Early Bird Gets the Worm

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Oh, if you’re a bird, be an early bird
And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.
If you’re a bird, be an early bird—
But if you’re a worm, sleep late.

— SHEL SILVERSTEIN

It’s not uncommon for me to wake at two or three in the morning. It’s not that I’m restless. That happens occasionally of course. Before I confronted my lifelong anxiety head on, it happened many nights. Instead, waking early is a happy consequence of going to bed early. A beneficial side effect is that it has paid dividends in managing my anxiety.

GO TO BED EARLY, WAKE EARLY

By going to bed early, and more important, not dragging my exhausted self further into the night in an attempt to will myself stay awake a few minutes longer, I need less sleep.

It’s that simple really. And that profound in the same offering. Much like a battery needs far less time to recharge when you don’t drain the battery dead in the first place.

I’m Not a Morning Person

Let me be clear. I’m not a morning person. Waking early is not hardcoded in my DNA. My mom and sister, well aware of my sleep habits in youth, would likely be surprised by these statements — “I wake earlier than everyone in my house” and/or “I routinely wake before four a.m.” — than perhaps anyone, even my wife. That’s only because my wife is witness to my radically altered sleep patterns. However, she can attest to my old sleep/wake habit, and I’m pretty sure I’ve earned some brownie points by this complete 180.

Historically, I’ve always been one of those “dead to the world” sleepers, who, if they even have their alarm set in the first place, would hit the snooze button repeatedly until the snooze button would give up, grow a throat, and say, “Okay, I’m done. Just be late already.”

iphone alarm
A legit screenshot of my iPhone alarm clock from earlier this year. I had good intentions about waking early, but no dice. Snooze!

As a matter of fact, this is what my alarm clock used to look like about six months ago. Waking early is still a relatively new (and life changing) concept for me as you can see.

My Goal in Life: Wake Earlier Than My Kids

Becoming a parent for the first time six years ago should have been the initial catalyst, but I was never a willing participant in this interrupted routine. I begrudgingly woke as needed if stirred enough. Nevertheless, having kids is very much a reason for this abrupt change in my sleep patterns, but for a different reason.

In an attempt to carve out a few minutes each day to spend time with one another as husband and wife and less as mom and dad, my wife and I started waking early on purpose, setting our alarms for 5:00 AM on weekdays. We tried doing the whole quality time thing at night at first, but having small children is exhausting (especially for my wife because Mama! Mama! Mama!) and we were usually back and forth up and down the stairs a hundred times trying to get our kids to stay in bed (usually failing), and that’s a bit frustrating; and as most married couples with children can attest to is that, at some point, you take your frustration out on your spouse, even if only passively.

So, night was out of the question.

Enter, morning.

Unfortunately, our 5:00 AM alarm usually woke our daughter. My son, like me, could sleep through the nuclear apocalypse so an alarm doesn’t phase him — nor does a cowbell or bullhorn in his ear (don’t judge). An alarm doesn’t really phase me either, so half the time, the 5:00 AM alarm wouldn’t wake me, so it’d just be my wife and daughter awake downstairs getting quality time in before starting the day.

image of nuclear bomb explosion and mushroom cloud
“Did you hear something, Henry?” “No, Dad.” “Okay, I’m going back to sleep.” “Me, too.” “Night, night.”

I also failed to adjust my going to bed sleep pattern. It’s hard to wake at 5:00 AM when you’re still trying to stay up until 9:00, 10:00, or 11:00 PM to do your own thing. I’d like to tell you I spent this time writing or doing something productive, but that would be a lie. I did pull some late nighters writing often. But the truth is, for me, staying up later usually consisted of wasting time browsing YouTube because I found my ability to read or write diminished after having spent the entire day behind a computer screen at work already.

Falling asleep is much easier when you wake super early. Falling asleep is much easier when you meditate before bed, too. As is often the case, I fall asleep after reading to my kids and doing a meditation with them. One that always seems to do the trick is “Bulldog Finds His Heartbeat” from Stop, Breathe & Think, an app I count on for my well-being.

Start your day off on the right foot by waking early

When it comes to waking early, I’m a willing participant now; and, it has made a world of difference in my state of mind to start the day. It’s a crucial tool in my anti-anxiety toolkit, just as taking a long walk daily and meditating. I no longer start my day as stressed out and in a hurry as I once did. Getting to do the things I enjoy to start my day puts me at peace and it has a cumulative effect on the rest of my day — it’s like eating a healthy, well-rounded breakfast for the mind, instead of sugary cereal or a carb-filled waffle doused in maple syrup. I’m pretty sure this is a simile Hal Elrod could use in an upcoming keynote address.

Having small kids can prove the antithesis to peace and quiet, so getting in as much peace and quiet as I can is a welcome addition to my morning. Considering that I’m an introvert, this is all the more important. Alone time is how I energize. Once my kids are awake, I’m often reminded of this scene from the movie Independence Day when the alien wraps his tentacles around the scientist’s throat and speaks through him to President Thomas J. Whitmore and says, “Peace. No peace.”

My new and improved morning routine

My typical morning routine centers around reading uninterrupted in three twenty-minute blocks, followed by writing by hand (no distracting computer or internet is key) for two twenty-minute blocks — longer if the kids are not roused from sleep. In general, I find computers, social media of any kind, and my phone bad for my mental health and it exacerbates my anxiety if I use either early in the morning or late at night, other than for playing music, so I stay away from both as much as possible until the sun rises. The effects of blue light hijacking your circadian rhythm is a real thing.

The writing I do is not so much morning pages, something I once did to get all of my lingering thoughts that woke me out of my brain and onto paper. It’s now more on the creative writing side of things. I keep a separate notebook to jot down tasks and to-do list items that pop in my head so as not to mix the two.

My wife uses our newfound time similarly. She’s a big reader (to say the least) and also keeps a gratitude journal she writes in daily. We don’t spend the time talking as we had hoped. We learned talking, even in a near whisper, still manages to pull our daughter from her sleep; so, instead, we read and write quietly in the morning and juice our batteries up for the day. We’ve taken to nights again for our “us” time, carving out thirty minutes as best we can before we both fall asleep by 8:00 PM. And while our children are awake, we simply do our best to be present with one another — just be, you could say.

There’s something to be said about going to bed early and waking early; and if I can do it, anyone can. That’s for damn sure.

What’s your morning routine?

Thanks for reading.

Photo: Smabs Sputzer. “Annelid.” CC BY 2.0
Photo: Alex Antropov. “Nuclear Explosion. Made in Blender.” Public Domain

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