How to Start a Riot

I’ve written quite a bit already about how I’ve become a morning person. For this particular post, I want to share how it came about originally and some of my more recent observations with regard to how developing a morning routine has helped me change.

First off, the inspiration for mornings as a Conquer List item began with me being me. Aside from the 1-year period between late 2007 and late 2008 in which my all-compelling motivation to become a police officer got me out of bed super early, I have always been the worst. The worst at snooze buttons, the worst at rationalizations, the most vocal about “ungodly hours” and “sleep being better than sex”. You literally couldn’t find a more dedicated anti-morning person than me. As for how that came about, I will discuss at a later point. But it suffices to say that as recently as this June, most mornings you could find me lagging about until the last possible minute in bed.

Before I actually did conquer the mornings came the Awakening. I’m actually not sure what I want to call it. The Renaissance? The New Age? I’m sure some inspiration will come to me. Coming off the heels of a post-breakup trip to Jamaica with my mother, I had realized a few somewhat dire things about my work life: if I did not find a way to motivate myself and make my own way, I was pretty much sunk. My employer was big on goal-setting, but this as a concept had never been introduced to me. On top of that, nobody else seemed to know anything about it either. What was the purpose of goals? What should they look like? How do you set them? Basically anything to do with goals was completely foreign to me. On the other side of Jamaica, I was armed with the desire and inspiration to figure this out for myself. Since I didn’t know anything about goals, that seemed like the most obvious goal right there: Find things to read that would teach me what it meant.

Now, I’ve always styled myself as a “reader”. I’ve always kept a library going at the apartment and taken in pride in looking at the titles. The real truth however was that I was a terrible reader. I’d start a book, then set it down for months if not permanently. If I did manage to toil through a title, it would be months after starting and then naturally I’d consider myself among the most learned of men to walk the earth (I’m imagining a “Finishes one book” meme here with a picture of me followed by Aristotle or something). So this was actually something that would be a bit of a challenge, but I had something going for me: my daily commute. Roughly 40-45 minutes a day on the Red Line, plus other mass transit time around town since I’d ditched my car a couple years before. So the plan was hatched: I would find books that would teach me about goal-setting and other corporate core values, then read the shit out of them.

The first book was a goldmine: Angela Duckworth’s Grit. Within a chapter or two she had introduced me to the concept of the “goal hierarchy”, in which lower-level goals roll up to larger goals of which they are aggregate parts, which in turn roll up to an Ultimate Concern that gives purpose to everything beneath it (I hadn’t yet discovered what purpose was… that wouldn’t happen until about three books later).  Adopting this concept immediately, I continued to plunge into title after title. Mindset (Dweck) taught me I could improve at anything. Start With Why (Sinek) taught me about the power of purpose. The Power of Habit (Duhigg) taught me about keystone habits; the little things in life that generate small wins and build into big things. Essentialism (McKeown) taught me about “Protecting the Asset”. And then the final breakthrough was a tip from Kevin Anderson in “Your Oxygen Mask First” about a cool company called Habit Nest that created the “Morning Sidekick”, a purpose-built journal designed to ingrain a proper morning routine for anybody willing to pick up a pen and commit to the program. The Conquer List item was official.

By mid-July when I started the Sidekick journal, I was already getting into things like making the bed first thing after getting up. Great start, but it was still getting put off on the regular occasion when I just didn’t get up with enough time to bother with it. I was so hungry for it when I began the journal that it almost felt natural. Initially I stuck to 10pm bedtime and 6am rise, which then shifted to 9pm bedtime and time 5am rise. The routine began to stick: Journal. Glass of ice water. Shower. Do chores. Do push-ups (I had to start at a max set of 6 reps). Make the bed. Get dressed. Process yesterday’s expenses. Study German. Basically, over the sixty days that the journal covered, I was able to fit into the morning routine 20-30 minutes of activities to support all my other conquer list items. Life was changing rapidly now. The riot had begun.

This was all not without its troubles and pains, mind you. I found that the people I regularly associated with were sapping me of time, money, and health. I was still drinking enough to forget things every Friday night and it would be almost at the end of the first sixty days before I was able to keep the journal going through the whole weekend. My budget was revealing some major pain points that had been bleeding me dry for years. Ultimately, though, it was getting better a little bit at a time and that is genuinely all you can hope for.

Recently I’ve discovered how routines can save your life. I came off a pretty decent bender – Nashville bachelor party. I had started drinking Thursday right after work, and that pretty much continued until I was home Sunday at 7:30pm. This basically ruined me, but the routine was still there to catch me. By Wednesday AM I was nearly back to 100%. It reminded me though of how easy it is to kill good progress. How many times in my past had I had great intentions going into a fun weekend, and by the time I came out the other end I was right back where I started? For this reason, I am so grateful that prior to developing this routine I engineered a lifestyle that would support it even if there are the occasional trips out to the edge.

The Seven Year Struggle

When I started the Conquer List, smoking was an obvious charter member.  As I write, I’m 5+ weeks since the last cigarette and the cravings are gone. How’d that happen?

The Conquer List is all about methodology; hunkering down and building out a holistic plan for killing the enemies of my goals. But smoking didn’t get conquered that way at all. Most habits take time to kill, like a slow strangulation. I had expected this for quitting something I’ve done pretty regularly since working a bar in Grand Rapids near the end of 2011. But it did not happen that way.

What makes the Conquer List so effective is that everything on it has a direct correlation to my top-level goals. Let’s look at two of them: becoming a Divemaster, and winning a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competition. Being a Divemaster requires time, money, and health. BJJ requires the same. What’s something I can conquer that would give back more time, more money, and better health? Exactly.

So there I was at BJJ class, after about two weeks. This class was special because it was the first time I’d done an actual “roll”, which is a free-form sparring session. You’re essentially fighting a guy for 5 straight minutes.  This absolutely murdered me, and made me realize just how poor my conditioning had become. In fact, it reminded me of Day 1 at police academy which was difficult even as a 25-year old who didn’t smoke.

Walking out after class into the warm summer air, still gasping, I realized that I’d never get anywhere in this sport if the smoking continued. And so it stopped. The crazy thing is it was really just that simple. By the time I had walked the five minutes home, my mind had decided that BJJ was more important. Since that moment back in August I have had two cigarettes in total.

I understand that this isn’t going to work for everybody. I also went through the traditional remedies; spent lots of money on expensive gums and vaporizers. Phone apps with pictures of my crush du jour to motivate me to quit. Everybody is different and I expect that different things will work or not work. I do believe though that the mind can decide that there’s something important that it wants to do, and suddenly anything that doesn’t fit gets written over with something that actually helps get it what it wants.

Where the mind goes, the body will follow. -Arnold Schwarzenegger



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Now this here, this is what the Conquer List was really meant for. This book, according to the author, is “designed for persons who cannot draw at all, who feel that they have no talent for drawing, and who believe that they probably can never learn to draw.” This describes me exactly.

Drawing is something that I’ve always told myself “I’ll never be able to do that” which made it a perfect candidate for the Conquer List. The reality is that drawing should be no different from learning any other skill. My first inspiration in this regard came from Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset”, in which she defines a “Growth” mindset as being one which the mind always feels it can learn more about anything. Talent, as people have generally thought about it, is way over-hyped. Or is it? We shall see, my friends. We shall see.