Last week I told a story about my journey to morning person-ness. The end of one journey is often the beginning of another.
It’s one thing to admit to myself and you that I now feel myself to be a morning person. It’s another thing to integrate that idea into my behaviors and habits, and into my thoughts and the stories I tell about myself. That’s all still to do.
There’s a risk that I will be too doctrinaire or dogmatic about it. A “morning person” (I could still enjoy staying up late some nights. They could experience plenty of mornings on which they’re unable to hop out of bed. There are natural and seasonal changes to our daily rhythms; right now, the sun is still out deep into the evening, and sometimes this makes it difficult to wind down. There’s little sense in fighting what the body wants to do.
I also don’t want to be the person who refuses to stay out past a certain time if I’m attending a fun event or spending time with people I love. My sleep-wake strategy is a tool to help me make the most of life. It’s not an end in itself, and it shouldn’t interfere with my most important priorities and values.
The problem is that it can be hard to separate the important things from the distractions, especially in the moment. We are the first humans to live our lives surrounded by digital technology that is explicitly designed to keep us using it for as long as possible. I find it increasingly easy to putter around between apps or browser tabs long past the point when I told myself I was ready for bed.
Sometimes, that’s okay. Most of the time, though, I regret it the next morning, when I wake up too late to work on a project before starting my job, or even too late to perform my full morning routine. Those days usually feel slow and off-kilter.
I’ve learned that when it comes to establishing new habits, identity-based strategies are the most effective. That’s part of why I’m telling a story of being a morning person. The other piece is that I need something to wake up early for. If I feel that I do my best work in the morning, and that this is when I ought to do more important work, then what is that important work, and why is it so important for me? Clarity on that, now, can translate to clarity at bedtime, and hopefully into shutting the laptop lid.
For me, that work is writing, and it’s important to me because creativity is how I express myself and how I connect with the world and with the people I love. It’s also work that requires energy and presence, and I’ve noticed that I have a lot more of both in the mornings. But how to actualize this in the form of a new routine?
A few months ago, I came up with a plan. I would start off easy, waking up at 7:30, and working from 8 to 8:30. After each week that I kept mostly to this schedule, I would get up 10 minutes earlier and work 10 minutes longer, until I was up to 90 minutes of work. I knew it was important to go slow, and to take the long view. Lifetime habits don’t change overnight.
I also needed accountability. Because I wanted to reward rather than punish myself, for every day that I succeeded with the plan, I moved $5 into a special category in my budget for outings to museums or other creative or inspiring places—these are what Julia Cameron calls “artist dates.”
For a few weeks, the plan went well. Words were written, money was moved, and pillows were hit earlier and earlier. Then I got eye surgery and couldn’t really see for the next 8 or 9 days. When I finally recovered enough to return to my regular practice, it was time to leave town for a week-and-a-half long vacation, which, being our first real vacation since before the pandemic, I wanted to enjoy and stay fully present for. In short, I got derailed, and not by anything unforeseen.
This is where that long-term thinking is key, as well as having low expectations. I went into this knowing that it would take much longer than a month or two to build the kind of routine I wanted. Once I do, though, I expect it to last for many years. The effort spent to get there, and the false starts, will more than pay for themselves.
As I started my new routine that first week, and noticed how much energy I was feeling, I remembered a concept that I’d read about several years ago and since forgotten: something I had dreamed of doing for myself, but which I had trouble envisioning how I could manifest it. That idea was Joseph Campbell’s “bliss station,” quoted here by Austin Kleon:
You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.
In 2016, I focused on having a room, a place. I desperately wanted a bliss station; I just didn’t know where to put it or what to do there. When the thought suddenly popped back into my mind, and I re-read this post, I suddenly saw it: or a certain hour or so a day.
I had now, without thinking about, set up my bliss station. I had a certain hour or so a day; this was my place.
It’s such a powerful idea. As Kleon says, there is always something trying to keep us away from spending time with our deeper selves, so we need ideas of this kind of potency to help us remember what’s important. It’ll help me get back to my plan. My plan, which has only just begun.