A New Chapter in Making Progress

December 4, 2020

Progress.

When I used to read social media posts from the Rise-and-grind™ glitterati, the half of my brain that didn’t scoff and chortle was deeply curious and a little envious. How did they have the discipline to not only rise so early but have any remaining mental capacity to subsequently grind? Beyond the pretenders, hustle-signalers, and full-on poseurs, I knew there had to be some merit to the idea, but I never had a strong enough compulsion to give it a try until recently. This essay explains the winding back and forth from nightly screen dependency to early-rising productivity. I’ll go over the tradeoffs between these two states, how they affect my sleep, feelings of self-worth, productivity, fitness, and how it enhances my outlook on life.

Let’s start with the catalyst: my old nightly ritual

This may sound familiar: I ate dinner 4 hours ago. I’m on my couch watching something that may or may not be any good and I’m getting a bit sleepy. I inevitably ask the question, “One more episode, or should we call it a night?”. The screen goes black, I waddle up to the bedroom, perform my ablutions, and get nice and cozy. Then, astonishingly, I pull out a smaller version of the screen from downstairs and gaze into those sweet, sweet pixels for another fifteen minutes. An hour. Two hours. Surely not…three hours?

Missed opportunities

I’m a habitual self-doubter, so it’s pretty common for me to look at what I’m doing at any given time and question its utility. Wasting up to three hours every night clapping eyes on a tiny screen fits effortlessly into that category. Did I read anything that day? No. Did I make any art or practice writing? No. Did I play soccer outside with my youngest son or take my daughter out to practice her driving? No. Did I do the neck stretches my doctor recommended to help correct my crappy posture? No. Should I have done any or all of those things? Yes. More specifically, did I have time to do so?

I set out to achieve two primary goals: a) make creative progress, and b) waste less time at the end of the day. How much progress? How much time? Any. Once any is accomplished, I can reevaluate to determine if more granularity is necessary.

The routine itself

Freedom is found in the strictness of these blocks of time. I specify very clearly the times and activities, but I go no deeper in detail for good reason. The details matter so much less than the act of doing something consistently. Of course, ideally, when I do these things, I’m doing them deliberately and with a preponderance of forethought, but that’s tough to achieve every time. The act of consistently creating is what’s most important, as it builds on itself like compound interest. Keep at it, and eventually, a great thing will be out in the world.

  • 5:00am: Wake up. Brush teeth. Empty bladder.

  • 5:15am: Get shoes on. Put headphones in. Exit the house. Get on my bike.

  • 6:15am: Return. Do posture exercises.

  • 6:20am-7:30am(ish): Draw

  • 7:30am(ish)-8:30am(ish): Read.

  • 8:30am(ish)-9:30am: Write.

  • 9:30am-9:30pm: Everything else.

  • 9:30pm-5:00am: Sleep.

Keeping things balanced

A constant battle rumbles in my mind between my desire to improve and my aversion to the rat race. Typically the rat race is associated with career advancement and burning yourself out over ultimately inconsequential trivialities, but in my mind, it represents any compulsion to act for actions own sake. The busyness facade. So it’s natural for me to reject the notion that watching TV, scrolling the internet, or playing video games are complete wastes of time. However, I have unfinished projects that give me unease every time I think about them, diminishing any feeling that I’ve earned even a moment of free time. Making consistent progress without pressuring myself too much is the balance I’m aiming for.

Where is it written that I have to be productive with my free time?

Nowhere. Any critics of the King of Hustle, Gary Vaynerchuk, ignore his loudest disclaimer: if you’re happy doing what you’re doing, keep doing that. His commentary on hustle is only for those afflicted with cases of “I want to move toward something better but ‘it’s too hard’, ‘I’m too busy’, or ‘there’s not enough time’”. My improvement experiment is still young and since I’m a naturally content person it may prove difficult to sustain over time. This being the second time I’m trying it out (third time if you count the time I was crunching to finish a side project some years back), there’s a cyclical element to it that I haven’t put my finger on yet. The daily pattern may also be manifesting itself throughout a year. For example, my day consists of a small, concentrated block of high productivity, followed by a large block of moderate productivity, followed by a block of rest. I wonder if my year follows the same pattern and I use this routine as my small block of high productivity. Maybe I can do this unfettered for 3 months, then spend 6 months with a less consistent but still productive mode, then spend 3 months utterly loafing. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Tradeoffs

Since this routine is crafted very specifically to maximize my strengths and mitigate my natural weaknesses, so far I only have to entertain the illusion of tradeoffs. I could claim things like limited socializing due to the early bedtime (in non-COVID times, of course), but I’m a homebody and have to be dragged out of the house most of the time. I can imagine others running up against some fundamental downsides to operating this way, not least of which is the inability to do anything fun late into the night. It’s conceivable that extroverts or even mildly social people would balk at the idea of going to bed before ten o’clock every night. I guess. I dunno. Extroverts all go to bed late, don’t they? I should read up on that. I’ll read up on that and get back to you. Regardless, this is the end of week five and I’ve yet to find something I don’t love about this routine.

Sleeping easy

I defy anyone to show me something more unanimously agreed upon as the importance of getting enough sleep. The only arguments are over the minutiae of how little is too little or how much is too much. And while I didn’t set out to improve my sleeping habits, that’s precisely what I’m getting. I’m knackered by nine-thirty and I don’t feel my devices tugging at my attention. The knowledge that I have to wake up at five the next morning further suppresses those urges, so staying strict with my times is important to keep everything working in concert. Going to sleep and waking up on time typically requires some amount of will power, but I’m tired enough at the end of the night that sleep looks imminently more enticing than…anything, really. Taking willpower out of the equation means I’m less likely to break the routine, which is a positive feedback loop. It takes more willpower to wake up, but I have a new reserve to work with as opposed to at the end of the day where it’s mostly gone. That stuff’s a finite resource, so save it wherever you can.

The second week was the toughest as my brain and body resigned themselves to this being the new normal, but since then it’s become well ingrained. Waking up is unpleasant no matter what time I start my day, but falling asleep became not a struggling, fruitless pursuit to quiet my mind, but a relaxing and effortless drift. If I had to guess, I would posit that the daily creative progress I’m making has as much to do with a quieter mind as the fatigue associated with waking up so early. Usually, when I have trouble falling asleep it’s due to some overarching anxiety about things left undone. Making progress of any kind tends to quell a lot of my trepidation.

Progress as an antidote to anxiety

No one wants to be moving backward, but stagnation is almost as bad. Fans of football history will well know the concept of Lombardi time: “If you’re early, you’re on time and if you’re on time, you’re late.” My progress tends to follow a similar ethos. Moving forward is ok, but staying still is moving backward. Or something like that. This area can get sketchy, however, in regards to the amount of pressure I place on my shoulders. I want to maximize my relationship with my judge while preventing him from becoming my tyrant. So far, everything about what I’m doing is making me feel less anxious, more self-confident, more grounded, and more balanced. The second something in this routine bears not contentment and happiness but anxiety and resentment, it has to go. My hypothesis that these blocks of productivity are cyclical for me means the change from one edge of the sword to the other should not only be expected but embraced. Then, as the theory goes, a more relaxed but still productive routine can begin, followed by a full period of rest where little to no progress is desired.

Making time to make stuff

The essay you’re reading right now is an example of something I would never be able to achieve without this routine. Nor would I be able to make any progress on longer-term art projects (I currently have an art series in progress for the first time since college). I arrived at these ideas through small yet consistent output and it seems comical how long it took me to understand these compounding effects and apply them to my life. I guess that’s another notch in the belt of late bloomer-dom.

The beauty lies in the reallocation of the scattered, haphazardly dispersed free time into a single block of purposeful, mindful progress. It doesn’t have to be lengthy but it does have to be free from distractions. I don’t always get that part right but it gets easier with practice, especially when you see the results. Silencing my phone is easy, but curbing my penchant for distraction takes quite a bit more effort. This is a major reason why I chose early morning as my block of time for all things creative. My well of willpower at its fullest and I know there’s nothing else I’m supposed to be doing that time of day. For example, I’m not going to tackle household chores at six in the morning, so there’s no reason anything like that would even enter my mind. Multiply that across innumerable potential daily tasks and I effectively sidestep an entire genre of shiny objects.

Becoming less sedentary

Blessed with favorable genetics, I don’t consider unfitness among my many afflictions. Unfortunately, outward appearances don’t translate to internal health, so while I may look in shape, it’s probably not ideal for my heart rate to remain below 70 BPM indefinitely. I love playing sports, but loathe exercising, so going to the gym is out of the question for me. I could go jogging, but that seems dubiously similar to exercising. In the search for a way to get moving while still sitting down, I concluded that puttering around on my bike satisfies those needs. Admittedly, this is nearly the lowest possible amount of effort to qualify as exercise, but keep in mind I’m simply trying to get above zero (0) efforts. Thick sarcasm aside, hopping on the bike and riding around a still sleeping town is a nice way for me to clear out the cobwebs, get some podcast time in, get my limbs moving a bit, and get energized for each day. I don’t plan to increase my intensity or beat any personal bests over time. This is nothing more than a kick starter to get my brain out of its morning fog and an excuse to claim with any sort of honesty that I’m not 100% physically inert.

Having something to look forward to

The opportunity to do something worthwhile may not present itself organically every day. Some days end up being terrible and there’s not much I can do about it, but with this routine, every day can at least start well. At the end of a particularly aggravating day, I have an emotional anchor from the future wishing me good night, excited to say hello, and give me a gentle pat on the back when I wake up the next day. The daily relief afforded by that small reassurance helps me keep everything in perspective, mitigating the build-up of the pressures and stresses of life and keeping my outlook positive.

Takeaways

This is the second time I’ve adopted a routine like this. It didn’t last forever the first time, and I’m willing to bet it still won’t now. This time, however, I wanted to understand more about myself as I tried to get to the root of why I would ever do this at all. Here’s a tl;dr of some of the positives:

  • Reallocate wasted time to another block where progress toward more meaningful things will happen.

  • Remove willpower from both going to sleep and waking up.

  • Add energy and satisfaction to the start of every day, setting me up for success, regardless of the small failings & frustrations of daily life.

  • Make progress in the meaningful things themselves - the whole point of this entire exercise.

  • Attain some personal freedom - claim total ownership over a specific block of time where no one can distract me.

I’m looking forward to not only seeing how long I can sustain these habits, but the resulting progress it affords my writing, art, and reading goals.