I’m always curious about how successful people get their edge. What habits and routines make them successful? I’m especially interested in morning routines, as these seem to be some of the most consistent across high-performers. After reading about many people’s habits in Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors (both by author Tim Ferriss) I decided to analyze my own morning and make the best of it that I could.
The results are in, and I’m feeling hopeful! Let’s dig in, here’s what happened today:
January 20th, 2018:
This morning, like nearly every other morning for the past 1.5 months, I wake up and snuggled my pillow for about 5 minutes. After reveling in warmth for those last few seconds I get up, put on my socks, shorts, and a tank top, and grab my phone. In go my headphones, on go my shoes, and out the door go I. Time to run!
First things first, I cue up my current audiobook and start Map My Run, my tracking app. Technology can be wonderful.
There are a few different routes I run around my apartment, but I choose my favorite one this morning, the one that starts out along a busy road but then ducks down a quiet side street before looping back. The run finishes with several hundred yards of uphill grind, sure to make me warm and sweaty for the next phase of my morning ritual.
After tapping ‘Stop Workout’ and pausing my book, I lope back up the stairs and whip out my yoga mat for the morning’s sweat ablutions. Twenty minutes of stretching, holding, breathing, and dripping later I’m warm, loose, and ready for the next step.
I boil some water for my morning tea, usually green with lemon and ginseng, and then sit down to write in my morning journal. It’s a structured journal format I’ve been using intermittently for the past year or so. I write what went well from the day before, what I’m grateful for today, and what I’d really like to accomplish in the coming hours. I round the morning off with my consistent breakfast: three fried eggs on a salad of mixed greens.
That’s it. Boom. Morning won.
As it so happened, the book I was listening to this morning is one that has been changing my views on my life (and those of others) a lot recently. It’s called ‘The Power of Habit’ by Michael Duhigg, and inspired by this, I’d like to delve into why my particular morning habits are important to me and what I have done to make them stick. Much of what you’ll read below is catalyzed by the book, so I recommend picking up a copy or downloading the audio when you get the chance.
Let’s start with running. I’ve been fairly active for most of my life, playing soccer through middle school and picking up track team in high school. However, once in college I had an on-again-off-again relationship with running. Typically I’d pound the pavement for a week or two before ultimately letting it slip in favor of watching another youtube video from the dance comp a few weekends ago. Life went on, and dance kept me pretty well in shape, but running fell by the wayside. Running for the sake of running or to achieve a specific running-related goal just didn’t seem to stick.
So what has changed now? A couple things. First and most importantly, I’ve changed my focus.
Previously I was concerned with my time or distance on a particular run. I wanted to see improvement in either distance or pace (or most destructively, both) and would end up feeling disappointed if I suffered a setback or dropped below what I considered to be my standards, even if those standards had nothing to do with science, logic, or anything else. My perfectionist streak did me no great service here.
Now I focus one thing and one thing only: the sense of aliveness I feel right after finishing up my run. Often called the runner’s high, this feeling of being awake to my body and the world is wonderful, and I try to appreciate it each time I finish my morning run, no matter how fast or far I go.
This reframe has also lead me to keep my runs quite short, almost exclusively between 0.6 and 0.9 miles. Why that distance? Because in my experience that’s the minimum effective dose (MED in Ferriss parlance) for feeling that elation at the end of the run. Anything less than half a mile and my motor never really warms up to operating temperature. If I go much past tone-mile mark diminishing returns kick in. More troublesome yet, longer runs are also more difficult to do every day and take a greater toll on my body.
In addition, I don’t consciously regulate my pace on these runs. Instead, I run at whatever speed feels appropriate for the way my body feels at the time. Sometimes that’s a brisk clip, and sometimes it’s a bit more of a plodding slog. The important thing is that I get up and do it at all.
Relating this back to the book about habits, over the past month and a half I’ve set up a classic habit loop: My cue is waking up and getting out of my bed. As soon as I put my socks on, I slip into the routine: without much thought, I get dressed, get my phone ready, and head out the door. I don’t give myself much time for thoughts about whether I want to run this morning, or whether I’d rather sleep in for an extra 30 minutes. Instead, I look forward to that runner’s high and let autopilot take over until I’m actually out, enjoying my run. Six minutes later, when it’s over, I get the reward of feeling great. Then it’s time for my next habit to kick in.
The small win I’ve built up during my run rolls seamlessly into my morning yoga practice. I love yoga for similar reasons to running: it makes me feel great. More than that though, I know that a consistent yoga practice pays huge dividends for my dancing. Flexibility, strength, and mindfulness? All huge wins. But how do I build it into a habit? A few things are key for me:
First, I do the same 20-minute routine nearly every morning. I do that, despite knowing that I could probably get bigger benefits if I changed up my morning routine to include different poses. Why? Because the best workout is the one that you will actually do. If I do the same thing every morning I know that I will be able to get through it every morning. Yesterday is evidence for today. It also removes a decision point. If I have to decide which class I’m going to do this morning, then I open myself up to deciding not to do any class at all. If, on the other hand, the particular sequence is pre-set, all I need to do is execute my routine and I’m sure to get it done.
Additionally, like running, I place the emphasis on doing the yoga at all, instead of focusing on maximizing my flexibility or strength. I give myself permission to modify whatever I’d like or to ‘half-ass’ my way through some parts of the sequence. Not only does this make the practice more enjoyable on days where I’m not feeling as strong or focused, it also gives me the option to really push on days when I’m feeling particularly motivated to push myself. Setting the bar low means I benefit from small wins from doing anything at all, and when I do push myself I have the support of my habit to maximize my returns.
My cue for initiating my yoga habit is the end of my morning run. The reward is another feeling of well-being, as well as the opportunity to make tea and eat breakfast.
Journaling has been a part of my life, in one form or another, since 2010. I still have the journals I started during my time in high school as a camp counselor, and going back and reading them alternately brings me joy and cringe-worthy, hilarious shame. No, you can’t read any of the entries that bring on the latter, at least not yet!
More recently, I’ve tried a few different forms of journaling, everything from simply writing down 10 ideas every morning to full-on dairy-style entries. Ultimately I’ve settled on a journal style that focuses on gratitude and planning. I write down three things I am grateful for, three things that would make the day great, and at night, I recap with some things that went really well from that day.
I love starting the day by focusing on gratitude. Beyond the three things that I write down (I try to choose different ones each day) it reminds me to enjoy the ride that I am on and to not take things too seriously. It also reminds me to thank the people in my life that I am grateful to have (hi mom!) and focus on maintaining those relationships.
That may all sound a little glib to you, and it did to me at first as well. All I can tell you is that I’ve noticed a subtle but important shift in my perception of the world over the past months. When presented with a situation, any situation, I am slightly more likely to see the positives than the negatives.
That slight advantage ends up being huge in terms of my wellbeing and general happiness.
Journaling this way also focuses me on the three things I would need to achieve to make the day feel like a success. Usually, my to-do list is quite long, so forcing myself to focus on a critical three for the day is a great way to cut out the noise and focus on the signal, the things that would really make the day a win. For instance, publishing this blog post is one of my critical 3 tasks for the day, so here goes!
Riffing on the habits theme, this too is built on the positive energy of the yoga that precedes it. After a good stretch, it feels nice to sit for a few minutes and put my thoughts down on real, tangible paper before finishing up with breakfast and proceeding with the day.
So what is to be learned from all of this? For me, it’s been a wonderful exercise in how to change my life for the better. I’ve been getting better sleep, feeling more energized, and generally getting more done ever since picking up these keystone habits. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve now designed my mornings to go off without a hitch. By winning the morning, I feel that I’ve already accomplished something before the bulk of my day has even begun. I end up more relaxed and, interestingly, more likely to do good work on big projects if I have won the morning in this fashion. If you’d like to read more about what’s working for me, here’s my review of last year: 2017 80/20 Review.
Do I get this magical morning accomplished every single day? Of course not. I manage it probably five out of every seven days. But even on the days when I don’t get the entire routine in I benefit from the positive rushes of energy and hormones I’ve programmed into my biology for the period briefly after waking.
Focusing on small wins and building my routine in a way that minimizes decisions and maximizes the experience of the rewards of each activity has worked for me so far.
What works for you?