On the plane home from my winter break I got stuck into The 5am Habit, by Robin Sharma. The author promises that to "Own your morning is to elevate your life". As an early bird the idea appealed, but I thought I'd make some adjustments to enable perhaps a 6am start. Surprisingly now 44 days into the year, not only am I rising at 5am every day, but I'm seeing some remarkable benefits to a routine that enables the first hour of the day to be intentionally focused on exercise, reflection and learning. I’ve a wider vocabulary in Spanish and Hebrew, my guitar playing has improved, and I’m fitter than I’ve ever been. More importantly I’ve managed to keep up a meditation habit and I’m starting to see benefits emerge in my work and relationships.
The appeal to me is simple, by 6:30 my family starts to stir, and then the house becomes a myriad of competing interests and distractions; pulling me away from any focus on the personal. By 8, my work schedule has started, and by the time that’s done, so am I. As the book uses a fable structure (which may annoy some of you) I started getting up at 5am before I knew what the routine he suggested was going to be, and the habit was being installed before I realised that it would mean going to bed at 9:30 to get enough sleep. Now in the rhythm of it, I see that I don’t get value from time I spend up after 10, and as I’m enjoying so much the time I have alone 5-6, it’s well worth missing Newsnight for.
What impacted me, above the simple idea of getting a shift in before I'd normally rise, is the idea of the “Automaticity Point”. This is the point at which a Habit becomes second nature. Researchers at UCL suggest that the idea that you can form a habit in 21-30 days is fanciful in most cases. They suggest that 66 days (or 10 weeks) is more likely to be the point of no return. That said, James Clear suggests in Atomic Habits, when we are thinking of days, we are looking at the wrong measure. It’s more relevant to think of how many "times" you repeat a behavior before it becomes habitual. That said, what has proved really helpful to me and others is the idea of a "Habit Installation Protocol". Identifying 3 stages of 22 days each, a period of Destroying the old behavior, followed by a period of Installation of the new behavior, then Integration. Especially when you apply some simple motivation strategies. By celebrating each stage of the habit formation, I see that 22 days is a very manageable chunk to monitor. Putting diary entries to celebrate each stage of the process enables me to celebrate each stage of the process, and gives a sense of milestones along the way towards “automatisation”. And it’s helping others too. Saffi, who has decided she wants to go to sleep without adult help, celebrated the destruction of her old habit last week with a sushi dinner, and is currently thinking up how to celebrate stage’s 2 and 3.
So why are habits important, and why does the capacity to create new helpful ones make such a difference? One of my podcast guests insisted to me last week that to score a 5 (out of 10) on the happiness scale is good going, because the average is 4. The reason I am so fascinated by habit change is because for me I am not comfortable with a life calibrated by the average. For me why I am still messing about with habit change at the age of 50 is that I am never going to be prepared to settle for a 6, or 7 or 8, as long as I have the capacity to impact the result. I suspect that in order to achieve more in any area of my life I will need to discover my ineffective behaviors and take steps to replace them with more productive and effective ones.
Whatever I have achieved so far, my capacity to make a bigger contribution depends on my capability to create new habits that produce positive results. Getting up at 5am every day hasn’t always been easy, and to fully integrate this I’ve a few more weeks to go according the research. Yet in learning this new routine I am challenging myself to do more with my day, and my life, than staying in bed. The "Spellbinder" (Robin Sharman benevolent guru in the book has a simple formula he (eventually) shares in the book. Spend the first hour of your day doing three things, vigorous exercise, gentle refection and inspired learning. For me this means by 5:05 my mat is out and I’m doing a sweaty endorphin focused work out. This is followed by 20 min sitting quietly, followed by 15 mins of learning. It’s supposed to be a 20:20:20 formula, but I always seem to lose at least 5 mins of my learning time to faffing about getting things ready.
The habit of getting up early may not be one that appeals to you. Whatever habit you think may make a difference to you, I recommend you try thinking about how over the next 66 days you can evaluate and encourage the adoption of a new behavior. Personally, I am finding that the whole process is revolutionary, and has become a little bit of a gateway drug. I’m sleeping better, eating better, and after 35 years of trying, I appear to be some way into creating a habit of looking after my nails, rather than biting them furiously every time I’m distracted by my mind.
I hope you’ll get to play with some new habits yourself, and that you enjoy the process; whether it starts at 5am or not.