The first hour

Get the first hour right, and the rest of the day will follow. But how do you put together a morning routine that gives you the maximum benefit…and that you’ll stick to?

Valencia: not a bad place to wake up to, however you spend your morning.
Valencia: not a bad place to wake up to, however you spend your morning.

Some genuine headlines from Business Insider magazine:

  • “5 things successful people do before 8am”
  • “12 things you didn’t know that successful people do before breakfast”
  • “15 things successful people do on Monday mornings”

Way to intimidate everyone, Business Insider! I’m not sure that I even do 12 things per day in total, let alone before breakfast – even though I cheat by getting up at 6am and not having breakfast until 11am.

They do have a point, though: the first hour determines the quality of the rest of your day. And while I don’t necessarily think you need to get up at 4am to steal a march on the rest of the world, I would say that it’s impossible to reach your full potential by just rolling out of bed and “seeing where the day takes you”. You need a plan.

GETTING IT RIGHT

I’ve been experimenting with my morning routine for years, with mixed success. I knew that it was important to start the day right so I kept trying to make certain behaviours stick – but I never really enjoyed it, and it didn’t take much to convince myself to skip a day.

Recently though, I feel like I’ve finally got it right. And since then, everything has felt better – including my energy levels and focus, and even my general mood.

Since I was a kid I’ve always had a terrible time actually getting myself out of bed, but now as soon as the alarm goes off I’m up – perhaps because there’s no uncertainty about what I’m going to be doing, and because I know that whatever the rest of the day holds, I’ve got 60 minutes ahead of me that I really enjoy.

And that’s the key to a successful morning routine: it has to be something you enjoy doing. If you just work through an aspirational list of what super-successful people do before 8am and see “jogging” and “visualising” as chores, you won’t stick with it and you’ll never see the benefits.

For me, another critical component was arriving at a routine that I could do anywhere in the world – so it couldn’t be reliant on particular equipment or proximity to a certain facility. Travel will mess up your routines given a chance, so don’t give it that chance.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Your first hour is yours to experiment with and see what works – although there are a few activities that I’m convinced are a bad idea for anyone:

  • Checking emails, Facebook or anything that brings you into contact with other people’s problems. The first hour is about focusing on you. Checking emails and worrying about work is probably the worst thing you can do, but coming into contact with the concerns and priorities of other people through any medium just isn’t a good idea.
  • Turning on the TV or radio news. First thing in the morning, when you’re at your most suggestible, is not the time to be filling your mind with the terrible things that are happening in the world.
  • Falling straight into work. There’s a possible exception if you’re able to sit down and dive into making progress on your single most important task – but you’re unlikely to have that discipline every morning, and will end up just wasting valuable time.
  • Eating breakfast. The benefits of breakfast are overstated, and there are benefits to exercising on an empty stomach. Some people find that it gives them greater mental clarity. I’m not saying not to have breakfast at all – but it can wait for an hour after you wake.

MAPPING OUT YOUR PERFECT ROUTINE

An ideal morning routine will set you up to perform at your best for the rest of the day – and the best way I’ve found of getting the full range of benefits is to cover three elements of James Altucher’s daily practice: spiritual, mental and physical.

(I’ve omitted “emotional”, because this is more to do with how you react to events as they happen throughout the day.)

So all you need to do is pick something you enjoy from each of these categories:

Spiritual

  • Meditate for 15 minutes
  • Write a list of 5 things you’re grateful for
  • Pray
  • Read a religious or spiritual book (or listen to a podcast)

Mental

  • Read a chapter of a great book (or listen to an educational podcast)
  • Write down a list of ideas on any topic (end by deciding the topic for tomorrow’s list so you can be incubating throughout the day)
  • Use Duolingo to learn a foreign language
  • Write 500 words about whatever comes into your head

Physical

Some things on those lists will look intimidating, boring or ridiculous to you. That’s fine: you only need to identify one thing in each category that sounds like fun – and if there isn’t anything, feel free to come up with your own. These are just ideas to get you started.

HOW TO GET STARTED

Create time and space

Chances are you already have a routine of sorts for the first hour of your day – it might just not be particularly structured, or not as healthy as it could be. If that’s the case, you just need to replace your existing activities with new ones.

But if you roll out of bed and are out of the door on the way to work ten minutes later, you’ll just need to get up earlier. Which, if you’re getting up to do something really exciting, shouldn’t be that hard.

At this point I also need to apply our usual “we don’t have kids and have no idea what it’s like” caveat – although successful people tend to make their routines happen no matter what. Josh Waitzkin talked on Tim Ferriss’ podcast about how he wakes up an hour before his son and gets his vital writing work done, so he can then wake his son and give him his full attention without feeling he should be doing something else.

Start with just one thing

A classic mistake people make (especially with new years’ resolutions) is to try to change their entire life all at once: “From now on I’m going to run five miles, eat a strict vegan diet, write 1,000 words of my novel and call my mother every day.”

Then one of the habits slips, and you’re left feeling like a failure – so you give up and let everything else fall by the wayside too.

So start with just 15 minutes a day doing one thing – and once that seems to have stuck, add the next, then the next.

Make that one thing fun!

Willpower is supposed to be at its highest in the morning, but for me it’s always been the opposite: I’m tired, my brain is foggy, and if I had to do anything too gruelling I’d just give up and slip into something mentally easier but less productive.

For example, I just don’t like running – but for years I felt like it was something I should be doing, and attempted to force it into my routine. Because I didn’t enjoy it much even when I did it, I’d constantly be inventing excuses why I couldn’t do it that day.

Forget about forcing yourself. And for the purposes of getting started, pick the category that appeals to you the most. So if you don’t enjoy exercise much at all but reading an inspiring book sounds like fun, start with that – it won’t feel like an effort, and will get you into the habit of starting the day right.

Build the chain

Once you have one habit sticking – at the point where you’ve made the time, and getting it done is an inevitability – add the next. Let finishing the first activity be the cue to start the second.

Track your progress

Use a service like idonethis to stay accountable to yourself. Every day, you’ll receive an email asking if you completed your routine and you just have to reply “yes” or “no”.

When you log in to the idonethis website, you’ll see a calendar with a cross marked for each day when you said “yes”. As Jerry Seinfeld knows, this sequence becomes highly motivational: you won’t want to break the row of crosses, and as silly as it sounds, it could make the difference between carrying out your routine on a hangover day or not.

WHAT I DO

So what’s the routine that finally seems to have worked for me?

  • Physical: 40 minutes of DDP Yoga. Yes, it’s a strength-building yoga workout presented by a former pro wrestler, with moves called things like “showstopper” and “superstar”. Laugh all you want (Mish does), but for some reason I love doing it and it really works.
  • Mental: Two Spanish lessons on Duolingo (normally takes around ten minutes).
  • Spiritual: 20 minutes of meditation – ideally in a nice spot outdoors within a ten-minute walk (listening to a podcast like Philosophize This on the way), but can also be done at home depending on weather and where we are in the world.

This started out taking an hour because the workouts were shorter and I couldn’t meditate for more than ten minutes, but now it’s taking anything up to an hour and a half.

SO, WHAT DO YOU THINK?

I’d love to hear about the routine that works for you, and how you arrived at it.

Or do you think this is all nonsense and these types of rituals aren’t necessary?

Either way, let me know in the comments!