Waking Up When the World is Asleep

The 21 Early Days Challenge

“What is wrong with you?”, “Why would you do that to yourself?”, “What could that possibly do for you?” were some of first things friends and coworkers would say to me once I told them I was doing this challenge. I first learned of the challenge through a TED talk featuring Filipe Castro Matos. The challenge was simple: wake up at 4:30am for 21 days. So why do it? To get my life on track, follow the habits of great CEOs in the hopes I get some of their fairy dust, optimize my life, and just challenge the “norm”.

Life on Track:

Prior to starting the challenge I was recovering from a meniscus surgery, which took about 2 years to diagnose with 6 different professionals, a story for another time.  Before the meniscus injury I competed as an amateur powerlifter, achieving quick success at the junior stage with back-to-back world records with the AWPC.  Having dedicated ¼ of my life to the sport it was the closest thing I would qualify as a “passion”, which soon became part of my identity. The misdiagnosed injury over the last 2 years pulled me out from competing at my last junior worlds opportunity, leading to a sense of loss and constant psychological turmoil as I felt like I couldn’t be like the athlete I used to be. Without being able to perform simple bodyweight squats I felt immensely weak and far away from the person I thought I would be forever. Being away from competing for so long had created a giant hole in my life and I was desperately looking to fill this gap. Powerlifting is a sport of discipline and I felt like this challenge was an opportunity to tickle the discipline muscle again and a way to start competing against myself to mend the hole.

Fairy dust:

Morning rituals and early risers are commonly attributed to discussions of success and it is common knowledge that many of the top CEOs are early morning risers (Steve Jobs - Apple, Bob Iger - Disney, Howard Schultz - Starbucks, Sergio Marchionne – Fiat Chrysler, and the list goes on). Mohnish Pabrai, an investor I admire, prides himself in being a copycat of others and this isn’t limited to just copying investment philosophies but ways of life as well. So why not follow these early-risers? Maybe some of their productivity and drive will flow to me as well.

Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency:

A common reason why many CEOs woke up so early was because they wanted to be productive with their time and go through all their personal tasks in peace. With time being the most precious commodity this allowed them to maximize their own productivity. What I knew about myself was that I would get extremely upset whenever my plans would get delayed or overwritten because work would carryover. This is was a common case of being in consulting and it was something I knew I would have to work around to keep my sanity. The typical day in consulting is as unpredictable as the next on when the day will end but the start times hovered around the global standard of 9:00am. So waking up when everyone was asleep would have given me a 4.5 hour window to accomplish what I prioritized and valued in my life. It also limited what would be impacted in the night from work so it was easier to control them since the major areas that required time were already completed. This was a prime way to optimize my life and efficiently go through everything I planned for in the day.

“Running the other way”:

Who said you had to wake up for a 9am start? Why make going to work the first thing you do to start your day? I large part of who I am is being different and challenging what people think is the “norm”. How else would you grow if you don’t? It’s also a thrill to be able to accomplish what people think will be hard and break that myth.

A typical #21earlyday:

4:30am – 6:00am: Make a hearty breakfast (either an omelette with lentils or oatmeal with a side of scrambled eggs) and fresh french pressed coffee (highly recommend Jimmy’s Coffee medium roast). Catch up on some shows or videos on Youtube (google talks, Tedtalks, NBA playoff highlights etc..)

6:00am – 8:30am: Go train at the gym or focus on my investing

9:00am – 7:00pm (hopefully): Work

7:00pm – 10:00pm: Dinner (hopefully have 3hrs to digest), spend time with the girlfriend, house chores, prep for work the next day, groceries etc…

10:00pm – 11:00pm: Read for 30mins to 1hr

So what did I learn?

  1. There are plenty of people that are out and about earlier than 4:30am. It was a lesson on humility to see people rise up much earlier, definitely a laughable matter to even think waking up at 4:30am was a “challenge”.

  2. Watching the NBA highlights were great for waking me up mentally. Watching Steph Curry play is definitely not a snooze fest. For the days without playoff game highlights I made an electronic dance music playlist that has been quite effective in providing me with the mental wakeup call

  3. You can definitely make something into a habit in 21 days. It has been one week since the challenge ended and I have no plans of stopping my early rise. The next step would be to be able to wake up at 4:30am without an alarm.

  4. Alcohol will ruin your sleep. I’ve read about this in plenty of articles and you think you understand what it’s saying when you wake up groggy the next day but I decided to keep a tab on this to see how I actually felt. On three separate occasions I had 1 – 2 glasses of beer about 2-3 hours before my pre-determined bedtime and I definitely felt a huge difference in the morning after. It might be that the early rising magnified this effect but on these 3 days I didn’t feel as rested, refreshed or invigorated as I did on the other days but I felt heavy, tired and slow. This has definitely reinforced my aversion to alcohol and provided me with a great experience to think back on.

  5. Prioritizing what is important. Sure you wake up early but there is still a finite number of hours until you enter the “normal-time-zone”. Approximately 4.5 hours. So it became crucial for me to set aside each hour to allow me to focus on what I prioritized in my life and make sure I was as productive as I could be in the dead of morning. Waking up was only half the battle and the other half would be to not waste it and fill accomplished for the time I had created for myself.

  6. Most importantly, I started my day very happy. Before starting the challenge I felt that it would be very difficult to wake up in the morning but it was to the contrary. I felt excited to wake up and win against my lazy self every day. Better yet, it felt amazing to make a hearty breakfast and walk around the quiet streets of Toronto. By the time I arrived at the office I already felt so accomplished and efficient that I had nothing negative to complain about for waking up early.

Bringing it all together:

So there were loads of different things I learned about myself through this challenge but the most significant learning was on my happiness. It might’ve been because I knew I started the morning by successfully meeting the 4:30am wakeup objective or because I knew I had completed my high priority tasks before work even began (training/investing) or because while everyone else stuck to the normal 9am start to the day I decided to do what I wanted. Maybe it was a mix of all three. Regardless, I know that I started each day happy and I remained happy throughout the morning and if something so simple as waking up early can guarantee me happiness for 20% of my day at a micro level.. then why stop? I’m sure there will come instances where I just can’t sleep at 11 because I’m travelling or there is some really important occasion with friends/family but I will definitely stick with this principle for as long as possible. This was a great experience and I would encourage everyone else to have a go at it!

Action Step: I’m sure when you read through this article someone popped up in your mind. Could be a friend, a family member, a colleague or acquaintance. Share this with that one person. Then, discuss how each of you value your intangibles. One is a fool but two is a partnership. There is value in discussion.