Before and After: “The Habit that Changed My Life Was Becoming a Morning Writer.”

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Nina Badzin.

The habit that changed my life was becoming a morning writer.

 

I’m a freelance writer and blogger with a regular column in Brain, Child Magazine. I also have four kids and try to keep up with answering blog comments, reading other blogs, and sharing others’ articles online.

 

BEFORE AND AFTER: More and more I found that I was using all my day time writing hours (which are never consistent) for the social side (but also important side) of blogging. The real writing was not coming along. To keep up with deadlines, I would end up staying awake until 2AM or later, which took away from time I should have been spending with my husband and made me exhausted, unproductive, and crabby the next day.

 

I realized that the only time I could count on was morning time before the kids were awake, something I’ve been avoiding even though every writer I respect says it’s the way to go. I did nothing to prepare for the first day. I just set the alarm for 5AM and forced myself awake. I’d say it was a cold turkey method.

 

It was never (and is never) easy to get up, but I do it anyway. The joy of having written quality paragraphs by 7AM when the kids are awake was enough to get me up the next day. Another strategy to avoid the snooze button is that my husband can fall back asleep after he hears me get up at 5. But if I let the alarm go off again or try to wake up closer to 6AM, it’s too close to when he has to start his day, which was not fair to him.

 

I’m finally going to bed earlier after many years of staying up way too late, and I’m so much more productive. I feel more professional. AND, I feel less guilty about hopping around on the internet reading articles, commenting, and engaging in social media during other pockets of the day since I already got my main work done.

This is a good example of the principle that if there’s a habit you really want to accomplish, it’s very helpful to schedule it first thing in the morning.

First of all, the Strategy of Scheduling — of explicitly putting an activity on the calendar — is very powerful. And for many people, if they don’t have time for something important to them, getting up earlier is a great strategy to reclaim some time.

Also, whenever possible, important habits should be scheduled for the morning. Mornings tend to unfold in the same way, and as the day goes on, more complications arise (whether real or invented).

Self-control is strongest in the morning, and self-control failures often happen at the end of the day. Activities like excessive gambling and alcohol abuse tend to happen at night, and the majority of impulsive crimes take place after 11:00 p.m.

However, it’s true that some people are “Larks” (morning people) and some people are “Owls” (night people), and night people generally aren’t successful at trying to get up earlier to write, meditate, exercise, etc. — because the world is already forcing them to get up too early! Work, school, children…the logistics of life make it hard to be an Owl. So if you’re an Owl (which isn’t the same thing as someone who stays up too late to send a few last emails or to watch TV), trying to get up earlier probably won’t be helpful.

Have you ever been able to adopt a new habit by scheduling it first thing in the morning?

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  • Catherine Al-Meten

    On habit that I am developing is setting time limits for work on different projects I am working on. I allot one hour to a project, and then take a short break. Then I allow myself to work for another hour on a different project. Doing this over the course of a week has resulted in my getting more accomplished on each project than I have been getting done by focusing just on one big piece. The time limit, the intense and limited focus, and the habit of doing this each morning seems to be working for me. For it to become a real habit, it has to extend beyond a week or two, but I am happy with the result so far.

    • Cindy

      This is an idea I need to try. I can drag a project out indefinitely.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      yes, this is why I use a timer–keeps me WITH the focus for a limited time, and then I switch. Keeps my energy and attention level high/

  • Brandy Appleby

    I consider myself an owl. I used to sleep as long as I could before rolling out of bed and rushing off to work. My mornings were always slow and it took me two cups of tea to wake up enough to be productive. I was successful last year in changing that habit. Now I get up an hour before I leave for work and take my time getting ready. I also fit in 20 minutes of yoga. My mornings are much more productive and creative, and I am happier.

  • Bird

    I became a morning person over time… and I really enjoy having time early in the morning. Waking up early in the morning gives me the feeling that life makes me a present.. And the present is more time and usually…

    Love from Germany and the fatcatconnection

    http://lasagnolove.blogspot.de/2014/03/its-my-birthday-notes-from-sickbed.html

    Bird

  • Cindy

    I can already tell I’m going to enjoy your next book and post series. Great tips!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that!

  • deetales

    My biggest challenge is hyperfocus and switching from one task to another. I tend to want to bore in deeply to whatever I’m doing which of course can be a good thing, but can also prevent me from accomplishing many things I set out to do. On the other hand, I enjoy the creativity that come from following combinations that come from making seemingly disparate associations (ie. “”squirrel!” but in a good way). So I guess my question is, how to decide how much of this to allow and how to break the “spell” I sometimes find myself under 🙂

  • Nicola

    I am most definitely a night owl, i’ve had periods of time where I have forced myself to get up earlier to meet commitments but I have to say the overall outcome was never very good. For the years where I had to get up early for work but couldn’t take a nap in the afternoon, this routine had a serious impact on my mental and physical health and actually started to affect my memories as well. So I guess I would love to take this advice, but I know it’s definitely not for me.

  • Satu Hattula

    Love the post. I sometimes have a hard time writing but I got over it by writing first time in the morning before I did anything else, like check my email or social media. It’s easier to focus on your writing when 101 things aren’t fighting for your attention simultaneously

  • This totally made my day! Who am I kidding! It made my week. And yes, I was up every day this week at 5am. I take the weekend off though, and honestly by Monday I’m excited to get up again. Thank you @gretchenrubin:disqus for featuring my habit change!

    • Hey Nina,
      I’m wondering when /how do you get up on the weekends and how easy is it to start again on Mondays?
      Weekends always throw me out of the loop and Mondays are super difficult.

      • Hi @nelchee:disqus, I don’t sleep in too much for exactly the reason you said. It would make it really hard to get up on Mondays again. However, I have absolutely no time to work on the weekends, so even if I am tired, I’m motivated to get out of bed on Mondays just to get cracking again. I set my alarm on Saturdays and Sundays for about 8:15 on average. I got to bed later on Friday nights and Saturday nights too so I for sure need that extra time.

        • Thanks. I usually get up around 8.30 (no alarm clock), though social occasions that last late into the night are particularly problematic. Thankfully there are less of them now than before.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thank YOU! It is really striking a chord with a lot of people.

    • Cindy – crichardwriter

      Hi Nina! I am so happy to see you on THE HAPPINESS PROJECT. Kudos on all of your recent writing projects – I can see that your 5 a.m. habit has been paying off. I used to get up at 5 a.m. and I was incredibly productive, but then I found myself dragging during the day and I tried switching to writing at night – not so productive. The problem is that I am an “owl” as Gretchen put it, and I already hate having to be at work at 9:00 a.m. (I am not really even awake until like 11:30 a.m.) However, I feel bad about not writing as much as I would like to, so you have inspired me to try 5 a.m. again. I might just have to be crabby again, but at least I will feel good about getting my writing done.

  • I’ve been an owl since childhood, always staying up late and even doing creative work until 4 a.m. at times. I tried to become an early riser several times, and always failed after a week.
    Now I’m trying again. Having a morning routine helps me to awaken without caffeine, but it takes an hour (warm up exercise, pranayama and meditation). I think the reason I failed before was that I expected myself to work at 100% right after getting out of bed, which just isn’t possible for me.

    The reason I want to do this is to work on my own projects before client work comes up. After I’ve been working for my clients, I get too tired to paint or write for myself. If I didn’t have to do any client work perhaps it wouldn’t matter much when I get up.

    • gretchenrubin

      I highly recommend the book “Internal Time” if you’re struggling with an Owl nature.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I am more of an early bird, and my older son is definitely an owl. He was a night person from BIRTH.

      I can still remember being desperately tired and trying to get him to go to bed when he was still in grade school, and as I sat on the edge of his bed he said : “MOM, what’s the difference between macroeconomics and microeconomics. Seriously!

      Later, he would be wanting to stay up to watch Nightline to see what was happening in Romania when ALL I wanted was to go to sleep. He is still a night person, I am still an early morning riser. It seems to be pretty hard wired.

  • Stephanie Sprenger

    Oh, Nina, you may have inspired me… I have always refused to get up early and exercise before my kids are awake, because I can’t stomach 5 am. But I may suck it up for the quality writing time- it just might be worth it to avoid the guilt and distractions that come up in the afternoon. Speaking of… back to Facebook now. :/

  • Natalia Sylvester

    Love, love, love morning writing (and I am so NOT a morning person). But like you say, knowing that you’ve already gotten some good words in before the day’s even started is so rewarding; it’s starts my day off on the right foot.

  • Laura Vanderkam

    Yep, if you don’t have time for something during the day, getting up early is a great way to find it! I always feel quite productive on the days I wake up before my kids and get stuff done. Too bad I don’t do it more often — oh well!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I love to get up early. This is a habit I partly learned through my federal job, but actually really got into my essential DNA when I established a long-distance relationship. My friend went to work very early in the morning to avoid heavy city rush hour traffic. We had an established morning chat starting around 4:30-5:00 AM, then he would sign off, shower and go off to work, and I would get ready to go to the office.

    We both retired three years ago from our respective federal careers. We have edged that morning chat time back to 6-7 AM, and I don’t emerge from my room until 6 so as not to disturb my live-in Mom. However I am STILL often awake at five, and using that time to ease into the day with a little journal writing and meditation or reading before I have my first cup of coffee.

    Weekends? No difference. I just have established a habit of being awake at an early hour. I go to bed early as well, so I am sure to have my 7- 8 hours of quality sleep.

    Now that I have a morning walk habit, I may not actually start my day’s creative work (quilting) until after nine, but I am deep in my established morning rituals by then, and never start my day flustered and harried and hurried. This is one of the great gifts of retirement.

  • Pol Esteva

    Fantastic article!! It really helps, so thank you!!

  • I’m genuinely a night owl… I have tried this and it is hard. I’m going at it again on Monday because I need to be up during the day… so I don’t miss out on good ops… but it is SOOOOOOOOOO hard!

  • Mimi Gregor

    I found myself nodding in agreement to this blog entry. I get up much earlier than I “have to” to carve out a quiet chunk of time for ME. I use this time to quietly have a cup of coffee while I check the blogosphere (as I am doing now!), then to do my morning meditation and affirmations, which I find to be an excellent way to start the day. I also get a lot of the routine housework out of the way — the stuff that can be done on autopilot — because -invariably- something will come up during the day that will have me rushing around otherwise. I also get dressed and put on some makeup, even if I am not going out. It makes me feel better about myself… more polished and able to handle whatever comes up. This time of the day is sacrosanct to me. My husband, on the other hand, is an owl, so his time to himself is after I have gone to bed. I think one of the reasons we get along so well is that we each have some time each day that is our own.

  • Paige

    I loved today’s post. I run my own business and have 3 kids, so while they are in school it is so important for me to be productive. In my calendar I have a repeating block of 3 hours – from 8:45-11:45 each day. The exact words on the repeating calendar entry is “Golden hour, no nonsense here.” This is my time to do 8 hours of work in 3 hours. If I scheduled it at any other time of day, I would only be able to accomplish 3 hours work in 3 hours. But because I am so “on” in the mornings, this is my “golden hour.” I have shown my staff my calendar and encouraged them to find and block out their “golden hours” too. And when I need more time than my “golden hour” requires, I wake up and work from 5-7am too…not quite my “golden hour” but at least 2 hours of very productive time.

  • Ien Nivens

    I just want to say how impressed I am with what you’re doing and how incredibly generous you are. My wife and I just moved back into a loft in an old textile mill-turned-artist community, so I signed us up for your Free Tip Card. I’m a big Maxwell Maltz fan and can’t wait to read Before and After. In the meantime I’ll make a habit of stalking your blog.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for the kind words!

  • anseh

    thank you. this is a very nice and inspirational post

  • Jenelle Robinson Gonzales

    I have been a lark my entire life. Now that I am in the MBA program, I use the morning hours to complete my school work. It has been working for me so far. I am going to use this blog and your wonderful information to seek happiness in my life in different ways. I started a kissing schedule with my husband and we are connecting better in just a few days. I am going to try to fit in exercise in the morning hours on days when I have my homework under control.

  • Frances Erickson

    I have never in my life been a morning person. I’m now 69 yrs old and retired and so loving my own schedule. I have accepted myself as I am and offer no apology for going to bed when I’m tired and getting up when I wake up, w/o an alarm. I also live alone and can easily indulge this wonderful benefit.

  • north2r

    When I got back from a long visit in Africa I was waking up by 5:30 am. It was amazing how much I got done and it would only be 8:00 am. It is true that mornings can be very productive. Sadly I am an owl and once my body adjusted to being home I lost that delight in early morning because it just doesn’t work for me. It took a full, glorious two weeks of enjoying the early morning to being back into my own time zone.

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  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    I agree, Nina, with you and Natalia. The days when, for some reason I can’t get up at 5:15, are always the least fulfilling. Getting close to 3 hours of writing in before it’s even 8 am is such an invigorating feeling! It definitely sets the tone for the day.

    • @Melissa, I love knowing that you, @jolinapetersheim:disqus, and @nataliasylvester:disqus are up! That helped encourage me for sure.

    • Jackie Cangro

      Yes, I’m up too! I get up at 5:30 to write before I have to get ready for work. If I don’t sit down to write in the morning, even if it’s just one paragraph, I feel terribly unproductive, no matter what else I accomplish during the day.

  • Jolina Petersheim

    Great post, Nina, and one you know resonates with me. I get up at 6 on the weekdays, and my daughter gets up at 7. Mornings have always been my husband’s and daughter’s special quality time, so he makes her breakfast while I keep writing in the living room until about 7 or sometimes even 8 when he leaves for work. I completely agree: getting those paragraphs down in the morning is a tremendous boost to my writing/living productivity for the rest of the day. Reading your story was just the motivation I needed to set my alarm for Monday again. Thank you!

  • Sarah Baughman

    This is awesome, Nina! Congratulations on your productive schedule! I’m really struggling with setting aside a good writing block time. We had a good schedule in place that fell apart when we moved last year and I haven’t gotten it back. Right now my particular struggle is finding time to exercise, write, and do my part-time job in addition to taking care of my kids all day! The early morning is definitely a golden period but I struggle with knowing how best to use it. Thanks for giving me more motivation to figure it out!

    • Ina

      I agree that getting up early is the way to go I just have to break the habit of hitting the snooze alarm. This puts me behind and then the morning is gone. Yes I hit snooze several times

  • I am a horrible morning person, but I do believe we can get used to anything if we set our mind to it.
    My writing time is my morning time too. Only it’s a bit later – around 9:00-11:00am. I used to write late at night and it would just make me feel awful the next morning!

  • This was great, Nina. And a good answer to the question — how do other bloggers/writers do it?? I’m a night person at heart and always have been. I do my best, most productive work and writing at night. But I’ve thought for a very long time that the world is not set up that way. Maybe you have inspired me to try a little harder for a morning schedule. 🙂

    • Oh, boo. I just re-read the end and noticed that it might not help if you are a true Owl, wihich I really, really am. Sigh…

      • I really ALWAYS thought of myself as an owl. I did all my high school and college and graduate school work that way. I even stayed up crazy late grading papers when I was a teacher or doing lesson plans. And when I started writing in 2007, I always would stay up insane hours. It finally started to catch up with me, which was why I made the change. I still don’t think I’m a morning person. I just get up anyway.

  • Rivki Silver

    Nina, wonderful! So, so happy to see you over here! This is something that I would also like to do, but have not yet implemented it yet. There was a period of time last month where I basically couldn’t sleep (not ideal), yet I was able to experience what it was like to be awake before my kids, and it was Amazing. So maybe I’ll take the plunge. 🙂

  • Julie Luek

    I get up early, while the house is still, for my quiet time of meditation but I really do need to carry this over into my writing, Nina. Great post and encouragement.

  • Nina, I also have difficulty finding time to write, and I give you a lot of credit for making the change and sticking with it. While I don’t think I can handle a 5 am wake up call, I am going to think about a change like this for the summer, when the kids are home and sleeping in. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • I LOVE writing in the morning. My little 4 year old woke up with me at 5 AM today so that was that. : )

  • Nina- How exciting to see you here! I have been fighting the early morning work plan for years. Interestingly, I have just taken on a large volunteer project and am worried, worried, worried about how it will impact my writing time (which is now haphazard throughout the days). Perhaps this is the time to make the jump!!

  • Cynthia Robertson

    I’m up at that ungodly hour too, Nina! Four years and counting, one completed novel, another underway, and many short stories, this habit has been working for me. But thank goodness for coffee!

  • Rachel Sarnoff

    I spent last summer setting the alarm for 5:30 to write for almost two hours before I had to get my kids up for camp. Sadly this is a summer vocation, since my kids leave for school at 7. I found that sitting down at the keyboard before breakfast, paper, lunch-making, etc. was a great way to tap right in. I wrote a book that summer! Wish that getting a publisher was simply an early bird achievement as well 🙂

  • LJ

    I’m a night owl and I’m having a really difficult time breaking the habit. I’m self employed and if I don’t sleep 8-9 hours, the day is a real drag….really. Every time I get closer to a regular schedule, I creep toward late wakeup insanity by about an hour each day because I feel so much better when I’m rested. The problem is that I can’t break this habit. I bought a book that I saw on this blog, titled “Internal Time,” but it was more of an explanation of body clocks than a way to get out of night owl hell. I love an hate the “night life.” I hate it because if I want to wake up rested each day, I have to wake up an hour or so later each day because I’m almost never sleepy at the same time each night. Can someone please recommend a book… or something. My willpower is weakening because I keep failing at each attempt to reset my clock. It was so much easier to wake up early as an employee because I was forced to. Now, I sleep in because I can, and then I’m working until insane hours of the night. Advice and resources would be greatly appreciated…..HELP 🙂 🙁

    • gretchenrubin

      My conclusion from internal time is that, for a true night owl, it’s easier (though it’s far from easy) to change your schedule than to change your internal time – try to organize your life so that your ordinary day starts late and ends late, rather than fighting to get up early. For true night owls, they never really adjust.