On morning routines, habit cues & remembering
“Lose an hour in the morning chase it all day.” - Yiddish saying
For most of my life I didn’t have a morning routine. It wasn’t really until my early-20s that I even made my bed every day. It wasn’t until my 30s that I shaved every day. I would just wake up and do stuff - I don’t really remember what was so urgent every morning but I did not have a set ritual - the day would just start…
This now seems inconceivable to me. How did I not have a morning routine? What did I do, just wander into the day? Without meditating?? Without stretching??
My morning routines have evolved over the past decade (and they continue to evolve), but the importance of having time to center in the morning is one I prioritize over almost anything. It was harder when my kids were babies and I was sleep deprived, but now that interrupted sleep is rare, I try to do make the time every day.
One interesting thing about morning routines is that if you look, you’ll find it’s one of the major connective themes of highly-productive/centered people. This is a smattering of “morning routine” quotes from Tim Ferriss’ “Tribe of Mentors”:
Kristen Ulmer: “[…]first thing in the morning before I get out of bed, I do a body scan to assess my mood…”
Whitney Cummings - “Every morning, I make myself write a gratitude list, regardless of how busy I am, or how much I don’t want to. It can feel silly and redundant at times, but it’s atrophied my negative thinking.”
Tim McGraw - “I prefer to work out first thing in the morning because it just starts my day off better. It gives me more energy, and I don’t dread it for the rest of the day.”
Marc Benioff: “One of the best investments I ever made is my meditation practice. I typically pray and meditate every morning for 30 to 60 minutes. I have also expended my practice to teaching meditation for more than 25 years, and I view it as a critical part of my success.”
Adam Fisher - “I practice meditation in the morning after my HRV breathing.”
Mathew Fraser - “2016/17 fittest man on earth” “I usually make a list every morning while I'm drinking my coffee. I have a terrible habit of forgetting smaller things during the day, so I like to put them on paper before the day gets started and I become distracted. Having the list helps keep me calm and productive during the day.”
Sarah Elizabeth Lewis (academic) - “After [a breathing sequence], I go into meditation for about 15 or 20 minutes. The whole regime takes about 35 minutes in the morning.”
Eric Ripert - “To avoid feeling overwhelmed or unfocused, I spend about one hour meditating each morning. It's taught me to make space for happiness and calm in my day. In stressful moments, I try to take distance from the situation, take time to reflect. Whatever the problem, I typically ask myself, "Am I able to make a difference right now?" If I don't see a clear way to make a positive impact, I reflect further. I think that patience in problem-solving can often be underrated.”
And this is just a smattering of examples from one book. What everyone does each morning varies but the importance of the daily ritual is clear. From four-star generals to the Dalai Lama, almost anywhere you look at someone being extra productive and/or grounded, you’ll find a solid morning routine.
For me personally, the main motivation of having a morning routine is that it reminds me of my place in the universe. It grounds me in what Buddhism would call “right view”. I wrote about this somewhat when describing my 2016 morning prayer (which has evolved somewhat since):
My motivation for having a morning prayer is to remember. When I wake in the morning, I have dreams hanging over me like spiderwebs. I almost never remember what is most important unless I deliberately do so. It is only by focusing and repeating what I’ve learned to be true over time that I can hold onto it during the day. For example, when I wake up, I don’t remember that there is such a thing as the universe or that I’m living in but a fraction of total geologic time. It’s not until I actually reflect on these facts during my morning prayer that I remember. The prayer grounds me in samsara.
My morning prayer helps me remember.
The second reason I love morning routines is because they provide me a foundation on which I can build new habits. My “morning routine” lasts a couple hours once I count breakfast, showering, seeing my kids, etc. They aren’t independent events for me: it’s a long continuous set of rituals.
I’ve spoken some about the importance of habits and as you might gather, I like to try new things and add them to my life (e.g., memory, monotasking, micro-exercising, journaling, mindful walking) . Typically if I try to just start something new without a corresponding “habit plan” it will fall by the wayside. One of the main reasons this happens is that it’s important for me to have a plan for when to remember to do the new thing. The key to remembering is to make a new habit. And the key to new habits is not to start from zero - but to add to an existing habit!
A habit loop has 3 pieces: cue -> routine -> reward. The cue is the reminder to do something, then you do it and then you have some form of reward for having done it. The cue here is key. Trying to form a new habit without thinking about the cue is setting it up to fail.
This is where “chunking” comes in: chunking is adding one activity onto another habit. The key insight is that it’s easier to add one more action to an existing habit than to create one from scratch.
For example, I got a cat last year. This entails creating a bunch of new habits: you need to clean the litter, you need to feed the cat, change its water, etc. Following the “chunking” approach, the key to forming these new habits is to find other cues to add them to. So for instance, feeding the cat can happen as an extension of my morning habit or as part of my dinner habit. Changing the litter I can attach to my cue of putting the kids to bed, etc. “Make a habit to change the cat’s litter” without attaching it to an existing routine would lead to a very unhappy kitty.
So how does one create new cues? Luckily (and unluckily), as soon as you do something once your body starts the cycle of habit formation: Eat that one chocolate on the couch and your body starts to expect it. Have a glass of wine with dinner every day for a week and pretty soon it feels odd not to have it. That said, things don’t “become a cue” automatically - trying to workout every day doesn’t happen as soon as you do it once. However, the more you do something and start to expect the cue-reward loop, the more ingrained the habit becomes.
Similarly, when starting a new job the things you do the first few days often turns into the routines that become embedded over time. We sit in similar places, eat similar things, go to the same bathrooms. Our minds automatically start to find their “grooves” and the cues become more fixed. This is particularly relevant to me right now as I’m starting to re-form habits around going to the office: whatever I choose to eat, how I choose to sit/walk/stand, and how I choose to do things in these first days becomes extra important since it’s likely to shape the habits and cues I’ll do whenever I’m in the office in the future.
So this is why I love morning routines and I am so focused on habit formation: they ground me and provide a natural cue for doing more of the things I care about. The routines help me avoid forgetting.