It’s 5:15 a.m. and my alarm goes off. This is the start of a new rhythm for me, a rhythm that starts with the vibration of my phone against the hard surface of a bedside dresser.
Over the next several hours the rest of New York will begin a drowsy procession as diligent runners and morning dog-walkers hit the park; early-shifters at neighborhood coffee shops retract corrugated steel doors to reveal vacant storefronts; and hordes of commuters emerge from high-rises and brownstones to disappear down subway station steps and head to work.
Everyday, everyone and everything moves with elegant, unspoken coordination. It’s a routine I watch with curiosity, awe and a bit of envy.
As a breathing, beating, slouching bit of biomass, I am terribly deficient of one thing: this song-like rhythm.
Walking, for me, is natural. Beyond that, running is a clumsy chore, coordinated athletics are ambitious, and dancing is just out of the question. The order of operations for my day is in constant flux. I suspect even my heart beats in frighteningly irregular spurts. My life as sheet music would be generously described as “avant-garde”.
But it reliably begins, everyday, at 5:15 a.m.
This meandering lifestyle is driven by a set a personal priorities and philosophies (variety over predictability, growth through discomfort, time with people I care about, etc.). It’s driven by creative energy and excitement (an idea or a solution that needs to be recorded, built, shared, etc.). It’s driven by needs, usually on an as-they-come basis (pay that bill, see a doctor, etc.). It’s driven by a genetic predisposition to chaos (read here for my thoughts on ADD as a learning style rather than a disability). I’ve attempted to establish routines, I’ve tried that dance, but it has always ended up feeling forced and awkward.
But I get up, every day, at 5:15 a.m.
Jack Cheng wrote a wonderful post about something he calls "habit fields". The idea is that objects and spaces can be triggers for behaviors. The recline of a chair, the arrangement of objects on a desk, the quality of the light in a room — all of these things act as triggers to our behaviors, and “the sum of these stored behaviors is an object’s habit field”.
5:15 a.m. is the first habit field of my day. But rather than designing a space around behaviors, I have built a block of time. I wake up early not to start a routine, but to create a field, a sacred space, that all of my philosophies, priorities, energies and ideas can exist within. It is a precise and intentional initiation, a turn of a key and single spark into a combustion chamber that then drives the rest of my day. At 5:15am, before that the rest of my world begins, I have a few undisturbed hours to answer to no other time table, no other rhythm but my own. It is by far the most productive time of my day.
The work itself is not a routine. There is very little repetition in my design process. Instead, habits have become a way to create protected spaces for me to work within. Morning is a special space for me. It is my studio. It is a place for focus and flow. It is my favorite space to work in.
It’s not my only space. I have spaces for working and spaces for thinking and spaces for not thinking.
When weather permits, I commute by bike (I’m determined to bike 90% of work days this year and got some gear to make that possible). Biking is thinking space, but not a quiet one. It’s loud with the sounds of traffic and chains and exertion. It’s a unique kind of meditation that I have come to rely on.
I’ve also found an unexpected quiet space on the roof of our building. I try to get up there every evening. I have lived in New York for almost 5 years and have never found a place as quiet as our roof. There is still plenty of ambient city noise that reaches our rooftop. It’s another kind of quiet. It’s empty and alone. It is above everything going on below. It is like surfacing for a few still moments before diving again into the sea of everyday concerns.
What I do in these spaces is still just as clumsy and non-routine as it always was. These spaces are big enough to allow for a lot of movement, and that is what I need. But I am diligent about making and being in these spaces. It’s a small amount of routine that even I can manage. It’s a rhythm in service of open, rhythmless, creative space.
After a good ride, and a few quiet minutes on the roof, I get to bed pretty early. And the next morning, without fail, but also without fanfare (except that of a few excited birds), I get up at my time, my sacred space, 5:15 a.m.
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