Why you need a wake-up routine and the 4 habits you should include.

Morning routines are all the rage. Find out why and the habits you MUST include.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
21st Mar 2018 • 5m read

Cold showers. Phytoplankton supplements. Candles. Writing on Quora. Tennis.

Figured out a connection yet?

These are all examples of some of the out-of-the-ordinary things that the world’s most successful people do the moment they wake up.

The morning habits of successful people vary widely. Read any stock-standard “The x [insert number] morning habits of wildly successful people”

article and you’ll usually be met with the same list of habits: Meditation. Journaling. To-do lists. Reading. Going for a run.

These are, of course, some fabulous ways of getting your brain primed for a day of productive work. And I will talk about these (and some other great ways of hacking your productivity routine) later in the post.

But first, let’s tackle the main question of the post: are morning routines really that important? After all, each of us knows someone who claims to be a night owl (I’d guess if you‘re below 30, most of the people you know claim to be). Some suggest that night owls tend to be smarter than the rest of us mere mortals while others claim that being a morning lark makes you happier and healthier than the former. As the debate rages between the two camps, let’s just remember that everyone has a different “chronotype.” That is, while some of us think better in the morning, others get to their sharpest mental point later in the day.

Trying to work out which type is “better” is a futile exercise. Unlocking your personal productivity comes down to having a high level of self-awareness and the recognition that you may be completely wrong about what style works best for you. Most of us have been conditioned to hate waking up in the morning. It’s hard. We build love-hate relationships with our alarm clocks, and when that irritating buzz does go off each morning, we numb the feeling of bleary-eyed lethargy by reaching for our screens (which is a terrible idea, by the way).

So if we’re being honest with ourselves, unless you’ve actively attempted to cultivate a morning habit, you probably don’t have an accurate picture of whether you’re really a night owl or an undiscovered early riser.

Regardless of your personal style, there are certain factors that come into play to affect your personal productivity at different times of the “day” (recognizing that for shift workers, for example, the “day” might actually begin at 8PM).

One of these factors is willpower. Willpower is highest in the morning.

If you’ve ever been on a weight-loss diet, you know the drill. Eating a healthy breakfast is WAY easier than eating a healthy dinner (pizza, anyone?). In fact, making good decisions as soon as we wake up is generally a lot easier than it is later in the day.

And it turns out there’s a good explanation for it. The strength model posits that self-control is a finite resource and is depleted over the course of a day, as we make more and more decisions. With every choice we make, we lose a little bit more of that self-control and everything just becomes that little bit harder. Researchers at the University of Nottingham reviewed nearly 100 studies on self-control and found that this depletion has an effect on levels of fatigue, effort, perceived difficulty and even our blood glucose. So self-control is effectively a muscle–the more you use it throughout the day, the faster fatigue sets in.

But how is this relevant to morning routines?

Simple. We’re likely to be most effective, make better prioritization decisions, and focus on specific tasks more easily if we work on them earlier in the day.

Mark Twain infamously said that the if you “eat a live frog first thing in the morning, nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Put another way, spending the first part of your day focusing on “chunky” work (i.e. a research paper, blog post, book chapter, etc.), is likely to end up in a far more productive day than if you were to spend that time fumbling for your alarm clock and checking your Facebook feed.

But what if I don’t have any “chunky” work to do in the morning?

William Osler loved mornings. He wholeheartedly embraced the morning as a time to “lay your own firm hand upon the helm.” Osler understood that starting the day off right was essential for a productive day. He was once quoted as saying: Some of us are congenitally unhappy during the early hours; but the young man who feels on awakening that life is a burden or a bore has been neglecting his machine, driving it too hard, stoking the engines too much, or not cleaning out the ashes and clinkers. With a fresh, sweet body, you can start without those feelings of inertia that so often, as Goethe says, make the morning’s lay leisure usher in a useless day.

Much like the CEO’s and super-successful people of today, Osler and his contemporaries recognized that the morning sets your day up for everything else that is to come. As physicians, our work schedules differ widely. Some of us have the luxury of controlling our work hours while others do not. Some of us work during the first part of the day and some of us have no choice but to work through the night. Regardless of your personal circumstances and whether you have “chunky” work you can finish off early in the morning, building a morning routine to at least get your mind into the swing of the day is a solid way to set yourself up for a productive day.

Your Wakeup Routine: 4 core habits

There are enough articles and tips on building good morning routines out there to fill up a library so I won’t go into too much detail here. But what these articles don’t talk about is the fact that a well-formulated morning routine is more important than the individual habits themselves. What works for you may not work for someone else. I’ll focus here on a few core habit categories that should make up the foundation of any wakeup routine.

  1. Calmness: any activity that promotes a sense of calmness and mental clarity. This can take the form of meditation, yoga, journaling, gratitude exercises or affirmations. Whatever clears your head in preparation for the day ahead.
  2. Physical activity: anything that gets your blood pumping. Some prefer a gentle approach (think yoga or some stretching) while others prefer to go hard with some gym work, running or a tennis match. Experiment till you find the activity that gets you best prepared for the day.
  3. Mental stimulation: an activity that primes your brain for work. For many, this would involve reading or learning of some sort, i.e. a book, newspaper, Medmastery courses,etc. Avoid social media here as the distractions are too tempting. Another popular option is to do a crossword puzzle or the like.
  4. Focus time: this is almost exclusively a time for planning or journaling. Planning the day ahead in the form of a to-do list or putting all your thoughts on a piece of paper so you get them out of your head and into the world are examples. This is different from the calmness category because in the first, you’re simply trying to quiet your brain. Here, you’re deliberately activating it and getting it ready to tackle your tasks for the day.

What would your ideal wake-up routine look like?