Create a Morning Routine That Works For You

How to shape time to get the most out of your day

Posted Feb 15, 2017

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I love mornings. Most of us have heard and read the value of a morning routine - a set of repeated actions performed in the same sequence to assure optimal productivity, focus, and creativity.

Maybe you yearn to rise each morning brimming with purpose of your own making. For 45 minutes or two hours, you desire to hold yourself captive in creative flow and dive into your best work. If you’re a team leader, you might want your members to dive into that state of effortless and meaningful flow so your team can advance big objectives.

Yet, despite our best intentions, morning routines often go awry. What to do?

The Power of When

I’ve been obsessed with optimizing time for a long while. In 2012, Till Roenneberg published Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired (Harvard U.P.). His premise is that whether you’re a night owl or early bird is genetic, not a preference. His book’s promise is that if you learn your own internal time patterns and stop fighting them, you’ll live better. The book is entertaining and informative, but it’s not a book to read for immediate application.

Clinical psychologist Michael Breus’s book The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype--and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds and More, picks up where Internal Time leaves off. Breus’s premise is that every human being has a chronotype - a biologically determined disposition that influences when we’re at our best during the day for certain kinds of activities. Breus breaks down human chronotoypes into four categories, determined mostly by our seeming morning and evening patterns.

Breus, clever in making his concepts stick, names each chronotype after an animal: dolphin (genetically prone to insomnia, generally nervous and irritable, and a bit groggy upon waking up around 6:30 am), lion (eager for the day to start, these hunting leaders rise around 5:30 or earlier), wolf (creative and on the prowl at night, they rise around 9 am), and bear (gregarious, easy-going, they rise a little late after a full eight-plus hours of sleep and are still groggy when they rise).  

I’ve read and broken down relevant parts of the book The Power of When to help me assess my chronotype. I tend to be my clearest in the morning if I do what I’m sharing here. I provide a few tips below for you to test out to cultivate a morning routine that works for you.

Morning Routines Are Situational

What works for you won’t work for someone else. Some factors do include your chronotype, but they also might include what kinds of external constraints will affect your predictable rhythm.

My wife and I have two young girls. My wife has a full-time business and is engaged in developing lots of programs in addition to serving her patients. I also have a consultancy business with a remote team and a full roster of clients. This means our household could be very busy, but the more we establish regular morning rhythms for everyone in the household - believe me - the better.

And my wife and I both are lions, which means we’re both up early, ideally around 5:30-6 am, before the critters awake. Usually by the time the girls hobble downstairs around 7:30, I’ve gone through my morning routine, have had breakfast, read, and possibly worked on my prime morning activity.

You take stock of your own situation of job demands and house mates.

Pre-morning:

The tenet here is that your optimal morning routine really begins the night before.

When our brains get tired, our frontal cortex and other areas responsible for conscious decision-making are less active. It’s as if our brain’s parents have already gone to bed and left your inner primal child with the car keys and the remote control.

Which is to say, when we’re tired in the evening, we’re prone to “zone out” into counterproductive default habits. Yet, the hour or two before bed could be an optimal time to prime your mind for an optimal morning.

Replace one default habit with one habit that brings you pleasure and restfulness (good motivators). My routine includes reading fiction or contemplative nonfiction, clarifying the one work or creative activity I’m focusing on the next morning, and 6 minutes of seated meditation. I try to avoid reading on my iPad mini, and I rarely check email past 7 pm.

Aim for a bedtime that’s right for you. Be consistent. Even on weekends. Regular bedtimes can help children, stressed teenagers, women with menopausal sleep disturbances, and more than likely you.

Changing and testing out 1-2 simple pre-morning habits can prime your mindset for focus and flow when you wake up.

Morning Rise:

Choose a consistent time to wake. Before you get out of bed, direct your mind to something positive such as expressing gratitude for your family, your work - or the fact that you actually woke up! I usually rest on my back and express gratitude for my family, my friends, and my community (that includes my readers). It’s a good way to begin the day on my best days. I also clarify in my mind my one main work or creative focus that I established the night before.

Morning food & beverage:

Choose foods and beverages that help you feel clear and that give you sensual pleasure (a good motivator).

I make a cup of loose-leaf white tea because of its antioxidant qualities and its effects in giving me subtle clarity. I also use a  Magic Bullet blender to blend a turmeric tonic (ginger, turmeric, honey, lemon, coconut water). This combo is an anti-inflammatory tonic that calms and cools my nervous system. To complement the turmeric, I make a four-egg omelette and salad for an early breakfast. For my disposition and temperament, I need an early breakfast high in protein, low in carbs.

Later for a mid-morning boost I use a French roast and blender to make a cup of mold-free Bulletproof coffee with grass-fed butter.

These shifts dramatically altered my sustained clarity, calm, and creativity for a solid four or more hours.

Choose food and beverage like parts of an experiment. The test is how you feel an hour later. Do you feel more clear? More energized? More calm? If not, try something else.

Morning practice:

Do something simple and unobtrusive that centers and directs your mind (and ideally your mind in motion) in a calming, pleasurable manner.

Anything digital by definition does not work. Don’t make your practice precious and time-consuming. Otherwise, you’re likely not to repeat it over the long haul. And try best you can to integrate the practice as seamlessly into your morning rhythm as getting dressed.

My yoga mat and cushion are waiting in the study. My setting out the mat this way is an environmental trigger to my brain to do what it knows will help me be, feel, and think my best. Environmental triggers are essential habit formation hacks.

I practice a fluid sequence of yoga postures and breathing exercises I created 17 years ago to improve my concentration, plus seated Zen meditation that all together takes about 20 minutes. This sequence includes a series of intentions to speak kindly, think clearly, and act deliberately throughout the day. It also includes a set of push-ups to build strength. It also includes an inquiry about staying connected to my sense of purpose and vision.

A pocket-sized notebook next to the mat is there to catch anything irritating or distracting me.

I write on my computer in Evernote for 30 minutes  - either content for the business and community, poetry, a piece of an essay, what's on my mind.

I take a shower and for the last ten breaths turn the water to cold.

Morning work:

Discover what kind of work you do best in the morning. Daydreamy creative ideation? Analytical, big picture, decision-making? Clear, concise communication?

Early morning is a good time for me to set priorities and consider any important decisions. I bundle most of my morning email correspondence for an hour, often 8:00-9:00 or 8:30-9:30 am.

From 8:30am - 11am, I try to work on whatever is most important and requires high levels of focus and execution (these hours are best for my chronotype).

I have both a digital calendar and an analog calendar on my wall where I use my signature method of shaping hours and prioritizing work. I shape my work - with specific tasks noted - days in advance. This way I chunk when I am making strategic scheduling decisions instead of trying to make decisions throughout the day.

Take Action

I suggest you not try to overhaul everything about your morning routine all at once. Experiment with changing up parts of your morning routine. That means introduce one or two changes at a time. Be consistent with these new changes every day for at least 15 days. Observe any differences. Adjust and repeat.  

Remember, the best time management tool is not a calendar. It’s not a planner. The best time management tool you have is attention control. It’s your ability to direct and redirect your attention toward your desired actions and toward habits that actually help you fulfill your desired goals.

As Mihály Csíkszentmihályi notes in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, “You are what you pay attention to.”

And the quality of your day will result in part from what you pay attention to every morning.

By the way, I’ve created a free course designed to help professionals experiment with better habits at certain times of the day to be more productive and creative. I’d be interested to have some of my Psychology Today readers test it out and give me feedback.

Jeffrey Davis is a consultant, author, and speaker who helps professionals and creatives make their ideas into lasting influence and impact. He has taught at Western Connecticut State University, Marist College, and elsewhere and has presented on creativity, productivity, and branding at conferences and centers around the world.