The First Choice of the Day

Best Practices

As part of improving my sleep, I’m on a campaign to jump out of bed at a standard wakeup time each morning. Although I’m pretty consistent at getting up, sometimes I resist getting out of bed. I have applied everything I know about motivation to creating a process for myself to make this change. I thought I’d share it as an example of how to use self-direction in situations where most people think your only option is self-discipline, i.e., just “making yourself” do it.

Why I set the goal

I set this goal on the basis of a theory. The idea is that you sleep better and are generally healthier if you operate on a consistent diurnal cycle, starting with a standard wakeup time in the morning. This is plausible to me based on some arguments I read in Sleep by Nick Littlehales, but it is only a hypothesis for now. I don’t act on the basis of authority. I will need to see the change in my own life to become fully convinced.

But there are two additional firsthand reasons it is worthy of an experiment by me.

First, I’ve been paying attention to my “first choice in the morning” since listening to a class by P.J. Eby in which he argued your first choice is “free” and you should make the best of it. I’ve successfully incorporated a lot of motivational tidbits from him, but this one eluded me. That first choice sure doesn’t feel “free.”

However, I’ve been paying attention. When I do use my first choice to start my standard morning routine (hygiene, walk, and journaling), I always get a good start to the day. When I don’t, I don’t necessarily have such a good day.

I know this, but that doesn’t stop me from sometimes feeling too tired to get up. Or to lie in bed sorely tempted to return to reading something I had been reading the night before. Or to lie in bed mulling over the first thoughts that occur to me. In these cases, getting up and getting going seems costly, not “free.” But the high correlation between “getting up and at ’em” and highly productive days makes me think that consistently making that choice would be valuable in itself, even if it doesn’t improve my sleep.

Second, this project will help me fill a little gap in my theory of motivation.

I am dead set against forcing myself to get up. More exactly, I am dead set against forcing myself to do anything. You can get short-term results by forcing yourself, but over the long-run you develop resistance and start to burn out. That is because forcing yourself always involves a threat-oriented approach, which sets up a vicious cycle rather than a virtuous cycle. Of this I am totally convinced, based on analyzing my own past experience and coaching people on this exact issue for years. See my article “How to Make Yourself Do Something.”

But lots of people remain skeptical. They see no option other than “just make yourself do it” for certain kinds of situations. My morning “get up and at ’em” difficulties seem to be a classic example of that kind of situation. So, now that I see that “getting up and at ’em” could be highly valuable to me, it’s worth my while to figure out how to do this consistently, on principle, without forcing myself.

I believe that is always possible, but it will require finding the source of my resistance and disintegrating it. Resistance is different from inertia. Inertia can be overcome with a quick reminder of one’s intention and the reason it’s good. On the other hand, resistance increases when you challenge it.

In other words, I want to change my default motivation in the morning. I’ve done this before for other types of motivation, and I can do it again. Since there’s something unusual about this case, I will learn something interesting I can share with others.

Thanks to these three reasons, jumping out of bed at a standard wakeup time is now a highly selfish goal. That’s fortunate. A highly selfish goal is a necessary prerequisite for putting in the effort to change one’s own ingrained motivation.

The problem I encountered

The first step is to get clearer on why my intellectual conclusion isn’t good enough. Why isn’t just deciding I should jump out of bed enough to motivate me to start doing so?

That was a real question.

I’ve made thousands of changes in my routines just by deciding to do so. In fact, I implemented another piece of advice from Sleep with no trouble (sleeping on my non-dominant side). You probably implemented advice based on a decision, too. Maybe you’ve even made this change based on a logical decision.

The question is: why wasn’t the decision to get up immediately enough in my case?

There is no way to answer such a question without introspection. When your motivation conflicts with what seems like a perfectly logical decision, you need more information about the source of that motivation. And that source is highly individual. If you want to change your own motivation, you need to know exactly what it is and why.

In this case, I started paying more attention to my resistance and I noticed something important: As I would lie in bed not wanting to get up, various techniques for dealing with resistance would occur to me, but I’d feel resistance to doing them! (As context, you need to know that I teach terrific tools for dealing with resistance in Do What Matters Most and in other courses in the Thinking Lab.)

So what was the problem? Those tactics involve at least 3 minutes of thinking. Even my simplest go-to tactic for resistance is a 3-minute walk to think through the issue.

But when I first wake up, 3 minutes of thinking feels too hard! My brain is not yet in gear. No context has been warmed up. I can’t even remember the steps or why I want to take them. My mental flywheel is at rest, and it will take some time to get it moving.

I needed something easier.

My first whack at the problem

I came up with “something easier” to get me out of bed some time ago: Just remember the following words: “I get to work on the book today.”

That’s right. I just memorized those 8 words.

As I woke up, the question “what am I doing today” would occur to me. These 8 words would pop up in response. I would then (usually) jump out of bed, eager to work. This particular message “worked” for me because my top priority is my book, I love working on my book, and my book is the first thing I work on after I complete my morning routine.

These 8 words got me out of bed because they activated a value context. This sentence reminded me of a top value and my choice at the moment. This naturally triggered a desire to pursue the value.

This exact solution wouldn’t work for most people, and it didn’t work 100% of the time for me, either. It didn’t work on Sundays (my day off from working on the book) or when I occasionally decided I shouldn’t work on the book on a given day. Then it just wasn’t a good reason to get up. And it didn’t work when I felt overtired, because I would be dubious about whether I could work on my book without more sleep. Also, just getting up seemed like too much effort. And it didn’t work when I was discouraged about external events, which also might cause me to question whether I should go work on the book.

But this simple tactic worked well enough that for a long while I didn’t worry about the exceptions. I only looked for a more robust solution after Nick Littlehales made the case to me that I’d be happier and healthier with 100% consistency on when I get up.

My new approach to my “first choice”

As I returned to take another pass at this challenge, I realized I needed not just an easier solution, I needed a general-purpose choice that would work in any circumstances. Here are the criteria I came up with:

  • The choice needed to require no abstract thinking.
  • The choice needed to be so easy that I could do it when I woke up, even if I were tired or dispirited.
  • The choice needed to start an action that I knew had its own payoff, meaning that if I chose to take the action, I would see some immediate benefit no matter what happened. (This last comes out of my approach to planning next steps.)

Bottom line, I needed an easy physical  action I was sure I could take in any circumstances, and which would start a virtuous cycle with a quick payoff. After experimenting a bit, my proposed action was/is to crawl out of bed onto the floor, where I can lie there and/or do some very basic stretches.

This requires no abstract thinking. It is a purely physical action, one that I am physically capable of taking if I am awake.

It has an established payoff, thanks to a lot of experience lying on the floor to do leg stretches or Alexander Technique self-lessons. I often wake up with achiness in my legs; the leg stretches are my go-to for addressing that. When I am very tired, lying on the floor in the Alexander Technique rest position always helps me re-energize. I have taken these actions thousands of times — I just hadn’t named this as my “go-to” action upon waking until recently.

Thanks to my past experience, I am 100% convinced that crawling out of bed and lying on the floor would start a virtuous cycle of action. This means that I expect to be able to overcome any inertia by just reminding myself of this action. This has been helpful so far, but I realize it will take some repetition so that I remember this option when I wake up, but I see no reason I can’t make this into a new habit. Then I can build on a virtuous cycle to that.

The experimental method

Will this work? So far it looks good, but I won’t know for sure until I’ve tried it out in many more situations. Do I understand my own motivation enough so that my predictions about how I will be motivated will match reality? And if there’s a mismatch, will I be able to tweak my approach so that I get up consistently as soon as I wake up?

After I have validated that this process works “when I wake up,” then I can go onto the next goal: See if I can use this process to get up, not just “when I wake up” but at a particular time. That will be more challenging because I may not have slept well. There will likely be some new challenges to work out.

But already my motivation has changed. Instead of doubting that I could get up at the same time every day, I am confident that getting up this way will be helpful even when I’m tired. It will give me a way to get my physical flywheel moving, and that in turn will start my mental flywheel moving. I predict that within 15 minutes, I’ll have my mind in gear, no matter what, and I can use my thinking tools for overcoming resistance, if I need them.

It’s a hypothesis. I’m doing the experiment…on myself. That’s how you change your motivation.

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  1. Bach Ho

    Crawling out of bed and lying on the floor as a go to after waking up! Brilliant. I would never have come up with that solution, and it sounds way more pleasurable than three minutes of abstract thinking. Thank you, Jean. Total plot twist.

    • Jean Moroney


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