I had gone through most of my adult life repeatedly hitting the snooze button without much thought as to how this shapes me as a person. I’d always considered myself to be a night owl. My routine (that will be all too familiar) consisted of: alarm goes off, press snooze, alarm goes off again, press snooze, alarm goes off once more – before I finally got up. I would then get changed, have breakfast, and go to work, with the last two components being interchangeable.
I’ve always enjoyed reading and, being self-employed myself, have been interested in understanding the mindsets of entrepreneurs and self-starters. I started seeing a pattern of high performers practising a good early morning routine.
People like tech entrepreneur and podcaster Tim Ferris, ex-Navy Seal and motivational speaker Jocko Willink, entrepreneur Richard Branson, and Apple CEO Tim Cook are just some of the fans of an early morning routine.
Studies have shown the benefits of having a daily routine include having a greater sense of well-being, better cognitive functioning (such as faster reaction times), and decreased likelihood of developing major depression and bipolar disorder.
I then stumbled upon a fantastic book by Hal Elrod, Miracle Morning. In his book, Hal sets out a series of six tasks for you to do before you do anything else. The six tasks he describes are Silence, Affirmations, Visualisation, Exercise, Reading, and Scribing (SAVERS).
I have set out below what my morning routine looks like and the reasons why I find each step beneficial. The steps you take in the first 15 minutes of waking are the most important to your routine. This is when you are most fatigued and likely to press the snooze button or just go back to sleep. My morning routine is not in the same sequence as the SAVERS, but I find this works for me and even the book suggests working out your own order.
- Get up and make the bed. The simple act of making your bed will get you up and already set the intention of achievement for the day. For me, I was less likely to get back into bed if the bed was already made. In his book The Power of Habit, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Charles Duhigg describes ‘making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.’
- Hydrate. After an 8-hour sleep, you will lose roughly 150ml of water or more if it is hot. Drinking a glass of water will help you to replenish your thirst. Even mild dehydration has been shown to impair cognitive function.
- Exercise. The benefits of exercise are well-documented. Strength training in particular can help improve not just your physique but also brain function. Exercise can also be just as effective as antidepressants in certain cases.
- Meditation. Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to help reduce anxiety, stress, and age-related memory loss. In fact, in a nationwide Japanese study, merely taking six deep breaths over a 30-second period was shown to reduce blood pressure and pulse rate.
- Cold shower. The cold feeling energises and invigorates in the morning, which makes it better than a kick from coffee in the morning (more on caffeine below). There are many benefits to having a cold shower. In a study published in 2008, results showed that cold showers could have an anti-depressive effect and may be used as a potential treatment for depression.
- Affirmations. This has been shown to enhance problem-solving under stress. However, affirmations, if used incorrectly, can also be damaging such as using statements that you don’t believe. Carefully think about your affirmations and base them around your values and what you believe in yourself.
- Journaling. Whether it is writing some key tasks for the day, jotting down what you are grateful for, or writing down your present thoughts, keep it short and punchy. Writing down key processes will help you to reach your goals while practising gratitude has been shown to impact well-being and even helping with stress disorders such as PTSD.
- Reading. Aside from gaining knowledge by reading non-fiction books, reading self-help CBT books have been shown to ease depression more than just therapy alone. Fiction books also have their benefits. In fact, reading or engaging your brain can help preserve your memory later in life according to one study. If you don’t consider yourself to be a reader, try setting yourself a target of reading 10 pages a day. By the end of the year, you will have read 15.2 books (based on the average book being 240 pages/60,000 words). That’s a lot of knowledge and creative thinking.
- Visualisation. This is usually the last step as it is something I sometimes omit. There is some evidence to suggest that visualisation can be harmful to reaching your goals if they are unrealistic. However, this particular study seems to point that it can be useful in physical goals such as weight training.
When starting a journey of a productive morning routine many of us will find this difficult and may not even stick to it straight away. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Whether or not you believe in willpower fatigue, I’ve found that changing your environment helps to keep you on track. Line up your workout clothes before bed. A simple task, but you are already starting to vest the idea that you are getting up early by doing this. We want to create a frictionless, easy wake-up period.
If you can, invest in a home automation set-up that turns your light on at your wake-up time, or if it’s summertime then keep your curtains open so that the sun hits your room.
Hold off on your phone; don’t check it first thing in the morning and only use it when you absolutely have to during your morning routine. For instance, I use it when running my fitness app or guided meditation, but I make sure that I cannot get to it easily.
There are some great apps that you can use to filter what you have access to, not only first thing in the morning but when you need to focus on work or just want a break from your phone. I use Offtime when I need to but there are others out there. I used to write my journal on my phone, but I have now switched to pen and paper as I found I would sometimes get sidetracked. There are also studies showing that writing (especially notes) is better for memory retention.
Hold off on the caffeine first thing in the morning as studies have shown it increases cortisol levels. When we wake up, our cortisol levels are on average increased by 50% in the first 30 minutes of waking. Adding caffeine to this mix is potentially putting more pressure on your adrenal gland than is necessary. If you need to wake up then get your body moving or take a cold shower if you are feeling brave enough.
A common excuse people make is that there just isn’t enough time in the day to do this. They barely have the time to do one thing for themselves let alone five or six. So how do we make this extra time? Quite simply, we don’t. Another way to look at it is this: we all have a finite amount of time to live in this life. It is a resource that cannot be saved so you either use it or lose it.
If you want to feel fitter, happier, more productive, and healthier you need not exchange an hour of sleep. Instead, perhaps exchange an hour of TV/video games/smartphone/internet browsing use – and go to sleep that little bit earlier. It’s a version of our own marshmallow test. Do we go with instant gratification or higher rewards by investing in the long term?
I encourage anybody who is pessimistic that a morning routine is not for them, to try it for two days. If you don’t see improvements in your productivity, happiness, and health then the snooze button is just a simple tap away.
Hai La is co-founder of Thawt Out, a free information portal promoting the benefits of nutrition, fitness, and good mental health practices, based on scientific research.