No time? Listen to it instead
Following my breakup some nine months ago, I had issues with my sleep cycle, which had been spotlessly perfect for a year before that time. I’ve finally managed to fix and bring it back to how it was earlier during my gap year. I tried several approaches to my nighttime routine, alarms, different music, apps, methods, and so on. This post is not about all those methods. I will mention them, of course, but it is about the idea of Everyday Experiments that I’ll talk about through the steps.
There’s a lot of good advice out there for everything. However, not every piece of advice works for you. Neither does taking all of them together and utterly re-upping everything in your life. So, I came with a little strategy. I decided to introduce one minor change and then to measure if I could sleep and wake up on time. That’s Everyday Experiments.
If you’re looking to skip the story and my process, click here to go to the steps directly.
The Dumb Approach
In the beginning, I was a little stupid about it. Since falling asleep was harder with all the turmoil, I resorted to exhausting myself throughout the day. Exhausting myself meant spamming caffeine and working twice as hard at my job, chores and other projects. The point was to exhaust myself to the point where I would just crash, and it worked. I could hit the bed on time, and as soon as I did, I crashed.
However, as days passed, the stress started to catch up. There’s a limit to what everyone can do in a day, and we need to know that limit. Deliberately crossing that limit is not a good idea and will only lead to burnout rather quickly. I learned it the hard way when I became consistently irritated at work as well as throughout the day.
I needed something better.
The Primary Problem
I figured my issue was specifically “I can wake up just fine, but I go back to sleep after I get up. I’d like to stay awake and get things done in the morning”. So, I focused on just doing that – staying up in the morning.
An Easy Solution: An App
To solve this problem, I looked at what I always look to when I want to solve problems: apps.
I found a brilliant sleep tracking app called Sleep As Android, which not only tracks your sleep but also has a rather smart alarm system. You can choose from multiple options such as math problems, taking a photograph, a QR code that you scan etc. It is only once the task is done that the alarm stops ringing.
I set the app up and started using the math problem alarm. It worked fine initially, but after a week or so, I found myself solving the math problem and going back to sleep. So, I decided to add necessary friction with the process. I sleep with my phone already at the table, so I did have to take a walk, but that wasn’t helping me out, so I thought out a routine.
I took the QR code approach. I mapped a QR code from a festival band I had lying around and stuck it to my coffee machine. Now, every morning, to turn the alarm off, I would have to walk up to the coffee machine (which would have coffee brewing already since it has a timer function) and I’d pour myself a cup, and I’d get going.
It worked. This method worked for a week or so, and then, it stopped working again. The thing was that once I had gotten up, I was still groggy, and often, I’d just go back to the couch, start reading, but doze off. So, the experiment had worked but not completely.
Increase Friction Further
To increase friction further, I decided to do this: change the QR code location to the bathroom, right above the faucet.
This idea is not unlike what James Clear talks in his book, Atomic Habits, and that is what made me go “Aha!” when I was reading it today. It is more in line with his approach to Habit Stacking described in the fourth chapter of his book, and also, how he talks about tailoring the environment (which is something I tend to do a lot as well).
So, now, every morning, I would walk up to the bathroom and the basin, and I would wash my face and brush my teeth immediately. Now, I felt fresh enough. So, waking up was handled.
Remove The Temporary Cue
Once I could wake up on time regularly and managed to stay awake, I realised that the moment I opened my eyes, the first thing I would do is go to the washroom and wash my face. This routine has become so ingrained that I didn’t need to use the app anymore. In any case, I wasn’t looking at all the stats it provided, so its purpose was long gone. The cue was not necessary anymore.
The Secondary Problem
Now that I could wake up on time easily, I realised I still didn’t feel as happy and excited as I wanted to feel in the morning. I started to look at my nighttime routine now, shifting the problem statement to: “Now that I can wake up on time and manage to stay awake, I want to wake up fresher.”
Obvious Fix: Lose The Wine
That is where I conducted scrutiny of how I spend the last two hours of my day. It was my listing down of my nighttime routine and finding the things I could cut and keep from it. So, the first obvious issue was a couple of glasses of wine that I had with dinner. The wine had become a habit without my realising it, and I realised it had to go.
In my experience, though, you can’t cut off something completely. Replacement, however, works wonders. Here’s how I did it.
One, I decided not to buy wine for some time. No wine equals me not being able to consume any. Two, I bought a lot of green tea. If I did want a beverage, I would go for the green tea. I also learned to cold brew green tea, which helps given Pune’s insanely hot weather. I keep doing a flip between hot and cold green tea.
It was not a difficult change, and I soon adapted to the green tea. It became my go-to beverage at night and is something I’m still doing.
Obvious Fix: Cut The Caffeine
Following a passionate discussion on caffeine over a Zoom call with some coworkers, I realised that I wasn’t taking into account the amount of time caffeine stays in the system.
The ideal time is between four to six hours, and it is higher for some people. For the people who are ardent consumers, this falls to fewer hours as tolerance builds up. I took a safe estimate that mine was around five hours.
I did some rough math to figure out that the last cup of coffee I should have is before 7:00 PM if I wanted to fall asleep before midnight and wake up fresher, hopefully. It was a difficult change since by this time, my caffeine consumption had skyrocketed. Thanks to the Dumb Approach mentioned earlier.
To make it difficult for myself, I decided to clean up the coffee machine’s pot and filter each night unlike my usual “when the filter is full”, and that did the trick. No one likes messing up a clean machine that will only brew coffee the next morning. That added more friction to the activity.
Add a Habit: Reading in Bed
Since the pandemic began and the lockdown followed it, I found my routine tumbling again, naturally. So, I set up a simple routine on my Google Home as well as some things I did myself.
As soon as it’s 7:30 PM, the air purifier in my bedroom gets turned on along with the lamp. Google Assistant then fires a notification on my phone, which is a cue for me to start wrapping the day up and to begin preparing dinner. I go to my bedroom and set the AC on a timer for three hours.
Usually, by 10:00, I’m done with the dinner, dishes and cleaning of the kitchen shelf. I set the kettle to boil when I begin the cleanup. I let some green tea brew when I’m done. This follows with me going to brush my teeth. I come back, and I pick the mug up. Then, I pick my Kindle and glasses up from my couch, and I take them to the bedroom. I read for an hour or so until I fall asleep. A simple command turns off the lamp, and that’s that.
That’s been my nighttime routine since the lockdown’s first few weeks, after the tumbling sleep cycle, and it has worked perfectly.
To summarise the entire process that has lasted some nine months, here’s how anyone can approach the idea of an Everyday Experiment.
- Define the Change: It could be a routine change; it could be a new habit. It is anything that you want to do. You should do this with as much clarity as possible, but if not, the next two steps add clarity anyway.
- Form a Primary Problem: Write it down, speak it out loud. Just enough structure to make it essential. For me, it was to wake up on time again.
- Figure out Why: This is important because unless you have a why to the problem, you will not have the incentive to work on it. For me, it was to get things done in the morning.
- Find the Easiest Solution: This could be an app to set the alarm, a check-in system for your habits, a journal. Anything that claims or tries to get you closer to fixing your problem.
- Optimise and Iterate: This is the Everyday Experiment. You can try any method, but Increasing Friction to what you don’t want to do has always worked for me.
- Remove the Cue (Optional): If you feel your cue servers no purpose anymore, you can remove it. This part is especially true for routines, in my opinion. Activities tend to get attached to other activities you do.
- Analyse (and Redefine): Reflect on the entire process and check if you’ve solved the Primary Problem. Sometimes, solving the Primary Problem solves everything. However, sometimes, you feel it wasn’t the only issue. So, figure out a secondary problem and solve it with the same process.
- Add a Habit (Optional): Most problems are solved long-term when we add a habit to them. This statement seems obvious, but it is a profoundly powerful one, in my opinion. Repetition is a form of change.
To solve an everyday problem, ask yourself questions that help you define it. The more questions you ask, the more you’ll start to understand where your problem lies. From that point on, try the most straightforward changes to see what works for you. If it works, do more of it. If it does not, try something else. Keep iterating. The smallest changes are the easiest to implement, which is excellent because they reap the most rewards.
- Thanks to James Clear’s brilliant chapter (and book) about Habit Stacking and other related processes.
- This excellent article from Caffeine Informer talks about all sorts of reasons on how caffeine is absorbed differently in all of us.
- This excellent green tea cold brewing tutorial by Cookie and Kate was a great primer on learning cold brewing for green tea bags.
- About the steps: For each step and solution, I spent on a range, at least a week and at most a month. So, that’s the time you should give them to see if they’re working for you, in my opinion. Everything works in the beginning but once it fails enough, go back to iterating.
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