In addition to starting 2017 with the goal of deleting Facebook and Twitter from my phone for at least three weeks (and hopefully forever), I came up with another goal, too: get a shot of the sunrise on my Instagram every morning.
It’s another little experiment I’m doing for . . . well, a few reasons. (Apparently this is a common theme for me. Stuff I do is always for multiple reasons. Just the way my overworking dork brain works.)
I’m not a morning person but I want to make myself one.
It’s hard and I suck at it.
My peak creative hours are probably midnightish to about 4ish a.m. Some nights, particularly when I’m on deadline, I’ll still do that. But since my life as a writer and journalist is bonkers enough, I need some semblance of a routine, and I can’t count on being able to work every night like that. Besides, I’m not totally convinced that it was the exact time of day that makes me so creative and productive, as much as knowing that I’ll have several hours uninterrupted.
To do my best writing I need that uninterrupted time.
My writing has been fine the past few months but I feel like I can be better, and I think carving a few more hours out of my days in the morning will help.
I already know there’s no way I’m actually getting up before dawn every single one of the next 360 days.
But I’m gonna try, because as much as I hate leaving that bed, one of my favorite feelings in the world is when I’m actually up and awake a few minutes later.
So I gotta get better at it to get to do the things I want to do and to get the most out of my days.
And not just with my writing, but with being a better husband and dad and human being all around.
I love mornings in my house because my wife and I both pretty much set our own schedules, which means we can take our time and play with the kid while we all eat breakfast. With a second kid on the way and due in June, mornings are only going to become more like that. It’s gonna be awesome.
Problem is, I’ve stopped working well from 11-4/5 a.m. because I really like hanging out with my wife at night. It’s the one time most days we have to relax together. Not helping matters is that my wife and I recently got this uber-comfy memory-foam king-sized mattress and it is the most glorious thing we have ever bought in all our lives. It has made me like sleep way too much. But then when I sleep too much I get cranky. My sweet spot is around six, maybe seven hours.
And then, a lot of mornings, I wake up and feel antsy, even edgy, until the kid’s at daycare. I don’t like this version of myself. I like a slow and playful morning because they are fun and special and our kid will only be a kid for so long. I always regret when I rush through the morning with him. Especially knowing that I’ll be gone more than ever for work this year.
When I’ve gotten up a couple hours earlier, though, I don’t feel rushed. Carving out those extra morning hours . . . it calms me.
Problem is, even knowing all of this, my stupid brain still won’t get the rest of me out of bed early. Planning to work out doesn’t do it. Even having something I’m excited to write about doesn’t do it. I can just say, Ehhhh I’ll do it later, this bed is so COMFY.
But I can’t catch the sunrise later.
I’ll be traveling a lot this year and I think it’ll be cool to get some dawn shots of the many different places I’ll be.
I’ve learned a lot of ways to make my mind healthier thanks to some of the amazing research I’ve stumbled across while working on Head in the Game the past couple years.
I’ve always loved a good sunrise and sunset—who doesn’t, right?—but it turns out that actually seeing one is really good for us. We all know we feel better after spending a little time outdoors, and various psychology and neuroscience experiments are quantifying this.
It’s basically a massage for your mind.
A Stanford researcher, Gregory Bratman, did a different but similar experiment that found that not only does nature make people feel more empathy toward others, but also toward themselves. He had people walk for an hour and a half, some of them through a busy part of downtown Palo Alto, others through a big nature park. The brains of those who walked through the park calmed down in an area that has been linked to depressive rumination (the subgenual prefrontal cortex). Bratman concluded that nature may determine “how you allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions.”
Researchers at the University of Michigan in 2008 published a paper describing a similar experiment to Bratman’s, which found that walking for 50 minutes in an arboretum improved people’s executive attention skills, which was not the case for people who walked through a city.
They wrote that “interacting with nature” was basically “a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost.”
So that’s part of it. I want to force myself outside to start the day. And being a good little Millennial, that apparently means also having to take a picture to post to social media.
Thing is though, even just seeing those pictures can have affect the brain one way or another.
Korean researchers have studied this. They used fMRI—functional MRI, which measures blood flow to parts of the brain—to measure how the brain reacted when people saw different pictures. When people saw pictures of city settings, their brains reacted as though stressed out, with more blood going to the amygdala, one of the brain’s key fear centers, which ramps up anxiety.
But when people saw pictures of sunrises and other pieces of nature—just pictures!—blood filled the anterior cingulate and the insula, which are parts of the brain that help foster empathy and altruism.
Yesterday was my second day doing the #dailydawnshot. When I decided to do this I was at the beach, where there’s a vast supply of easy-to-access locations for a good sunrise pic. At home in Greenville, though, I live on a street that is perfectly fine but which also largely blocks the horizon with other houses and tall pine trees. Turns out I’m going to have to adventure out a bit.
And I love that.
For instance, yesterday morning, I planned to walk just a couple minutes down the street, and ended up finding a path behind the treeline on my street with easy access to train tracks, where I took my shot.
Funny what you find when you get up before the sun and go wandering around the world.