Becoming a Morning Person

April 1, 2022
'All successful people wake up before sunrise' my mom would always tell me growing up. She tried her best to make me get out of bed early, but unfortunately it didn't work. As far as I remember I was never a morning person, or so I thought.

Early years:

The school started around 7am and being there on time was compulsory. So I've experienced waking up early, but never enjoyed it. Also, during school exams I'd wake up even earlier (around 5am), for last minute revision. I was half asleep, desperate to keep my eyes open and cram the highlights; mostly ended up falling asleep on the book, I was miserable.

Whenever I could, I'll study late into the night. It was very quiet and for some reason it felt fulfilling. Studying and snacking after midnight quickly became my thing, especially from 9th to 12th standard in school. This tendency continued in college and beyond.

Working in a call centre:

The time I was done with college, the world was going through an 'outsourcing revolution'. Back offices for leading Fortune 500 companies were opening up in 'almost rural' Indian setting. And since I didn't have many options, I joined GE Capital's call center (now GenPact) in Jaipur, my hometown.

The best part of the job? I was working night shifts (EST) with my school friends. I'd see morning joggers on the way home after work, and think of them as weirdos. I had a lot of fun in this job, and remember going for midnight samosas and chai during our breaks with friends.

MBA:

After working in the call center for about two years, I moved to Mumbai for my MBA. Masters was all about burning the midnight oil, and of course that was my jam!

The MBA hostel would come to life only after dinner. Someone playing 'Hotel California' on his guitar, a group watching 'Friends' in the next room, and some might even be studying. Two years residential MBA, was mostly about late night chillin', midnight Maggi, and some last minute assignments.

Work life, India:

Advertising agencies are quite similar to call centers, except they can't officially announce they work Eastern Standard Time! Lo and behold, that's where I went to work after my MBA.

Work discussions/meetings would start only after lunch, and work will mostly happen after dinner (and beer of course). After the agencies, I landed in an ed-tech startup with young nocturnal engineers. The common area in the office was equipped with video games, DVDs and cable TV; a great setting for midnight brainstorming sessions!

The fact that you can reimburse your dinner and cab back home if you've stayed late in office, might have been the reason for this culture. I remember having beer and egg biryani at those investor funded dinners!

Work life, Nigeria:

In Lagos, I was self-employed, so I can't blame any company culture. At this time, I was a certified night-owl. Work way past midnight, start the day late and repeat. I was an entrepreneur and my hustle shouldn't end with sunset! I relied on espresso shots to wake me up. Looking back, don't think I was very productive at the time but I didn't know any better.

After my first Vipassana course in early 2019, I started to become self-aware and took notice of my perpetual lethargy. My partner was up early everyday, did her yoga and told me how alive she felt. Maybe waking up early could be the solution. But that's not for me, because 'I am not a morning person' I'd tell myself.

I know better now, we all are morning person. Our ancestors didn't hunt after sunset. We don't have night-vision capabilities; clearly nature didn't make us nocturnal.

Having experienced that morning energy for a few days in the first meditation course, I had the desire to change my 'unwholesome' routine. The habits however, were just too strong for my desire.

Making the Change:

In the summer of 2019 after my second 10 day Vipassana course, however, I committed to change this habit. My goal after the course was to develop a daily meditation practice. At this point, I've had a glimpse of the transformative powers of this meditation technique. And for the first time I believed I can make the shift. Therefore, in July 2019, I decided to:

  1. Quit Alcohol
  2. Become a strict vegetarian (I was an almost vegetarian since Nov 2018)
  3. Practice meditation daily. One hour in the morning and one hour in the evening.

The first few days went smoothly but soon old habits started to resurface. "You're not Buddha. You don't need two hours of meditation. And certainly not early morning", this was the perpetual soundtrack in my mind that time. It wasn't easy at all, but Vipassana is a scientifically proven method to observe and break old habit patterns.

My first goal was to get out of the bed at 6am consistently, and then gradually take it to 4am. After a couple of months, I made it to 5.30am. And in less than a year, I could wake up at 5am.

These days I wake up around 4am easily and go to bed between 9.00-10pm. I try my best to stick to this schedule at least for the weekdays. For weekends, I sometimes sleep till 7am. This habit has enriched my life in many ways, and here are some benefits:

  1. Focused work: A huge advantage of starting the day early is the time for focused work. You can get couple of hours of uninterrupted work done before the world wakes up. The mind is well rested and the quiet of the early morning enables focus.
  2. Well designed days: You can plan ahead and be more intentional about spending your day. If you've never done this before, I suggest the following two resources:
    1. Cal Newport's Time Blocking Method
    2. Make Time
  3. High energy: I wake up refreshed, and don't need caffeine to become functional. The energy of 4-6am has been mentioned in ancient Hindu scriptures as well. The motivation is high at this hour, and it helps you set the tone for your day.
  4. Increased willpower: Before starting out on this journey I had almost zero willpower. We need willpower to see through meaningful projects and develop good habits. It is an invaluable and finite resource. And waking up early is a 'willpower hack' in my opinion. By just showing up early everyday, you are gradually building your willpower reserves.
    If you are curious to learn more about willpower and how you can develop it, I'll highly recommend this book.
  5. Productivity boost With focused work, intentional days and motivated mornings, I've definitely become more productive. Possibly not as productive as I'd like, but I should be there eventually.
My morning routine:

I am still experimenting with my perfect morning schedule. It is still evolving, but here are some essential elements of a great morning in my opinion:

  1. Meditation
  2. Stretching/light yoga
  3. PKM time
  4. Running
  5. Reading
  6. Planning the day
  7. Essential/Focused work

It isn't possible to fit all the activities above in my morning schedule. The one hour meditation and planning the day are non-negotiable, but everything else is up for debate. Maybe I could simplify it as follows:

  1. Meditation (One hour)
  2. Exercise: a) Running b) Stretching/Yoga (30 min)
  3. Reading or Note Making or Focused Work (One hour)
  4. Planning the day (15 min)

The above schedule is very similar to what Hal Elrod talks about in the book Miracle Mornings. I've heard the book summary recently, and quite liked it. If you're looking for some inspiration to get up early, this could be the book.

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