All my life, I’ve been the sort of person that likes to sleep until 2pm, then wake up and do things. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been more awake and active at night than during the day.
Being awake at night just feels natural to me. It always has.
Starting two weeks back, I decided to change things up a bit, and try something new. Instead of waking up at 1 or 2pm each day, I made a commitment to myself that for a month I’d wake up at 5am, Monday through Friday.
But that’s not all.
On top of that, I made a new schedule for myself as well. While I normally don’t stick to any formal schedules, I decided that in an attempt to force myself out of my comfort zone (and become a more awesome dude), I’d push myself extra hard this month by following a strict schedule, and maintaining an intense daily routine.
I’d like to use this opportunity to chronicle my experiences so far, so that I have something to look back on in the coming months.
Why Do This?
I have a somewhat freaky obsession with personal development. The idea of improving oneself both physically and mentally really appeal to me.
To that end, I’m constantly trying new things to up my game. I lift a lot of weights, diet hard, focus intently, and try to be as effective as possible with my work and fun projects.
All that aside, one of the few things I haven’t seriously tried over the years has been forcing myself to stick to a strict schedule. Maybe it’s my almost hilariously nonconformist attitude about everything, but the very idea of a structured, scheduled day seems like an incredibly dull way to live.
When I think about working a typical 9 to 5 job, my brain seems melt a little (luckily, I work for a company I co-own, which is pretty great).
Anyhow, back to the point. I decided that since I haven’t seriously tried maintaining a strict schedule, this would be an excellent way to force myself to try something new, get uncomfortable, and (hopefully) advance myself.
At the very least, my goal for this experiment is to measure my productivity over a decent length of time, and see:
- How well I can hold up to a schedule.
- How much I can produce (in terms of both work and personal projects).
- If I’m able to successfully balance my existing commitments and life with my new schedule (I’m married, after all).
To help me kick start my new schedule and give myself the highest odds of success, I also decided to flip my sleep schedule around. My reasoning here was that since I normally wake up in the afternoon (and have lots of work email / phone calls to deal with), forcing myself to wake up early AND maintain a new schedule would allow me to squeeze a lot more out of my days by giving myself plenty of uninterrupted time in the mornings to focus on my new schedule and get as much done as possible.
Getting Into the New Schedule
The first problem I had was forcing myself to bed early enough so that I could wake up at 5am reasonably well. Since I planned this all out, and, knowing myself, realized it would be nearly impossible to force myself to bed at 8pm each night – I decided to cheat: I took a sleeping pill.
The night before I started my new experiment, I took a sleeping pill at ~6:30pm, and eventually crawled into bed around 7:30pm and fell asleep by 8, leaving me with a solid 9 hours of rest so I’d be fresh for the first day.
NOTE: The sleeping pill method actually worked really well for me. Those things are pretty damn strong, and my first day into the new schedule was really easy to get through since I was fully rested. Occasionally (through the next two weeks) I took another sleeping pill to help myself get to bed early (my internal clock seems to force me to bed later and later every night).
In terms of my days (I only planned Monday through Friday, I left Saturday and Sunday open as free days), I decided to structure them as you can see below:
- 5:00am - 5:30am Wake up.
- 5:30am - 7:00am Go to the gym, lift weights, and do some stair master afterwards.
- 7:00am - 7:30am Breakfast and reading.
- 7:30am - 8:30am Two pomodoro worth of personal projects.
- 8:30am - 9:30am Break (relax, write, read, whatever).
- 9:30am - 1:30pm Do work (in pomodoro).
- 1:30pm - 2:30pm Lunch break!
- 2:30pm - 4:30pm Do work (in pomodoro).
- 4:30pm - bed Free time.
As you can see above, the proposed schedule leaves me with a solid 6 hours of uninterrupted work each day (that’s a lot of programming time), a full hour of personal project time, and plenty of free time.
NOTE: If you have no idea what a pomodoro is, don’t feel bad. It’s essentially a 25 minute block of time where you intently focus on a single task without distraction. If you’ve never read the book The Pomodoro Technique, you should – it’s awesome.
Getting into the groove for my new gym routine wasn’t hard at all. Before starting this experiment, I was already used to going to the gym immediately after waking up (with the exception of occasionally answering important work email first).
Since I started waking up early, I haven’t checked my work email at all in the morning, so it’s been really easy to jump out of bed, brush my teeth, chug a protein shake, and head out to the gym.
Working on my personal projects after the gym has been easy and fun. I love working on side projects, they keep me happy and make me feel productive – spending an hour on them in the morning has been great.
Previously, I found it really difficult to squeeze time into my day to work on fun projects. It is way too easy to wake up late in the day, and immediately be bogged down by work email, urgent phone calls, and all other sorts of madness.
The way you start your day also really affects how awesome (or shitty) your day is going to be. I’ve had plenty of days where as soon as I wake up I’m inundated with phone calls and emergencies. It’s really easy to let stressful mornings like that ruin the rest of your day, and it’s happened to me way too much.
Getting an early start and having plenty of uninterrupted time to hack on my personal projects always gets me into a great mood. By the time I actually start my work later in the day, I’ve already:
- Gone to the gym and gotten in a good workout.
- Worked on something important to me personally, and made good progress.
- Had a bit of time to relax, read, write, and spend some quiet time alone.
So far, my hour of personal project time every morning has become the most cherished part of my new schedule, and has really made a huge difference in my day to day happiness.
Before starting this experiment, my work schedule was usually very chaotic.
Instead of spending blocks of time dedicated to working (I work from home), I’d instead spend most of my day in reactionary mode: writing code that needed to be built, handling customer email, working on various projects, having meetings, etc.
Doing things the old way was partially good, and partially bad. It was good in that I had absolute freedom (most of the time) in terms of what I was doing at any given moment. It was bad in that I spent a lot of the time reacting to things instead of getting things done.
Over the past few months I ended up working 12+ hours a day, as I never had any sort of schedule, and instead of working for a few hours and stopping – I’d just continuously be working on things. My default state was always working.
Unfortunately, while I’ve always known my practices weren’t optimal, it wasn’t until these past few weeks that I realized just how bad things really were.
Since starting my new schedule, I’ve specifically moved all customer facing things (phone calls, email, etc.) back until after my lunch break. For the first four hour block of time I spend working (~9:30am - 1:30pm), I exclusively write code in little pomodoro blocks.
After lunch, where I have two more hours of work scheduled, I’m a bit more flexible – if there’s anything important that needs to be done (non-coding wise), then I’ll do it (phone calls, etc.).
This change has been profound.
Instead of spending an enormous amount of time each day responding to work events, I’m instead making a ridiculous amount of progress each morning without interruption, and finishing an immense amount of work in really short blocks of time.
At first, it was definitely hard to stay focused for a four hour block, but I’ve found that with the right music and right pomodoro app on my phone, it’s become much easier (and more rewarding).
It’s a great feeling to have lunch half way through the day knowing you’ve already accomplished a ton of stuff. My stress levels are lower, I feel happier, and I’m getting way more done than I used to.
There’s also something really relaxing about knowing that I don’t even need to keep a Gmail tab open in my browser until after lunch – no alerts, no nothing.
After my six hours of work are up, I have free time until I go to bed. Since starting my new schedule, I’ve used this time for a variety of things.
I’d say that so far, about 50% of my free time has been spent continuing my work on various things – sometimes this means doing Google Hangouts with co-workers, sometimes this means hacking on interesting bits of code, and sometimes it just means reducing technical debt.
With the rest of my time, I’ve done a mix of different things:
- Go for a long bike ride with my wife. We just got new bikes, so this is pretty high up on the list.
- Cook dinner and watch a movie. This is really relaxing, especially after spending all day being productive. Sometimes I just need to completely zone out for a couple of hours and recuperate on the couch.
- Spend time writing or reading. Most of this article was written last night after work.
- Hacking on my side projects.
In the future, I’d like to shift things around such that after my six hours of work are finished, I’m done for the day and will instead do other fun things. I think this would be a good way for me to avoid burning out in the long term, as I spend a ton of time and energy working, and six hours of solid, focused work seems like the upper limit of what I’m currently able to handle per day.
So far, I’ve really enjoyed my new schedule. At this point in time, it’s clear that adhering to a strict schedule has greatly boosted my productivity, increased my day to day happiness, and made me feel a lot more awesome.
The downsides so far have been that I’ve been more inaccessible to my wife, and less flexible with free time – but I think that over time, this will improve as both of us will get used to the new schedule, and find better ways to maximize our free time together.
So for now, the experiment has been a huge success. I’ll report back in the next several weeks after my first month is finished up, and I’m able to better evaluate the overall results.
Got any questions? Feel free to shoot me an email.