My Morning Routine, Explained
11 min read | October 31 2022
So one big part of my “tools and practices” is the set of practices that comprise my morning routine. It’s what kicks off my day, prepares my body and mind, and sets my productivity in motion for the rest of that day. That might sound like a lot just from a few steps taken in the morning, but I’m going to walk through each step here and try to enumerate the why behind each — why it works and how it contributes to the betterment of the rest of my day.
Wake up at 5:30am.
There are plenty of days where this is easier said than done, but waking up at 5:30 is pivotal for a few different reasons. First, while many roles and jobs these days are asynchronous and may not require you to work at any particular time of day, we can’t ignore that societal and cultural norms are a thing. Sure, your job may not require you to begin your work hours until 10am, but you’ll likely feel like a slouch if you do. Culturally, we still all know what it means to be “up and at ‘em” early. Waking up at 5:30am reflects this understanding. You’re already ahead of the culture and the societal norms when you wake up at 5:30am — you’re already winning. Simply the action of arising to begin your day an hour or two before the cultural standard sets you in a course for success, never mind the ‘extra time’ you have to get things done before the rest of the world wakes up! The 5am Club, while being a generally terrible book, did have a few good insights on this one. And to that end, I’d probably rather wake up at 5am rather than 5:30am, but balancing the bed-time side of it would make 5am more difficult. 5:30am has felt like the right time for me thus far.
Drink caffeine and go for 15-20 minute jog ASAP.
The first goal of each morning is to wake my body up physically. I like to think of it as ‘burning off the grogg’. There’s a distinct moment about mid-way through my jog that my eyes finally open up a little more and I no longer feel the draw back to sleepiness that seems to pair so well with waking up early :sweat_smile:. So that’s what this step is about. I put on some jogging clothes, drink a little caffeine (so that it ‘hits’ my body about the same time as my jog concludes), and try to get outside as soon as possible. Fresh air, an elevated heart rate, and the quiet of the early-morning.
Funny enough, this is the step of the routine from which all others stem. I feel the moment of consideration every morning, as I sit down on the couch with my jogging shoes in front of me, “Am I going to lace these up?” If I lace them up, I’m walking out the door and going jogging. If I go jogging, everything else will follow in suit — if I get the hardest thing done (jogging), the rest is easy. It all comes down to kicking off the sequence by taking that jog!
Anyway, the point here is to wake up the physical body and burn off the sleepiness or tiredness that may have come with the morning. However, given that this is the most difficult part of my morning, this is also the determining factor as to whether or not I’ll have a successful morning routine!
Drink a big cup of water. Brush my teeth.
Two little things that can have a big impact! Drinking a big cup of water immediately after I jog is for a couple of reasons. First, your body hasn’t had water since you went to bed the night prior; it’s good to stay hydrated and give your body some fresh water to start churning. Second, a big cup of water aids in waking your body up physically. If you’ve ever experimented with drinking a big glass of water in the morning instead of drinking caffeine, this is the same effect. Pleasant? Not always. Effective? I think so!
Then I brush my teeth. Here’s a little factoid about me that I’ll admit: I’ve always found brushing my teeth incredibly annoying and I don’t enjoy it. Why does that matter? Because I consider this step in my morning routine as more of a “do the thing you don’t want to do because you know you should” step than a purely executional step. This is another “make the hard choice” step for me, and I’d rather push through it and get it out of the way at 5:50am than think about it or deal with it at all the rest of the day. The good news is that after having made the harder choice of actually going for the run, I can ride that hard choice into this one and get it done without much fuss.
And luckily, as a nice benefit, there’s a physical-waking factor with brushing your teeth too: most toothpastes have menthol or spearmint, both of which contribute to waking your brain up and clearing your breathing passageways.
The next step is where I transition from waking my body to waking my mind. All of the steps prior were specifically chosen as a sequence to wake my body, but they’re also completed alone, mostly in the dark (rise before the sun, right?), and with plenty of space to think. So its likely that I’ve been mulling over at least a couple of topics by the time I get to journaling. This is where I write those out. I have a fairly large, 8x10 notebook and tend to write between one and four pages of thoughts down before feeling like I can move on. Enough to articulate what’s on my mind, but not so much that I turn into a writer for the morning. It might be writing out what I’m feeling that morning, how the jog went, what things I’m finding difficult in life currently, justifying and contemplating my beliefs, or even thinking about refinements to my process and what I might change. Personally, I don’t treat it as a ‘journal’ in the sense of being a log of my daily happenings, but more-so as a scratch-pad for my thoughts. Writing them out physically on paper forces me to slow down and contemplate them deeper — our hands move so much slower than our minds.
Both this step and the next are toward the same goal: to get the mind’s ‘gears’ turning for the first time that morning, and to do so in a specific way. I want my mind to be focused on a single topic for a period of time. Both of these steps attempt to prevent my mind from wandering and/or my attention from becoming fractured across multiple topics. Avoiding these things helps build the foundation of focus that I want for that day. I usually journal for 15-30 minutes.
Where journaling is the outbound; expending the thoughts of my mind into paper, reading is the inbound. With a mind already primed to think about one thing for a bit, now free of the thoughts I’d been mulling over previously, I can focus in on reading new content in a linear, focused manner. Ultimately this is time to grow. Aside from being a mechanism to prime my focus muscles, I think it’s important to put this reading and growth time before getting into work for the day because it keeps my priorities in line — even on the days when I really want to get into my work topics. My first priority, even before any job or work, is to grow as a person. To keep reading, keep learning, and keep refining. If I just jump straight to work and think, “I’ll read later this afternoon”, I probably won’t. And even if I do, it won’t be in the same context, with the same energy, or with the same attention bandwidth. It’s important to read in the morning.
What do I read? All sorts of things! My book list could tell you more. I usually read between thirty minutes and an hour.
Get to work!
After all of those things (in order) it’s time to dive in to work! Carefully, though. I don’t check any communication forms. I don’t sign in to anything. I don’t let folks know that I’m online. When I first get into my working phase for the morning I put on my headphones, isolate out the world, and dive straight into code to work on building wherever I last left off. I’ve spent the last two hours honing my focus and clarity at this point, so I’m not going to suddenly start breaking up my attention with messages or email. I’m going straight in on the ‘hard stuff’ (especially stuff I want to avoid) and getting through it while my will-power and determination are high. This isn’t time for other people to get my focus, this is time for me to utilize my most-valuable attention toward my goals. I usually keep this depth of focus and isolation for three to four hours.
While not expressly part of the step-by-step morning routine, these are some additional practices that surround or wrap up my routine.
No Phone, No Screens, No Devices. Analog.
I’ve been on a journey of digital minimalism for a while, but even to me it’s wild how just having a phone near you in the morning sequence will draw you to use it. Even seeing the lock-screen once (and its inevitable list of notifications) will distract me away from my current task and begin to split my focus. The whole point here is to avoid that! So no phone, no screens, really no digital devices at all. My morning is physical books, physical notebooks, a pen, and jogging shoes. When I begin my work sequence I leave all my communications and notification-causing apps fully closed and have my settings configured in a way to prevent those.
Write off fleeting thoughts.
I’ve always found it interesting that the brain thinks of random, fleeting thoughts while in the middle of particularly deep-focus moments. Maybe that’s its way of trying to get out of the hard work of focus? “Ah, I’ll just throw this distraction thought out and maybe we’ll stop focusing so hard!” Either way… I’ve found that having a secondary small notebook (one I carry everywhere instead of a phone) nearby can be helpful. Instead of worrying about or dealing with the fleeting thought / distraction, I just write it down in my list of ‘To-do’s’. Then I can forget about it, confident that I’ll come back to it some time that afternoon! You’d be surprised how much you can’t let go of something fully if you don’t write it down somewhere, and conversely surprised by how much you can totally forget something once you’ve written it down!
Push through aversions
The most critical component of all of this focus-preparation, waking up early, and getting to work while in a super-focused mindset is fighting off aversions. I’ve written about various types of aversions before but in general, this whole system only works and pays off if you can find the will-power to stay focused in those first few hours of work — you have to make the hard choice to push through that thing you don’t want to do, or the hard choice to not open up a web browser and delay the stuff you’re working on. The morning routine primes and exercises the muscles that help you make that choice, but you still have to make that decision when faced with it. Push through!
(12/20) — Going Deep
(05/21) — Going Deep: Follow-Up Pt. 1
(07/22) — Digital Minimalism Follow-Up Pt. 2
(07/22) — Procrastination Illustrated
(10/22) — Diet as a Primer for Making the ‘Right Choice’
(10/22) — My Morning Routine, Explained (This page)
(04/23) — Avoiding the In-Between
(04/23) — Back to the iPhone: The Luddite iPhone