How to Change a Habit: On Becoming a Morning Person
After LiquidPlanner moved offices from Bellevue to Seattle I became one of them—a morning guy. The logistics of a new commute presented a compelling incentive: to avoid rush-hour traffic.
But change is good, so I fully committed. I shifted my routine to start the day about two hours earlier and joined the people who are annoyingly good at getting things done in wee hours—the Morning People.
First plan of attack: habit loops
First, I have to talk about The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, a book about why habits exist and how they can be changed. The theory of habit loops helped me go from being a burn-the-midnight-oil kind of guy to someone who could close down at 4 p.m. and pick up again on a productive note the next morning.
A habit loop has three parts: cue, routine, and reward. When you want to change a habit, you can’t change the reward or trigger (cue), but you can change the routine in the middle. And that’s where the opportunity lies. Here’s how I attacked the routine of my habit loop to become a morning person.
Identify the trigger
If you’re a night owl, there are tons of triggers that will make you want to stay up later. You have to recognize those triggers, and rationalize to yourself that it can all keep to the morning.
The trigger of my late nights happened at the moment when I had done all my evening chores, everyone was in bed and I had time to myself. This was my cue to head downstairs to my office and start my night shift
The first thing I’d do before turning on my computer was to head straight to the pantry and grab a snack. And then I worked until my brain shut down which was usually between midnight and 2 a.m. I’d get up the next morning at around 8:30 a.m., start work by 9:30 or 10 a.m., and pick up wherever I left off.
The problem with snacks? They give you energy to keep driving, especially if they’re high in protein, like nut clusters. To break my late-night habit, I focused on this part of the loop, and said: No more snacks.
First step: change the habit (rather than break it)
It was a hard one to break so I changed it. I still went to the pantry but instead of eating the snacks, I started reorganizing them. This gave me an initial reward. I got to see the food, I got to touch the food, and I got to organize the food. And I like organizing, so it gave me that satisfaction.
Eventually, I lost interest in the snack process, and started replacing that time with other winding-down activities, like catching up on Downton Abbey. (In The Power of Habit, Duhigg suggests experimenting with your routine change until you find the right fit.)
The ripple effect of this change surprised me. I can see why people like their mornings. In the morning you can start quietly, and then your ideas turn into a roar of activity. There’s focus. In the morning, my mind is compelled to seek organization and routine, and I get the satisfaction of checking things off my list. Not to mention, there’s the advantage of coffee.
The hardest part of this was managing the end of the day, and saying good night to things that I still wanted to work on. I had to take all those ideas and projects, tuck them into bed, kiss them on their heads and say, “I’ll see you in the morning,” Then, I wrote a list of work to pick up the next morning so my mind could be quiet.
I also had to make a hard contract between the night owl and morning guy. Now, I end my work days at 4 p.m., go to bed around 11 p.m., get up around 6:15 a.m., and start work by 7:45 a.m. The night owl is in charge at bedtime, and he’s got to make and keep a contract with the morning guy—and the morning guy always thanks him for that.
Tell us how you made small shifts to change habits.