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.

Make it Stick

Once in a while I’d really attack something and I’d be really proud of myself. Get it done right away, put the right priority on it, whatever else I thought “attacking something” was supposed to look like. The off-times I’d do this would convince me for a fleeting moment that I was a real go-getter. Getting a credit card down to zero for the first time in a year. Wow, I must really have my shit together.

But back home the laundry basket was overflowing, two Blue Apron meals were spoiled in the fridge, and I hadn’t been to the gym in months (while paying a $50 membership fee for each of those months). And sure enough six months later there was another $7500 somehow sitting on that card again. The go-getting didn’t stick; I would always find myself back in the same spot, doing the things I liked but refusing to do the things I didn’t like. How did this change?

I changed what my mind likes by first recognizing mundane but essential daily life things as not boring, but a challenge. Next I discovered the joy of overcoming those challenges. I have flipped yet another script in my head; instead of blowing off the easy thinking I’ll focus on the hard, I attack & conquer the mundane, boring, easy things. Through this I have literally re-programmed my brain to procedurally do the needful. The routines have enabled me to switch from having to make conscious decisions to attacking small but consequential things in the right priority automatically.

It trickles down into everything. Now instead of tossing clothing on the floor it somehow automatically finds its way into a folded state in my dresser. Socks are now always right-side-out after I take them off so I don’t have to do it at laundry time. Dishes are done. Laundry is clean. Beds are made. German is studied. Books get read. Blog posts are written. Food gets logged on my phone. And I barely even notice it happening! 

These tiny little things that improve life in micro-increments now are on autopilot. The Good Priorities Autopilot underpins essential, hard things like getting up early, getting my ass to Jiu-Jitsu class, getting ugly projects at work done, all of it. I have started to see the contrast between the things in life that move me forward and the ones that get me nowhere (or worse). Even better, I have started seeing how little things become very big things in the aggregate.

With this new clarity, I now see everything as a choice: do I build my life right now, or do I spin my wheels? I don’t want to let 45-year old me down, so it’s time to make good decisions stick.

photo: Car Stuck in Mud, c. 1920
credit: Underwood Archives