Zombie time: How habits helped me fight failure and slay the procrastination monster

Every couple of months, it occurs to me that I’d be way more productive if I could just get up earlier and get some writing done on my ebook, weekly newsletter and blog before starting work at my day job. Writing is important to me, so why not tackle it first thing?

I get fired up, set an arbitrary goal (500 words a day sounds achievable!), crank my alarm back to 6:15 and hit the pillow with head abuzz about how I’m going to crush it on my new schedule.

The rest of the story goes something like this:

6:15 a.m. Did you hear something? No, didn’t think so.

6:45 a.m. — Alarm again. Hrmm, writing. Before work. Grumble.

7 a.m. — Coffee started. Wait, wat? Where’d the last 15 minutes go?

7:25 a.m. — Breakfast ready. Still groggy. I’ll write while I eat and drink my coffee. Hey, what’s this in my Twitter feed?

8:15 a.m. — Whoa, getting late, better hop in the shower. Bummer about that writing thing. I’ll get to it this evening when the kids are in bed.

8:35 a.m. — Nuts, starting work late again today.

8 p.m. — Kids in bed. So. Tired. Writing? Let’s just open my Macbook and see what happens … hulu.com.

11 p.m. — Time for bed. No writing today. Guilt. Maybe I’ll do better tomorrow … I can always carve out few hours this weekend …

Same Story, New Ending

Today was different.

My alarm went off at 5 a.m. today and I got up immediately. Today’s clothes were waiting for me in the bathroom, brushed my teeth and jumped in the shower. My coffee brewed while I fed the cat, and then I headed downstairs to my office.

I knocked out a couple of menial tasks while I sipped my coffee, and then at 6 a.m. on the dot, I opened Sublime Text and start writing this post. After 90 minutes of high-octane work, I’ll head back upstairs for a good breakfast before signing in at work at 8 a.m. sharp. Starting earlier means I can finish up earlier and spend more time with my family before our boys go to bed. After an evening of guilt-free reading on my new Kindle Paperwhite, I’ll turn in for the night.

What changed?

Hacking Habits

In a word, habits.

I acquired the know-how I needed to make this shift from an unlikely source: Amy Hoy’s outstanding 30×500 product development class. While the course is geared toward helping students learn to create and market informational and software products, Amy teaches that personal weaknesses inevitably bleed over into business endeavors. During orientation, we spent a week learning to analyze our habits and behavior, looking for patterns that lead to success and failure.

Because failure, as it turns out, doesn’t just fall out of the sky one day and stomp your dreams into oblivion. It sneaks up on you, growing larger with each tiny fail, until one day it knocks you flat on your back. Which is usually about when you notice there’s a problem.

By reverse engineering failures, it’s often easy to find simple habits that you can change, mechanical tweaks that turn a few small fails into little wins. And when you swap out enough micro fails for micro wins, big changes happen effortlessly.

Failure Points

There were lots of problems with my previous attempts to change my morning routine. A sampling:

  • Treating getting up and getting going as the same problem. They’re actually two problems.
  • Setting and snoozing multiple alarms because I thought this would make it easier to get up.
  • Attempting to implement an entire new schedule for my day at once.
  • Trying to tackle mentally or physically difficult tasks first thing.
  • Convincing myself that I could make it up in the evening. That’s just not realistic for me now that I have a mentally challenging day job and two cute little boys vying for my attention.

Once I saw the micro problems that caused my previous routine-change efforts to fail, I was tempted to try to fix all of them in one fell swoop. But I’ve tried that before, so I decided to take it one habit at a time, implementing incremental changes that would eventually add up to the result I was seeking.

Stimulus, Response

The most obvious problem was just getting myself out of bed on time. I’d previously assumed this just required good discipline, but I came to realize I was battling a deeply ingrained habit: When my alarm goes off, I snooze it so I can get a little more sleep. I’ve reinforced this habit over the years by setting my alarm to go off at least 30 minutes before I actually want to get up. (It’s hard to believe my college roommates didn’t kill me in my sleep…)

Instead of worrying about getting up at a set time, I focused on creating a new habit: When my alarm goes off, I get up immediately. To develop this habit, I stopped worrying about what time I actually got up—I even let myself sleep in until 7 a.m. to make it easier—and focused on conditioning myself to get up when my alarm goes off. After a few weeks of rising immediately when my alarm chimed, I stopped feeling the urge to snooze it. And surprisingly, it wasn’t really much harder to get up when I started setting the alarm for 5 a.m. Getting up was just the thing I did.

Zombie Time

Getting myself moving was the next hurdle. I was failing on multiple fronts here. For starters, I typically tried to implement a whole new morning routine at once. One example: Starting the day with a grueling 60-minute P90X workout, followed by a shower. Then writing for 30 minutes. Then cooking breakfast. Changing one habit is for girly-men—I was going to turn my entire life upside down.

This tied in to another failure point, my denial of a fundamental truth: There are morning people, and then there’s me. I shuffle around like a zombie until I’ve at least had some coffee and a shower.

So while it seemed like a good idea in theory to get my blood pumping and mind working by plunging into a challenging routine, what I really needed was a gentler transition. I needed to reorder my routine so that I spent my “zombie time” doing brainless tasks that I needed to do at some point anyway. Trying to fight how I’m wired usually ends with me staring at a Twitter feed on my phone.

Simply by showering, making my coffee and feeding the cat before I sit down to work, I’m giving myself enough time and stimulus to wake my brain up. I’ve made this even easier by developing the habit of setting the next day’s clothes out and prepping my coffee maker before I head to bed each night.

Getting showered and dressed also helps me quickly shift into a “let’s get some work done” mindset when I sit down to write.

Small Changes, Big Impact

Since implementing these changes, I’ve averaged 10-15 hours per week of work on my side projects. I’m starting work at my day job 30 to 60 minutes earlier and wrapping up earlier, leaving more time in the evenings to playing with my kids and read (I’ve crushed the Hunger Games trilogy since my wife gave me my new Kindle for Christmas).

But the biggest changes have been to my attitude and overall happiness. In the past I’ve struggled with overcommitting myself, which leads me to start resenting my self-imposed workload, which leads to procrastination. Now I just show up every day and work gets done. My evenings are also more relaxed because I’ve come to understand that blocks of time in the morning are most valuable for work, and blocks of time in the evening are most valuable for relaxation. Eliminating that “I should be working” pressure in the back of my mind means I’m happier while spending time with my family.

If this habit stuff sounds interesting, I’d encourage you to check out the Power of Habit, which was the foundation of much of our discussion in 30×500.

Do you have a favorite strategy for changing ingrained habits? Leave a comment—I’d love to hear about it.

lefnire - January 14, 2013

Speaking of habits and fighting monsters, check out me own https://habitrpg.com

gloria - January 17, 2013

Disentangling waking up (getting out of bed) from waking up (feeling alert enough to do anything) is an excellent start. Thanks for the first step!

    joshearl - January 18, 2013

    You’re welcome! After several weeks on this new schedule, my body is adjusting pretty well and it’s getting easier for me to get going in the morning. I’ve always been a night owl who gets a second wind around 10 p.m. I almost never fell asleep before 11 p.m., and it wasn’t unusual for me to stay up past 1 a.m. Last night I crashed around 9:30 and was asleep by 10. I’m actually getting more sleep now that I’m getting up early. Winning!

Aziz Ali - January 12, 2017

Great article. I love your writing and thanks for sharing.

I have the same feeling that I must wake up early.

I am working on the 5 o clock wake up club and I will take your tip on waking up on first alarm immediately

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