I’m not a morning person. There’s nothing I’m better at than sleeping through an alarm. When I moved to New York City after college, though, my tradition of staying up as late as my eyeballs would physically allow and sleeping in until the last possible second started to fail me. I was so anxious, all the time, convinced I was sleeping through precious moments I could use to be more productive.
I was struggling to figure out a new industry and my boss — a rare, true morning person — had kindly taken to coming in early to mentor me. If I was going to get my ass out of bed and into the office and be mentally ready to go at the appointed hour, I had to start going to bed earlier. A lot earlier. I headed home from work one day and swung by a drugstore to buy the biggest bottle of melatonin pills they had, I stopped drinking coffee in the afternoon, and I set a new schedule for myself: in bed, lights out, by 10 p.m.
It worked. It sucked, but it worked, and I kept it up on weekends, too. Eventually, my brain and body shifted, and I could make those morning sessions, which turned out to be invaluable. (I still use things I learned those years between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.) But it also came at a cost. I’d walk by my two roommates on the couch, eating and chatting and watching bad TV together as I was heading to bed. I indulged myself in a sense of self-importance to soften the sadness I was actually feeling as I headed past them to early dreamland. At work, the early morning hours became a habit, too, even after the early morning mentoring sessions wound down. Those extra minutes each day were my secret sauce, the time of day where I found I got the most done.
Eventually I got my own place, and the bedtime came with me. I took up distance running and trained for a marathon, and while it was helpful to already have a practice in place to get me out of bed early each morning, running was something I was doing alone. The moral superiority I felt from practicing a strict ritual was a poor substitute for everything I was forgoing to stick to it. It started to feel isolating. Like I was trading community and human interactions every time I’d leave a bar and tell my friends, “Sorry, bedtime.”
In the final push training for my marathon, I started dating somebody who thought being asleep as the clock struck 12 was going to bed early. And suddenly, even through my yawns, I found myself wanting to be awake. To experience more of this person and to experience more with this person. It wasn’t just about her, either; it was about all the other things I realized I was missing by tucking myself in on a strict schedule. Spontaneous hangouts, an 11:30 p.m. screening of a movie on a Friday just because, the genuine luxury of going to bed early because I actually wanted to and not because I had to.
Regimens aren’t all bad. Mine was incredibly formative; it helped me forge a career path for myself and cross the finish line of a marathon crying happy tears. But they also don’t allow for fluctuation. They don’t offer the grace and understanding a human needs and deserves to get through each day. They don’t shake you lovingly by the shoulders like a good friend and say, “It’s OK if you stay up an extra two hours tonight. The world won’t end.” They’re strict. Unflinching. All or nothing. And I’ve decided my life can’t be all of nothing. Or, rather, my life at its very best can’t be all or nothing. Life at its very best is staying up until 3 a.m. because the concert started late and the train ran local all the way home. And then going to bed at 9 p.m. the next night because you’re tired as hell. And not knowing what the night after that is going to look like because your bedtime is just whatever damn time you end up going to bed.