The secret to clarity is routine, because a routine allows you to put big choices on autopilot and focus on smaller, important details about yourself and your environment. It unlocks productivity and makes you a stronger, more resilient person. Routines are what successful people anchor their super successful success-y lives around, said every self-help book ever.
So, for the last three years or so, I have worked diligently to cultivate a routine of waking up early, working out, going to work, working hard, coming home late and going straight to bed. My routine lets me be hyper efficient in many ways and excel at work, but recently I’ve started to see glaring holes:
Hole #1: My routine relies entirely on caffeine. I had gotten to the point where I needed a quadruple shot (yes, FOUR shots of espresso) every morning to stay upright. Then there was the cup of coffee in the afternoon and the caffeinated tea close to dinner. My brain was awash in what is, essentially, a legal drug.
Hole #2: My routine prioritizes activity over sleep, rather than balancing the two. My routine is one of constant motion There’s my bike ride to and from my workout, my bike ride to and from work where I stand at my desk, and my bike ride home. I am entirely self-powered. That was leading to aching thighs, chest pains (from standing too long at my desk ... and maybe the espressos) to groggy mornings that I would remedy with more caffeine.
My routine is selfish. I was sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated to keep my routine going, and I was always grumpy at best or angry at worst. That resulted in my conversations with loved ones spiraling into arguments, and I would take unimportant issues way too seriously. I was also biasing to negativity and seeing the worst in everything. When you’re hopped up on caffeine and sugar (because not sleeping enough is tied to food cravings
), it’s really hard to be patient with yourself and others.
These three negative byproducts of my routine are no longer acceptable to me, so I decided to upend my entire routine and test some new behaviors:
Test #1: Eliminate caffeine
Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep”
makes clear that sleep is the greatest wonder drug there is. It heals and sustains us better than any lab-created drug and, without it, many of us are on a fast-track to a life of poor health, increasing our risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. One way to keep yourself from getting a good night’s sleep is caffeine (though I know people who swear they sleep better after a post-dinner cup of coffee). Everyone is different, so, while Walker's book is incredibly informative, I wouldn’t take it as prescriptive by any means, and I certainly wouldn’t take what I say with less than the entire salt content of the Dead Sea.
That being said, I knew that going without caffeine for a little while would be worth it for what I could learn about myself. So, I decided to get off of The Magic Adrenaline Sparkle Pony of four shots per day. I weaned myself slowly, going to regular cups of coffee, to decaf, to decaffeinated tea. The headaches were … something else. Eventually, they faded, and I found an equilibrium.
My conversations with folks were much more even and I became a better listener. I stopped taking things too seriously, and my sleep improved. The downside of not being on caffeine is that everyone else is hopped up on the drug. So, I have started to feel like a runner in a race where everyone is on the juice. My performance in my workouts has slipped dramatically, and it’s harder for me to stay focused at work. Rather than use these as an excuse to go back to caffeine, I’m embracing them as a challenge. Are there other workouts I should be trying, and are my expectations for performance not aligned with my health? Should I work out in the evening rather than early in the morning
? Are there smarter ways of working that will help me achieve focus without chemical assistance
? Perhaps I should be doing different assignments?
Test #2: Eliminate processed sugar
Sugar and I don't mix, and nowhere was that more evident than on my face. My skin hasn’t been terrible, but the occasional breakout now and then was proving annoying. I had chalked it up to being a fact of life and continued having the occasional cookie, cake and sugary snack. It was the alpha to caffeine’s omega. If I was coming down from a caffeine high, I could always turn to chocolate or cookies to pop back up again. I further justified sugar with my constant workouts. “I can afford it, I’m good about my workouts,” I’d tell myself ever so smugly.
That was all well and good, except for the fact that, like caffeine, sugar was making me irritable and short with friends and family. Being naturally high energy, the combination of sugar and caffeine was sending me over the top. So, I decided to eliminate processed sugar. That meant no cookies, cakes, candies, chocolate bars or anything that could be considered a dessert. Did I mention I gave up sugar at the same time as caffeine? No? Well, yeah, don’t do that. Seriously. Give up one at a time. While I climbed the hill, it was not the smartest path. So, for the past six weeks or so, I have been free of processed sugars. I still eat fruits, and I’ll tell you one thing: a single apple now tastes sweeter to me than it ever has before. Oranges give me a sugar rush. It’s pretty great.
Test #3: Set a timer, not an alarm.
I have been a poor sleeper my entire life. I hate going to bed. So I would religiously burn the candle at both ends — going to bed late to eke out a few hours of free time and waking up early to make it to my workout. Let me be clear: I am not one of those insanely rare individuals who can sleep for a hot second and call it a full-night’s sleep. I need 7-8 hours no matter how unpleasant they may be to me.
So, I decided that, rather than set an alarm, I would set an 8 hour timer and see what happens. I wouldn’t force myself to go to bed, but I wouldn’t let my body leave the bed until 8 hours had passed from the time I entered the bed. This has wreaked all kinds of havoc on my workout schedule, pushing me to take afternoon and evening classes because my body won’t go to bed until about 10 or 11pm. That means I’m not making my 5:45am workout. I am pushing my body to make a choice: stay up and miss that endorphin high you get from an early AM workout with the added work of figuring out when you’ll workout, or go to bed early and get those sweet, sweet endorphins first thing in the morning. It’s entirely likely I will go back to my 5:45am workout, because my body will want to avoid the cognitive load of finding a new workout time. It’s also possible I may love afternoon workouts and find a natural rhythm there. For now, I am inviting the ambiguity so I can figure out what feels best with 8 hours of sleep — not my workout — being the nonnegotiable factor.
Now, these are things that are working for me — for now. I may very well go back to a cup of coffee in the morning, but at least I know what I am signing up for and how it changes me. The one thing that stood out to me, however, was how none of this advice came from my doctor. Medical practitioners are woefully undertrained in nutrition
, though some doctors are starting to get wise to the fact that not all
paths to healing go through a pill bottle (though some do).
I also recognize that I am privileged in my ability to make these observations and changes. Millions of people lack choice in what they can eat
or flexibility in terms of when they wake up and go to sleep
. There’s also a slew of marketing campaigns here in the U.S. alone dedicated to engineering a cultural bias against sleep. Messages such as “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” (never mind not sleeping will kill you) and “the best part of waking up is [caffeine] in your cup” are ever present, convincing us that being awake is synonymous with being productive and happy. Again, everyone is unique, but without a solid night of sleep, being awake is torture for me and leads me to make others unhappy. The torture I can tolerate, but I can't abide making others miserable.
Disrupting your routine can be exciting and a little terrifying. It invites missed deadlines and slumps in productivity for a while as you figure things out, but changing things up has pushed me to ask important questions about why I do things and which fears are driving me. It also forces me to stop using my routine as an excuse for not being a better friend and family member.