How to own your mornings
Reading time: 3 mins
The power and benefits of developing your ‘morning routine’ are extolled everywhere you look at the moment from youtube and personal blogs to Forbes magazine and fortune 500 leaders bragging about their daily success habits.
Let’s look at what all the fuss is about and see if we can identify some signal from the noise. What is this mythical productivity hack and is there some science to back it up?
Four productive morning habits that work for everyone
1. Wake up early and win the day
This current trend feels a bit like the ultra-endurance challenges that are also becoming more popular as people seek to redefine traditional boundaries and accepted wisdom. Perhaps the most famous proponent of the early wake up is Jocko Willink with his infamous daily instagram postings of his ‘0430’ average wake up time. The logic is pretty simple. Wake up early to steal productivity into your day or “rise before the enemy” as Jocko puts it. So, by getting up early you get a head start on the challenges of the day; you buy yourself time and thus freedom to get your exercise in, work on your extra-curricular interests or to plan and prioritise the key tasks and activities that you must accomplish in order to succeed.
The science also seems to back this up as according to a 2012 science-backed study published by the American Psychological Association, participants who self-identified as "morning people" reported feeling “happier and healthier than night owls.” One hypothesis from the research, however, is that the typical 9-5 workday is geared to benefit those who function at their best earlier in the day. Indeed numerous studies repeatedly show that many people who wake up earlier are often more productive although as we discussed in our article on sleep it is still vitally important that people get enough daily sleep to function optimally. This means that if you want to get up early then you will need to go to bed earlier. Owning your morning routine by getting up early is not an excuse to justify getting an inadequate amount of sleep.
One of my favourite productivity tools that I use to help create lasting action is this idea of a “forcing function” to motivate you to build habits. So, for example almost everyone finds a way to get to the airport for a 0600 flight even if it means waking up at 0330 – the forcing function in this case is the need you have to catch an early morning flight. So it is with waking up early in the morning – you need to design the routine that justifies the habit. So for example I like to be doing my physical exercise routine by around 0600, which means I need to be getting up at 0540 latest every morning. If I didn’t commit to both doing physical exercise and doing it at the start of my day it would probably be hard for me to justify getting up so early. However you could replace the “physical exercise” forcing function with any other personal project that you want to work on like reading, writing, meditating etc. The more accountable the action the better the forcing function.
2. Daily Movement
As I alluded to above I am a huge fan of getting my daily physical training routine done first thing in the morning. By training early in the morning you accomplish one of the hardest and most rewarding tasks of the day. If all else fails the day will still have been a success. For anyone struggling to get into a fitness regime or to maintain consistency then this will really help you as first thing in the morning is when your will power is strongest. Another great benefit of training early is that it doesn’t matter if the rest of your day is de-railed in some way; an unexpected client meeting at lunch or after work drinks, an urgent errand that suddenly crops up when you were supposed to be training – these are all problems that other people have not you. Then there is the insane feeling you get when that endorphin rush kicks in post fitness session – nothing else helps to kick start your day like it. When coupled with a post fitness cold shower you have overcome some great challenges before you’ve even started breakfast. On the subject of cold water therapy it won’t surprise you to learn that I am a massive fan of cold showers every morning after I have finished my exercise. Whilst there is some debate around the real versus perceived physiological benefits of cold showers and ice baths a study in The New England Journal of Medicine recently found that immersing yourself in cold water after lifting, running, or cycling improved muscle recovery and soreness. This is not to mention the release of a rush of norepinephrine, which helps increase energy, focus, and performance outcomes. So, even if some of this perceived effect is a placebo it doesn’t change the fact that a cold water start to the day gets you revved up and ready take it on. Besides most of us live in such comfort that we barely spend anytime outdoors anyway so why not shock the body into some positive adaptation?
3. Mindset – create a morning routine to focus your mind
I always incorporate a daily 10-15 minute meditation into my morning routine, usually just after I have come out of that cold shower and dressed for the day. The evidence is increasingly finding that meditation is good for you. You certainly don’t have to be an enlightened monk or a master meditator to see dramatic benefits from meditation. It’s good for career go-getters and stay-at-home mums and Dads. It’s good for businessmen and doctors and firemen and tech gurus. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re into, you can benefit from meditation.
There is even some science to back it up; the act of meditating causes the pituitary gland in your brain to secrete endorphins which as you can tell from above seem to play a consistently big role in my morning routine! They make us feel good, emotionally and physically. Meditation also enhances activity in the area of your brain that’s associated with positive emotions and experiences. Some studies suggest that meditation helps combat depression and anxiety, while others say that regular meditation may improve pain tolerance. I would say there are four main benefits to meditating in the morning and they can be summarised as follows:
It sets a tone of calm for the entire day. I used to wake up, turn off my alarm, and immediately pick up my cell phone. This plunged me right into my to-do list for the day, so that within a few moments of waking up, I was already busy and on the path to overwhelm. Within just a few days of putting morning meditation first, I found that it helped me start the day much more peacefully. That feeling of calm and control didn’t just last through the morning. It carried through the rest of my entire day.
It gives me more energy. The endorphins released by meditation aren’t just good for your emotional well-being. They’re also energy boosters. Morning meditation makes me feel more awake and alert. I’ve also noticed that I need and drink far less caffeine throughout the day.
It builds focus. This one came as the biggest surprise to me. Having ten minutes of silence and stillness each morning allows my subconscious mind to do good work behind the scenes, which means that I go into each day with a clear focus on what my priorities should be. I’ve been able to maximize my productivity because morning mediation gives me so much direction and clarity.
It gives me an overall sense of well being. My life hasn’t really changed much since I started meditating. I have the same demands on my time, and my to-do list can still be kind of overwhelming. What has changed is the way I feel about it. I feel capable of handling everything on my plate with grace and poise. I feel an overall satisfaction with my life. I’m a happier person because of morning meditation.
4. Planning the day ahead
The other component of creating the right mind set to start the day is planning and listing those key tasks that must be accomplished today in order to keep pushing forwards. Let’s get radical and ask ourselves why we don’t start the night before? Planning the evening before is effective because we have a limited amount of willpower and decision-making ability every day. The thought of making too many decisions in the morning will slow you down and drain your brain for the rest of the day. If you can eliminate decision-making from your mornings, you'll have more energy and time to have the most productive morning you can.
When it comes to figuring out how best to organise your tasks and keep your mind clear you can refer back to our earlier article on how you can regain your attention.
So now that you have got your personal morning routine organized, it's time to take action for a productive day.
I’m a big fan of Brian Tracy, author of "Eat the Frog," who sources his morning philosophy off of a quote from Mark Twain:
"If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long."
The "frog" he is talking about is your most important task or work—the one you're dreading the most because it's so big and important that it’s looming over you. Building the habit to do your biggest task first can give you a huge boost of accomplishment first thing.
But starting the day with your most hard task is, well, hard. It opens the door to procrastination, making it even harder to get your day started. However if you have already got your morning exercise in and taken that cold shower then you should have sufficient momentum to tackle that challenge head on. If you haven’t yet reached this level of productivity then perhaps clearing away a few small tasks early on can give you the momentum to tackle your frog. In a study of creative work inside businesses, researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer found that making incremental progress or “small wins”, leads to more productivity in the long run.
There are lot’s of different combinations of morning routines that work for different people but the emphasis here is on taking ownership of your start to the day. By developing these key stone habits they will put you into a deliberate state of mind. After all as the saying goes: win the morning win the day or as Jocko puts it: win the morning win the war!