Why I Wake Up At 5am Every Day

I first developed the habit of waking up at 5am probably a few years ago when doing so seemed to be the only way I could get some peace and quiet before my kids woke up (sorry kids!).

In Malaysia, this is way easier because the time for ‘Subuh‘ (or Fajr) prayer normally starts at around 5.45am, giving me some time to accomplish a few of the things I will be describing in this post. Here in the UK, things are slightly different because the starting time for ‘Subuh‘ can differ by several hours over the year.

The point is, when I say 5am, what I really mean is waking up approximately ‘an hour or so’ before the time for ‘Subuh‘.

Golden Hour

People do their best work at different times of the day. Some are morning larks, who perform best in the mornings. Others are night owls who tend to burn the midnight oil working.

There’s no doubt in my mind at least that the hour before ‘Subuh‘ is the best hour of my day, and here are my reasons for saying so:

Fresh Start

Waking up early in the morning provides me with the opportunity for a fresh start each and every day. It reminds me of this Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strip (incidentally Bill Watterson’s final one) where Calvin is excited about having ‘a day full of possibilities’.

Calvin & Hobbes

That is precisely how I feel on the days when I manage to wake up early.

Over the years, I’ve really started to appreciate the ability to look at the coming day as if it’s a clean slate. All of us are sometimes burdened by unnecessary worries about work we haven’t completed, overdue assignments, past arguments etc. By starting the day fresh, I feel like I have a better chance of tackling these issues in a reasonable, intelligent, way.

Mindfulness

The concept of mindfulness has become increasingly popular worldwide but it is far from new. People have been finding ways to achieve mindfulness for millennia. Some do so by exercising, others by meditating. For me, the best way to obtain some peace and tranquility is by performing the ‘tahajjud‘ prayer and, since the beginning of this year, by reading 2 pages of the Qur’an immediately afterwards.

I am hesitant to talk about this practise because I really don’t want you to think that I’m this super-motivated person who manages to perform ‘tahajjud‘ all the time. That is the seed of insincerity that negates whatever good deeds one performs. And truth be told, I know of many other people who are infinitely better at this than I am. So please don’t think highly of me just because you’re reading this.

What I do want to share with you is the tremendous value of this mindfulness practise. Sure, doing a couple of ‘raka’at‘ plus reading a couple of pages of the Qur’an may not seem like much, but if there’s one thing that I’m 100% certain about, it is this: I feel much more at peace on the days when I manage to wake up early and do these 2 things compared to the days when I skip this activity.

I have a lot more to say about peace actually, but perhaps I’ll save it for a later blog post. For now, let me just say that being at peace is often underrated in the modern world’s pursuit of happiness.

Information Gathering

Last but not least, waking up early gives me time to read, read, and read like the nerd I am.

Most mornings, I go through a few news websites reading about what’s happened around the world in the last 24 hours. I am conflicted about the value of this; on the one hand, I enjoy reading the news and it genuinely seems like a sensible thing to do, but on the other hand, much of it is depressing (especially nowadays) and doesn’t really concern me personally.

In line with my New Year’s resolution, I am trying to shift my focus away from day-to-day news and towards deeper, more intellectually-stimulating writing such as long-form articles, medical journals, and magazines like The Economist that gives me a more analytical take on the news. If your mind is like a garden, why would you plant garbage in there? Try instead to plant seeds that will grow into healthy trees that will benefit everyone around you.

Conclusion

I hope I have managed to spark in you some interest in exploring the benefits of waking up early every day. One thing missing from this post is information on how to do so i.e. what are the things I do to make it easy to get out of bed so early in the morning.

Fear not, I will elaborate on this in a future blog post inshaAllah. I feel that this is such an important topic that it really deserves its own post.

After all, losers plan, winners execute.

A lot of what I’m going to say about this topic boils down to the habit-forming strategies discussed in ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear. I can’t recommend this book enough. It is probably the single book that has made the biggest difference in how I approach things in recent years. Looking back at what I’ve written in the past year, I notice that I’ve already mentioned this book twice so far in the following posts:

So stay tuned for tips on nurturing this, and many other, healthy and rewarding habits. Until then, take care everyone.

Assalamu’alaikum, peace be upon you.

Welcome 2021

Are you one of those people who believe in setting New Year’s resolutions? Well, I am!

A new year is like a fresh page in a nice Leuchtturm 1917 notebook, waiting for you to fill it in with ideas and thoughts about what you want to achieve. In this post, I want to try and give you a sense of my thought process for planning my year ahead.

Role-playing

I’ve been a big fan of role-playing games ever since I was in primary school. By far the best role-playing game in existence is Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D for short. What I particularly love about D&D is the ability to choose the role that you will be playing. I’m a wizard at heart, which in a roundabout way even translates into my real life role of being a clinician-scientist (I think).

So yes, I think about the my roles seriously!

One way this is helpful is when planning your life. I first read about this concept in Stephen Covey’s book ‘First Things First‘. This book changed my life, honestly. It taught me the idea of identifying the key roles that you have in life, and then thinking of what your priorities are for each role.

For me, the important roles I have right now are:

  • Personal i.e. my relationship with myself
  • Family member
  • DPhil student in Clinical Neurosciences

And to a lesser extent:

  • Friend
  • Community member
  • Neurologist / clinical lecturer

Sure, there are other roles that I occasionally occupy, but these are the ones I consider to be foundational to who I am. The key here is to be realistic with yourself; one cannot prioritise every single thing in life. For me, the most important responsibilities I have right now are related to my own self, my family members, and my PhD. That doesn’t mean I’ll be neglecting my other roles, just that if push comes to shove, I know which one to prioritise.

Take my role as a neurologist, for example. Undoubtedly, this is something very near and dear to me. I’ve wanted to be a neurologist since before going into medical school! But right this very moment, I’m not actually working as a neurologist, nor am I involved in teaching medical students. So even though this remains a crucial role for me, for now I’m content to put less emphasis on it while I focus on other aspects of my life.

Personal

First things first: what are my responsibilities to myself?

Here, I tend to split things into 3 categories: physical, mental, and spiritual.

Physically, I want to be healthy. This is by far the most important goal I have for 2021. Without health, it’s difficult to achieve anything else; health is wealth. My goal for this year is to improve 3 areas of my physical health: diet, movement, and sleep. Diet-wise, I want to follow Michael Pollan’s advice in his book ‘In Defense of Food‘:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

I’ve yet to come across better advice when it comes to food, so I’ll just stick with this one.

Movement is important, something that we don’t do very much in our modern lives. I’m not just talking about going to the gym for a cardio session (which I can’t do anyway these days thanks to the damn COVID restrictions). I’m talking about something more basic, the idea that we should try to be constantly moving during our waking lives. Part of this is walking more steps every day, part of it is me also toying with the idea of getting a standing desk at work. We’ll see how this goes.

Spiritually, this year I want to read and write more. I want to spend more time reading the Quran, not just for the sake of reading it, but in order to try and understand it more, and hopefully to commit more parts of it to memory. I also want to move away from reading day-to-day news (which is mostly horrible things) to consuming slower content: longform articles, medical journals, and The Economist (for news). Apart from writing in this blog, I want to try and develop a journalling habit where I physically write things in a notebook. Writing is therapeutic, especially when you do it with pen and paper I think. That’s why I’ve put reading and writing under my ‘spiritual’ category.

Family member

I am very grateful that I’ve been given this opportunity to spend more time with my wife and children. Being in a foreign country can be tough at times, but I’m hoping my kids will become more resilient following this experience. Time to teach them some grit!

Both my wife and I have been very busy in the past due to our clinical work, so getting to spend some quality time with our kids is a real blessing.

But there’s also another aspect to being a family member which is my relationship with my extended family. If I’m brutally honest with myself, this is the area where I have failed miserably in the past. This is the area that I most need to improve, and there’s no better time to start doing so than right now.

Although I’m mostly an introvert, someone who is perfectly happy to sit at home reading a book, I deeply admire people around me who are more outward-looking. My mother-in-law is one such example: someone who makes the effort to touch bases with countless other friends and family members, even if there’s no formal occasion. In contrast, I hardly even know my own cousins!

Truth be told, I’m a bit uncomfortable writing about these things because I’ve never really had close relationships with my extended family. I think this is a mistake, one I intend to rectify if I can inshaAllah.

Being 10,000 km away from everyone makes it harder to do so. Being in a pandemic doesn’t help either.

But the fact that times are difficult makes it even more important to make sure that everyone is OK. Put simply, I don’t want to be somebody who is successful on his own, while other people I should care about suffer in silence. That would be the ultimate irony, wouldn’t it, to live in a hyperconnected world where you know what a stranger had for breakfast (hint: it’s on their Instagram feed) but aren’t even aware that your family members are having problems putting food on the table. What a sad world that would be!

PhD student

I am cautiously optimistic about my DPhil. On the one hand, I know what I need to do in terms of data collection, data analysis etc. On the other hand, I have no idea how to plan for the future giving the rapidly-shifting nature of the pandemic and the government’s response to it.

Consider this example: how does one plan to test 30 more patients when one doesn’t even know how long the current restrictions are going to last?

Look, I understand that it’s difficult to plan and coordinate anything during a pandemic. But I also think that the UK government has mostly made a mess of it, and in fact, are pretty much clueless about what they need to be doing. As of last night, the UK is no longer part of the European Union, and people in government are talking as if this is a good thing! How did a once-mighty Empire end up abandoning their obligations like this? Or in the words of King Théoden of Rohan, ‘How did it come to this?’

How indeed.

Nevertheless, despite all the problems and challenges, I remain deeply interested in the topic. I think my area of research has important implications for my patients, and it is for their sake that I continue to struggle with the task of doing a PhD during a pandemic. May Allah ease the hardships, and make this journey a rewarding one for everyone involved.

So there you have it, my messy thought process for planning the year ahead. For what it’s worth, I’m constantly reassessing my goals, to make sure that they stay relevant to who I am and who I intend to be. Wish me luck!

The Year 2020 in Review

Ask any kid growing up in Malaysia in the 90’s ‘When will we be a developed nation?’ and the answer, without fail, would’ve been ‘the year 2020’.

Like October 21, 2015 a.k.a. ‘Back to the Future Day‘, the year 2020 was this mythical target in the future. It was far enough in the future (back then) that anything seemed possible.

Flying cars? Sure!

Self-lacing Nike shoes? Why not!

Honest politicians? Get the hell out of here…

Anyway, the reality, as we now know, didn’t quite live up to expectations. In fact, I’m constantly struggling between two diametrically opposite thoughts on how this year went. On the one hand, I’d be lying if I said nothing good happened this year. But damn it, a part of me just wants to label this year ‘FUBAR‘!

To a certain extent, I feel like this year came to an end in March, and everything else since then has been a great big dream (or nightmare, whichever one you prefer).

2020 in numbers

According to my dashboard, this year I published 85 posts (not including this one), and wrote a total of 20,211 words (again, not including these ones). These posts received 5,629 views from 3,230 unique visitors. Most of my readers are based in Malaysia and the United Kingdom, although I’ve also received visitors from unexpected countries like Romania, South Sudan, Norway, and Sri Lanka.

So to all of my readers out there, thank you very much for your time.

Summary

Despite all that has happened, one thing I’m glad about is the fact that I started writing regularly again this year. In my next post, I will try to outline my plans for 2021; strangely enough, I feel cautiously optimistic about the forthcoming year. Sure, the pandemic has caused havoc in many areas of life, but it has also opened up new opportunities for growth and self-development.

Until then, stay safe and take care, wherever you are.

The Dark Knight

Start of 2020:

It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.

Bruce Wayne

End of 2020:

Batman

Yeah…it’s been THAT kind of year.