Let me know if this sounds familiar:
Your alarm starts yelling at you. You press the snooze. Suddenly, it seems like it immediately starts yelling again…though that was 15 minutes ago. You hit snooze again and roll over. This time, your sleepy eyes shoot open as you remember that you unknowingly hit the snooze button for a second time. How much time has gone by now?! You look at the clock, do the mental math, and realize you have just enough time to shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, and still get to work on time. You do so, running out the door still sweaty from the hot shower, staggering because you’re not fully awake. You show up at work, nerves wired, mind in a fog. Everyone seems to thrust their problems and requests on you. Meanwhile, the only decision you’ve made for yourself so far that day was hitting that second snooze button. How do expect your day to go from there?
That was me for years. I was my wife’s ride to work, so it drove her crazy. Over time, it began to drive me crazy, too. Once I’d get to work, I’d find myself sitting in my car in the parking lot, wondering why I was already so worn out.
This lack of boot-up time ruffled my mood and turned my entire day into a hurried mess. Meanwhile, I remembered how clear-headed and peaceful my wife was when I had dropped her off at work. She had gotten up over an hour before me — reading a book on the couch, sipping a cup of coffee with our cat nestled in her lap.
I felt like I was losing control of my life. Really, I had just lost control of my morning.
It wasn’t until several years later that I realized just how important mornings could be in shaping the rest of my day. Getting this headstart could allow me to care for myself before anyone asked anything of me.
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
Why Many Morning Routines Are Destined For Failure
Most people’s first stop for morning routine inspiration are the morning routines of highly successful people. If you look at the morning routines of giants of thought or business, it looks like a well-oiled, yet obscure, machine.
- Hop out of bed at 4 AM.
- Do hot jujitsu.
- Roll a tractor tire up a mountainside.
- Practice Vipassana Meditation at the top of that mountain.
- Choke down a smoothie made up of ingredients that resemble lawn clippings.
- Play chess against a Russian Chessmaster.
- Practice telekinesis.
Yes, that was an exaggeration. Still, attempting to emulate the morning routines of some of these highly successful people can seem just as realistic.
What is the main reason why these emulated morning routines rarely stick? Simply put, we don’t want to do them.
The Why of Morning Routines
We’re all told that we should have a solid morning routine. What we’re not told is the correct “why” we should have a morning routine. Common reasons given include, “Because this is what successful, well-put-together people do. We should emulate the people we want to be like.”
In my own experience, I haven’t found this to be reason enough to establish a solid morning routine. Emulation feels unnatural. Like the nicest designer suit, if it doesn’t fit, we don’t want to wear it.
The purpose of a morning routine is to set yourself up for a successful day. If that sounds cliche or basic, let me emphasize certain points.
The purpose of a morning routine is to set yourself up for a successful day.
There, that’s better.
Your Morning Routine Must Fit You
The success criteria that many leave out of a morning routine is personalization. While your goals can be fairly universal (physical fitness, mental clarity, spiritual alignment, etc.), the methods by which you seek to fulfill these goals must be custom-tailored. If these activities aren’t tailored to the dimensions of your personality, you won’t want to do them — no matter how beneficial they seem.
Start The Day With Your Favorite Activities
Recently, I’ve been trying to add physical exercise to my morning routine. The plan has been to roll out of bed into sneakers and workout clothes, stretch, and spend 10 minutes jumping rope in my driveway. While I was successful in doing this for almost a week, for the last two days, I have not. Why? Knowing that there’s a part of my morning routine I’d rather be doing means I’m starting my day with the tiniest bit of dread. That granule of dread has derailed a large portion of my morning routine for these past two days.
What would I rather be doing? It’s different for everyone, but I love reading books in the morning. Not just any books — something I’m passionate to consume. I need to almost lick my lips over imagining reading it. Because of this, prior to adding physical fitness to my morning routine, I would often roll out of bed and into a comfortable chair next to a lamp with a cup of coffee and a book that I consume as though its molten chocolate lava cake. While still in my pajamas, I would pour over the books for a good hour. The promise of being able to do so uninterrupted before the day began was enough to get me out of bed at 5:45 AM like a Christian child on Christmas morning.
Though I genuinely enjoy jumping rope, I don’t lick my lips about it first thing in the morning. Jumping rope is a jarring landing from dreamland. I’ve since tucked jumping rope back a few time slots in my morning routine.
Build Your Morning Routine Slowly
There’s a good chance you’ve tried to build a morning routine only to see it completely fall apart. Guilty. If I looked through my Google Docs, I bet I could find numerous “Morning Routine” documents that were only executed for a few days before unraveling.
Why do they fail? Because nobody wants a start their day with a chore list.
After several false starts, my morning routine began with one single activity — my morning prayers. Despite morning prayers being required for religious Jewish men, my own prayer ritual had been inconsistent at best — despite deriving benefit from it when I managed. Once I became motivated enough, I decided, “I am now a person who prays every morning.” From there on, I have prayed every single morning.
For months, prayer was the sole element of my morning routine. I would roll out of bed, sleepily get cleaned up and dressed, slap on my tallit and tefillin, find my siddur, and half-consciously mumble my morning prayers. I would only somewhat start to wake up around the time I was done, rendering my morning prayers nearly useless.
How My Morning Routine Slowly Developed
Sure, the development of the rest of my morning routine was solely to get more out of my morning prayers. Because I was barely conscious enough to remember that I had prayed, I saw the need for pre-prayer caffeine. Over time, I start added a cup of coffee before prayers. Because it takes about 30 minutes for coffee to kick in, I had to get up earlier to allow the coffee to take effect. While I was waiting for the caffeine to course through my veins, I started reading books. I now had a morning routine of coffee time with books followed by prayer. Still, I noticed that, even though my mind was now awake because of the coffee, it was still all over the place during prayer. In order to harness my focus, I started practicing mindfulness meditation before prayers. I later read that mindfulness meditation is enhanced by having engaged in physical exercise because you become more in tune with your body. Following this discovery, I added jumping rope to my morning routine. My routine was now coffee > reading > jump rope > meditation > prayer. All of these activities were simply to enhance my morning prayer experience, which in turn enhanced my day.
Each element of my morning routine was added individually. No element was added until the other elements of my morning routine were established. This process is what makes each element feel less like a chore and more like a part of the journey you want to take each morning.
It is crucial that each element is added one at a time. Adding multiple elements simultaneously can quickly derail your morning routine. Like stacking building blocks into a tower, if each block isn’t aligned with the one beneath it, the entire stack can become unstable.
Experiment To Optimize Your Morning Routine
I put off writing this article for a while because I didn’t feel like my own morning routine was established enough for me to write on the subject. After a while, I realized an important truth: It probably never will be…and that’s ok.
Have An Abridged Morning Routine Prepared Just In Case
If you need to shorten your morning routine one day because you weren’t able to get as much sleep the night before, you will need to temporarily do a revised, “bare bones” morning routine — one where only essential elements are executed. In my case, I usually drop jumping rope if I need to sleep in because it’s something I don’t have to do every day. Prayer, however, is an essential non-negotiable element. Know what is essential and what is a morning nicety for a smoother consolidation when necessary.
Kick The Tires Periodically
After you have stacked a few building blocks, do a periodic performance review on the elements of your morning routine. About every month-to-three months, assess the more non-essential elements of your morning routine and see how they can each be optimized, moved to a better time, or possibly replaced.
All Morning Routines Start the Night Before
No matter how dedicated you may be to your morning routine, if you don’t get enough sleep the night before, the chances of success for your morning routine are slim. Even if you do get up and perform every element, your lack of sleep will make them worse versions of the building blocks you intended for them to be. This is why the first element in your morning routine is your evening routine. The first step in your evening routine should be establishing what time your head needs to hit the pillow in order for you to achieve the 7-8 hours of recommended sleep needed to be able to wake up refreshed and ready to enthusiastically tackle your morning routine.
If you need help figuring out when you should be going to bed, here is a good starting point:
- Determine what time you would need to wake up in the morning in order to accomplish the first task in your morning routine.
- Count back 8 hours from that established waking time.
- Use a sleep-cycle tool such as Sleepy Time to determine when you should fall asleep in order to avoid your alarm going off in the middle of a sleep cycle. Waking up mid-REM cycle, for instance, can make getting up burdensome.
- Account for the evening routine you need in order to wind down and prepare to sleep. Consider avoiding screens an hour before bed in order to settle your mind.
Making Time For Yourself
If you feel that you don’t have enough time for a morning routine, you’re precisely the type of person who needs one. This self-investment of time in the morning before the world begins will pay off in dividends over the years. When life goes from simply being busy to downright chaotic, your morning routine will allow you to face each problem, issue, or obstacle with a clear head, an able body, and a content spirit to reduce your likelihood of burning out. You will grow to depend on it as a way of outrunning your day. When maintained properly, you will start to look forward to your morning routine with joyful anticipation.
Tips For Morning Routine Success
- Write it down. Actually write out your morning routine, updating it as you add and remove elements. If you don’t have an established morning routine, your first write-out should only be one element. Even though it’s only one element, write it out anyways. You can add more elements as you’re ready for them.
- Keep your alarm out of reach. Place your alarm on the other side of the bedroom, forcing you to get up to turn it off in the morning. I found that moving my alarm five feet further away was often the difference between me sleeping in and starting my routine.
- Don’t decide whether or not to sleep in until you’re in the restroom. If you feel like you need to forgo some elements of your morning routine for additional sleep on some days, you can decide to do so, but don’t make that decision in the bedroom. Make that decision in the restroom upon waking up. You’ll find that the walk to the restroom is often enough to dissolve your desire to sleep in. This also doesn’t make waking up as burdensome because you know you have the option of sleeping in, but that you have to come to that decision with a clearer head.
- Use alarms to move from element to element. As you start to add elements to your morning routine, set repeating reminders on a smart-home device or alarms on your phone to tell you to move on to the next element. Doing so will keep you from having to look at your watch or phone in order to stay on track. Not wondering if you’re on track will allow you to concentrate on the task at hand.
- Use your phone’s Do Not Disturb feature. Most every smartphone has a “Do Not Disturb” mode that you can access from the quick menu. Few of us use it, but it is a tremendously helpful way to avoid distractions before you’re ready. Consider turning it on before you go to bed. Adjust the settings of the mode to allow for alarms and calls from numbers that may be a true emergency. Most people do not text emergencies and most Do Not Disturb features push calls through if a number calls repeatedly within a 15-minute time frame.
- Avoid screens as long as you can. Most of us have a habit of checking email or messages on our phones or computers first thing in the morning. This can completely derail your morning by making you face the requests of others before you’re ready. Even if you’re not acting on them till later, they will still occupy space in your mind. See how long you can go in the morning before using any screens outside of alarms or features essential to your morning routine.
- Practice habit batching. Rather than needing to keep a written record of your morning routine close at hand, you can practice “habit batching.” Habit batching is when one habit or element leads to another one. For instance, I remember to drink a glass of water once I turn on the coffee maker or remembering to meditate immediately after jumping rope. After a while, you only need to remember which element comes after the next in order to allow your entire morning routine to flow seamlessly.
- Use identity adjustments to reinforce morning habits. There’s only one difference between someone trying to quit smoking and a non-smoker — identity. Someone who once smoked turning down a cigarette at a party by saying “No, thanks — I’m trying to quit” is much more apt to eventually succumb than the person who says “No thanks — I don’t smoke.” It’s about how you see yourself. Are you a person who is trying to make the most of your mornings or are you a person who has a morning routine? Identifying as someone with a morning routine can greatly increase your chances of success.
- Optimize your success by adjusting your environment. If you want to make the most of your mornings, yet you turn on a television in your bedroom from a remote control that sits on your nightstand, your chances of success will be tremendously limited. Your environment should align to your goals. Put your workout clothes out on a bedroom chair for the next morning. Leave the book you want to read on the table by your reading chair. Leave healthy food out. Set up your environment to make success as easy as possible easy.
Your morning routine should
- Be tailor-fit to you
- Allow you to start your day doing things you’re excited to do
- Be built very slowly, one element at a time
- Be flexible and updatable
- Begin the night before
- Increase your ability to face each day
Bonus: Ken’s Morning Routine
This is just an example of my current morning routine as of May of 2019. It may have changed since the publishing of this article. Most elements were added one at a time over the course of a few weeks per element.
- Get ready for bed around 10 PM (the morning starts the evening before)
- Sleep with Do Not Disturb mode on, allowing for self-set alarms
- Wake up to alarm placed across the room
- Use restroom
- Start coffee pot
- Consume a glass of water slowly while coffee is brewing
- Read one chapter in a spiritual text, one in a non-spiritual text while consuming coffee
- Put on workout clothes, stretch
- Jump rope for 10 minutes
- Mindfulness meditation
- Get dressed for the day
- Morning prayers from siddur (prayer book)
- Hitbodedut (unscripted prayers)
- Make and eat breakfast
- Pack lunch
- Say goodbye to wife and son before leaving for work
- Leave for work
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