in Productivity

Want to change your behavior? Change your attitude first.

For most of my adult life, I considered myself a “night person”. Rarely would I get to bed before midnight. Consequently, I would also get up later in the morning, often around 8 or 9 am, leaving me little time to do anything before having to go about my day.

I’d heard for so long about the many benefits of being an early riser, namely, being more productive, more focused, more proactive, and better rested, but I never could quite get myself to wake up earlier, since I was so accustomed to going to bed late. Despite knowing all the reasons why I should wake up early, I could not change my deeply ingrained behavior. I wanted to be become an early riser, but something was stopping me.

So I turned to a little introspection. Why was I staying up late? Why couldn’t I just go to bed at say, 9 PM? What was I doing during the night hours that kept me up? Was I just not tired? After taking this line of questioning with myself, I realized that the main reason that I didn’t want to go to bed was because I thought I had so much to do before going to bed. In my mind, I needed those evening hours to ‘get stuff done’ – read one more journal article, write one more email, watch one more Cousera video or something.

But was I really getting anything done? When I was honest with myself, I realized that during those evening hours, I wasn’t doing much of anything, since, even though I was awake, I was not alert. All evening, I was sluggish, to the point that I’d sometimes doze off while watching a video or reading a paper. But I’d try to force myself to just keep doing what I was doing because I needed to ‘get stuff done’.

Then, during the course of doing research for my book, I came across the work of author and productivity consultant Tony Schwartz, who has promoted the idea that humans are not machines and that our energy levels are cyclical, not constant. According to Schwartz, we have periods of peak energy and alertness, and in order to be maximally effective, we should do our most important work during those times. We should manage our energy rather than our time.

Schwartz’s simple message – that we humans are constrained by our biology, and that we need to respect and work within those constraints – rang true with me. In retrospect I feel silly that I didn’t realize this sooner. I was deluding myself into thinking that I could turn on at any moment, that all hours of the day were equal in terms of my productivity. Throughout college and parts of medical school, this was my M.O. But Schwartz’s work, along with my own reflection, had a profound effect on my perception. All of a sudden, I saw the world through new eyes. I no longer saw those evening hours as productive time. Rather, I saw them as lost, wasted even. At least in terms of quality work. Conversely, I saw working in the morning hours as a highly desirable thing, necessary for doing my best stuff. Now, rather than feeling, “boy, I need to stay up so I can get stuff done,” my attitude was “wow, it’s 8 o’clock. The sooner I get to bed, the sooner I can wake up and get stuff done.”

Within a few days, I was consistently getting to bed around 8:30–9:00 PM, and waking up around 5:00–5:30 am. And I’ve been doing that for a few months now with very little interruption.

Let’s step back and take note. I was able to change a lifelong behavior almost immediately, with little resistance. Behavior change is challenging, and many people struggle with making even the slightest alterations, just as I did before. That I could so quickly change my practice of staying up late surprised me a lot. So how did I do it in this case? Answer: Simply by changing my attitude toward work and energy.

It’s crazy actually. That change in attitude, seeing the night time as loss and the morning as gain, lead to an almost instantaneous change in my behavior. I don’t even try to do anything really important after 4 PM anymore. Working with my energy levels has completely changed how I work, prompting me to stack my hardest and most important work, which is usually creative stuff, in the morning, and putting off low energy work for the afternoon and evening, such as responding to emails, filling out paperwork, and other such necessary but low-yield tasks.

This experience with changing my sleeping habits prompted me to reflect on other atypical behavior changes I’ve made in my life. And indeed, there have been several times, now that I think about it.

Another major change, similar to this recent one with getting to bed, occurred when I was about 13 years old. At that time, I was becoming interested in my health and performance, and I made dramatic changes in my diet, adopting what people would now call “low-carb Paleo” (although back then in 2000, it was just “meat and veggies” to me). As with sleeping, the changes I made were nearly instantaneous, and they have endured for 15 years now. Just as now, what enabled me to make big changes so quickly was radical attitudinal change. After reading books some seminal books, things like soda or margarine were no longer slightly bad indulgences. In my eyes, they became poison, just as pernicious and just as off-limits as guzzling arsenic. Maybe that’s a bit extreme, but it did the trick. At 12 I would guzzle a bottle of Coke or Pepsi nearly every day. At 13, I wouldn’t touch the stuff with a ten foot pole, and I still won’t.

Many factors go into behavior change, but it’s not likely that they all exert an equal influence. Some are more important than others, and my experience with waking up earlier has really impressed on me how powerful perception or attitude is on effecting behavior change. I’d go so far as to say that attitude change is necessary for behavior change, although likely not sufficient. Other factors like ability and triggers also matter.

Take Home Message

So, in conclusion, how you see things really matters. If you want to change your behavior, changing your attitude is a necessary and powerful step for rapid and lasting change. What do you think?

Exit Questions

  • How do change your attitude about something? For me, some new idea or knowledge was what changed my attitude, but that’s not the only way. What are some ways to change your attitude so as to change your behavior?
  • Have you made behavior changes by changing your attitude? Or, are there times when your attitude changed but your behavior didn’t? Tell me about it in the comments.
  • What other factors for behavior change have you found effective?
  • Christian Tietze

    Reminds me of Tony Robbins’ NLP-based guides, among others. There’s a difference between being a non-smoker and being an ex-smoker: your attitude.

    I can relate to your dietary changes. Pizza simply doesn’t show up on any list about “food” anymore. It’s just junk. Made all the difference.