According to Science DAILY, “A circadian rhythm is a roughly 24 hour cycle in the physiological processes of living beings, including plants, animals, fungi and cyanobacteria.” While many believe this rhythm is generated internally, it can be influenced by external sources like sunlight and temperature.
Why do some people do their most creative work between 9PM – 3AM? What makes someone get up at 5AM ready to get after the day? We’ve all fallen prey to labeling ourselves a night owl or morning person. Can someone change the way they are wired to optimize health, creativity and other personal goals?
During an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, The Tim Ferriss Show, Rick Rubin (record producer) talks about how changing his circadian rhythm actually improved his health. Rick was a self-professed night owl that learned to embrace mornings with game-changing effects. The entire podcast episode is full of amazing takeaways for anyone interested in music, health and spirituality. For added intrigue, the interview was conducted in a hot barrel sauna, while transitioning to random ice baths.
(Rick talks about the circadian rhythm reset at the 10:50 mark)
There is an old adage that says nothing good happens after midnight, however back in my late teens that’s really when it all happened. Whatever the activity was, it always seemed better the later it extended into the wee hours. As a typical night of hanging with my friends came to a close, I would begin the drive back to my parents’ house understanding the potential for night owl to meet early bird.
The final approach involved cutting off my 1974 VW Beetle at the top of the hill about three houses away from my parents house. Coasting down the hill, I would cut off the headlights and focus on the visual that would direct my next course of action. My waypoint was the kitchen window that was visible from the driveway. If the light was off, my Dad hadn’t gotten up for work yet. If the light was on, my Dad was taking his first sip of coffee and finding something interesting to read in the newspaper. Obviously, the outcomes and ensuing interaction were very different based on the binary result of the kitchen light equation. More often than not, the light was still off and I eased upstairs and got into bed. On the occasion that the light was on, it meant it was around 5:15AM and Dad was up.
One specific morning (or night), as I eased down the hill, I noticed the light was on. Coasting into the driveway, I parked the car and made my way into the house through the garage. I’m not sure if it was bravado or stupidity that guided the next series of events. I walked in the house and made my way over to the coffee maker, grabbed a cup and starting pouring the coffee.
I leaned over to the kitchen counter where my Dad was sitting and said “Good morning, Dad.” His response was classic. With a smirk laced with the experience of a man in his early fifties, he smiled and said “Good morning”. We chatted just like any two people would chat over coffee first thing in the morning. It just happened that I was the night shift and he was the day shift. I don’t really remember much about the specifics of the conversation, but I remember the interaction being pretty cool. My parents gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, and I only blew it a few times. Those stories are for a later post.
My night owl nature would continue through college. My mom actually bought me multiple alarm clocks, including this Charlie Brown alarm clock.
Not because I had a soft spot for Peppermint Patty, but because it was loud as shit. At one point, I was setting Charlie Brown plus two backup clocks at slightly different times. While I was able to eventually shed the redundant alarm clock system, I never really felt tremendously focused in the mornings. Night time was the right time for anything that required creative energy, which, at this point, usually involved writing songs or rehearsing with bands.
I recently ran across a book by Mason Currey called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.
It goes through the daily rituals of 161 of the world’s most creative people. Thomas Wolfe, Jean-Paul Sarte, George Gershwin, Charles Dickens, Andy Warhol, Benjamin Franklin and Igor Stravinsky to name a few. Currey’s concept actually started out as a blog before it became a book. I was driving a Penske box truck from Fort Myers, FL to Atlanta, GA and thought the audiobook version would be a great companion on my 10+ hour drive. It most certainly was.
One interesting excerpt from Daily Rituals: How Artists Work was about Mark Twain.
“He would go to the study in the morning after a hearty breakfast and stay there until dinner at about 5:00. Since he skipped lunch, and since his family would not venture near the study — they would blow a horn if they needed him — he could usually work uninterruptedly for several hours. … After dinner, Twain would read his day’s work to the assembled family. He liked to have an audience, and his evening performances almost always won their approval. On Sundays, Twain skipped work to relax with his wife and children, read, and daydream in some shady spot on the farm. Whether or not he was working, he smoked cigars constantly.”
So, artists have a process? Yes. They put themselves in environments and settings that enable creativity. There was an element of consistency to each of the rituals. Some stayed up all night and drank vodka, while others started their day with a mindfulness practice and tackled their most creatively challenging work early. No matter the strategy, they have a ritual or routine.
One very interesting common theme between almost all of the 161 people was that at some point, they left their work and went on a walk.
(Remember Step #3 – Incubation?)
What was my process?
It used to be:
1.Wake up with just enough time for marginally acceptable Western hygiene practices.
2.Eat something that involved opening a wrapper and shoveling.
3.Jump in the car and get to work between one and ten minutes late.
Physically, this process got me to work. Mentally, it kept me in a cloudy space.
I wasn’t really seeking a solution at the time, but I recall a moment about three years ago that changed the game.
One morning, I was up earlier than usual to get ahead of traffic for a meeting. Using the quiet early hours productively, I was flipping through Facebook. I ran across a post for Deepak Chopra’s 21-day Meditation Challenge. During the 21-day period, Deepak Chopra posts 8-10 minute guided mediations each day. I’d read a bit about meditation and had been intrigued by it, but never managed to dig in. Following some vein of intuition, I quickly signed up before racing out the door to enjoy the comforts of GA-400 traffic. After my morning meetings, I returned to finish the day from my home office. It’s not in my nature to shy away from anything with the word challenge in it.
I logged into the Deepak Chopra site, and downloaded the first guided mediation. I found some headphones, put them on, hit play and closed my eyes.
During the first few minutes, I found myself in between giggling and thinking about the results of someone walking into my office during my experiment. Though I tried really hard to move past it, these juvenile and ego-protecting reactions stayed with me during the entire 10 minute session. I wasn’t naive enough to expect exponential results from a single 10 minute guided mediation session. I was intrigued enough to continue the experiment.
Day 2 – similar to Day 1
Day 3 – the giggles were disappearing
Day 4 – ego was present but becoming more in check
Before I knew it, I completed the 21-day challenge with tangible results. I actually looked forward to the time when I focused on nothing more than my breathing and a single word. Going through the process taught me that I never had an off switch. Now I do. Immediately after the challenge, I purchased the series of guided meditations and made time for them every morning for a year or more. If I missed a day, I could definitely feel the lack of focus and a shorter fuse crept back in.
I found something that would be the catalyst to create my morning rituals.
Just as Rick Rubin found his way out of being a night owl into a new rhythm of embracing the morning, my night owl badge was ceremoniously removed. Through a series of research, reading, discovery and trying different things, I came up with a morning routine that I hold sacred. Well, sacred enough for me to get up an entire hour earlier to accommodate it.
Step #1 – Kick Start the Body
I heat up a 16 oz glass of water with lemon and Himalayan sea salt. This is not table salt, but natural unrefined salt. I’ve found that this helps to kick start my body and begin preparing it for the day. I’m not a doctor but have read about some potential health benefits that you can research for yourself.
Step #2 – Meditate (or breathing exercises)
While Deepak’s guided mediations are great, I found that I needed some variation.
Here are a few options that I’ve been experimenting with:
She has some great guided mediations and body scan exercises.
Here is an example of one of them:
Wim’s method uses a more physically aggressive approach, but I’ve actually found it provides similar results. These exercises have also translated into various mental wins in the gym. The main premise is that the mind can control the biology of the body, and your body is capable of more than you give it credit.
Step #3 – Not Your Grandpa’s Coffee
I’ve experimented with the Bullet Proof Coffee concept, which adds a healthy fat to coffee. Some say adding these types of fats provide a longer release for the caffeine in the coffee. Many use grass-fed butter, but I’ve gravitated towards 2 tsp. of coconut oil. I enjoy it because it fills me up in the hours before I am ready for breakfast.
Step #4 – Journaling
Wake up your brain and your creativity. It’s a muscle that needs exercise.
Stay present by being thankful.
Here are a few methods that I am enjoying:
1. Gratitude practice
Practicing gratitude every day has helped me to stay more present.
Here is an example of one of my journal entries:
Thankful for my usually annoying driver’s side rear door that never locks. I somehow put my keys in the trunk after the gym yesterday and shut it. Almost a shit show. That annoyance was actually a huge save yesterday. View things with positive potential no matter how frustrating or annoying they may seem initially.
2. Oblique strategies
I struggled with journaling at first because of the blank page syndrome. Where there is a blank page, there are expectations. I decided to write without expectations. I wrote about the first thing that came to my mind, and continued until I was done.
Another trick that I’ve used to kick start the process is to take one card from the Oblique Strategies Deck (Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt) and use that random phrase as the subject of my writing.
Here is an example of one of my journal entries:
Oblique Strategies card = “A Line Has Two Sides”
On “A Line Has Two Sides” – If you think on it, a line actually has three sides. Top, bottom and side. There is always more than meets the eye with most anything. Approach problems, challenges and opportunities with this mindset. The solution will come if you give your brain time to think through it. Usually multiple independent sessions are required.
So this former night owl has embraced the glorious nature of quiet mornings. I found a way to silence my ego long enough to realize that meditation is one of the most important aspects of my day. I committed to a routine that creates a clear, focused mind and fosters creativity.
Committing to a routine has to be a want to and not a have to.
If you do it right, you actually look forward to it.
Thank you for spending time with me. See you next week.
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