The CAH! (Choices! Actions! Habits!) Blog Series: Getting Up Earlier

“Choices! Actions! Habits!” is like “Lights! Camera! Action” for your actual, real life. It’s about creating habits that stick by doing things in the right order so that you can get better results with less effort.

 Hoot! Hoot!

Hoot! Hoot!

I chose getting up earlier as an example because in my experience it comes up a lot. People often want to get up earlier to have a more pleasant morning and have more time to themselves. If you’re a night owl with aspirations of becoming an early bird, I dedicate this to you. 

Let’s dive right into this example: “Vanessa, help! I’m always tired in the morning because I stay up later than I should, but I want to wake up earlier so I can chill and enjoy my damn coffee / make a wicked healthy lunch / not be crazy in the morning / meditate / write a book / walk my dog for longer / knit a sweater for my dog / knit a sweater for myself / not go to work with my pants inside out / beat rush hour / not be fired from my job!”

Whoa! That’s a lot of things! You are so aspirational! I want you to do all that stuff, but you have to start somewhere.

So, what’s the ONE thing that, once improved, would have the greatest positive spillover to all those other areas?

It seems to me that would be getting enough sleep, and since you probably can’t choose what time you need to get up and leave your house (because #work), getting to sleep earlier is the first priority I would recommend working on.

But where exactly to start, and how the hell to do it? Fortunately, I do this detective work / master planning / brainstorming stuff for a living. I like to call it “life coaching”.

Now let me introduce you to my 3-Step CAH! process.

Choices!

You need to make a priority, and that involves choosing ONE thing to be your focus, and allowing less important goals to take a backseat … for now. If you do that, I promise those things on the backburner will be easier to achieve later on - once you have a strong foundation.

Unless you are a magician who can manipulate time, you only have so much to devote to making change and taking on new projects in your life. Make it effective by not trying to do all the things at once, and overextending your mental energy and focus as well as using your time poorly.

I know this part may seem obvious - yes, choose a priority, duh! However, we now live in a world that has so many, seemingly infinite options, that choosing is actually quite a difficult task. Sometimes we avoid making a clear choice altogether because it seems so complicated. Arrgh frustration!

Actions!

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We tend to set goals as outcomes - and it makes sense. But what most of us aren’t so good at is getting down to the nitty gritty - the specific actions that lead to creating that habit. And once you have that figured out, you need to make a plan of which actions need to come first, and how to scale up in a way that builds your confidence and feels easy, instead of generating frustration and feeling like your efforts are never enough.

So why haven’t you been getting to bed on time? In my experience, the usual suspects are:

  • It hasn’t been a priority until now

  • That’s my only chill time in the day and I like to maximize it

  • Netflix, etc.

  • Doing too much work / adulting / etc. later in the evening and getting all overstimulated at an inopportune time

  • Cats

  • I don’t wanna! *stamps feet* (This is called “resistance” and it’s not just for kids, my friend)

Here’s the chain: it’s damn hard to get up earlier when your body isn’t well rested. So first priority is making sure your body is getting enough sleep. Then, you add in strategies to make it even easier to get vertical in the morning.

What specific actions will get your butt into bed and your body asleep on time to facilitate the new, earlier wake up time? Of course, this varies from person to person, but here are some of my fave strategies:

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  • Winding down routine: Yes, you need one. About 1-1.5 hours before bed, start preparing your body for sleep. That means less screen time (sorry, Netflix!), dimmer lights, putting on the PJs, and doing relaxing things like having a bath or meditating or drinking cammomile tea in the bath while meditating.

    • P.S. It also means making the choice (hey, there’s that choice bit again!) not to check those emails one last time, not to go into a ‘bad trance’ of infinite Facebook scrolling or bad TV, and not eating that 1kg bag of mini eggs at 9pm.

  • Physically get into bed: I mean, duh, but how many of us don’t get into bed until we need to be asleep. I do it a lot, and I live in a studio apartment so the whole place is basically my bed. When I do get into bed 30-60 minutes before I need to be asleep, it is a huge help.

  • Rearrange your evening: Maybe you’re in the habit of rushing home from work, doing all the chores you have to do and then crashing onto the couch for all that Netflix. What if you got home and allowed yourself a limited amount of mind-numbing Netflix time (it’s okay! Just be intentional!), with an alarm set to remind you to get up and wash those dishes or pack your lunch for the morning? It is likely easier to walk away from the screen before you’re utterly exhausted and completely out of willpower, and doing those chores gets you up on your feet, making it easier to walk into that bathtub or that bed before it’s (literally!) too late.

Will it be easy, hard, or both? Yes! One thing I can guarantee is that integrating new actions to form a new habit is a transition and transitions can be weird. Ever grow your hair out from short to long? Sure, it’s not all bad, but there are definitely some awkward times. Ditto with forming new habits.

As Maggie O’Farrell wisely said in her book I Am, I Am, I Am:

“Robert Frost said, ‘The best way out is always through,’ and I believe this to be true but, at the same time, if you can’t go through, you can always go around.”

Or as Ross said: “Pivot!”

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If you’ve given one strategy a fair shake and it’s not working, either tweak it or move on to something else. In this way, you’ll discover the right combination that will work for you. But sitting around and thinking and planning will not take you to that point. Action is where it’s at!

Habits!

Once you’ve got the right actions in place, voila! - you’ve formed a new habit!  #killinit

But... *wah wah* forming the habit isn’t the conclusion of this story. You’ve got the habit started, now you have to keep it going so it really sticks.

It’s a damn good idea, in my opinion, to track it using a journal or an app like HabitBull, or make a game of it.

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You know your habit is sticking when you find yourself doing it without the prompt or incentive to check the box on your tracking system.

There are drawbacks to habit tracking - like when you find you are only doing the thing in order to check the box. The larger purpose of tracking is to give an extra layer of support and accountability to a new habit when it’s too easy to let it slip away. After 8-12 weeks of nurturing your new habit, you should be able to keep it going without formally checking in every day (unless you just enjoy it, in which case, you do you!).

In Eric Barker’s super interesting book Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong,” he explains that good (productivity) games have 4 features: they are Winnable, they incorporate Novelty, they include specific Goals, and they give you Feedback.

How could you make a game out of going to bed earlier? You could set a (realistic) goal of how many days in a month you go to bed on time, and give yourself one point for each day you do it, and an extra point for each new ‘non-electronic’ evening activity you try out (Knitting? Colouring? Meditating? Writing a good ol’ fashioned hand written letter to a friend? Gratitude journal? Lavender foot massage? etc).

By the end of the month you would have gotten lots of feedback about what you like and what you are never, ever doing again, thankyouverymuch. You could even give yourself a sleep related prize for earning 30+ total points, like a cool sunrise alarm clock or melatonin spray. (If you love buying yourself gifts, like I do, you might be wondering, “Hey maybe I should just buy myself that stuff because it will help me achieve my goals?” Maybe. But without solid actions those could end up just being fancy doo-dads that sort of helped you but didn’t ensure you actually got s**t done because your own efforts are the real deciding factor in all this. Just sayin’)

If you spend one month solidly tracking your habit adherence and / or making a fun game to keep yourself on track, you’ll be in fine shape at the end. Maybe your habit will be strong enough that you can start the whole process over with the next stage: Getting up earlier and making your mornings awesome :)

If you want to hear more about that step, let me know in the comments and I’ll write up a Part Deux to this post!