Waking Up Early Is Not Enough (You Need a Schedule Too)

“Why isn’t this working?”

It was 5:00am. I had already been up for an hour, half of that time spent listlessly scrolling through various articles, the other half spent looking at a blank Word document. I had been switching from one to the other every few minutes or so — all while watching the clock like a vulture, knowing that my time was quickly expiring.

I had taken the plunge a few weeks before. After years spent as a night owl — waiting until the rest of the household was asleep before pursuing writing and other important hobbies — I decided to start waking up early to put my time in instead. After all, it was far too easy to give myself passes for leisure at the end of the day — and I hoped that some of the pressure of knowing that I only had two hours to work with in the morning would force me to produce something, as opposed to the the open-ended freedom of a quiet evening stretching before me.

To be fair, the change was working…a little. I was writing more than I had in years. And getting that part of my life done with at the start of the day led me to greater fulfillment during the rest of it — I no longer had to stress from wondering whether or not I would actually generate words in the evening, or if I would once again lose myself to the seductive allure of Netflix, late-night snacking, and video games.

At the same time, I was not using my early morning time efficiently. The first hour of each day was spent in a slowly-to-resolve stupor, a long wake-up process that rarely, if ever, yielded any actual productivity. My happiness at being able to point to my expanding body of work was — as always — disintegrating beneath the incessant nibbling of that tiny voice in my head that loves to tell me that I could be doing more with my time.

The problem was that I hadn’t been intentional enough when switching over to the early morning from the late night. Since I knew there was nothing else that would be a distraction in the AM (for some reason, I don’t like watching Netflix or playing video games during the morning hours), I thought that the writing would just work out on its own.

But I was mostly wrong. So I went back to the drawing board, and I tried a few things, and within a week I nearly doubled my writing output by making these few small procedural changes:

Set a bedtime and stick to it.

The first change that I implemented was a strict bedtime. I’d been slacking off when it came to making sure I was getting enough sleep, and allowing my end-of-day leisure pursuits to keep me awake well into the evening. But as soon as I started sticking to my hard cut-off time, I noticed that the extra sleep as well as the adherence to something strict started making the morning an easier and more productive process.

Follow a bedtime routine.

Next, I established a bedtime routine. I set a daily alarm to let me know it was time to start the bedtime process. Then, I did the following:

  1. Immediately turned off the television/gaming consoles/etc.
  2. Brushed teeth.
  3. Put a glass of water and a caffeine pill on the desk where I do my writing (I don’t like coffee).
  4. Turned out the light.
  5. Put the first three favorited songs from one of my Spotify Daily Mix playlists into a new mini-list and hit “play”.

I found that I actually started sleeping even better once I started following this routine — and the improved sleep without a doubt led to improved morning focus.

Figure out the morning’s focus

I added another step to the bedtime routine. After putting the water and caffeine on my desk, I would turn on the computer, figure out which two articles or ongoing pieces I wanted to work on the next morning, and open each document in a separate window. Then, I added 2–3 quick notes to each piece — just enough to give me a hand up out of the early AM brain fog.

Since I find this type of decision-making and idea generation a lot easier to do at the end of the day rather than at the beginning, this ended up giving me at least an extra half-hour of productivity each A.M.

Start the day off with a schedule.

The first fifteen minutes of each day then became the following:

  1. Take the caffeine and drink half the glass of water.
  2. Spend a few minutes writing down my daily to-do list.
  3. Set a timer for 45 minutes and work on the first piece, using the notes from the night before as a starting point.
  4. Set a timer for 15 minutes to take a break, stretch, and read a few articles.
  5. Set a timer for 45 minutes and work on the second piece, using the notes from the night before as a starting point.

There are a lot of little mental tricks and “hacks” folded in here that took my productivity through the roof. By choosing ahead of time which pieces to work on and where to start from, I avoided the decision-making and brainstorming that pull focus away from actual productivity. By starting with the relatively easy task of writing down to-do list, I got my brain waking up and working right out the gate. And by setting strict time limits, I knew that I only had so many minutes to work on a particular piece — the pressure of which kept my fingers moving across the keyboard.

Going from night owl to early bird is a tough transition — don’t leave your productivity to chance. Start your schedule the night before, and continue it when you wake up — and if you notice a difference, please let me know!

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