The first few hours of each of my days are set in stone.
I wake up at 6 AM on the dot. (Some mornings, I awaken a bit earlier, and if I do, I usually read in bed for a little while.) I try really hard to just sit up and not hit “snooze” on my alarm.
Upon waking, I use the restroom and do some basic hygiene, then I head downstairs and drink a huge glass of water. I then head into my office, close the door, and meditate for ten minutes.
After that, I scan my email to see if there are any absolute emergencies happening and, if there aren’t any, I catch up on the day’s news. At about 6:45, I set three goals for the day, then I make sure my kids are awake and help them with their morning routine until they’re out the door.
After that, I write. I write in roughly one hour blocks with fifteen minute breaks in the middle, during which I do household chores, and that fills my morning. (In the afternoon, I write some more and usually finish by outlining the next article or two so that I can just sit down and start dropping words the next morning.)
I follow this exact routine each weekday morning and only a slight variation on it on weekend mornings (I do the same routine except I skip the morning routine with the kids and jump straight to the writing until everyone else in the house is awake.) I firmly believe that this routine is absolutely vital for me getting my day started off on the right foot, because whenever this routine fails, I spend the entire day feeling out of whack and unproductive.
In the afternoon, I’m much less intense. Rather than doing things I have to do, I focus more on things that I want to do. Afternoons are when I learn. They’re when I do mild exercise that I really enjoy. They’re when I sometimes just do something fun and personally enjoyable. They’re when I spend time purely focused on my kids.
In other words, my morning – and my morning routine – is focused on making sure I’ve taken care of the things in life that I need to get done, while my afternoon and evening is focused on the things in life that I want to get done.
Why a Morning Routine Works
The reason that I try to pack my day in this way – a morning routine where I handle needs, a freeform afternoon where I handle wants – is that it takes advantage of the normal mental and physical changes that happen to me over the course of the day. The thing is, these mental and physical changes happen to most people.
In the paper Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: a meta-analysis, the authors (Hagger et. al.) offer up the following analysis (don’t worry, I’ll parse it out more clearly in a moment):
According to the strength model, self-control is a finite resource that determines capacity for effortful control over dominant responses and, once expended, leads to impaired self-control task performance, known as ego depletion. A meta-analysis of 83 studies tested the effect of ego depletion on task performance and related outcomes, alternative explanations and moderators of the effect, and additional strength model hypotheses. Results revealed a significant effect of ego depletion on self-control task performance. Significant effect sizes were found for ego depletion on effort, perceived difficulty, negative affect, subjective fatigue, and blood glucose levels. Small, nonsignificant effects were found for positive affect and self-efficacy. Moderator analyses indicated minimal variation in the effect across sphere of depleting and dependent task, frequently used depleting and dependent tasks, presentation of tasks as single or separate experiments, type of dependent measure and control condition task, and source laboratory. The effect size was moderated by depleting task duration, task presentation by the same or different experimenters, intertask interim period, dependent task complexity, and use of dependent tasks in the choice and volition and cognitive spheres. Motivational incentives, training on self-control tasks, and glucose supplementation promoted better self-control in ego-depleted samples. Expecting further acts of self-control exacerbated the effect. Findings provide preliminary support for the ego-depletion effect and strength model hypotheses. Support for motivation and fatigue as alternative explanations for ego depletion indicate a need to integrate the strength model with other theories. Findings provide impetus for future investigation testing additional hypotheses and mechanisms of the ego-depletion effect.
The idea in the paper is that during a given day, we have a finite amount of self-control that depletes throughout the day. That depletion can be measured physically in terms of things like blood glucose levels as well as mentally in terms of things like perceived task difficulty.
After a good night of sleep, our self-control “tank” is full and we gradually burn it throughout the day. Every time we don’t simply take the most pleasurable path in that moment, we’re using a bit of that self-control. When we make ourselves go to work, we’re using a bit of self-control. When we bear down on a task instead of dawdling, we’re using a bit of self-control. When we stick to a grocery list at the grocery store, we’re using a bit of self-control.
Eventually, the tank starts running low. It gets harder to exhibit self-control. Our mind starts wandering in the afternoons. We come home and have to really push ourselves through the things we need to do in the early evening. We often then find ourselves camped out on the couch watching television or browsing social media on our phones. Our self-control is basically gone at that point. (This is the part of the day where I’ll find myself playing video games or reading page-turner pulp fiction, for instance.)
“Need” to Do Versus “Want” to Do
So, let’s bring this back to the things that are on your agenda for today. They generally fall into two groups: things you need to do and things you want to do.
The things you need to do are things that you simply have to take care of in order for today to seem like a successful day. They have to be done, whether you like it or not. Many professional tasks fall into this category (the “un-fun” parts of your job) as do many personal tasks (like laundry… seriously, I don’t know anyone who relishes doing laundry).
The things you want to do are things that, as you’re doing them, bring positivity into your life. You actually enjoy doing them and look forward to them. These include the best parts of your job, some of your personal tasks, and most things that involve leisure and your personal hobbies.
You need to restock the shelves at work. You want to binge-watch that series on Netflix. It’s simple.
The idea behind building a morning routine is to make sure that you’re doing the things you need to do for a successful day in the morning when you still have a lot of self-control in your tank. Then, you can leave the things you want to do for later in the day when the self-control is flagging – the simple desire to do those things will help you to still do them.
For example, many people put exercise in their morning routine because they feel they need to do it, but they have a hard time mustering the self-control to do it later in the day when their self-control begins to run out. I put it in the afternoon because it’s something I want to do – I love going on a long, brisk walk while thinking about something in my life or listening to a podcast.
The Value of a Morning Routine
Given that idea, the reason for a morning routine makes sense. A morning routine is simply filled with the important things that you have to do in life – the tasks that are unpleasant or require a lot of focus to complete. You accomplish them early while your self-control is still really high and you create a strong sense of achievement early in the day.
For me, my morning routine is when I take care of things that absolutely have to be done, when I try to establish positive habits, and when I take care of things that require the most focus. I am lucky – there are very few things in my life that I truly dislike doing, so I don’t have to fill my mornings with them.
The thing that requires the most focus for me is actual writing – transforming an outline of ideas into an article and then editing that article into something more readable and pleasant. (I can brainstorm and create outlines when my self-control is slowing down, so I often do that in the afternoon.) I also need focus when I’m doing things that involve spending, like going to the grocery store, because I’ll easily make bad spending choices when I spend when my self-control is lower.
So, before we start talking about implementing a morning routine, ask yourself these three questions.
What things do you want or need to take care of every day in your life? Your job is probably part of this, as are positive personal habits that you’re trying to establish, like exercise.
Which of those are ones that you find hardest to motivate yourself to do? What are the hardest tasks to complete? What ones really require focus but you have a hard time producing that focus? Also, which ones are new to your life?
Which of those are ones that you relish and enjoy? What parts of your life do you really enjoy?
Those three questions will help you devise a great, meaningful morning routine.
What Goes Into a Good Morning Routine?
There are three key elements to a good morning routine.
The first element is making sure you’re physically and mentally alert when you get up. This involves different things for different people. For me, that involves using the bathroom, brushing my teeth, drinking a bunch of water, and doing mindful meditation for ten minutes.
The second element is setting the stage for what you want to achieve for the rest of the day. I do this by checking my to-do list and then deciding on three main goals for the day. Usually, those three goals are large tasks I need to do, often two professional and one personal. Those are the central focus of my day.
The third element is taking on the hardest tasks first. This way, you’re tackling the hardest tasks when your self-control is the strongest. After I’ve set the stage for the day, I then move on to taking on the tasks that require the most focus and hard work and I do them first while my self-control is still really high. I leave the other tasks that require less self-control until later in the day. So, for example, I do high-focus work tasks and tasks that involve financial responsibility as early as I can in the day and I save more “fun” tasks like brainstorming and learning for later in the day.
So, how can you build a morning routine that really works for you and sets you up for successful days?
Step One: Physical and Mental Alertness
The best way to start your day is to get yourself into a physically and mentally alert state so that you feel good, you know that your self-control is in a good place, and you’re ready to tackle the challenges of the day.
Here are some suggested elements:
Don’t keep hitting the snooze button. Set your alarm for when you actually need to get up and, when the alarm goes off, get up. Make yourself sit up and put your feet on the floor before you ever touch your alarm clock. Laying in bed in a semi-awake state isn’t restful; in fact, it adds to the stress of the day because you’ve lost that time.
Take a shower. Many people find that a morning shower makes them feel more alert and ready for the day. I’ve tried this, but I find that showering later in the day after I exercise works better for me. Different people are wired differently.
Brush your teeth or perform other basic hygiene. Similarly, basic hygiene tasks like brushing your teeth or using floss or washing your face can really help with bringing about both physical and mental alertness. I almost always start the day by brushing my teeth and splashing water on my face.
Drink some water, coffee, or tea, depending on your tastes. I’m a morning water person. My wife is a morning coffee person. We both consume beverages because it raises our alertness. For me, the hydration really helps with alertness; for my wife, the caffeine and heat of the coffee raises her mental state.
Do some mild exercise or stretching. Some people like to use exercise as a tool to raise mental and physical alertness first thing in the morning. I usually just stretch for a few minutes, as that seems to have the same effect for me in terms of raising alertness. I usually just sit on the floor with my legs stretched out and try to touch my toes and I also do a few basic yoga poses.
Mindfully meditate. To me, this is the key to mental alertness to start the day. I do this for ten minutes in the morning and usually for ten minutes around midday. It’s simple: I just turn off all distractions, sit in a comfortable place, close my eyes, and focus entirely on my breathing. If I feel my mind wandering away, I become aware of it and bring my focus back to my breathing. To me, this feels like doing “reps” with my mind and it really helps with building one’s ability to be alert and focused over the long term.
Step Two: Set the Stage
The second element of a good morning routine is to set the stage for the day to come. What is it that you need to achieve today? What are the most important things you need to do? This is a great thing to assess, because then you can choose from among those items and do the ones that require the most focus first.
Here are some suggested elements:
Set one to three key goals for the day. What are the key things you want to achieve before the end of the day? They might be personal. They might be professional. They might even be related to other spheres of life. Set those as your personal goals. I usually try to set three of them each day. Typically one to two of them are professional, one is personal, and the other one varies.
Check your to-do list for tasks you need to complete. I use a to-do list manager to keep my multitude of tasks organized. I’ll check this list so I know what things I need to do today. These are usually smaller tasks that don’t really make sense as the focus for the day.
Quickly review your email and messages to make sure there aren’t any absolute emergencies to handle. I do this now because, when I move on to taking on the hard tasks, I turn off my phone and email so that I can focus better on those tasks. If there’s a true emergency, I deal with it right away; if not, I don’t look at messages again until mid-day at the earliest. I don’t get anything done if I’m constantly interrupted by fresh emails and messages.
Step Three: Take on the Hard Tasks
At the start of your day, your self-control is as strong as it will be all day long, so use it! Put that self-control to work and knock out some of the key things you need to take care of.
Here are some suggested elements:
Exercise. Many people struggle to take the first step to exercise, so try doing it early in the morning when you have the self-control that you need to get you started. This is true for any tough daily routine you’re trying to implement.
Turn off distractions. Turn off your phone entirely. Close your email program and your social media sites. The goal is to focus on the tasks at hand, not to have your attention pulled away by the latest text or social media alert.
Do the most difficult task on your agenda first. What’s the hardest task you have to face today? You can define “hardest” however you’d like; for me, it’s the task that requires the most focus to complete efficiently. Do that task first.
Make spending decisions. If you need to shop, do it as early in the day as possible while your self-control is high. In the evening, when self-control is lower, you’ll have no reason to go to the store or visit e-commerce websites.
Do “un-fun” work and home tasks. Yes, some tasks simply aren’t enjoyable. We all have specific work tasks and home tasks we don’t like. Do them early so that they’re out of the way and the more tolerable tasks are the ones that are left.
A good morning routine sets you up for a successful day in every sphere of your life. It ensures that you get the important things done. It helps you motivate yourself to take on new habits and routines. It helps you to avoid bad spending choices. It leaves you with an afternoon and evening full of much more tolerable tasks and free time, perfect for when your self-control is naturally lower. In short, a morning routine can make you much more personally, financially, and professionally successful.
Consider using the ideas above to develop a strong morning routine for yourself so that you can enjoy all of the benefits, financial and otherwise. Good luck!