This past May through August, I spent most of my evenings performing the same sacred ritual. Starting at 7 p.m., I would swallow two melatonin pills, lay out my work uniform on the right side of my bed, coat my eyelashes with mascara, set a bowl of Apple Jacks on my bedside table and triple-check that my iPhone alarm was set. Finally, I’d crawl onto the left side of my bed and grudgingly toss and turn, knowing a shrieking alarm would summon me at 4:15 a.m. for my summer shift at my local bakery.
I’ll admit that this seems like a ridiculous set of nighttime tasks, but I swear there was a method to my madness. In theory, I’d just roll out of bed and go to work. Unfortunately, even though I went to the greatest of lengths in preparation, I somehow still managed to run late almost every morning. Truthfully, I don’t think any amount of extra effort could have overridden my shockingly sluggish functionality in the morning. Nonetheless, I stuck to my over-the-top routine throughout the entire summer, feeling somewhat comforted by the thought of trying to help out my future 4:15 a.m. self.
Being awake at such an early hour was certainly a bizarre experience; sometimes, when I got ready for work, an unshakeable, ominous feeling would come over me. Maybe it was from waking up to complete darkness, with only bits of moonlight seeping through my curtains. Or perhaps the culprit was my eerie morning commute on lifeless streets. I felt as if I was trapped in a post-apocalyptic world, and I was a sleep-deprived zombie on her way to sell donuts to other miserable nonhumans.
However, the moment I stepped foot in the bakery, smelled the fresh bread and greeted my co-worker — who was thankfully not a zombie, but an animated middle-aged woman — my feelings of strangeness would vanish. Over casual chit-chat, we began by setting out all the fresh donuts and pastries. At 5 a.m., the bakery’s “Open” sign illuminated, and we’d serve regulars who were grabbing a cup of joe on their way to work. Around 8 a.m., the large waves of customers ensued, and I’d spend the rest of my shift rushing around behind the glass counter, making double-doubles and handing out apple fritters.
Although this wasn’t my first summer working at the bakery, it was my first summer working the morning shift — an entirely different animal than my previous, casual 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. slot. Since most people aren’t craving breakfast sandwiches and coffee at 4:15 p.m., the afternoon shift passed way too slowly for my liking; I couldn’t stand the quietness. So, when this summer came around, I requested morning shifts, reasoning that my hours on the job would fly by. I would have the rest of the day to do as I pleased. It seemed like a win-win situation: A quick shift and plenty of free time! My plan was logically sound, except that I failed to realize how immensely difficult it would be to wake up at 4:15 a.m. and still be a functioning human throughout the day.
When I first began my summer shift, my lack of proper sleep mixed with the hours of customer interaction left me completely drained; the most I could do after work was nap and scroll on my phone. I quickly became stuck in an endless cycle of fatigue, with no energy or willpower to escape. My life revolved solely around work. When I wasn’t working, I was either decompressing from my previous shift or preparing for my next one. Eventually, as I found myself crawling into bed on a sunny summer day at 2 p.m., I became fed up with how monotonous my life had become. I decided it was time to make some changes.
I started by going to the gym after work, which was a big step for a girl who could barely make it into her car after her shift. But going home to binge-watch “Gossip Girl” was no longer acceptable. Maybe if I got into the habit of exercising, it would be something I’d look forward to. In the beginning, all I did was walk for a bit, but my predictions came true: I was happy to be up and moving, doing something beneficial for myself.
My next step was pursuing pleasurable hobbies. I decided to start reading again, something I used to enjoy but had been putting off for a while. Reading can be hard to get into, but once I forced myself to pick up The Bell Jar after the gym, I found myself spending way too much of my paycheck on my hunger for words. I even began keeping a book in my tote bag, and if business was slow at the bakery, I pulled out my novel and soaked up as many pages as possible. Rekindling a previous passion was like reuniting with an old friend, and as my eyelids weighed heavy, I was happy that my former pal welcomed me back with open arms.
With a newfound interest in finding fun, motivating hobbies to pursue in my free time, I began trying other activities, like thrift shopping. I’ve always had an interest in the activity, but, like reading or exercising, I never made time for it. Oddly enough, there happened to be a thrift store located next to my gym. Simply strolling through the aisles, listening to “The Backseat Lovers” and sifting through denim jeans and tank tops, made my summer dog days infinitely more enjoyable. Hunting for cool pieces and developing more of a personal style was exciting and energizing.
But of out of all my new hobbies, adventuring through parks became my safe haven. After hours of working in a stuffy cafe, I craved fresh air and solitude. I’d often drive around neighboring towns, spot a promising park and head for the nearest wooden bench. Most of the time, I was the only soul around, and if I wasn’t, my company was usually a family messing around on monkey bars, providing me with some heartwarming entertainment. As I sat, journaling or simply observing, I felt incredibly human and alive. In all honesty, I previously took the idea of feeling connected to nature for granted, but after this summer, I try to be more grateful for the feeling of the sun on my skin, and the grass under my feet.
My journey of self-exploration was greatly aided by how early my shift ended. After I clocked out at noon, I had so much daylight to utilize however I pleased. Regardless of how exhausted I was, if I had worked later in the day, I would have missed simple yet invigorating moments, like soaking up the afternoon sunshine and spending hours trying on different flare jeans. Although this sentiment is annoying, it’s true: Starting the day early is a game changer. Once my grogginess faded, my life blossomed in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined.
I can acknowledge that routines are a tricky thing; they can be hard to stick to and even harder to break out of. When I first started working this summer, my life felt dull, colorless and, in the mornings, even hopeless. But, as I ventured out in my free time, the color came back, perhaps even more vividly. I became more aware of the beauty around me. Interactions with rude customers became overshadowed by sights of old friends catching up over coffee or kids’ faces lighting up as I handed them rainbow-sprinkled donuts. If I remained a prisoner to my routine, so much love and humanity would have gone unnoticed. I learned that routines are malleable. Through trial and error, I created one that worked for me and helped me feel alive again.
Were there dark, chilly mornings when I questioned why I was putting myself through the torture of a 4:15 alarm? Yes — they occurred just about every time the shrill ringing went off. But as I would slide out of bed, I’d remind myself why I continued to paint my nightly mascara and prematurely set out my Apple Jacks: I worked with kindhearted people, brought joy to customers’ mornings and had the freedom to explore my interests and myself during my wide-open summer afternoons.
More often than not, the more difficult routine offers the most rewards. Accomplishing seemingly impossible endeavors is a fulfilling feat. That being said, it’s equally as important to be present in whatever routine you have — to appreciate the messiness and monotony of it all. Despite my tiredness, the eeriness of dark and empty morning streets or the misery wrapped up in a daily 4:15 a.m. alarm, I mastered the art of making monotony (or even discomfort) enjoyable for myself. Because of this, I will forever be grateful for my summer of 4:15 a.m. wake-ups and afternoon adventures.
Statement Columnist Jenna Hausmann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.