how to build an indestructible morning routine

I wrote this post about morning routines almost 4 years ago!


I started experimenting with building a morning routine in January 2015. It’s been nine months, and I can’t tell you how much it has drastically changed my life. I’m dumbstruck if I really take the time to think about it, but that’s the beauty of a routine. You don’t think about it. In truth, my morning routine has fundamentally made me a much happier, more peaceful, productive, and mindful person.

In this post, I’ll describe:

  • My mornings before and after I started my routine

  • Why start a morning routine

  • My detailed process for building a morning routine

  • Resources to read / explore

Okay, so here’s what a typical morning looked like for me about a year ago:

My morning without a routine

9/19/2014

7:00 – alarm rings, lie in bed while checking email on my phone. Read an annoying work email, put it off my mind. Scroll through Facebook, Instagram, note how other people’s lives look so much more vibrant than mine. Brush my teeth. Think about that email, consider writing back something sharp and snarky. Resist.

7:15 – rummage in the fridge for something for breakfast, cook eggs, usually, and eat while reading email and browsing news.

7:45  try to work on something productive, like my writing projects, but end up browsing the web when I get distracted. Remember household things or books I have to order on Amazon. Order them. Bring my attention back to writing.

8:20 – Read some article online. Check Facebook and reply to some messages. Check my bank and worry a bit about my finances. Try to write for a few more minutes. Get really sleepy, put my head down and fall asleep on my bed.

8:50 – Suddenly wake up. Pack my stuff and go to work. Stare out the window on the subway.

Not the worst morning in the world, but by the time I stepped outside the house, I already felt scattered, guilty (for not doing my personal projects), sluggish, and irritable. It’s partially because of all that internet/information junk entering my head early in the morning, but it’s also because I had no structure, intentionality, and rhythm to the first few (and I would argue, most important) waking hours of my day.

What is a morning routine?

A morning routine is a series of actions / steps you do in the first few hours of every single day.

Reasons to start a morning routine

Make time and space for what’s most important to you, and commit to it everyday. For me, that was writing. By giving my pursuit first priority in my day, I was repeating and revalidating my commitment to myself. Over time, my efforts compound and I can chip away at my long term goals.

Be extremely productive. The purpose of a routine is for you to do tasks without thinking about it, or expending too much energy on it. The hard part of any task (writing, art, exercise, learning something) are always the moments leading up to it, persuading yourself to do it. Morning routines prevent you from wasting prime focus time on doing things that didn’t matter, or trying to decide what to do with your morning (decision fatigue).

Prime yourself to have a really good day. I’ve found that having a bad morning vastly increases the chances that I have an awful day. And vice versa. If I complete my most important and most nourishing tasks, I already feel like I’ve won the day, and the rest is smooth sailing.

Ground yourself in your personal values and goals. This is related to reason #1, but essentially, the morning routine is not just a routine, it’s also a ritual. I am telling myself each morning what’s most important to me, what matters to me, and what I’m putting my energy towards in life.

Nourish your mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. I’ve realized how fundamental self care is to being happy, and to being able to produce creative work. Nothing is more important, and the morning is the perfect time to take care of yourself, and energize yourself. It’s crucial here to avoid all activities that deplete you of energy (for me, that definitely includes checking email).

Build headspace, and practice doing what’s essential. My morning routine lasts from when I wake up (6:30) to when I arrive in the office (10 am). I don’t check my email until 10 am, and it feels amazing. Ask yourself: what is truly necessary to you in order to live well? Do you absolutely need to check your email first thing after you wake up? What can you do without?

Be the boss of my day, instead of being constantly reactive. My morning routine grounds me in what’s true and meaningful to me. Instead of spending my prime time responding to one thing or another (articles and videos on the internet, a co-worker’s emails, texts about dinner plans), I take control of my day, my mind, and my life.

 

My current morning routine

6:30 – wake up, brush my teeth

6:40 – do my morning pages (3 pages of free writing to get all my thoughts on paper – see Julia Cameron)

7:00 – make my bed, meditate for 5 minutes

7:15 – eat a 3-minute prep breakfast (oatmeal, smoothies, stuff I prepped the previous night)

7:30 – start an hour of distraction-free writing, which I call magic hour.

8:30 – do 30 min of yoga, or go running outside.

8:55 – shower. Head to work, read a book on the way

I don’t check my email or go online from the moment I wake up until 10am. In a year, I went from having haphazard, wasted mornings to mornings that helped me balance my energy, nourish my creativity, exercise my discipline, and make headway into my goals. I feel more emotionally and physically balanced than I have in the past five years. If anything, what’s most important here isn’t my routine itself; it’s the sustainable framework for living my days; one which I will continue to build upon and grow, with little effort or inertia holding me back.

7 Steps to a Morning Routine

This morning routine business is a part of the larger practice of habit formation, which I got really into. A morning routine is just a series of habits. Tim Ferriss wrote that a morning routine is something anyone else can replicate to perfection, should they be given a script and asked to play out your life. In other words, the key to a successful morning routine is specificity, and setting yourself up for success.

Step 1: Define what your morning routine is for.

What purpose do you want your routine to serve in your life? What do you want more in your day? For me, I had two problems: feeling scattered/overwhelmed, and not making process in my goals. The purpose of my morning routine was to nurture and recharge my mind/body/spirit, and work on my longer term career/creative projects.

Step 2: Imagine your perfect morning routine.

Here’s where you can let yourself fantasize a bit. Given your stated purpose, what kinds of activities would you like to do for your morning routine? What would set the groundwork for the rest of your day? I made a long list of activities I would enjoy:

  • Writing

  • Working on art/design

  • Listening to music

  • Running

  • Yoga

  • Meditating

  • Reading poetry

  • Writing letters

  • etc…

Step 3: Define your anchor habit

This is the root habit upon which all other habits (the rest of your routine) will build. Think of it as your biggest win for the day. If nothing else gets done, what is one thing you could do, everyday, that would make you feel accomplished or emotionally and physically balanced? These are habits that make all other habits easier to do, because it clears up more energy and headspace for you to do them. I started with meditation as my anchor habit.

Step 4: Define your trigger

The trigger is something you do that immediately precedes your anchor habit, such that anytime you do your trigger, you’ll immediately complete the next step (your habit) without thinking about it. It’s best for your trigger to be something you already do everyday. Something mundane, something you do without missing a single day. My trigger was brushing my teeth: I would meditate twice a day… every morning and evening immediately after brushing my teeth. By the time I picked up the toothbrush, my body and mind could feel what was coming next. I had mentally primed myself such that meditating wasn’t a choice; it had become automatic. I had associated brushing my teeth with meditating. Some other potential triggers might be:

  • Waking up / alarm rings

  • Getting out of bed

  • Taking a shower

  • Getting dressed

  • Eating breakfast

  • Packing for work

Step 5: Define your reward

Immediately after doing your habit, follow it with a small, simple pleasure. This reinforces the habit and makes you feel good about completing it. My reward now is making a cup of tea. The key is picking a reward that’s ridiculously easy, yet satisfying to do. At one point, I had pre-penciled in triangles and hearts on a paper calendar, and my reward was just coloring it in with marker. Sounds elementary, but it was surprisingly satisfying.

At this point, you should be able to fill in this sentence:

After [TRIGGER] happens at around [TIME], I will do [ANCHOR HABIT], followed by treating myself to [REWARD].

Step 5: Track your progress

When it comes to morning routines, you don’t feel the powerful benefits until weeks or months later, when you look back and realize how vastly different things are. Before that point, it’s crucial to build momentum by seeing – on a day to day level – what you’ve accomplished. I started out with my penciled hearts, which I colored in everyday that I completed my habit (meditation). You could mark X’s on a calendar, make a checklist on a whiteboard, or use an app like Habit List. The goal is to create a daisy chain of “completes,” such that over time, resisting or skipping your morning routine is more bothersome than simply doing the habit. Since you’re already in motion, inertia keeps you going. Which is awesome.

Step 6: Add another habit. Repeat the process.

Once I had been practicing my anchor habit for about 5 weeks, I added another habit – morning pages. I decided to do my morning pages right after I woke up (trigger) and attached my anchor habit for right after. At this point, I had two triggers, two habits, and one reward:

Wake up (trigger 2)
Morning pages (habit 2)
Brush teeth (trigger 1)
Meditation (habit 2)
Make tea (reward)

Step 7: Chain link more habits. Then, make smaller circles

This is the fun part (I think). After you’ve had two habits going for about 2–3 months, add on a third. And a fourth. Until you’ve built the complete set – everything you’ve ever wanted to accomplish early in the morning. Here is my morning routine, broken down into triggers / habits. The numbers note the order in which I consciously added it into my morning routine.

6:35 – Wake up (trigger 2)
6:40 – Morning pages (habit 2)
7:00 – Brush teeth (trigger 1)
7:05 – Meditate (habit 1)
7:10 – Make tea & breakfast (reward)
7:15 – Alarm rings (trigger 4)
7:25 – Magic Hour, or Write (habit 4)
8:25 – Pack for work (trigger 3)
8:30 – Do Yoga or Go running (habit 3)
9:05 – Walk to the subway (trigger)
9:15 – Read a book on the subway (habit 5 / reward)
10:00 – Arrive at work

Things to keep in mind

Start with just one habit. Seriously. It’s easy for me to be over-ambitious, and I definitely have in the past. But do this and you’ll just be setting yourself up for failure. It’s better to steadily build a morning routine over the course of 6 months than to start and stop and splutter and get discouraged.

Start small. My meditation habit was just to sit quietly at my chair for 5 minutes, taking deep, mindful breaths for five minutes. I might even count 10 inhales, 10 exhales, and be done with it. What’s crucial here is not the actual depth or ambition of the habit itself; it’s the framework that you’re setting up. Once you have this framework, you can easily go back and deepen the habit, add more to it, and so forth. When I started my yoga habit, I started with just 10 minutes of yoga, and slowly worked my way up to 30 minutes, with 1 hour on the weekends. So any habit that you want to start, simplify and shorten it as much as possible.

For example:

Journaling – write 1 sentence about your day yesterday
Reading – read 3 pages of a book
Running – run for 5 minutes just around the block
Music – practice for 5 minutes.
Writing – write for 10 minutes. or just sit there and try.

It will feel easy and even a bit ridiculous, but the key here is to stop when you’ve still got some juice left in you.

Casually test other habits before you add them in. As I was focusing on solidifying my meditation habit, I “tested” out other habits I was considering adding to my morning routine… I started doing 10 minutes of yoga here and there, writing in my journal on some days, etc. But I wasn’t consistent; I didn’t hold myself accountable to any habit except meditation, so I didn’t feel bad about it. This is a good way to see if a habit is worth practicing – try it out for a few days, or weeks, and see how it feels.

No distractions. Before I could practice all of my habits, I had one huge habit to break: checking my email / phone / social media early in the morning. I came up with my no internet before 10 am rule. To me, this is absolutely, 100% crucial. I had to take some drastic measures at first — hiding my phone in my dresser, etc, but now I will report that I couldn’t have successfully executed this morning habit without this rule.

Prep for your morning routine the night before.Make your morning routine ridiculously easy by preparing everything the night before. Here’s what I do pretty much every evening, Sunday – Thursday:

Put my morning pages notebook & pen on my desk
Choose what clothes I’m wearing the next day & lay it out
Put my exercise clothes on my dresser
Pack my lunch
Prepare my breakfast

Prepping is super important, because it 1) reduces the energy you have to spend in the morning 2) saves time 3) prevents you from having to make any decisions in the morning 4) builds momentum for doing the habit. When I see my morning pages notebook laid out, it takes way more effort to NOT do my morning pages than to do it.

Consistency is the name of the game. And patience.
This is not an overnight project – this will take months to build. It took me 9 months to get to this point, and I still have a long ways to go in terms of perfecting my routine! But I feel great about it, because I have a framework, and that’s what matters.

Check in with yourself.
In the beginning, I was meticulous with being meta about my habits. Every week, I would do a weekly review and write a few sentences about how my morning routine was going – how the different habits were going, and what I could do differently.

Be flexible.
As much as I like structure, some days – after about 3 months into my morning routine – I started changing up the order of my habits, just to see how it felt. I brushed my teeth first thing, instead of doing my morning pages. Some days, when I woke up late, I dropped some habits and kept others. I started writing earlier. I think it takes a bit of confidence and solidity before you can experiment while staying on track, which is why I didn’t do this until after 2–3 months in.

That’s everything I’ve learned thus far about building a morning routine. It makes me excited to write this post and articulate all that I’ve learned, and to think about what else I want to do with my morning routine. Recently, I read the One Thing and I’m experimenting with waking up an hour earlier to do my One Thing. I also want to deepen my meditation practices, and run a bit faster!

Last, I’ll share some resources that have helped me tremendously.

Useful Resources

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg – Powerful book about habit formation – the basics

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey
Inspirational book about the rituals of famous writers/artists/inventors

Tiago Forte’s Habit Class on Skillshare
This is what initially got me motivated to start a morning routine, and to take it seriously. I simply can’t recommend it enough.

HabitList
I started using this a while back to keep track of all my habits. I transitioned away from this recently (I felt like I didn’t need it anymore) but it served a great purpose for several months.

Zen Habits Blog
I started reading this blog many years ago… this is what slowly engrained in me the importance of starting small, and building slowly.

Tim Ferriss Podcast
I had mixed feelings about Tim Ferriss for a very, very long time, but I started listening to his podcast recently, and I’m struck by how conscious he is about the way he spends his time, and his mornings, and distilling information into actionable pieces. I recommend reading Decision Fatigue and 10 Habits You Should Kick.