Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

You might never be a morning person.

Depending on your perspective, I am about to drop some terrible news. 

You might never be a morning person. 

[Or insert the habit you've desperately been trying to start for the last five years: running, reading fiction before bed, meditating, writing for an hour before coffee, cleaning for 15 minutes a day...] 

But here's the really good news: there's a big difference between the habit and the intention. Just because you might be struggling to establish a habit DOESN'T mean you won't be able to honor and incorporate that intention into your day. 

When do you give up on a habit?

Clients come to me often with a set of habits or routines that they have decided (normally through careful research!) will revolutionize their lives. They want my help in supporting those habits - and to be clear, great!! Sometimes a new habit is just the lightning bolt you need to get other things in your life in order. Yoga was that way for me in grad school - the more I went to class, the better the rest of my life functioned, and if it was a habit to go to yoga, it became easier to hit the benchmarks in the rest of my life.

But more often than not, if the habit was a good fit for someone, they wouldn't need my help to get it started. My classic example of this is the "morning person" habit - I hear so often that clients want to start getting up earlier, and become morning people. If only they could get up at 5 am (or 8 am, depending on where they're starting from!) they would be productive academic writers and they would workout before dawn and everyone in their household would eat a delicious and nutritious breakfast prepared after 20 minutes of soul-filling meditation. 

But something always stops them. Kids don't get to bed on time, so the alarm rings after three or four hours of sleep, and gets shut off. Inspiration hits at 7 or 8 pm, and writing goes late into the night. A few days of sleeping in after being sick and the sleep cycle is all off. Everything is great when alone, but when you add a partner who does not feel compelled to get up at 5 am, together time at home is cut down to only an hour or two because of the mismatched bedtimes. Being a morning person works and is great, but it just can't be sustained without huge sacrifices.

At a moment like that, you can go one of two ways: decide that the sacrifices are worth it, and keep the habit up in spite of those challenges. Or you do what I suggest next: stop looking at the habit as the cure-all, and look at the intention. 

Break your habit into the intention parts

Habits are powerful; they take the choice out of activities that we know will serve us in the long run. Instead of deciding twice a day whether it is worth it to brush your teeth, if there's enough of a reason to brush your teeth, you just do it. Those two minutes, twice a day, are long term investments in your dental and overall health and you don't have to waste brain energy on making that investment - it just happens. 

But if you're struggling to make a habit stick, sometimes the distress of stopping and starting that habit (and the guilt and shame spiral that can come with that) is enough to make the whole process unpleasant and unhelpful. So instead of forcing yourself to "be a morning person", or whatever the habit is, be clear about what the intention of that habit is. 

For example, if you really, really want to be a morning person, is it that you:

  • Want some time alone before others wake up to center yourself before taking on the day?
  • Want writing time that is unlikely to be scheduled over or come into conflict with other duties?
  • A regular workout time in order to start the day? 
  • Time to meditate or journal? 
  • Regular nutritious breakfasts? 

It might be that you want all of those things - but I would encourage you to narrow your list down to the one or two most important things that you want to call in or start. 

Maybe you really want time to center yourself before you start the day, but don't have time for a full 45 minute journaling routine in the morning, no matter how hard you try. Why not shift the bulk of that journaling to the end of your work day, and then only do five or ten minutes in the morning? Still time to center, but broken up and much easier to squeeze in to a hectic morning routine.

Struggling to find a time to make working out a consistent part of your schedule? Maybe you broaden what you mean by start of the day! If you can't get to it before dawn, maybe you get to it before the start of your writing day - you tackle a few hours of chores/appointments/administrative things, and then make a lunchtime yoga class, or go for a 10:30 am run before you sit down to write. 

But breaking the habit down into the intended effects, and focusing on how to make THOSE work, can be a total game-changer. Despite what others may tell you, not every habit or routine works for every person, and even if it worked for you before, it might not work now! But by identifying the intention behind the habit you're working so hard to start, you can open up a few pathways to succeeding, rather than pinning everything on an all or nothing habit. 

You can always start to stack your habits - get your 10 minutes of meditation in every morning, and once that feels stable, add breakfast! Put a workout afterwards! Add five minutes of planning and schedule maintenance! But always remember that it isn't the routine that's the miracle - it's the commitment that you show every time you show up and put the work in. Commitment isn't time bound - only habits are. If you're committed to the change, and the habit is standing in the way, let the habit go and focus on making the most of your commitment to change.