The morning routine cult needs to end.
Does this article title look familiar? The Perfect Science-Backed Morning Routine to Increase Happiness and 4x Your Income.
5:00 am: Wake up, make bed
5:10 am: Yoga 20 minutes
5:30 am: 25 pushups
5:45 am: Cold Shower
6:00 am: Mediate
6:30 am: Affirmation Journal
7:00 am: Read for 30 minutes
7:30 am: Anxiety attack before work
I shouldn’t criticize. I used to be a morning routine snob myself. I was ready to publish a Pulitzer prize-winning article about its brilliance in fact. My intention was to shove my morning checklist down your throat until you felt guilty about the first 60 minutes of your daily consciousness, “You mean you wake up at 7:30 am and don’t write affirmations? Well, good luck with that.”
I was wrong in a big way.
I recently listened to Tim Ferriss’s interview with BJ Novak — the guy who wrote the American version of The Office and the actor behind the character Ryan. He’s a literary hero of mine, so you can imagine my shock upon hearing his mornings resembled a hungover uncle post-Thanksgiving.
BJ wakes up when he wakes up, drinks Starbucks Pike Place coffee until anxiety kicks in, then writes when a funny thought pops in his head.
“I find that being in a good mood for creative is worth the hours it takes to get in a good mood.” — BJ Novak
I thought, mistakenly, that all successful people followed a disciplined morning like former Navy Seal and author Jocko Willink, who starts his days at 4:30 am and works out as if being chased by bullets.
Here’s the problem: BJ and Jocko are two successful people at the top of their crafts and have two completely different morning rituals, so why are we obsessed with making our beds, meditating, and journaling?
What if you’re not a morning person?
“Owls are like left-handers in a right-handed world — forced to use scissors and writing desks and catcher’s mitts designed for others. How they respond is the final piece of the puzzle in divining the rhythms of the day.” — Dan Pink
In Dan Pink’s bestseller When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, he argues that the timing of specific tasks is equally important as how, who, or why. In other words, we are psychologically and physiologically wired to perform better at certain times of the day.
Indeed, humans follow a predictive pattern of mood swings and cognitive ability — A pattern that looks like waves crashing on a shoreline.
Peak: The best mood and highest cognitive function in the morning hours.
Trough: Mood declines in the early to mid-afternoon.
Rebound: Mood recovers in the evening.
The timing at which these internal events occur will be different for everybody. About 15% of the world’s population are early birds who peak during the early morning hours, 20% are night owls and peak during twilight (night owls experience this pattern in reverse: Rebound, Trough, Peak), and 80% fall somewhere in between, these people are called larks.
Our corporations, schools, and government built a system that benefits early birds and larks. Workdays are scheduled with the bulk of production in the morning and relaxation in the late afternoon after 5:00 pm.
The same idea, apparently, holds true for popular advice found in articles and books pertaining to how we must conduct our mornings. Night owls will not easily adapt to self-help gurus urging disciplined mornings when their internal clocks ache for rest.
Place your energy towards something useful
“Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is energy under our control to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool the task of improving the quality of experience.” — Mihaly Csikszentmilayl
In 1990, a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmilayl flipped the world’s perception of happiness when he published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. One of the illuminating ideas said that our self, who we are as individuals, is dictated by where we choose to place our attention, what Mihaly calls psychic energy.
You become what you feed the brain.
Take a golfer who spends hours at the driving range working on her swing. She analyzes every mechanical movement: left arm straight, head down, weight on the balls of the feet. She concentrates her attention upon the game’s nuances that, to the untrained eye, go entirely unawares. She’s a true player.
Therein lies the problem with mimicking the morning routines of self-help gurus and celebrities; their habits place psychic energy (attention) towards their goals, not yours.
Jocko Willink works out like a maniac at 4:30 am, placing attention towards presumably new athletic goals. He suggests that it would be wise for you to follow suit — to live as he has and achieve similar success.
But what if that’s not your version of success. I want to improve my writing skills while still brokering real estate transactions; where is the benefit of spending my precious peak hours lifting dumbells?
Is it actually possible to stick to a routine with consistency?
I woke this morning with self-induced grogginess. Before you start judging me about going out on a work night, just know that it was to see an old friend — I didn’t mean any harm! Just wanted to good time.
We sat at a neighborhood bar and watched Monday Night Football. Long story short, I missed yoga and had to skip my morning writing session because it also happened to be election day and I hadn’t voted yet.
The point is, life gets in the way. If it’s not Monday Night Football or an election, it’s a bad email, or an injury, or a sick child, or a visiting friend who continues to live like every day is Sigma Chi Derby Day. Must I always feel guilty about not completing a morning routine backed by “science?”
So how should we spend our morning?
Given these observations, instead of worrying about marking off a checklist prescribed by someone you’ve never met, it seems it would be more beneficial to find out which activities align with your priorities. Find tasks that will elevate your lifestyle, career, and craft — deliberate practices that will inch you closer to your goals.
If you want to gain muscle mass, then lift weights!
If you want to calm your inner self, go and meditate!
If you want to improve your writing, go write!
They’re your peak hours, don’t waste them, use them to your advantage!