8 things I learned getting up at 5am for 50 days

Well, it’s nearly here. Tomorrow marks the end of my #50earlydays challenge: to get up at 5am for 50 days to form new habits to help me be healthier, happier and more productive. More about the challenge and my reasons for taking it in a previous post.

How did I do?

I actually really surprised myself on this challenge. My overall result as of today is 43/49 5am starts. All being well I will finish with an 86% success rate, which is much better than I ever would have expected, especially over the December/January period.

Was it hard?

The short answer is yes. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. I started the challenge living in Rwanda where sunrise was at 5.30am and I was living in a very focused bubble. On Day 11 I was back in a very dark, grey and damp London and caught up in a hubbub of reunion and Christmas catch ups and drinking. That quickly dialled up the difficulty level!

However, in a sick way I was enjoying the challenge. I really found myself liking the routine and the pushing myself. When I managed to do well it was self-reinforcing and I was seeing progress, which was motivating. At 6am on Christmas Day, I went for a run in the pitch black Berlin drizzle.

WTF.

I find it hard to reconcile the person who did that with my my own self-image. I dunno who she is.

Perversely, the challenge got much harder in January. After one of those classic hyperactive starts to the New Year where you fool yourself that this arbitrary ‘fresh start’ provides infinite possibilities for transformation, I had a slump. Separately, two very important people in my life moved to the other side of the world. I was no longer just returned from Rwanda, but still hadn’t quite adjusted. I was in the doldrums. Someone very dear to me was in crisis and it brought up some old trauma. Plus the weather was freezing. It felt very hard to motivate myself to get up and I didn’t manage for four days in a row.

As it has got closer to the end of the challenge it has got a bit easier again – though I’ve had the thought playing in my mind of what next…

What did I do with all those extra morning hours?

They say that it takes 7 weeks to form a habit. I don’t know if that’s true but I wanted to test it. I also had some very ambitious ideas that I was going to try to improve in a few different areas, giving myself some variety and a plan of things to do so I would have more reason to get up.

In the end my main successes were building habits around meditation, stretching, exercise (skipping, running etc), journalling and planning.

It is less than what I intended. But what I intended was unrealistic. I’m pleased I have developed any habits I feel I am likely to stick to, and that I have already noticed some positive benefits.

My learnings were:

1. Forming a habit is hard.

Even after weeks of doing things every day, there are still days you just don’t want to do it.

2. …but it gets easier

You might grumble inwardly that you don’t want to do it, but you still (mostly) do it.

3. Mornings go quick even at 5am

I found that the basic morning routine I wanted to put in place generally took an hour. That’s before doing any additional things like writing or going out for some exercise. Often it is suddenly 7 or 8am and it feels like only 30 mins have passed, which was unexpected.

4. It’s better to focus on one thing at a time (for me)

I thought I would be able to stick to a regimen of rotating activities i.e. run one day, work on an online course the next, do some writing the next, etc.

In the event I found this difficult. I found I felt like I had failed when I couldn’t stick to it. It was easier, and probably more productive to stick to one thing and try to improve on that over the 50 days. In my first post on this I mused about whether I should work on one specific project. I didn’t have one in place but I think this would be a really great use of a challenge like this.

5. It’s not that hard to get out of bed at 5am (but it’s harder in a British January 😝)

If I have to get up early I just set my alarm and plug my phone in well out of arm’s reach. I have to get out of bed to turn the alarm off, which is 50% of the battle over. Then walk straight into your morning routine, even if your eyes are still shut and you feel like a zombie and look like one of those newborn pink squirming eyes-shut puppies. Brushing teeth, washing face and drinking a pint of water all help with the other 50%.

6. It gets easier …in general

I did have a few mornings where my eyes opened naturally a few minutes before 5am, which was very weird!

7. The mood you go to bed in really affects your morning.

I realised this one towards the end. If you go to bed feeling sick, self critical, angry, depressed, it’s easy to find it harder to motivate yourself in the morning. When I’d had a great day, I felt really positive the next morning too and very energised to start the day.

8. Give yourself nice things to do in the morning

It can’t all be work. When I felt under the weather or worn out by general life I would take a morning to do something I really enjoy, like make a really good breakfast, read, or listen to music or podcasts. Having a bucket of coffee also helps 😉

What were my results?

  • My 5 Minute Journal habit helps me set daily priorities, feel more prepared and in control, feel more gratitude, and get to sleep quicker in the evening (thanks to having reviewed the day at the start and finish means the amount of things swirling through my head is greatly reduced)
  • Stamina and fitness increased. I have never had a running habit and it is nice to feel your fitness gradually improve even from a low baseline
  • General mood better – I think. Generally I am reasonably peppy but I think I noticed an improvement. This could be as a result of the meditation practice or more exercise.
  • Calmer- probably for the reasons above, though could also be by starting the day in a predictably measured way. I didn’t miss the morning cortisol produced by my usual practice of waking 30 mins before I need to leave the house!
  • Less back pain. I don’t have serious back pain but I do have a weak lower back and genetic hollow back, which I notice when I’ve been standing a while or just at the end of the day. It seems to have got less noticeable, possibly due to daily stretching and exercise, but who knows?

The downsides

Any challenge like this is a bit obsessive and there are always positives and downsides with obsessive behaviours (which I am naturally prone to!).

It’s no fun to have a set time limit to get to bed (ideally 9.30, 11 latest if you don’t want to write off the next day). It is boring and makes you a bore.

This challenge also took over my life. I felt like it was a big portion of what I thought and talked about for 50 days. On the one hand that’s OK as it interested me, on the other it made me feel a bit like an alien.

What’s next?

Will I continue? Given all the above and the progress I feel I made, I don’t want to abandon my morning routines now. It would feel like a waste.

However, I won’t feel pressured to do 5am every day – looking forward to that. I think I can still get lots done getting up at 5.30, 6 or even 7. But on evenings where I have no plans, I think I’ll be more likely than I was before to stop wasting time on the internet and get an early night in so I can have a great morning.

I did really enjoy the format of this challenge, having a chart, seeing myself make progress and so on. So I am looking for a new challenge! I’m not sure yet what it will involve. There’s so many areas I want to work on from professional skills, to finances, to focus training, to building a daily writing habit. But if I’ve learned my lesson I will resist the urge to try them all at once!

I’ve also signed up to do my first park run in Feb so that’s going to be a challenge in itself… wish me luck 💪

I’d love to hear from anyone who has tried anything similar about what they learned, or suggestions for what to try next 😊

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