No Time for Something Important to You? Try Getting Up Earlier.

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Of all the changes in my daily routine wrought by my happiness project, one of the most fundamental is that I get up at 6:00 a.m., every day. And I get up at 6:00 a.m. every day, even on weekends and vacation, because I love it. I get an hour to myself, at my computer, before my family wakes up for the day. It’s quiet, the light is dim, and the world feels very serene.

I love this time so much that I would get up at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m., but that would mean that I’d have to go to bed at 8:00 p.m., and I just can’t live life that way. I’m fuddy-duddy enough as it is.

From what I hear, one of the most common happiness challenges is lack of time for something important. People want to exercise, or work on a novel, or meditate, or read for pleasure, and they just can’t fit it into their day. I absolutely know the feeling.

But here’s what I’ve noticed. For many people, the end of the day is a pleasant interlude of free time, when work is done, the office isn’t e-mailing, the kids are in bed, and the TV or the internet is at hand. It’s pleasant, so it’s easy to stay up late to watch one more episode of The Wire or to read the most recent article about Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson’s break-up or to do back-to-school shopping or to research the works of J. M. Barrie. And then it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning.

This end-of-day time is pleasant, but it doesn’t give much happiness bang for the buck. It’s filled with a fairly low-value kind of activity. With that same hour or two, you could be exercising, writing a novel, keeping a journal, wood-working, etc. “But by that time, I’m too tired!” you think. And you are too tired. So here’s a possible strategy: go to bed earlier, and wake up earlier, and use that reclaimed morning time for the activity you wish you could add to your day. Or, if you wish you had more time to do things with other people, you could do tasks during the morning period that would free up time elsewhere during your day.

“An hour isn’t long enough,” you may protest. Well, give it a try. You can get a surprising amount done in an hour. We tend to over-estimate what we can do in a short term  (say, one afternoon) and under-estimate what we can get done over the long term, if we do a little bit at a time. It’s a Secret of Adulthood (cribbed from Voltaire): Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t let the fact that you can’t write for three hours prevent you from writing for one hour.

It is so nice to start your day knowing that you’ve accomplished something important to you. It’s done, it’s crossed off the list.

Early rising can also work as an occasional, rather than daily, strategy. My college roommate gets up at 4:30 a.m. to go for a sixteen-mile run every Sunday. This is the only running she does all week! I wouldn’t have thought this possible, but that’s what she does. I talked to a guy who loves going for very long bike rides, but now that he and his wife have two young children, his wife objects to his absence for a whole day on the weekend. So one day a weekend, he gets up at 5:00 a.m., rides his bike, and is home by lunch, which she doesn’t mind.

True, it takes a while to adjust to a new sleep schedule. You might try getting up at the new time, without trying to accomplish anything much, for a week or so, just to get accustomed to the new wake-up time. And it helps to wake up at that time every day, even on the weekends and on vacation.

This may sound a bit grim, but the fact is, I love my morning hour so much that I want to wake up early. I don’t want to miss it. You never realize how wonderful the morning is if you sleep through it. You have to be there, to experience it.

However, it turns out that people really are “larks” and “owls,” and this strategy very well might not work for an “owl.” I’m a lark, so getting up early isn’t much of a strain for me. And obviously, if you have a little kid who wakes up at 5:30 a.m., this strategy probably isn’t going to work for a few years.

How about you? Is there something important to you that isn’t fitting into your schedule? Could you try doing it in the morning? Or have you already tried this strategy?

From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.




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