Photo credit: oatawa - Getty Images
Photo credit: oatawa – Getty Images

From Oprah Magazine

Think that having a morning routine that’ll set you up for a productive day means meditating, running several miles, and reading the newspaper—all before 8 o’clock? Think again. “At the most basic level, a morning routine is anything you do most mornings,” says Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert and author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. Chances are, you already have one—and if you’re like most people it probably consists of waking up, having breakfast, getting dressed, brushing your teeth, getting your kids off to school, and heading to work.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best one, especially if it feels more crazed than calm. “Your morning sets the stage for the rest of your day,” says Benjamin Spall, author of My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired. “A strong routine can lead to increased productivity, decrease anxiety, and create an overall sense that you are living life on your own terms.”

So, what is the best way to start the day to ensure success? While there isn’t a one-size fits-all approach, experts agree that one of the most beneficial ways to make the most of your morning is by carving out time for activities that leave you feeling relaxed, energized, and motivated—whether that’s a 30-minute yoga class, writing in your journal, reading a book, solving a crossword puzzle, or working on a hobby. In fact, the quiet hours of the morning may be the ideal time to focus on these activities because not only are you likely to have more energy, but you’re also less likely to be interrupted by kids, employees, and bosses, says Vanderkam.

Now, we know what you’re thinking: You want me to add more to my morning routine? Well, yes. Ahead, we’ll show you exactly how to make new morning habits and share tips and ideas for tweaking your current routine so that you have a better day ahead.

Find out how long your routine actually takes.

If you want to manage your time better, you first need to know how you’re spending it. “In general, we are bad at judging time,” says Vanderkam. “You might think you can get up and do a half-hour workout in 30 minutes, but you can’t. You have to put your contacts in, change into your workout clothes, and grab water, so it ends up taking longer than you think.”

To find out how long things really take, write down everything you do in 15- or 30-minute blocks—Vanderkam has even created helpful spreadsheets for this—for at least a week. “A week is really the cycle of life as people actually live it,” she says. “Tuesday and Saturday both have the same number of hours and occur just as often—but our lives look very different on those days.” (If you can’t track a full week, do at least two weekdays, as well as Saturday or Sunday.) You can also download the free app ATracker, which makes it easy to log your time and produces pie charts breaking down that data.

“Many people believe they have no free time whatsoever,” says Vanderkam. “When they track their time, they’ll see that’s not the case.” Chances are, your results will show you have some free time in your day, and if you adjust a few factors, more free time can be found in the morning. One example: Most people have free time at night—but they use it to scroll the web or watch TV. “If you cut that off just 30 minutes sooner, you could go to bed earlier, wake up earlier, and have this morning time that you could use for whatever energizes you,” Vanderkam says.

Figure out what your morning routine is missing.

Consider this question: What would you like to spend more time doing? “Your morning routine is personal to you, so how you choose to spend it should be a reflection of your values,” says Spall. “If you value your health, you may want to dedicate some time to working out or to making healthy breakfast. If you value your mental health, you may want to meditate instead.” Plus, the truth is, you probably won’t get out of bed consistently for something you don’t want to do. “It’s one of the biggest mistakes people make when planning a morning routine,” says Vanderkam. “If you don’t want to run, you will not get up early to run. If you don’t want to write, you’re not going to get up and write.”

In a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers looked at the exercise habits among college students. Those who enjoyed working out did so more often and reported that it was more habitual, whereas students who exercised just as frequently—but mostly out of guilt or to satisfy others—failed to form a robust habit. “That enjoyment is essential,” says Wendy Wood, PhD, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits. “When we experience good feelings, our brain releases dopamine, which brings together information in memory that helps create a habit.”

Additionally, you might want to consider whether this is something that could realistically happen at any other point during the day. “Mornings are particularly good for things that are important to you, but that life has a way of crowding out,” says Vanderkam. For example, consider taking care of your plants or working on some creative writing. Could you find time after work to water your succulents? Absolutely. Could you find time after work to write 1,000 words? Probably not. “At that point, you don’t have a ton of energy and you may still be dealing with things that came up throughout the day,” says Vanderkam. “So that’s the type of thing that’s better to make time for in the morning.”

Here are some more ideas for what you might want to add to your morning routine:

  • Journal. You could describe your dreams or the last thing that made you smile in a special notebook, or you could do your morning pages, a concept popularized by author Julia Cameron in which you write three pages, by hand, about whatever comes to mind. Another option: You could jot down three to five things you’re grateful for, which has been scientifically shown to increase your happiness.

  • Spend time on a hobby. If life keeps getting in the way of playing the piano, creating scrapbooks, writing short stories, or finally finishing the blanket you’ve been knitting for months, try doing them in the morning, when you don’t have to worry about a bunch of demanding, last-minute tasks cropping up. Added bonus: You may also experience better work performance, improved physical health, and less stress.

  • Go for a walk. Another mood-boosting strategy backed by research? Spending time in nature. A 2019 study found that devoting 120 minutes a week—or just over 17 minutes a day—strolling a tree-lined creek or walking in the woods greatly enhances a person’s overall sense of well-being.

  • Take an online class. Whether you’re considering a career change, looking to pick up a new skill, or just love learning, there are plenty of online courses available right now. For classes from the top universities in the world, check out edX (a nonprofit platform founded by MIT and Harvard) or Coursera (a platform founded by Stanford professors); for classes taught by well-known celebrities and industry leaders (think Joyce Carol Oates, Gordon Ramsey, Dr. Jane Goodall, and Shonda Rhimes), try MasterClass; for learning French, German, Japanese, and other languages, download the Duolingo app; for tutorials on quilting, painting, crocheting, and more crafts, make sure to look at the Bluprint app.

  • Spend quality time with your kids. Between making dinner, finishing homework, and getting ready for bed, it can be hard to fit quality family time in your evening routine. Instead, try devoting 30 minutes each morning to working on a craft project or reading books together.

The one thing that Vanderkam and Spall emphasize you should not make time for in the morning? Work emails. “Yes, you need to return routine work emails, but it doesn’t have to happen first thing in the morning, because you can do it at other points in the day, like in between meetings,” says Vanderkam. “You’re better off preserving the morning for stuff that’s really important and can’t be done at any other time.”

Start making changes to your routine slowly.

“We tend to get hung up on these articles of people who are doing incredible things before breakfast,” says Vanderkam. “But that can be really intimidating, not to mention unrealistic, if you are also trying to get your kids up and get yourself to work.” Even if you have two or three things you want to add to your routine, start with the one you’re most excited about or the one that’s easiest to complete. “We learn simple behaviors faster than more complex ones,” says Wood. That means activities with multiple components, like going to the gym—which involves getting up, getting dressed, driving there, signing in, putting your belongings in a locker, and working out—will take longer to become a habit.

Another thing to keep in mind: You don’t have to do something every single day for it to become part of your morning routine. “When it comes to building a habit, consistency is key,” says Wood. “It’s more important to do something on the same days, at the same time, and structured in a similar way, than to do something seven days a week.” To ensure that you don’t go from zero to 100 and back to zero again, Vanderkam recommends setting aside 45 minutes four times a week (say, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) to start. If that’s going well, you can also try adding a different activity to the three remaining days. “That way, you could find the space for two things you want to do—without feeling overwhelmed,” she says.

Remove barriers that make it easy to not follow through on your habit.

According to Wood, habits are mental shortcuts that allow us to repeat the same behavior that we’ve done in the past. “Habit formation works a lot like learning math,” she says in Good Habits, Bad Habits. “When most of us first learn to compute 2 + 2, we get the answer by totaling up 1 + 1 + 1 + 1. But after some homework, we no longer need to do the computations, and instead retrieve the answer directly from memory.” Ultimately, forming a new habit comes down to three components: context, repetition, and reward.

Think of context as everything around you—the time, day of week, location—or the environment in which your habit occurs. To understand the importance of context, consider chefs in professional kitchens, says Wood. “Chefs don’t start cooking until everything is, literally, in place: their implements at the ready, ingredients measured and chopped, and items ordered as they are used in the recipe.”

Like chefs, we can organize our environment by removing barriers that make it easy to not follow through on our habits. To do this, think about what you can do to prep the night before. If you want to jog a few days a week, lay out your workout clothes before bed, so you can get out the door quicker. If you want to do an art project with your kids a few times a week, make sure you’ve set up your supplies and packed lunches. [Pro tip: You might also find it helpful to apply this thinking to your existing routine, so you can streamline things like making breakfast and getting dressed for work.]

Most important, make sure to consider proximity. In 2017, using cell phone records from 7.5 million devices, a data analytics company found that people who traveled a median distance of 3.7 miles to the gym went at least five times per month, while those who traveled an average of 5.1 miles went to the gym monthly. “That seemingly small difference—less than a mile and a half—separated those who had an exercise habit and those who went rarely,” Wood says in her book. If you want to read every morning, you might find it helpful to keep your book on your bedside table; if you want to learn a new skill, you might want to consider a self-paced online course instead of in-person lessons; if you want to complete a knitting project, try leaving it on your couch or kitchen counter, rather than tucked away in a closet.

Stick with your new routine—and you’ll reap the rewards.

The bad news? Despite what you might have heard, there’s no magic number when it comes to establishing habits. In fact, one study from 2009 found that drinking something healthy took 59 days of repetition to become largely habitual, while exercise required 91 days. The good news? Not only does repetition make activities seem easier (meaning the most effortful run will be that first one), but studies have also shown you can miss a day or two without derailing your emerging habit.

If you’re having trouble early on, don’t underestimate the power of rewarding yourself. Keep in mind, though, we’re not talking about treating yourself to a doughnut after a strenuous workout or buying a nice purse to mark that fact that you did something for 30 days. “Dopamine works for about a minute tying together the context that you’re in and the response that you gave in order to get that reward in memory,” Wood says. “So rewards need to happen simultaneously with the behavior.” That said, the most effective rewards are often intrinsic to a behavior, like the feeling of pleasure you experience while curling up with a good book or the pride you feel when you know the answer to a challenging crossword clue. But rewards can also be extrinsic, as long as they are immediate. “Even though I’m quite addicted to my elliptical, I find it really boring,” says Wood. “So to make the experience more fun and enjoyable, I watch competitive cooking shows while I’m on it.”

Be flexible with your morning routine.

If after a few weeks, your morning routine still isn’t coming together—or if a major life change, like the coronavirus pandemic, disrupts your routine—you might want to take a step back. “Ask yourself: Are there days that it didn’t happen? If so, why didn’t it happen?” says Vanderkam. “If you can figure that out, then you can brainstorm a solution to the problem and tweak accordingly.”

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