Don’t overlook your morning routine: the power of habits
Updated: Jan 12
A really important (but often overlooked) area when you’re dealing with high levels of stress, feeling overwhelmed or wanting to make a change in your life, is as simple as how you start your day; your morning routine.
Having read countless articles and studies preaching how highly productive and successful people rise early and start with a good routine - it wasn’t until I started delving into neuroscience that I understood just how biologically important (and particularly relevant to me) a good, consistent morning routine is.
I thought I had mastered a good morning routine back in the corporate world and reaped the benefits of a regular stress busting work out before my crazy schedule started, having thrown myself out the door before I had even woken up. Little did I know that, once self employed, the flexibility to run, walk or cycle outside at a more reasonable time of day would be sapping my creative and problem solving powers, just when I needed them most (starting my business).
Working with many clients who have made a similar move to me and experienced a similar feeling of loss or exhaustion from the lack of structure - I wanted to share some of the key insights, research and tips that have helped me along the way.
So, firstly, what is a routine? A routine is defined as the practice of regularly doing a series of things in a fixed order, at a particular time - in this case, morning.
And why are morning routines so important? The first thing to understand is that energy and self control are both finite resources that get used up over the course of a day. Our brains burn heavily into stores of glucose when attempting to exert self-control;
This Huffington Post article summarises Nottingham University research which “found that self-control and energy are not only intricately linked but also finite, daily resources that tire much like a muscle.” and that “as self-control wears out, we feel tired and find tasks to be more difficult and our mood sours.” So it's critical for us to “do the right things in the morning that will make your energy and self-control last as long as possible.”
Another key thing to be aware of is that our brain is hard-wired to create habits. This MIT article explains that this allows you to “follow the same route to work every day without thinking about it, liberating your brain to ponder other things, such as what to make for dinner”. In other words - it frees up your mental capacity to problem solve and make the decisions you need to later in the day.
After time and repetition, biological dependency builds and our rewards systems are enacted with familiar routines, meaning that our brains actually crave them. It becomes easier to do than avoid. You will likely be all too aware of this when you're exhausted and you feel the unrelenting pull towards the wine/ chocolate/ social media hole you have promised yourself you will stop.
Isn't it brilliant to know that we can train those same additive qualities that make us reach for the wine, to crave a morning routine that makes us feel good?
So how can we use addiction and reward systems for a better morning? When interviewed by Ladders about habits of the most productive people, Tim Ferris (author of the 4-hour work week) encourages people to “to develop routines so that their decision-making is only applied to the most creative aspects of their work, or wherever their unique talent happens to lie.” and explains that “Great systems work because they make things automatic, and don't tax your very limited supply of willpower.”
Maybe you already have a good routine nailed down, or maybe (like me), you found yourself a little lost as you left the formal structure of an office schedule and exhausted by the endless flexibility as you moved into the world of self employment or home working. Either way, I bet we could all benefit from better morning system.
It's an area so often targeted to help set clients up for the day and build resilience in order to better handle or drive change. Here are some tips to get you started:
Create a simple, repeatable system that will set you up for the day. When interviewed by Ladders, Tim Ferris states “I try to have the first 80 to 90 minutes of my day vary as little as possible. I think that a routine is necessary to feel in control and non-reactive, which reduces anxiety. It therefore also makes you more productive.” He advises readers to “Manage your mood: if you start the day calm it’s easy to get the right things done and focus.” and that “a routine is necessary to feel in control and non-reactive, which reduces anxiety. It therefore also makes you more productive." Include something for you, that puts you in the right frame of mind whether that be writing, exercise, meditation or visualisation. What can you include for yourself to start the day right?
Make a detailed plan and prepare the night before. In an INC. article about freeing yourself from toxic situations, Ari Zolden states that we need to be specific “to really inculcate productive habits into our routine, we need to write them down." and that "According to a study conducted by the British Journal of Health Psychology, people who set up an action plan of when and where to work had a 91 percent success rate of actually doing exercise that week. Now comparing this to two other study groups, a control group and a group which only read motivational pamphlets, the success rate was 38 and 35 percent respectively.“ Making a plan the night before will not only help you focus on your morning routine, but it will reduce the anxiety associated with complex projects or a large 'to-do' list and free up mental space for when we really need it. Be realistic and allow enough time to complete each activity. Set those alarms and reminders and reflect on how they work for you,
Reduce distractions and decisions. Too many choices creates decision fatigue, which describes how the quality of your decisions reduces each time you make one. And more from Ari on INC. on why you need to “make fewer decisions” because: “making a lot of choices during the day causes a general lack of stamina, more procrastination, reduction in persistence and lower ability to do arithmetic calculations.” advising you to “Focus on reducing situations where you have to make a choice as it will reduce the side effects and fatigue to your brain” As further example of this, Developgoodhabits.com refers to a study suggesting that prisoners are more likely to get parole granted in the morning! It states that the biggest influencing factor “seemed to be the time of day the prisoner stood in front of the judge. The prisoners who appeared later in the day were less likely to be released on parole than those who appeared in the morning.” So to ensure we protect our limited creative and problem solving energy for the tasks we want them for, we must remove as many unnecessary decisions as we can, even down to deciding what to wear or what to have for breakfast. What can you decide in advance? And similarly, if an interruption might cause you to make a decision that is not related to your chosen priorities for the day, how can you protect yourself? Back to the Ladders article which explains: “Top CEOs are interrupted every 20 minutes. How do they get anything done? By working from home in the morning for 90 minutes where no one can bother them”. What can you do to protect your morning systems?
Get active: stretch, sweat and if you can - get outside. Evidence has shown that both exercise and getting outside manages stress. This ZME Science article summarises the extensive evidence that just half an hour of moderate aerobic exercise can “do wonders for the brain” and the production of GABA (which is associated with calming, learning and neuroplasticity in the brain) in order to “be fresher, more creative, and ready to learn new things” as well as help address symptoms of anxiety. Regular “exercise exerts a number of positive effects on the brain such as improved memory and executive function” You can read more about the benefits of GABA for anxiety here and this report from Nature.com outlines that just 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and well being.
Don’t give up. Forming new habits is hard - but it is possible with planning, persistence & consistency. A UCL study back in 2009 found that it takes people an average of 66 days to “self report on a new behaviour becoming automatic” or form a new habit. The same study states that “missing one opportunity did not significantly impact the habit formation process, but people who were very inconsistent in performing the behaviour did not succeed in making habits”. Deborah Arthurs in the Metro explains that “Making a habit is not easy – our brains are hardwired to take shortcuts and to do what comes naturally to us” and provides some really good tips for maintaining habits: (i) Perform the habit at the same time each day or in the same situation or context. (ii) Don’t give up if you miss a day – but do be consistent. (iii) Be clear on what habit entails and exactly what you want to achieve.
So, if you miss a day, don’t stress, just get up the next day and try again. If it happens more than one day, have a look at what triggers took you off your path and ask - what can you do differently to improve your chances of succeeding tomorrow? What can you do the night before to better prepare? Did you give yourself enough time? What do you need to adjust? Just keep trying - and most of all - Good luck!