An Addiction to the Morning

Over the years I’ve experimented with a whole variety of morning routines for one simple reason. How you start your day sets the tone for the entire day. Want to have a great day? Kick ass for the first 30 minutes.

If you’ve followed Leo Babuta, Tim Ferriss, or any major trend from lifehacking.com, you’ll know that changing a habit it works best if you do it first thing in the morning.

While I was in business school here’s how my morning looked:
– Wake up
– Pull open my iPhone/laptop and look at Facebook and email
– Browse either random sites or follow things from the previous day

Does this sound familiar?

Afterwards, I’d likely take a shower or go eat a bowl of cereal. At this point I’ve been awake for 90 to 120 minutes. And I’d feel like crap. I’d have to go to class, or meet a team, or work on a project. And I hadn’t taken care of myself.

I had ambitions to blog, meditate, exercise, and read a good book every single day. I wanted to do these things. I could have done some of them in that first 90-120 minutes of the day. But I had my routine. Does this sound familiar?

After finishing graduate school I went on my Rumspringa. I spent 6 months traveling and reading all the non-MBA related materials that helped shape my life. I was intentional about documenting which things worked for me, and which didn’t.

What I found was pretty shocking (to me) and now feels like an obvious answer. Do the 2-3 most important things for the day first. Duh.

Let me reinforce this, if you go make a pot of coffee to “wake up” this becomes a daily habit. And guess what, your brain associates this as one of the most important things because you do it first. That slot is filled. You don’t get 5 or 6 slots. There aren’t 10 most important areas to focus on.

The most interesting and annoying piece of the puzzle for me came when I took a step back from what the life coaches were teaching. It was to NOT make a set pattern. Not in total at least. What do I mean here?

I now give myself 3 things in the morning that are musts every day. I meditate immediately when I wake up. I then exercise after that – whether its a walk or run on vacation, or lifting weights when I’m home. My old self would go shower, or make a protein shake, or go get breakfast out and read. I’ve tested a lot of different patterns here, some intentionally the same for a month or two and some with variability. This is what I’ve found that shocked me… If I leave the third slot open for what is most important to me that day, it gets done.

Let’s take a step back for a second and examine this. I know that meditation and exercise influence my mood and health and color my interactions for the rest of the day. Always. Every single day. So I make them #1 and #2. Before anything else. I don’t look at email or return calls from the night before. This way I never feel guilty about missing exercise or meditation, and I don’t pretend like I’ll do them later in the day. Because stuff always comes up. I find reasons not to do either of these two things I want to do.

By leaving the third slot open, I get to be flexible. Today, my third slot was the re-installation of music production software on my laptop so that I have plugins. That way I won’t have an excuse internally if the mood strikes me later to work on a new track. Yesterday, I spent 45 minutes writing the book I’ve been working on. It can vary every day, and I like this. Tomorrow, I may blog first, or go grocery shopping, or call my parents. Whatever it is, I let it be flexible, but it’s a non-negotiable. And I do it before I shower or eat (depending on how long it will take, I sometimes do a road smoothie if it requires me to be out of the house).

It’s taken me about 4 years to find this balance, and the quality of my life has improved dramatically when I follow this prescription. If you are looking to begin a meditation or exercise practice I recommend the age-old advice of starting small with an accountability partner. Meditate and exercise for five minutes each to begin, but start with one at a time. And be realistic about what your most important life tasks are right now.

If you are trying to get out of debt, spend 5 minutes looking at what you spent the day before and your financial picture. If you are trying to de-clutter your house, go spend 5 minutes in the garage or basement organizing. Do these things before work, family, and school become mental interruptions that drain your willpower supply.