these other vegans out there say but a juicy, smoky steak to me is still mouth-watering and possibly nitrous oxide releasing.

If you want to be in better health because you’ve got too many love-handles and worried about your cholesterol-level then you might start running every day and cut out the morning bacon. At first it’s just an action which is possibly as bitter of a pill to swallow as taking simvastatin.

In time you start feeling better about exercising because you’re getting more energy but of course it still sucks because you’re sweating and you don’t have enough workout clothes and it’s a huge pain in the ass to take those first steps to run. But you reinforce the positive feelings and don’t pay as much attention to the perpetual inhibitory thoughts which are designed to keep your momentum going and hindering your growth.

You then learn about new exercises and you figure out how to do some other cardiovascular exercise when you’re not able to run or perhaps you discover a sport that keeps you interested while giving you the desired health benefit.

If I wake up at 4am enough times I can start ignoring the tired eyes and the annoying alarm and instead get excited about what I can get done before my day starts getting hectic. I might meet others out and about who are into starting their day early and make friends. I get to watch the sun come up which is a beautiful byproduct of this early rising. Maybe I’ll start going for an early morning walk and improve on other bad habits such as late night eating which will further positively reinforce my new behavior.

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