At the time of writing this, I’ve been out of the strong routines that have allowed me to thrive for months. I had been on vacation for a month, then I got sick and was bedridden for a week, then I came back to Canada, moving from one home to the next.
Needless to say, my productivity tanked. I even made half the money I usually make during the last two months. Therefore, I can’t stress that enough:
A strong morning routine sets you up for a productive day, leading to more wins. More wins raise your motivation and allow you to accomplish your goals with greater ease.
But let me get this straight, in this guide, I will not tell you at what time to wake up as it is essentially useless to put everyone on the same boat. We’re all in different situations and my ideal time to wake up can’t be the same for you.
This guide instead focuses on principles that allow anyone to build a routine that works for them. For the most part, these principles are timeless and can be revisited months and years away and still work.
What is a morning routine?
A morning routine is essentially a set of actions you perform in the morning, usually before starting your day’s main activity like going to work or to school. The actions can be anything from drinking a glass of water or brushing your teeth to doing a two-hour workout or running around the block.
For example, my routine this month will look like this:
In green are things related to daily activities, in blue are things I do for my personal brand, and in yellow are skills I’m practicing.
Below, I’ll explain why my routine is set that way and why that is a strong morning routine.
Let’s note again that your routine doesn’t have to be like mine and you certainly don’t have to wake up at the same time I do. What’s important is that it remains largely the same every day of the week, turning each action into a habit.
Habits, by nature, are “mechanical” behaviours you don’t have to give too much thought into; your brain takes care of performing it on auto-pilot. Do you have to think about how to brush your teeth? No, your habit takes care of it.
More on habits in the section: “Why is it so important?”.
What does it mean for a routine to be “strong”?
A strong routine is a routine that works for you — it sets your day so that you accomplish meaningful results right away, giving you the energy to be motivated for the rest of your day.
Notice how in the description above I’m not mentioning the “how” and the “when”?
It’s because it really doesn’t matter!
What’s essential is that you find a set of activities that lead you to results you personally find meaningful. We’ll call these “wins” going forward. The order also matters. We’ll get to that shortly.
Explanation of my current morning routine
In my above case, writing for an hour is a great way for me to dump my thoughts that formed in my subconscious overnight. Remember the saying: “Sleep on it”? It really works. I have so many ideas of things to write after waking up as a result. I have a dopamine rush every time I’m satisfied with a section I complete and when I hit that “publish” button, setting myself up for my next task.
This month, I’m experimenting with working out right after writing. By using the first hour after waking up to do a creative activity, I’ll use my physical energy to balance things out. I don’t yet know if that will work for me or not since it’s different order than usual.
After the workout — surprise, surprise — it’s time for a shower, and here’s why I think it’s well-timed:
In the highly popular Learning to Learn Coursera course, Dr. Terrence Sejnowski demonstrated the benefits of physical activity to stimulate the brain for learning. Couple that with the benefits of the stimulation you get from a passive activity like a shower, I’m setting myself up for increased learning potential for my next activities.
Can you guess what those are?
Right! Deliberate skill learning!
To be honest, this is my favourite part of the day. People ask me how I can learn so many things so quickly; that’s how. My brain is stimulated for maximum learning potential.
I split my skill learning into three sessions of 30 minutes, practicing skills that work different areas of my brain, from logical to creative, with everything in between. That’s how I went from being a mostly logical person to being well-balanced in both creative and logical activities. That’s how I accidentally became a polymath.
After being awake for four hours is when I finally have my breakfast. This is a form of intermittent fasting, a method said to have many health benefits and may even lead to living longer. For me, it just gives me extra energy to go through the day.
Ordering activities in your routine
I gave you a glimpse of how I’m personally ordering my own activities just above, but how can you do that yourself now? What gives me the most energy and motivation is not necessarily the same for you.
Plus, it’s likely that you cannot easily get yourself 4.5 hours of “free” time to perform your morning routine. As such, it’s important to realize what is 20% of the activities that will give you 80% of the results you want to achieve.
On top of knowing those, realizing what order makes the “most sense” to your brain will require experimentation. The compound effect of creative work + physical exercise + passive activity may not yield the same intensity it does for me. Maybe it’s better for you to do this order: physical exercise + passive activity + creative work.
In the “How can I build a strong morning routine?” section below, we’ll touch on the topic of defining what those activities are for you personally.
Why is it so important?
The way you start your day defines your mood for the rest of it. Better start it right then!
It’s all about the wins you get right from the start. When you accomplish things soon after waking up, however small the activity, your brain produces much-needed dopamine.
According to integrativepsychiatry.net, insufficient levels of dopamine can lead to a wide range of serious symptoms, including:
Inability to focus;
Loss of motor control;
Reduced sex drive;
Cravings or addictions;
Lack of motivation;
Loss of pleasure or satisfaction.
You don’t want that now, do you?
Isn’t it true that if you start the day in a reactive mode (reading your Facebook or Instagram feed, or replying to emails, or watching TV, etc.), you’re less motivated to start your productive activities? You go to work or school with the feeling that you don’t want to do it.
And motivation is only a part of it.
Imagine the amount of pleasure and satisfaction you get right at the beginning. A strong and consistent routine breeds wins. Wins = dopamine production. Consistent wins then turn into habits.
Take going to the gym for example. It’s so much harder to go the second week after you sign up. But if you push through the pain and continue for a month, it’s so much easier to get your butt out to the gym then. It has become a habit.
You can learn more about the importance of habits in Charles Duhigg’s fascinating book: The Power of Habits.
How can I build a strong morning routine? — A six-step process
Step 1: List down all the things you want to do on a daily basis
This is just a brain dump. Write down everything that comes to mind — however meaningless it may seem to you. You’ll later find a use for it in Steps 2 and 3.
This is a good exercise to get clarity on where you spend your time during the day.
Step 2: Order the tasks by ascending order of importance to you
It’s important to realize what you think is more important for you. By knowing what’s more important, it’s easier later to decide where to put each task on your calendar.
Spend a good amount of time figuring this out. Here’s what it looks like currently for me as an example:
I give more importance to tasks that relate to my Medium writing and my Virtual Coworking for example.
Step 3: Place the tasks in an Eisenhower Matrix or Table
For each task you listed in step 1, place it in the right quadrant in the Eisenhower Matrix. You want as many of them to be in quadrant #2.
This will give you clarity on what needs to be done and what’s important and what’s not.
Step 4: Write down how long it takes you to complete the task
This is important. You need to be aware of how a long a task is going to take you. Be realistic and precise.
Using the same tool from Step 2, here’s what it looks like for me:
You can also use specific amounts of time you think activities within each project will take. Again, the more precise the better.
Step 5: Place tasks on a calendar
Now that you know what’s most important and how long tasks take you, place it in your daily calendar, similar to the image I put in the “What’s a morning routine?” section above, re-pasted here for simplicity:
You can use a physical calendar or a tool like Google Calendar or Airtable (like above). Refer to it often. No one has the mental capacity to remember everything right away.
Step 6: Be consistent in the execution of your morning routine
That is crucial! Try not to miss a day. Every missed day “doubles” the effort needed to get started.
Have you noticed how after vacation, going back to executing your routine is so much harder? That’s why.
Build the habits required to execute consistently and things will be that much easier.
The Eisenhower Table: $4.99
3 timeless principles for a successful morning
No matter what activities you choose to do and how you order them, there are at least 3 timeless principles that will make your mornings more successful.
1. Prepare your next day the night before.
When you write down the things you have to do for the next day slightly before going to bed, it puts your mind at ease, letting your subconscious work overnight.
The two main benefits are:
You stop thinking about it, letting you fall asleep easier; and
When you wake up, you get clarity on what you wrote down.
2. Start the day with one or two easy tasks.
When you built your routine with the tips from above, you evaluated activities that yield the most results. But sometimes these activities are not necessarily easy to accomplish and you may lack the motivation to do them.
If that’s the case, schedule easier activities to start with. Admiral William McRaven talks about simply making your bed to change the world. It’s the same principle here. Draw a little something, jot down some notes in your notebook, jam to a song you know, etc. Just make sure it’s not something reactive like replying to an email.
3. Work on your hardest tasks when you work best.
Schedule your hardest task for when you know your mind is the sharpest. So many times we try to solve difficult problems when we’re tired, wasting precious time on something you won’t figure out at that moment.
Recognize when that happens, take a break, and jump back on the problem after. Take note of what time during the day you can’t function properly and, as much as possible, don’t schedule hard tasks during that time.
How long should I keep my morning routine for?
The simple answer: for as long as it works!
I personally alter mine every month. Sometimes it’s very different, sometimes it’s similar. The reason I do that is not that the routine is ineffective, but rather to see if I can figure out an even stronger one.
Like anything in life, experimentation is a golden rule to knowing what works and what doesn’t. Plus, as you make new findings, things that used to work don’t necessarily work today. If you don’t try something else, you don’t know that its strength has shrunk.
Therefore, as per the simple reason above, it’s crucial to realize when a routine doesn’t work for you anymore. Refer back to the section on “Why is it so important?” to recall what are the benefits of a strong routine. If you don’t see the benefits anymore, it’s time to change!
Building a strong morning routine is not as hard as it seems and the benefits are undeniable. Having more energy and motivation throughout the day can turn you from procrastinator to high performer.
Figure out what works best for you by following the 6-step process on how to build a strong morning routine. Don’t listen to people who tell you exactly what time you need to wake up and precisely what you need to do. What works for them won’t work for you.
So arm yourself with a pen & paper and start crafting that glorious morning routine of yours. Fight through the painful start and start building momentum through a series of habitual wins. When you master the art of creating powerful routines, you’ll master the art of productivity.
You can do this!
Now that you know how to build a strong morning routine, I’d like to propose you to learn how to learn new skills in under 15 hours:
and how to really win the afternoon, by my friend Maarten van Doorn:
If you want to be prepared for a better tomorrow, then SkillUp! Check out SkillUp Academy!