We’re ten days into the Lenten Experiment and overall, I have to say it hasn’t been as hard as I would have expected. First some stats. In the first 10 days, I’ve gotten up by 5 AM seven times, by 5:30 2 times and by 6:30 once. That last time was the second day when an extremely late Mavericks game conspired to throw me off track early on. However, for those other times, I feel pretty good about achieving the goal. Even the days at 5:30 were mostly a matter of deciding to get out of bed more than a sleeping til 5:30 problem.
I’m settling into a rhythm of feeding the cats at 5 followed by meditation and then a small amount of yoga. Not surprisingly, the cats, specifically the one who shall not be named but likes to walk circles around the bed until I wake up and feed her, have adjusted to the time schedule change by being hungry at 4 AM instead of 5 AM as they were before. This is probably just the simple math of being fed earlier in the evening though I like to think of it as their demonic desires made real in the ongoing attempt to drive me insane. The dog doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.
It’s starting to become easier (as easy as 5 AM ever is) and the past several days, I have even put the alarm (the clock on my phone) back on the bedside table. Initially, I put it in the music dock in the kitchen for the first several days so that I would be forced to get out of bed and start moving. I know my habit and it is to turn off the alarm and say screw it in that dark, subterranean moment of the morning when logic and reason are still sleeping and my amygdala is in control. By going to the kitchen, I can get enough blood to my brain to realize what’s going on. But this week, I’ve settled into enough of a habit to just wake up with the alarm goes off. They say (the proverbial “they” who used to sit around newspaper copy rooms coming up with things to spread into the common wisdom but who now just run influential blogs like TMZ. I really have no idea who “they” are but I’m positive they are the source evil of all innocuous seeming proclamations we recite in support of whatever we need support of) that it takes between 21 and 28 days to form a simple habit like drinking a glass of water a day. Those same “they” say it may take up to 250 days to establish an actual life changing habit. I think the key to my success is that initially the habit was imposed externally in that “I want to do something for Lent” kind of way but that now it has become a matter of enjoying getting up at 5 AM (no I have not started drinking scotch at 5 AM leading to such crazy proclamations though I’m not going to lie, scotch sounds good right now.) More on that extrinsic versus intrinsic evaluation in a bit.
There have been days where it’s been difficult and as with most things in life, those are the days that teach me the most. Just yesterday was a 5:30 day and it was only a 5:30 day through sheer will (and the aforementioned guilt). I had a couple of beers at the Stars game the night before and made exceptionally poor nutrition choices as well (I have no idea what they fry the french fries in at Bubba’s Burger Grill at AAC but it might be 14 year old virgin blood blessed by Saint Ignatius of the Holy Friar for all I know. Those things are insanely good.) all of which contributed to waking up with a pounding headache and no physical desire to accomplish anything other than four or five hours of feeling sorry for myself.
As an aside, the combination of Eat Real (total Paleo diet) and this little Lenten experiment has colluded to make poor decisions much easier to determine on a daily basis. Once upon a time, two beers and a Volkswagen size serving of french fries would have had no measurable impact on my health. Now, those things represent a serious setback. How many things do we do on a daily basis out of habit or convenience that our body has adjusted to but that are actually detrimental not just to our physical health but also to the productive output of our mind? Yesterday didn’t turn out to be a waste but it was a struggle when compared to this morning. Our bodies are amazing things that can adjust to multiple stimuli and nutrition but that doesn’t mean any of that is good.
Back on track, those tough days are the days when decisions I made 12 hours previously have an immediate and observable influence on my ability to reach goals I’ve set for myself. I have to make a conscious decision to go to bed at a decent hour (where decent hour can be 11 if my nutrion and exercise are right but must be 9 PM when it’s not) every day. I can’t stay out late without the explicit understanding that I’m sacrificing a long term goal for short term pleasure. This is not how I’ve lived the great majority of my life. Long term goals, while nice, are not nearly as much fun in the short term as drinking beer and staying at the bar until close. The discipline required to create a lifestyle conducive to getting up at 5 AM for forty days is not one of my most endearing qualities. I feel like I have always lived a reasonably examined life but never to the degree involving deciding whether to leave a party at 9 PM because I really do want to get up at 5 AM.
Long term goals are nice to have but to achieve them, you have to make small decisions on a daily basis that add up to success. I’m currently reading Flow, a book about living an examined and enjoyable life. Without going into a great deal of detail and stealing the thunder from the potentiality of some future essay on the book, it describes why some people can find enjoyment in everything in their lives while others (most others, frankly) mope through life constantly annoyed or bored regardless of their life situations. The central theme is the idea of flow which is the feeling of complete engagement and total involvement in a particular activity. The author discusses how long term goals can be detrimental to happiness because achieving long term goals involves many small steps in the interim that once summed up result in the long term goal. Setting long term goals without engagement in the small steps leads to unhappiness as even when people reach the goal, they feel empty because the goal has been achieved and there is nothing to replace it. So they set another long term goal and off they go, ignoring the potential for enjoyment and happiness in the day to day steps required to achieve anything. Often, people set goals based on extrinsic desires, e.g. I want to get a raise so that I can buy a better car than the neighbors instead of based on intrinsic desire, e.g. I want to change fundamentally how we do something at work because it interests me which might lead to a raise because of increased efficiency. There seems to be significant evidence that happy people are intrinsically motivated.
I’ve begun to approach getting up at 5 AM with this idea of flow, specifically extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, in mind. I’m not particularly good at it yet but each day, instead of thinking how long it is until Easter or how few days have gone by since Ash Wednesday, I focus on the moment of waking and moving to the living room, finding fascination in how my mind awakes and begins another day. It’s a total shift in attention that has changed “getting up at 5 AM” from a task or chore to a way to better understand myself and my habits. Initially, I began this journey because of an extrinsic goal, “I always give up something for Lent because it seems like that should make me a better person so what’s it going to be this year?” I have to admit, the first week was hard and I can’t help but think it was because of this extrinsic focus, doing something just because you think you should or to impress other people (not that that was ever the goal given the fact most people think you’re insane when you tell them you get up at 5 AM). But this week, as attention shifted from “I should be doing this” to “It’s fascinating to get up at 5 and see how things are different”, suddenly it’s not as difficult. How I focus my attention dictates whether I’m going to enjoy an activity or not. This seems like common sense but it’s so easy to forget in the day to day activities that seem boring and difficult.
What does all this mean? It’s hard to say that after ten days, I’ve fundamentally changed in a way that will lead to getting up at this hour for the rest of my life. First of all, it’s not particularly convenient as it relates to a social life. This would obviously be a bigger deal if I was 25 but still, a night out might not end until midnight and that makes 5 AM difficult. It requires constant focus on the ramifications of decisions. However, as weird as it sounds, I’m starting to enjoy being up at this time. The world is quiet and it’s easy to ignore the attention sapping activities that seem to pop up through the day. So I’m conflicted going forward after the forty days as to what might happen. Luckily, I have thirty more days of craziness to make that decision.