4 Reasons Why I Still Wake Up at 4:22 A.M.

screenshot-2016-11-14-07-42-11Photo by flickr user FotoArt MB

This originally appeared on my column at Inc.com on 10/27/2016.

I love waking up when it’s still dark out. I feel the most productive when I can get several things done before most of the world is even awake. Eighteen months ago, I wrote a post about why I do that, called “Why I Wake Up at 4:22 A.M.,” and the response I received from readers all over the world was incredible.

I was talking last month to one such reader about how he could make some small changes in his morning habits to increase his productivity. The first question he asked me, however, was “Are you still waking up that early?”

A lot has changed in my personal and professional life over the last year and a half–I’m traveling more for work, my job has changed in scope as our company has grown, and I have several new responsibilities. Through all of this change, one of my most important constants is that I still wake up at 4:22 each morning.

Why?

Many people I encounter are a mixture of impressed and confused, or scared, by the fact I spring out of bed when most everyone else is still sleeping. But I actually find it pretty easy to get out of bed that early. That’s because I’ve discovered that determination and commitment to regimens are crucial–even during times of change.

1. I’ve recognized that things have changed

Since I published the piece referenced at the top of this article, Fuze has changed significantly. The company’s grown. My team has grown. I have more direct reports. The list goes on.

Throughout all that, I’ve kept my center by staying healthy, starting my day off right, and dedicating even more of my time to planning to make sure everything is as smooth as it can be.

Remember, having more or different responsibilities doesn’t mean you have to change what got you where you are.

2. I’ve embraced my constants

While a number of things have changed in my life since March 2015, there are a lot of things that haven’t. I still wake up at the same time–something I’ve been doing for more than a decade.

I find that the early morning hours are incredibly productive. Although my day-to-day roles and duties have changed, I’ve kept my early-morning hours free to devote the peaceful time to free thought. I also use my mornings to catch up on industry news and find out what our competitors are up to. I still vacuum twice a week. There’s also time for nonwork stuff, too. I’m still doing CrossFit every day at 6 a.m. and have started running on Friday mornings in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

3. I’ve learned to be adaptable

I spend my days running the product management team at Fuze here in NYC. I also spend about half the month traveling, to our headquarters in Boston as well as our various customers and sales offices around the world. During normal work hours, I don’t have time to just sit down and write anymore.

Rather than accepting that reality, I’ve chosen to be proactive in the early mornings. I use the time to write position papers, do competitive analysis, and try new products. I also do a considerable amount of planning, using Evernote to catch ideas that relate to product strategy. Once I make it to the office, I cue up what I’ve found and discuss it further with my team.

One of the biggest changes I’ve had to adapt to is the fact that I travel a lot more. Despite long flights and changes in time zones–think landing in Europe at 10 p.m. local time–I still force myself to wake up early and exercise.

You might think it’s a little obsessive to only book hotels that are within running distance to a CrossFit gym. I have found that no hack for fighting jetlag works better than taking a melatonin to get a deep sleep upon arriving, and then forcing myself to go to a 6 o’clock class the next morning. With a little bit of planning, you’re much more likely to work out and stick to your schedule. Your body remembers the pattern and starts to boot up much more quickly than if you’d given in to your jetlag and stayed in bed.

4. I know that staying healthy makes me happy

The bottom line is that no matter what comes your way or what changes in your personal or professional life, you need to take care of yourself. You need to take time for yourself and your job that allows you to plan better and become a more effective leader.

So many of us deal with changes by adjusting our whole routines. But, it turns out, sticking to some parts of your original regimen will help you adapt to the changes you face. There’s no sense in changing your entire life around just because you had a change in your life or job. Stick to what got you where you are, and chances are it’ll take you even further.

Why I Wake Up at 4:22am

cat-sleeping-in-funny-way-on-keyboard

I was having lunch with some co-workers last week and the topic of morning routines came up. Everyone was sharing what time they woke up, how much they liked or hated it, and the things they did immediately after their feet hit the floor. The conversation turned to me with the question of “Someone told me you get up super early, is that true?”

I’m usually hesitant to tell people what time I wake up in the morning. Sharing the time usually causes whomever I’m speaking with to say something like – emphasis usually theirs – “Seriously? WHY WOULD YOU GET UP THAT EARLY?”

That happened last week. When I told my coworkers that I voluntarily wake up at 4:22am every weekday they looked at me like I was crazy. They shared that familiar sentiment of shock and curiosity, colored with the appropriate observation of “WHY!? We don’t have to be at work until 9:15am.”

Let me explain.

Mr. Wizard

I’ve been a morning person since I was a little kid. As a young nerd I would stay up past midnight every night reading my Hardy Boys novels or writing programs in BASIC on my Apple IIGS (I really miss that computer). In the mornings, my parents would come downstairs when they woke up and often find me sitting by myself at 5:30am in the kitchen, eating Captain Crunch and watching back-to-back episodes of Mr. Wizard before getting ready for school.

There are numerous articles and guides that support the idea that mornings are a time when you’re more creative, energized and productive. The Journal of Applied Psychology even has a study that indicates a strong positive correlation between proactive people and morning people:

“Morning people were more proactive than evening types, and people with small differences in rise time between weekdays and free days were also more proactive persons. Sleep length (on weekdays and on free days) and total time spent in weekend oversleep did not show any relationship with proactivity. These results suggest that morning people are more proactive than are evening types.”

Before I share more, let me say that I do not believe that people who wake up at 8am (like my wife) are more lazy than others, or that people who need more sleep are some form of productivity laggards. The same study I shared above also highlights how differences in circadian rhythms, metabolism, and other individual factors strongly influence the amount of sleep you need and what time you need to wake up. Sleep length and times, like nutrition and many other things about our bodies, is inherently different across each of us and requires personal experimentation to maximize it.

I do believe that even if you’re not a ‘morning person’ in the traditional sense you can hack the early part of your day to make it more productive.

Being Principled

Like my email triage system and many other personal productivity hacks, I’ve spent a non-trivial amount of time ‘tuning’ my morning routine. I don’t want to get up early and waste the time reading Twitter and Instagram (which would be super easy), so I designed my mornings around these principles:

  1. Get chores out of the way
    I don’t get home until late and I hate coming home to chores (like taking care of the cats).
  2. Get my head on straight
    Plan my day, get my calendar in my head, and know what I’m doing that night.
  3. Get smarter
    Spend undistracted time learning new things. Get my tech news fix and re-share content.
  4. Get healthy
    Exercise and eat some good food.

The times below represent the goal state for how I want to spend my mornings. I think I do it with about 90% consistency. I believe that part of having a good morning routine is listening to your body and knowing when it’s telling you things like “Hey, you’re sick. You need to sleep in today.”, or the lovely “Yo dude, that fourth scotch last night was one too many. Take an Advil and go back to bed.”

The Routine

4:22am – Alarm goes off.

I set if for 4:22am because I believe that waking on the quarter or half hour makes it easy to say “I’ll just sleep for another 15 (or 30) min.” Sleeping an extra eight minutes feels less useful to me and incentivizes me to get up. I take those next eight minutes to actually wake myself up, trying to do it slow and with some degree of mindfullness. I sit up, clear my head, throw some sweats on, and put my contacts in.

4:30am – Chore duties.

I feed the cats, clean their water bowls, scoop litter, etc. We have three cats so this actually takes a few minutes. I’ll brew some coffee in parallel and also fill a giant bottle of water to drink before class. I run the laundry (I wash and dry, Amy folds), and do a little light vacuuming (with a quiet dust vac – I save the Dyson for weekends).

4:40am – Learn.

I’m trying to re-learn Italian this year, so I spend 10min every morning using Duolingo to practice different lessons. I found that it wakes my brain up and gets my Duolingo score up for the day. I then try to practice another 10min sometime during the day.

4:50am – Read.

I spend about 15min reading tech news sites. I like to read articles on their actual sites so I use a Chrome bookmark folder called “Daily Industry Review” to auto-open these sites and then click through them. I try to read 1-2 articles per site and will use Hootsuite to schedule them into my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds. Long articles get sent to Pocket for reading on the train.

5:05am – House logistics

I use this time to update our budget, take care of our rental properties, and deal with any household logistics that I need to via email. This is mostly managing our budget in the excellent YouNeedABudget software, emailing tenants about any issues, and reviewing notes from homeowners meetings.

5:15am – Plan my day

I spend the last 10min of this part of the morning reviewing my calendar for the day. I move personal and work appointments around as needed and generally get my head around where I’m going to be and who I’m going to be meeting with.

5:25am – Get to the gym

Get ready for the gym and bike to Crossfit. I usually get there about 15min early to stretch and warmup.

6:00am – Workout / Blog

I workout at Crossfit South Brooklyn on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays during the week, and both Saturday and Sunday on the weekend. Tuesdays and Fridays are rest days in our gym’s Crossfit programming, and on those days I use this hour to work on my blog.

Back when I first joined Microsoft I was single and had no after-work responsibilities. So I used to go to the gym after work but then wouldn’t get home until 11pm, all awake and energized from exercising. No bueno if you’re trying to get quality sleep (more on this later in the post). After a few months of dating Amy she asked me to not spend two hours per night at the gym instead of hanging out with her. A valid request, and my change to morning workouts happened pretty shortly thereafter. I quickly found I loved getting my workout in during the morning, a sentiment that has only gotten stronger since switching to Crossfit several years ago. It makes me feel energized, and I don’t have that nagging feeling of “damn it I have to go to the gym tonight” throughout the day.

7:15am – Cook, Eat, Triage

After I bike home from the gym I cook a quick breakfast for Amy and I. I’m usually starving since I work out fasted and will make (for myself) a four-egg scramble with bacon, sausage, and veggies, usually with yogurt and blueberries on the side. Yum. While I eat breakfast I take my first look at my work email, reviewing urgent threads and seeing what came in overnight. I keep Inbox Zero so anything in there is either new from the last 12 hours or returned by Boomerang.

8:30am – Head to work

Leave for work. I *love* the R train.

9:15am – Daily standup

Arrive at work for the daily scrum standup. Try to seize the day.

Small Goals, Big Results

As I mentioned earlier, this routine represents my ideal morning and I think I’m able to do it without about 90% consistency. The 10% is from things like traveling, being sick, having gone out the night before or having stayed up super late working. The times and structure for how I accomplish these task has come over time. A big part of the evolution has been setting small goals that work towards a bigger one. Many years ago I was waking up at 5am but I wanted to try waking up earlier. I knew I’d like an extra 30min in the morning, but that’s a big jump and also has a lot of impact on your evening. So I started small: my goal was waking up at 4:45am twice a week, then after a few weeks it became 4:30am, then after a few weeks I spread that out to all five weekdays. More recently that has worked with tasks like Duolingo, and even finding the optimal time to leave the house for the subway.

Count All The Sheep

If you’re still reading this (sorry it’s so long), you’re likely wondering what time I go to sleep since I wake up at 4:22 in the morning. When I was a kid doing the Captain Crunch + Mr. Wizard thing in the AM I was sleeping between four to five hours a night. My father is the same way and we’ve both maintained about five hours of sleep per night throughout our lives. I’ve never been tested but I’m fairly sure I have some variant of the ‘less sleep’ gene.

My goal for the past few years has been to keep improving the quality of the sleep I get by making small hacks and tweaks wherever possible. There’s a lot of good research and plenty of articles that describe how it doesn’t matter how much sleep you need – whether you’re an 8hr person or a 3hr person – it’s the quality that makes such a big difference and enables you to be more productive in the morning and the rest of the day. Unless I’m working late or am going out with friends, I’ll try to get in bed at 11pm on weeknights. Here are some of the hacks I do to get try and keep my sleep quality high:

  • No coffee after 3pm during the day. I’m uber sensitive to caffeine and only need my two cups in the morning.
  • No naps during the day.
  • I try to avoid using my computer or iPad for the 30min before I get into bed to reduce the amount of blue light pulverizing my brain. I have F.Lux running on all my devices to help with winding down when I need to work late.
  • I try not to eat my dinner right before bed.
  • I have a tablespoon of almond butter right before bed to help balance out my blood sugars.
  • I drink one full glass of water.
  • I spend about 15min reading on my Kindle Paperwhite after getting in bed.
  • I’ve found that using a sleep mask helps me a lot. A great side effect is that I’m now conditioned such that when I need to sleep in random places (redeye flights, trains, etc.), I pop the sleep mask on and literally start to get tired. #pavlov

The Reason

The best part about having a productive morning? When I leave work I feel like there’s nothing left for me to do except drink a glass of scotch, hang out with my wife and friends, or binge-watch House of Cards.

What’s your morning routine like?

* picture at the top from http://imgkid.com/cat-sleeping-funny-position.shtml