The Vitruvian Life

‘How Can I Get More Out of My Mornings?’

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Advice for the young conservative in the modern world.

Welcome to the Vitruvian Life, NR’s weekly advice column for young conservatives in the modern world. Send in your questions about living a balanced, virtuous life: mind, body, and soul. Include your name (anonymous or not), and town in an email to Questions might be lightly edited for publication, but they’ll never be made up.

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New dad here. I’m trying to figure out how I can better organize my mornings. I work a 9 to 5, and it’s become obvious that I really can’t count on my evenings anymore. Family obligations eat up those evening hours, and then, frankly, I’m too tired after my girl’s bedtime to do anything but watch TV and pass out. I’ve found though that if I try to wake up early, that hour or two just flies by, and I’m not getting the workout, project, or reading done that I had wanted to accomplish.

Any advice?

Tanner, M., Austin, Texas

Anyone in “new dad” mode knows exactly how you feel, Tanner. And you’re on the right track in trying to move the start of your day to the left and steal a few hours for your own purposes before the kiddos wake up.

But before I continue, let me make something clear: I am not a morning person. Oh, don’t get me wrong — I absolutely recognize the value of waking up early in order to get things done, and it’s a practice of mine to make an effort to wake up before dawn (and the kids) and do some things for my own self before work, family, and every other obligation under the sun comes asking for my limited time.

I just hate waking up early. If it were up to me, I’d sleep in until 10:30 every day, drink coffee and do nothing until around noon, eat brunch, and then get to work. (In fact, that was essentially my schedule in college.) It wasn’t until I joined the Marine Corps that I was forced to get out of bed and start my day at Zero Dark Thirty. I still didn’t enjoy it. But I found that I could do it — and I found out just how effective kicking off my day several hours before the rest of the world could be.

Now, a lot of people (e.g., college-age me) argue that doing what we’re talking about after the sun goes down and the kids go to bed is just as effective as being an early riser. But I think that’s wrong, and here’s why: Even if you’re naturally a night owl, you have less control over the end of your day than the beginning of it. If you plan on writing a chapter of your novel, working on your invention in the garage, or hitting the gym at night, you risk life intervening and derailing your plan: Your buddies are going to ask you to get a drink at happy hour; the kids will resist bedtime; you’re going to get sucked into watching the Braves and Dodgers playing in extra innings. The world is mostly asleep at 5 a.m. — it’s still buzzing at 11 p.m. You put yourself at greater risk of getting knocked off your plan and your goals if you leave your You Time until the evening.

All that said — if you just set your alarm for 4:30 a.m. and say, “I’m going to get stuff done tomorrow” . . . you probably won’t. As you’ve noticed, Tanner, those early morning hours fly by like listening to a podcast at 2x speed. In order to get the most of your pre-dawn hours, you’ve got to have a plan. There are three rules to follow here:

Plan Your Morning the Night Before

If you don’t have a plan, you’re going to wander around inefficiently or — worse — succumb to the temptation of that snooze button, roll back over, and begin your day with a big, fat L.

On the other hand, having a solid plan, with concrete tasks and goals, can be a motivating factor to push through the natural resistance, rub the sleep out of your eyes, and get to work when no one is forcing you to.

One of the last things I do before I hit the sack at night is make a plan for the next morning. This doesn’t have to be an hours-long planning summit complete with Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides. It can be as simple as writing a task list and time-block plan on a notepad. (That’s exactly what I do.)

Be Realistic about What You Can Get Done

If you don’t set manageable, realistic tasks and goals, with a realistic time-block schedule, even a productive morning can feel like a failure when you inevitably miss the mark. Through experience, I’ve found that a three-task list works best.

If I’m going to wake up at 5 a.m., and I know I need to start work at 9 a.m., this is how I plan my morning.

1) Read one chapter
2) Lift
3) Write 500 words

5:00-5:10        Wake up, drink coffee, use the head, eat a snack
5:10-5:45        Morning prayers, read
5:45-6:00        Drive to the gym
6:00-7:15        Lift
7:15-7:30        Drive home
7:30-8:15        Shower, breakfast, send the kids off
8:15-9:00        Write 500 words

This time-block schedule is tight, but it’s realistic. Notice that I didn’t make it a goal to read three chapters, run a marathon, and write 2,500 words before 9 a.m. That’s just not doable. And notice that I included time to shake myself awake and commute to and from the gym. If you don’t take that leaky time into account and build yourself a little margin, your plan is going to get knocked off schedule.

Finally, if you’ve never practiced time-block planning . . . you’re going to be really bad at it at first. For example, if you know that your workout typically takes “about an hour,” you might make the mistake of thinking that you can drive to the gym, work out, and come home in an hour flat. Well, you can’t. Until you get the hang of it, estimate that everything you want to do is going to take 15 or 20 minutes longer than you think it will. Once you get some experience, you’ll be able to tighten down your estimates and your expectations.

Set Yourself Up for Success

I know myself well enough to understand that I will take absolutely any excuse available to me to hit that snooze button. In a half-asleep, uncaffeinated state, I can talk myself into literally anything: I’m too sore to work out. I think I might be getting sick. I don’t need to go to class today. It’s cold and rainy outside so maybe I’ll go running tomorrow. I think I have the ’Rona.

If I’m going to ensure early-morning success, I have to proactively eliminate all available excuses.

Beyond having my tasks and time-block plan, I need to lay out my workout and work clothes. I need to pre-brew coffee in a French Press and stick it in the fridge so it’s ready to drink as soon as I wake up. I need to put my alarm clock on the other side of the room so that I’m forced to get out of bed to turn the alarm off. (Don’t sleep with your phone if it’s your alarm!) I need to put my task and time-block plan right next to my alarm, so that I see it when I’m trying to make excuses for why I should hit the snooze.

And I get an accountability partner. This is my silver bullet. If I rely only on my willpower and my resolve, I’m likely to fail. But if I tell my buddy that I’ll meet him at the gym at 6 a.m., I’m going to show up! So — especially if you’re trying to build this habit for the first time — get yourself a workout partner. He’ll be there to spot you — and he’ll also make sure that you show up.

One last word, if you fall off the wagon, sleep through that alarm, and earn yourself an L for the day — don’t let it ruin your week and definitely don’t abandon your attempt to build this wonderful habit.

Tomorrow morning is a new day. That alarm clock is going to go off. Have a plan, set yourself up for success, and get after it.

Remember to submit your own question about living the Vitruvian Life to See you next week.


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