A Look at My Morning Routine

Carl writes in:

I’ve been reading The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod that talks about the benefits of a morning routine and includes some examples. I was wondering what your morning routine looks like. Managing to write a long article every single day has to involve a killer routine!

I took a quick look through the site archives to see if I’d written about my morning routine before and it turns out that I hadn’t done so in quite a while, so I thought it might be fun to talk about this a little.

I’m a morning person, and I’m a huge believer in getting up early to get some things done and get the day started off right. What I’m going to describe below is what my normal morning routine is on an average day, but it’s worth noting that this varies a little, particularly on weekends or during time crunches when I’m preparing for a trip. Most mornings include most of these things, but I will sometimes drop one or two of them if necessary.

So, here’s what a good morning looks like for me.

I wake up around 5 AM. I set an alarm as a fallback measure that goes off around 5:30, but I’ve trained myself to naturally arise around 5 AM almost every morning. I try my best to stick to a standard bedtime when I am at home, which is around 10 PM, and when I go to bed, the focus is on falling asleep, with no smartphone or anything like that (I’ll sometimes get into bed a little before then and read for a while, but I’m pretty consistent about going to sleep starting at 10 PM.)

I drink some water and stretch. The first thing I do after getting out of bed (and using the bathroom, of course) is head downstairs to drink some water and stretch. I grab a water bottle out of the fridge – I use a 32 ounce Nalgene bottle that I filled the night before and put in the fridge to get nice and cold – and start drinking it. I’ll usually look out the windows a little, then I’ll stretch for about twelve minutes while drinking the water bottle.

The stretching that I do is stuff I was taught at the taekwondo classes that will help with getting one’s kicks higher. It mixes some general body stretching with some stretches intended to help me get my legs higher in the air when kicking and doing other things. Honestly, it all feels pretty good first thing in the morning. I do a sequence of ten stretches for 30 seconds each, then repeat the cycle. It takes between twelve and fifteen minutes, depending on how much I pause to sip water and how long it takes me to move from stretch to stretch.

After that’s done, I pour myself a cup of cold brew coffee with some almond milk or regular milk in it. I make my own cold brew coffee using a simple cold brew setup I was gifted a year or two ago that basically rests coffee grounds in a filter inside of a pitcher of water. I just fill up the filter with coffee grounds, put it in the pitcher, and let it sit for a day or so, then I remove the grounds. This makes enough coffee for about four cups.

I sit down with that coffee and spend about an hour with my journal doing three things.

First, I write three morning pages. The “three morning pages” practice is one introduced by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. The practice is simple: just open up a notebook and fill three pages with whatever is on your mind. If you’re thinking about something, write it down, no matter how serious or how inane it is. What you’ll find is that, often, the time you spend thinking carefully about that thought as you write it down leads to another related thought, and then as you write that down, you’re led to another related thought, and then eventually you lead yourself down some kind of path to a deeper truth about yourself or the world.

I tried “three morning pages” as a thirty day challenge a while back and I was absolutely amazed how useful it was to me on a daily basis. Not only did it seem to help me either clarify something that was bothering me or help me explore an idea literally every single day (and often two or three things), it also seemed to lead to an incredible clarity of mind throughout the day. Since then, this has become an essential part of my routine, something I try really hard to do every single day if I can. I usually fill up three pages, but the truth is that I set a timer for myself for 60 minutes for this and I stop whenever the timer goes off. I average three pages in that timeframe.

After that, I draw a big line in my journal and then answer Michael Hyatt’s eight daily questions. This is kind of where I begin to transition into the more practical part of my day, where I’m starting to think about what I’m going to get done that day. I find that doing this right after the three morning pages just seems to click well for some reason.

Hyatt suggests answering eight questions as a daily journaling routine:

What happened yesterday? I don’t chronicle everything, of course. I write the highs, lows, and anything I want to remember later.
What were my biggest wins from yesterday? This gives me a sense of momentum to start the new day.
What lessons did I learn? I try to distill my experience down into a couple of lessons I want to remember. It’s not what happens to us but what we learn from it that matters most.
What am I thankful for right now? This is one practical way I can cultivate a sense of abundance and gratitude.
How am I feeling right now? Feelings aren’t the be-all-end-all, but they’re a clue. In the past, I just ignored or suppressed them. This gives me an opportunity to check in on myself.
What did I read or hear? Here I list important books, articles, Bible passages, or podcasts I consumed since I last journaled.
What stood out? I don’t want to lose what I learn in my reading and listening, so I record key insights.
What can I do next to move forward on my goals? I think through my goals and my schedule and identify a few key actions I could take to make progress. This helps me prioritize.”

One quick note: for the “what did I read and hear” part, I usually refer to my pocket notebook and to Evernote because that’s where I keep track of such things. I carry anything that I considered noteworthy forward to here, which is how I make use of “random” notes that are just ideas and quotes and other such things.

This takes about fifteen minutes to twenty minutes, depending on the day.

Finally, I pull out a separate notebook and review my “triggers.” This is an idea that I learned from Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith, with a bit of assistance from Ben Franklin, that I’ve been using for the last several months. Basically, the idea behind it is to nudge myself into reflecting on what behaviors I want to naturally develop in myself and practice every day. Here’s how it works.

Once every three months, I go through my life and spend some time thinking about what behaviors I really want to work on within myself over the next three months. What do I think is bad about myself that I want to improve? What do I think is good about myself that I want to accentuate? I come up with a list of twenty or twenty five things.

Then, I pull out a small fresh notebook and write all of those things out. I write down a description of what I want to change and then I end it with a question: Did I do my best today to… do whatever it is that I’m describing. This is a trigger question, one meant to motivate me not to achieve something in a black and white sense, but to simply do better in regards to that aspect of my life.

For example, one of the things I’m really working on this quarter is humility. What do I mean by that? I want to confront my prejudices. I want to ask questions and listen to others rather than talking about me and my thoughts. I want to intentionally give credit to others for their ideas and achievements. I want to never consider myself “too good” for anything. I want to accept that I’m not the best at everything and that others often achieve more. I wrote all of that out (and a few other things) under the heading of “Humility” and then, at the bottom, I wrote “Did I do my best today to be humble?”

In my morning routine, all I do is read through those pages I wrote about the things I want to work on in my life. I read one, then for about fifteen seconds, I visualize myself doing at least one of those specific elements. I just move through all of them this way. This takes perhaps ten minutes.

(This notebook also has a chart in it. On a single page, I have 22 rows – one for each thing I’m working on this quarter – and 31 columns – one for each day this month. At the end of the day, I give myself a score from 0 to 10 on each of the things I’m working on. “Did I do my best to be humble?” I score myself somewhere between 0 (complete fail) to 10 (the person I want to be) and write it down on that page. I find that the self-scoring is really, really powerful, and paired with the morning review, it pushes me quite effectively to be a better person in terms of my behavior, not my achievements.)

Yes, I spend an hour and a half with my journals almost every morning. The thing is, when I’m done doing that, I feel like I’m incredibly primed for the day, like I’m ready to take off like a rocket ship. On days when I’ve devoted that time to journaling, I’m just simply more productive and a better person all day long. Furthermore, when I chain together lots of days of consecutive journaling practice, the effect gets even stronger, and there’s actually a residual effect where I still get benefits for a few days if I don’t complete that routine.

I use whatever notebook I can inexpensively find for my journaling and use a gel pen for writing, usually a Uniball 207. My favorite notebook is a Leuchtturm 1917, which I sometimes receive as gifts and promptly fill up.

I don’t save old journals. Instead, I usually scan the pages and save them digitally, then burn them.

Then, I eat a small breakfast of some kind. It’s usually a bowl of oatmeal or something else small. On school days, this is usually timed so that I can eat with my kids before they go to school, and then I help them get ready for school.

At this point, Sarah is usually awake (she’s usually gone if it’s a workday), so I’ll brush my teeth, make the bed, take a shower if this isn’t an exercise day, and get dressed. If I’m planning to do some exercise later in the day, I don’t shower until after my exercise routine, but I do put on some deodorant.

After that, I take a second cup of coffee and my full water bottle into my office and then meditate for fifteen minutes. I turn on some kind of mellow audio, usually this, and do a really simple mindful meditation where I just focus on my breathing for fifteen minutes. I basically just close my eyes and pay attention to the in and out of my breathing, doing my best to keep my focus on that, and if I notice my mind wandering, I gently bring the focus back to my breathing. This not only calms me down and helps me focus, it trains my ability to focus.

I take a big gulp of water along with a couple daily vitamins and then start off with my work launchpad to start working for the day. After that, it’s off to the races.

I know some people will ask about the vitamins. I eat a vegetarian diet that’s often pretty close to vegan, mostly for health reasons. With that kind of diet, there are some nutrients that are in short supply. You can get most of these missing nutrients if you make sure to eat an extremely wide range of fruits and vegetables each day, but I know that even if I make an effort to do so, I’m probably missing the target. So, I take supplements to cover those seven things that I might be missing: vitamin B12, vitamin D, long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, iodine, iron, calcium, and zinc. These are mostly covered by a multivitamin and an oil pill. I do not believe that people on a full omnivorous American diet need to take vitamins regularly.

That’s the routine I follow most mornings. I start at about 5 AM and I’m usually working by about 7:30 AM.

Here’s the thing: I’ve found that if I do this, I end up having achieved far more with my work by the mid afternoon than I do on days where I don’t do this and just start at 5 AM or if I sleep in and start at around 7:30 AM with no routine. Furthermore, I feel like I have a lot more left in the tank when I stop working for things like family time and evening activities and housework and exercise and hobbies and community commitments. I also feel like I’m genuinely building better behaviors and becoming a better person, both in terms of my conscious choices and in my head in an unconscious way. I haven’t ever taken direct statistics on this, but I’d be willing to bet that my actual work productivity and my housework productivity is somewhere around 20% to 30% higher on days that I do this even with the first hour or two used by this routine.

Why does that happen? My entire morning routine is about “sharpening the axe,” to paraphrase a quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln supposedly said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” The idea here is that preparation makes the time you actually invest in a task much more efficient and effective, often reducing your overall effort and usually increasing your productivity. If I view everything before 1 or 2 PM as my “work time,” the two hours I invest in “sharpening the axe” makes the other hours much more productive, usually resulting in more overall productivity, plus I feel better and more able to tackle the other challenges of my day when I’m done.

I tinker with this routine fairly often. I used to do more direct visualization of a good day and less journaling, and I used to exercise in the early mornings. What I found over time was that, for me, the stretching fulfilled the mental awareness I really wanted in the early morning and that a workout later in the day when I was starting to fade in terms of my professional work really primed me for family time and other commitments later in the day. So, I exercise after work now, most of the time. I also discovered the benefits of meditation (helping to clear and calm my distracted mind) and journaling (helping to clear my mind and clarify things I’m struggling with).

Sometimes I fall off of this routine, and when that happens, I usually coast on the inertia for a week or two with good results. However, I eventually start to become less and less productive and less in less in tune with myself and I feel generally out of whack and overwhelmed with work. This routine is incredibly worth the time investment for me, so when I fall out of that routine because of other life urgencies, I make it my goal to get back to the routine as quickly as I can.

I don’t expect anyone to adopt this exact morning routine. Rather, I hope you’ll mine it for ideas for things that will work for you. Go through these things and try some of them out for yourself and see how they work. I highly recommend a thirty day challenge of trying new things for yourself just to see if they click with you. Sticking with something for thirty days allows you to see the benefits of repetition without making something that isn’t quite working seem like an endless slog that you’re committed to.

Good luck!

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