If there's one thing that's taken over the world of self help, it's the idea that your need a "morning routine", or a set of things that you do every morning to make sure you're ready for the best possible day. By performing the same rituals every day, the theory goes, we train ourselves for certain spikes of creative or productive energy around specific activities.
A quick search of the internet reveals hundreds of thousands of videos and blog posts about morning routines. People often try out the routines that billionaires or high performing athletes do, hoping to squeeze some of their magic into their lives. In doing so, I see so many people miss the forest for the trees. While you can set yourself up for success with a deliberate, planned out morning, there doesn't have to be anything "routine" about it.
Lets get something out of the way: morning routines are a great way to help you feel in control of your life.
For many people, waking up before their workday starts is the only time they feel like they get to themselves. At least on the West coast of America (where I live), it's considered rude to bother someone before 9 or 10 in the morning, which is when most people start their workday. If you can get up at 6 in the morning, you're giving yourself 3 full hours of time for yourself, and the value of that time can't be understated.
But there's nothing special about taking this time for yourself in the morning. And there's nothing special about getting your personal time together before the workday.
Unfortunately most of this post will be anecdotal, and I hate that. But more and more I realize that the world of self help is full of snake oil and unprovable claims, and maybe my role is to shine a light on the assumed truths that have no factual basis.
What is a Morning Routine?
noun: a customary or regular course of procedure
adjective: dull or uninteresting
Dictionary.com is not kind to the word "routine". Morning routines are supposed to be special, personal, highly productive moments of our day. Instead, the dictionary tells us that a "morning routine" is actually just a practice by which we do the some things over and over. And this is exactly what a morning routine is, no matter how much you drum it up: it is doing the same things over and over, hoping that they will provide you with some magical productivity or happiness boost.
As far as I can tell, there aren't even any original morning routines out there. They all follow they exact same blueprint:
- A personal check-in time, whether spiritual or not
- If the person exercises, some exercise
- Planning out the day
- Getting small tasks out of the way for easy "wins"
- If the person eats breakfast, some breakfast
And that's it!
It doesn't sound as good when you put it this way, but that's what every morning routine is. It doesn't matter whether your breakfast is a green smoothie or a bowl of sugary cereal, it doesn't matter if your exercise is 2 hours of powerlifting or a 30 minute jog, and it doesn't matter if your personal check-in time is bible study or a bullet journal: they all fall into the same categories. If you go online looking for a "perfect" morning routine, you'll find people squabbling over the details. You should be looking at the big picture.
Why the Morning?
I'm reasonably young (under 30 for now!) and have often felt like the world of self help was meant for those in the 40s. There's constant talk about getting up early and attacking the day, but nobody I know has actually done that. I know people who wake up very early to go rowing or biking, but that's out of necessity rather than motivation.
Why do people think morning work is so productive? Why couldn't you tackle your list of tasks after the workday? When I was little, all my work got done after school. Homework didn't start until after I was done with my sports and after I was done hanging out with my friends. In college, nothing happened before the first class slot (8:30), and it was normal to stay up well into the morning to finish problem sets.
Then I graduated. All of a sudden, I was told that everything needed to get done before work. But I'm a programmer, and so it's considered normal to stay up extremely late working on projects. You can't stay up late and wake up early, but I definitely tried.
At one point I was waking up at 6 to journal, read up on the latest in software, and hop on the train down to work. I'd be at work by 8, eat breakfast, and stay till 6 to make sure I got everything done. I'd grab dinner, hop back on the train, and be home in time to exercise. I'd be back from the gym around 8:30 or 9, at which point I needed to start getting ready for sleep! Despite the journaling and exercising, there wasn't any time built into my day to take a breath for myself. Everything was done for the sake of being productive and waking up early. This phase lasted 6 months or so before I realized I couldn't do it anymore.
Then I started the opposite approach: if I have to be in the office at 8, how late could I wake up and still make it? For the next 3 years, I woke up 20 minutes before my train, got dressed, grabbed my bag, and walked out the door. Sometimes I would only wake up for real on the train. But when I got home in the evenings, I suddenly had time! I could grab a drink with a friend after working out. I could watch the game while I journaled. I even had time to cook dinner for my girlfriend. In short, I could participate in social activities that I couldn't when I had a morning routine.
The point I'm trying to make is: you can be extremely productive in the evenings, and there's nothing special about the morning. You can finish your social obligations by 8 and still come home to organize your life. You can do your journaling in the evening.
My cynical take is that morning routines only make you more productive because they get you to think about work before work hours actually start. Many of the ones I see online talk about going through emails and writing out priorities for their workday. Isn't that just called "work"?
Take the Routine out of your Routine
This has kind of turned into a rant, but I do want to leave you with a real takeaway: if you keep doing the same thing over and over, you won't move forward.
There are a couple ways to interpret this, but I think man's greatest weakness is complacency. Particularly in my line of work, there are always younger and brighter minds fighting to take my place. If I do the same thing every morning because I need those actions to kickstart my day, I'm going to fall behind and eventually be out of a job. I need to always be pushing myself to see what is and isn't possible.
My mornings consist of a set of principles that I piece together depending on the day.
- Something intellectually stimulating
- Something to check on my body
- Something to check on my mind
Most mornings I make coffee and read the news. This is intellectually stimulating for me: how many things in the news can I tie back to things I already know? How did I make coffee last time and what can I tweak this time?
I'll often do some light physical activity. I'll stretch out and see what hurts in my body or what feels good. This determines how I mentally approach many things coming up in the day: if I'm not feeling fresh, I know I'm going to have a harder time dealing with food cravings and I may start preparing a more interesting lunch before work.
Sometimes I'll meditate in the morning. Sometimes I'll do a crossword. Sometimes I'll read a book on programming. But I try to challenge myself mentally in the mornings before work to make sure that I'm not blinded by my current tasks there.
But there is no routine. Rarely are my mornings the same as the day before. This kind of philosophy gives me the flexibility to sleep in a little bit if I'm tired, or it gives me the ability to get up and handle some larger tasks early if I happen to get up early. I play things by feel, and if I don't get things done before work, I make sure to get them done after work.
Personally, I know my most creative hours are immediately after starting work and about an hour after I log off for the day. I do all my blogging around the second slot; the first one is dedicated to being the most productive employee I can be.
This means I don't have a morning routine, and it means you don't need to have one either.