NOTE: I no longer wake up at 4:50am. Primarily due to obligations that happen too late in the day to make it feasible. This blog post still describes one of the times of my life I was most productive, so I think it’s still useful.
I have two daily goals in my life right now: wake up at 4:50am every day, and go to the climbing gym. Focusing on early-rising, this blog post will explain how I came up with these goals, and how they affect my life.
First, let me clarify that these are literally the goals. I don’t force myself to be productive when I wake up at 4:50. Sometimes, I just watch anime for an hour. In the same way, I don’t force myself to workout at the gym. There are days where I walk into the gym, turn around, and leave. However, I typically DO accomplish a lot more in the morning just by being present in those moments. My typical morning will consist of making some fancy-ass coffee and breakfast, coding for a few hours, and working out before getting to work between 8-10am. For me, re-arranging my life to put me in the right place at the right time gives me the motivation to get things done.
When Waking up Early Didn’t Work
This is not my first attempt at waking up early. Interviews of ex-Navy Seal commander Jocko Willink explaining why he wakes up ta 4:30am are popular inspiration porn on Youtube, and it’s difficult to watch those videos and without trying to wake up early at least once. I was especially drawn to Jocko’s description of self-discipline, and his tagline “discipline equals freedom”. He explains that to have more time, you need to have more discipline with your time. By waking up early, you take end-of-the-day time that you would normally be too tired to accomplish anything, and move them to the morning, where you have more will-power and less distractions. No one distracts you, because they are sleeping. I was super inspired, and resolved to wake up at 4:30 every day. I lasted about a week before I just gave up.
The reason discipline didn’t work for me at 4:30am, ironically, is for the same reason I tried to wake up early in the first place! It was explicitly my goal, but I wanted to wake up early to write a novel (ok, an app, but a novel breaks down more eloquently in this example). This is going to go great! I’m motivated! I’m driven to finish this novel! I’m going to get up early to write this thing! The problem is that it takes a LONG TIME to finish a novel, and motivation isn’t consistent over a long period of time. Consider, “I have to get up at 4:30am to finish writing my novel.” Writing a novel takes many mornings, and can feel like an unconquerable mountain. At times, it almost feels like you’re actually saying “I have to get up at 4:30am for no reason. I can totally sleep in, and get back to this after work tonight”. Suddenly, even getting up becomes a Herculean effort, you turn off your alarm, turn over, and go back to sleep. You wake up at 9:00am, go straight to work, work runs late, you get back tired, go to sleep, and never get in your novel-writing time. At the time, I didn’t learn really take away the correct lesson from this failure. My thought was “Oh. I guess I’m just not that much of a morning person.”
Looking back, I should have looked to make my goals more simple and achievable. Let’s try to break this down:
- “Ok, I’ll wake up at 4:30am and finish writing a chapter.”
- “Ok, I“ll wake up at 4:30am and finish writing a page.”
- “Ok, I’ll wake up at 4:30am and write something.”
- “Ok, I’ll wake up at 4:30am.” + “Ok, I’ll write something during the day.”
This is why I choose to maintain very simple day-to-day goals. Because this goal is split in two, the first is easy to accomplish AND feeds into the 2nd goal. I can wake up at 4:30, feel good about accomplishing that, and then, since there’s nothing to do at 4:30am, I might as well write a bit of the novel. And once I start writing, I might as well try to finish my thought, which could easily become a page or a chapter. I DO have long-term goals, like writing a novel, but I don’t use those to motivate me on a day-to-day basis. I try to create the simplest goals that put me in the right place to be productive; making productivity the path of least resistance.
Productivity & Path of Least Resistance
When I was in college at UC San Diego, I was music director for an acappella group, called the Tritones. Twice a week, I would lead 2-3 hour rehearsals. In spite of the busy lives of college students, I still wanted us to make the most amazing music we could, so I had to make each of these hours count. The problem is that college students can get rather distracted during rehearsals. I found that the most effective way to lead a rehearsal was to try my best to accomplish a specific goal: turn making great music into something fun, easy, and achievable.
More specifically, I took at least a few hours before each rehearsal mapping out EXACTLY what I wanted to do during that rehearsal. I would then boil down these notes into a quick-glance kind of rehearsal schedule. that would look something like this:
This level of planning would keep rehearsals extremely fast-paced, because I didn’t need to take any breaks to explain what was happening next. I would skip between songs that had similar concepts, addressing specific voice-parts with advice while everyone else was singing, juggling lots of different pieces. This style of directing leaves little to no downtime between instructions; similar to when someone talks to you without breaking in the middle, it’s easier to listen than it is to interrupt. In this way, following the flow of the rehearsal becomes easy.
We got a LOT more done during rehearsals when I introduced this style of directing. We mastered songs so quickly that we started to consistently run out of arrangements to sing, even though we had multiple arrangers. We recorded the album Out of Control, and just generally had one of the most productive years of Tritones ever. In hindsight, it’s strange to think that with all this success in a group leadership setting, I never really thought to apply these same kinds of concepts to the rest of my life.
When Waking up Early DID Work
This time, when I tried to wake up early, I wanted to take the things I learned, and apply them to my life:
- Focus on the process
- Make productivity the path of least resistance
Going back to Jocko Willink, he appeared in a Casey Neistat video, where he stated this gold: “Let’s say you’re the most ultra-motivated guy in the world. And when that alarm clock goes off, there’s at least 50% of the time, where you just want to stay there. And it takes discipline to go “Nope. I gotta get out of this bed and do what I’m supposed to do…” And the discipline to do that is a big victory that carries over the rest of the day.“
This is a perfect example of the feeling I get waking up in the morning. This is why my goal is to wake up and get out of bed at 4:50am (NO SNOOZE). I don’t wake up at 4:50 to accomplish anything in particular, because that ends up feeling too difficult. I like having that feeling of success that I get by waking up at 4:50. Waking up early is hard, and I feel accomplished when push myself do it. By making the process the goal, I start feeling like I’m a person that does something as early as possible.
Going to the Gym
Going to the Gym is a separate kind of goal. It is something that is easy to do, but forces me to be healthy. When I get into a project, I tend to get so invested in it that I sacrifice my health. I can easily spend long hours coding, forget to eat, and get tired. While “going to the gym” is the literal goal I set, the obvious thing it’s going towards is that I work out more. Working out at the gym does a few things for me, but generally, it just forces me to regulate my life a bit more. If stop eating enough, I get reeeeally really tired, and I can’t work out. It forces a schedule on me a little bit, since I try to go to the gym as soon as it opens (6am on weekdays, 8 on weekends). This means if I want to code, I gotta hop to it! Lastly, it just makes me pay more attention to my body, generally. This is just something I don’t do enough.
Really, the main point of this post is to inspire you to take a bit more control over your life by making very simple goals! Give yourself smaller incremements to achieve, so that you can keep feeling accomplished. Then, you can feel confident you are reaching towards your goals without getting too stressed out a daily basis. Good luck! I believe in you!