Despite how click-bait-y this title sounds, it is not an exaggeration.
In the last six months, my average wake time has been 6:30am—including weekends, holidays, and frequent time zone crossings. To be fair, 6:30am is not that early in the realm of early-birds, called larks, who espouse the miracles of a 5am wake up time. But for me, this has been such a momentous change that I’ve become quite literally a different person.
I am now someone that wakes up naturally before their 6:30am alarm with enthusiasm to tackle the day, and with a wide menu of pre-breakfast activities including meditation, yoga, strenuous bike rides, reading, writing, making old-fashioned oatmeal, etc.
I may sound like a holier-than-thou health nut, but I assure you I am nearly as confused as you might be about how I got here.
You see, since my pre-teen years, I had been a die-hard night owl. I loved to read late into the night. In the era before tablets and Kindles, I would pull a desk lamp under the covers with me, so there would be no light peeking from under my bedroom door to tattle to my parents that I wasn’t asleep. I tend to get a creative burst of energy around 11pm (and I still do now, even as a converted morning person). Over the years, I’ve done the bulk of my writing, and sundry projects and hobbies, in the hours spanning midnight. Curiously, there have been mornings where upon reading what I wrote the night before, I’d come upon a word I don’t know. Then upon sheepishly consulting a dictionary to look up a word that I wrote myself, I’d discover my late-night word choice was spot on. I’ve since concluded that my brain is wired to be a night owl. Staying up and waking up late is my best self.
Being a night owl is who I am.
I work in tech startups, which seem to be designed for night owls. It’s perfectly acceptable to roll into work after 10am or even 11am. Despite going to sleep at 1am or 2am, I could still get my seven to eight hours of sleep without a sweat. Sure, I knew about the benefits of waking up early. I had the pleasure of working at Coach.me for nearly four years, during which I’ve read countless accounts of how amazing and life-changing waking up early is.
But not for me. During my tenure at Coach.me, I tried out various self-improvement best practices—it’s almost part of the job. I became a runner and started meditating regularly. But I never even considered making a habit of waking up early. I would have scoffed at the idea that I would one day be writing a long Medium article espousing the virtues of waking up early.
Well, the only constant is change, for better and worse. At Coach.me, I worked to help people improve themselves. After I left Coach.me, I got a new job working to improve the lives of others in a different way—by improving government services. Working with the government meant traveling to where our client is—I started traveling to our company headquarters in D.C. from San Francisco every month. There are probably additional factors, but the frequent time zone changes, coupled with a rapid increase in job responsibilities in a rapidly growing startup, led to a proportionate increase in stress and difficulty sleeping for me. Then I slipped into a depression.
Recognizing My Depression
This is not the first time I’ve been depressed. I’ve built up a strong meditation practice, so you’d think I’d be aware of what my mind is up to and be able to recognize the signs. Even so, depression crept up on me unnoticed.
Our brains are very good at covering up problems, through rationalization. I rationalized away my pessimistic feelings as being realistic about the world. I convinced myself that I was a realist and that optimists are delusional, which is not totally untrue—it’s been shown in studies that optimists are over-confident and over-estimate in various ways.
It was very difficult!
Also, the world as I knew it was deteriorating and it was very difficult to work on improving government services, especially when the president and Congress were actively working to dismantle what we’ve built. I had started my job with gusto to take on the mission of improving public benefit, but my motivation nose-dived. I started having thoughts about how nice it would be to quit and absolve myself of my responsibilities. I struggled to make it through each work day, looked forward to the weekend on Tuesday, and dreaded going back to work on Sunday night.
This is so unlike me. Throughout all of my adult life, I have been dedicated to the work I do, and I considered it a huge privilege that I get to do work I enjoy, to do work that has a huge impact, and to work with so many people that I admire and respect.
Outside of Work
I also didn’t have energy for doing anything outside of work. I gradually pulled back from making plans with friends, and I lost all interest in having fun. I was so good at rationalizing: I convinced myself that things that used to bring me joy were inherently meaningless—travel, dining out, taking photos, writing. I was paying for having read my share of existentialist novels.
I was too tired
The worst was when I stopped exercising, because I was just too tired—despite having trained for and competed in two sprint triathlons earlier that year. I started having thoughts that it didn’t really matter if I was around or not. With that—and a gentle nudge from my husband—it finally dawned on me that my brain might be malfunctioning.