It’s been said that how you start your day sets the tone for how productive it will be. I don’t take that to be an absolute law, but I put a lot of stock in it. I’ve lived enough days in my 37 years to be able to compare days based on how they began. I believe that starting the day right is important.
To that end, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years fiddling with how I start my days. Some morning routines have been very regimented, demanding, and intricate. Others were very loose, or absent. Some were just indulgent. It’s been a winding road.
But when I did have morning routines that worked, they shared a few key elements. That’s what I’m sharing here. I’m hoping that whatever specifics you want to fill in, the overall structure can help you build the kinds of mornings that make your days productive and positive.
Make some time and space
Having both a period of time and a space where you start your morning is important. You don’t need a lot of time; it could be as little as 15 minutes or a half hour. I have 2 kids, and I’m the one in charge of them for the first few hours of the morning. So I prioritize waking up before everyone — at least on the weekdays. I can usually get 60 to 90 quality minutes by myself. It’s glorious.
Space is also an important element. Find a place in your home that will serve as your place to perform your routine. It doesn’t need to be a space you only use for starting the day, but it does need to be a space where when you go there in the morning, you almost automatically get into the morning ritual mode. The point is to make it as easy as possible for your brain to fall into the morning routine your’e establishing. And your space has a big impact on that.
It should be an uncluttered space, if you can find it. The effects of cluttered space on the mood and your ability to think are very real. Make it as easy on yourself as you can to start your morning off right.
Nourish Yourself First
In the world of budgeting, they say you should pay yourself first. When it comes to building a morning routine, nourish yourself first. This doesn’t have to be food — in fact, I don’t eat breakfast at all. But I make myself a damn good pot of coffee. And before I do anything else in the morning, I drink some.
When I drink the first few sips of coffee, I enjoy it. I enjoy the way the mug feels in my hand. I enjoy the heat as it hits my tongue. I enjoy the flavor. It’s a ritual. And it’s nourishing — both physically, and emotionally. However tired I feel, however high the pile of stuff facing me for the rest of the day, I’m nourished and fortified by the coffee.
Whatever your thing is — be it coffee, tea, oatmeal, bacon, yoga, meditation, a shower, prayer — nourish yourself with something that gives you energy and optimism. Make sure it’s something that doesn’t take effort or a lot of time, gives you pleasure, and is guilt-free.
I’ve found that the morning state of mind is a unique one. Your brain has been in sleep mode for some time, and is usually producing alpha waves.) for a while as you fully wake up. Alpha waves are important because they can help you more beneficially process information, reduce anxiety, and get creative and reflective. So part of your routine needs to leverage that. Make it a point to reflect.
Reflection is about thinking more deeply than just about what you have to do. You’ll be doing that anyway in a few minutes. But for now, just contemplate your life. Think about your emotions, ambitions, values. Process things from yesterday that you’ve had time to sleep on. Check in with yourself, to see what’s really on your mind, since it’s currently less cluttered than it will be all day.
I highly recommend journaling, but for some, that’s too structured and too demanding for the morning. So don’t force yourself to sit down and write. But do find some level of reflection that you’re not resistant to. Reflect on yesterday. How are you feeling about it? How does that make you feel about today?
For some, this time is for meditation or prayer. For some, it’s about something less structured. But however loose or tight you make it, make sure that you allow time for your mind to operate in a headspace that’s different from the day-to-day hustle and bustle.
One of my favorite quotes about preparation comes from Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” And anyone has ever made a plan can probably attest to that. Planning is essential to giving you a positive outlook on the day — or at least making you less likely to feel overwhelmed and stressed.
There will be things about the day that don’t go your way. Count on that; that’s life. But when you’ve planned your day, you can at least prepare yourself for what can (and will) go wrong. The point of planning isn’t to make everything in your day magically happen as you wish.
The point of preparation is to give yourself purpose and the ability to be proactive. The worst days in anyone’s life are the ones where they’re merely reacting to what’s going on around them.
Preparation can take any form you like. I’ve tried so many different productivity and planning systems that I wouldn’t dare say there’s one method to fit everyone. But what I will say is that you need a method that you’re eager to do each day.
Whatever the specifics of your preparation stage, it should involve a few key elements, so that it actually gives you the feeling of being prepared for the day:
- looking at a calendar, or just looking at your time that’s already spoken for — like meetings time sensitive things (like pickups and drop-offs of kids)
- making a list of some key things you want to get done today
- thinking about what might come up today that could throw things out of whack, and how you can deal with it
There are all sorts of sub-steps that you can throw in there — depending on how much you like to plan. But those 3 areas will give you the feeling of being ahead of the day, rather than behind the eight-ball. That feeling alone is worth this entire morning routine.
Studies continue to show that beyond the obvious physical benefits we get from exercise, [it also positively impacts our mental health and cognition](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/#:~:text=Exercise improves mental health by,self-esteem and cognitive function.&text=Exercise has also been found,self-esteem and social withdrawal.). And you don’t have to go to a gym or buy expensive equipment. Simply get your heart rate up, and put a little resistance against your muscles. So a really good morning routine should include some exercise.
“But I don’t have time for exercise,” you might say. All you need is 7 minutes. Seriously. The right series of movements in a single 7-minute circuit each day provides significant benefits. Here’s a great routine, based on significant research. There are also some great apps to get you into the habit. Oddly enough Johnson & Johnson has an app that I’ve found beats all the other ones I’ve tried, and it’s free!
If you already work out in the afternoon or evening, that’s great. But morning movement of some kind (like the simple 7 minute workout) gets you the neurophysiological benefits throughout the day.
I’ve even engaged in an impromptu dance party to various Kids Bop songs — thanks to my early-rising toddlers. It turned out to be great exercise.
“But I just don’t feel like it,” you might say. I hear you. I never feel like it. And that’s the point. Your body is probably used to just sitting still and walking here and there. Your mind is also used to that. But the feeling you get from squeezing in a brief workout when your mind was convinced you couldn’t — that’s a great feeling. And it gives you a boost of confidence to start your day.
It will take time — likely a week or two — to get you into “feeling like” exercising. But in the meantime, commit to at least the 7-minute workout. It’s easy enough that it’s ridiculous to say you can’t do it, but effective enough that it will motivate you to keep it up.
Put It All Together
This template for a morning routine comes from a combination of my own experience over the years, along with the research that I’ve found most compelling.
- Designate a time period and space in your home for your routine.
- Do something easy, guilt-free, and nourishing to start it off
- Prepare for the day
- Get Moving for a little bit
Getting as many of these elements into your routine is important. But the specifics that you fill in need to be all yours. After all, this is your routine. It’s about getting you in the best position to take on the day ahead.
Are these 5 elements exhaustive? Of course not. You could do more to set yourself up. But including at least these 5 elements at the start of your day should give you a feeling of confidence and calm about what’s ahead. And that can make all the difference on any given day.