Build Your Morning Habits First

There’s a small, but significant, online population devoted to waking up early. As a former convert, I can say it’s easy to understand the appeal. Whenever I made the habit to wake up early, I’d end up getting a lot more done.

The problem is that if you’re young, your peers probably won’t be joining you to wake up at 5am. And, if you want to have a social life, you’ll end up staying awake long enough to make getting eight hours of sleep impossible. It only took me a month of university for my 5am wake-up habit to unravel.

In the years since, I’ve done some personal experiments to seek a compromise between being productive and not being the bore that goes to bed at 9pm. The results of those trials seem to tell me that it isn’t so much the earliness that makes the habit productive, but that it creates a ritual for the morning. It’s this ritual, not the pre-dawn timing, that cascades into a more productive day.

Building a Morning Ritual (at Any Hour)

My latest iteration of this habit is waking up at 7am to do an hour of exercise before starting normal work for the day. It’s a far cry from the 4:30am zealots of morning productivity. Yet, it still rescues my day from procrastination.

Seven is also a lot more manageable if you plan to deal with other people. Staying up to 1-2am on a weekend is only a three hour deviation from normal sleep. If you normally wake up at 4:30, that’s the same as jetlag between New York and Paris, and means you’re either going to have some serious sleep adjustment issues or you’ll just be skipping drinks with friends all together.

I’ve experimented with other times: 5, 6, 8 and 9. I’ve experimented with breakfast-first, exercise-first, reading-first, studying-first, email-first and websurfing-first. It’s hard to deduce a perfect ritual that will generalize to everyone, but here’s what I’ve noticed for me at least:

1) Avoid the little vices at the start of the day.

My biggest sin was hitting the snooze button. I think I remember doing it once seven times in a row. The problem is that every time you hit the snooze button, you may delay a little pain, but you’re also priming yourself to have a lazier day.

Ditto for browsing reddit or other indulgent activities. I don’t think those activities are bad, per se, just that I’ve found my days are more productive when I start with things that prime me for working. Right now I’ve settled on reading for fifteen minutes to degrog and then exercising.

I’ve even made a conscious effort to eat an extremely healthy breakfast. Not because I believe it will give me more energy, but because eating healthy primes me to be more conscientious in other areas. Scrambled eggs and avocado makes me want to get work done. Pancakes make me want to watch television all morning.

2) Emphasize the ritual over function.

I’ve recently been reading an interesting book, Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. One of the ideas of the book is that our modern lives emphasize the meaning and function of our actions. We want our actions to express our sincere beliefs about the world. They show how this move to sincerity has both inspired the birth of science and fundamentalist Christianity.

However the authors suggest that ritual itself has a lot of psychological functions we’re only beginning to realize. Rituals allow us to navigate our imperfect worlds, and create structure in a reality that is often structureless. So while the repetitive chants of the monk may seem superfluous in a modern age, these rituals have an indirect use in creating a structure for living our lives.

I’m trying to treat my morning routines the same way. Eating healthy isn’t about nutrition. Exercising isn’t about being in shape. Not hitting the snooze button isn’t about getting an extra fifteen minutes about my day. Instead these are morning rituals that I strive to perform because performing them creates a structure. That structure carries throughout the day and makes the habits of getting my work done and not procrastinating a little easier.

3) Let your laziness grow throughout the day.

This may be an odd way of phrasing it, but it’s necessarily true. If your mornings are relatively disciplined and ritualistic, then your afternoons and evenings are relatively lazy and spontaneous.

The decision to procrastinate has a bunch of causes: fatigue, anxiety, even low blood glucose. But certainly the recent memory of other actions is an important cause. If you were just recently waking up on the first buzz of your alarm, finished a bit of exercise and ate a healthy breakfast, the impulse is to continue the pattern and work productively through the day.

I’m striving to be strictest on myself in the first couple hours after I wake up. Afternoons less so. And evenings I’m trying not to have much structure at all. Build the morning habits first and let them carry you to the end of the day.

Building a Morning Ritual

I think this grouping effect, of having one virtuous habit priming you to make the next easier to execute, is a reason why it seems easy to build a fairly complicated morning ritual in one go. I would find it difficult to build several unrelated habits at the same time: exercise, healthy eating, waking early, etc. But when they’re all paired together this way, it becomes a lot easier to construct.

A morning ritual is like the first cut on a creased piece of paper. If it’s lined up right, the sheet rips exactly along the crease, just as you’d want it to. However, if you start an inch away from the crease you’ll never get back on it, and a shredded mess is all you’ll be left with. Apply your energies to make that first cut of your day a good one.


  • Kelly

    I’m just finishing off the first year of uni and I have to say following a ritual or choosing to not follow one literally makes or breaks the day. When I decide to be more freestyle with my time I end up spending more time on things that should only take a few minutes. It means that it slows down everything in the whole day, and usually means my ‘laziness’ will actually kick in the *very* first hour of the day.

    For me, the best thing is waking up at 6 am, saying a prayer, getting dressed, going to the bathroom and fixing myself up, eating breakfast and then walking to the bus stop by 6:50am.
    If I decide to snooze, I’ll hit snooze more than once. I will have to hurriedly eat but I tend to take alot more time getting dressed and putting on makeup. And then I’ll have to google the bus schedule to see if I’ve missed the bus. And then I might be late–>miss lecture–>catch up–>stay up late.

    http://hellokellyblog.blogspot

  • jeanina

    In what sense are you strict ? Is it the body or the soul ? You are not lazy, in the morning, intellectually or physically ?
    You blog is so good because you discuss the things, you return to your thinking roots. 🙂 and also you learn me new things.

  • Abid Hasan

    Thanks a lot. Before reading the post, I also used to hit the snooze button. However, from this moment, I am deciding not to do that again. Thanks again.

  • Amy

    This is exactly what I needed. I have been researching ways to be more productive and trying various things. I want the sweet spot of being productive and having a schedule but also having sponanteity in my life. Otherwise my life would be boring and all about the schedule. I love this idea of building on a morning ritual. I am going to try this out this week and see how it affects my productivity. Thanks!

  • Richard

    Excellent article Scott. I’ve always thought that the main productivity benefit of getting up early came from the solitude. No one else awake to distract you.

    It works, but the downside is exactly as you describe. You quickly have to sacrifice either your sleep or your social life.

    If you choose to lose sleep, you’ll rapidly lose a lot of the productivity benefit as your mental clarity, energy and health suffer the consequences.

  • Abhisek Moda

    I do not have a problem getting up. I absolutely always get up in the morninga t 430 AM and start for my work at 7:00. For which I have to start my brushing and bathing rituals at 6. But the time from 430-6 though I am up, i do not use for anything. I just sit, dream, listen to some music, drink some water.. and think about stuff.. nothing physical. I am not sure if it really helps. And my biological clock is now set in such a way that 430 is absolute must. even on the days I sleep as late as 12, 1 in the morning.. i cannot sleep beyond 430-500 am.

  • Nate

    Some ideas about early morning routines:

    Sleeping in later means you can have a better shot at a social life. So would it be worthwhile to take evening shave & showers instead of morning shave & showers? Any thoughts?

    Snooze button – there’s a crappy battery-powered, analogue alarm clock at ikea for about $9 that lacks a snooze button. Very helpful. I just wish it was digital.

    exercise in AM or PM – I think in Willpower by Baumeister, he says that exercise will lower your blood glucose afterwards and this will cost you mental energy, decision power and willpower afterwards. He recommends having the exercise routine in the afternoon I think to avoid the drain during productive hours.

    a quote I love from a writer:

    When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm.

    I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

    But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

    Haruki Murakami

    (elsewhere he notes the cost to his social life, but says its an acceptable sacrifice for his work)

  • Ami

    My mother gave me more less the same advise about morning ritual long long time ago when I was in elementary school. Never understood and never really bother about it. Overwhelmed with tasks, I seek for instant comfort of procrastination. But I feel guiltier and guiltier. I feel I’m a true looser, unmotivated, and just dunno what to do. I continue my random lifestyle until just recent few months, when I re-realize the power of habit, and yes, ritual. I began to ritualize my daily musts, like never check on fun sites before I drain my energy for something far more important, and do my 5 times prayer. 4 months a go I would easily skipped some prayer times in a day. But I found this idea out of nowhere to get ready for praying (washing up) before the time comes (azan). When azan strikes I run right away to pray and without knowing it I’m already praying, effortless. I feel good, it feel win. I do it more than a month to make it a stiff habit. But this morning ritual you share is a new perspective from what my mother told me. Maybe she didn’t analyze the whys behind it, she just does it. I think this post is a burst to redo my morning. Great, thanks.

  • Bence

    If you work from 9am to 5pm imo you have to wake up around 5am to perform a good day-start-up routine.

  • Ayako Ezaki

    Since about two months ago, I’ve been waking up earlier than usual to spend at least one hour as my language-study time. Learning something new, especially learning something like a new language, requires discipline, and for a very long time I’d known that it was really important for me to consistently study (even for just 20 minutes a day) in order to achieve progress, but somehow I just couldn’t: it was just so easy to come up with excuses not to.

    But then one day I just decided that I simply had to be in one place (in my case, just to sit at my desk) for the purpose of studying, even if I wasn’t being most productive, even if I was only learning a few new words. I do believe that making this into a ritual – same time every morning – has worked well for me, and the good thing, I find, is that the longer I continue with this routine the easier it gets to stick with it.

  • Marlon

    I really enjoyed this post, because you reflect on your own experiences and thereby allowing me the reader to compare it to mine. Instead of just telling the world what to do you choose a humble approach. I think there is a lot of wisdom in your words, because you walked the walk. Therefore I really enjoy your blog. I do not agree all the time, bit I can always understand why you came to a certain conclusion. Thank you for sharing.

  • Kate

    “Let your laziness grow throughout the day”…bingo! I’ve been trying to determine what my ideal day would be like, or why the structure of some days leaves me unfulfilled, and THAT is it! I love getting high impact things done in the morning, then winding down to an unstructured evening where I have time to cook an amazing dinner, hang with friends and my partner, or spend some well-deserved rest time on the couch reading for fun. Now…to make that reality more of the time…

  • Sheryl

    Hello Scott – Enjoyed reading your post. Especially about how one good habit primes you for another. My job involves a lot of writing as well. I’d like to know if you have a method of working, so the best and most productive hours are kept for writing – not sending emails, making phone calls, doing research. Two – how do you squeeze every writing minute for what it’s worth, so you don’t end up writing sentences getting rephrased, deleted, shifted, rewritten over and over again? Three – I make it a point to squeeze my run/workout in the afternoon, but after that, I find myself exhausted and sleepy, which affects much-needed focus for writing. Any advice for a productivity n00b?

  • Sandra Hall

    I Love this post and how you experimented to find out what works for you concerning your goal….you did not give up.

    I also like how you mentioned the sacrifice of your social life and how you tried to find a balance and still accomplish your goal. The IDEA of a morning ritual can be the seed for personal change by creating a desire for more structure in our life.
    Thanks for posting….these are some great ideas on how you accomplished your goal and the benefits of creating a morning ritual.

  • RivkaK

    I am definitely a morning person, and the 4:30am (actually 3:45am) is my preference. But it is hard to keep that up all the time and still be social. My compromise has been to plan on taking a nap in the afternoon if I know I will be staying up late. That way I still get 8 hours of sleep in 24 hours, but it might just not be all together. And if I am really tired I make a conscious choice the night before to let myself sleep in until 5am when needed. The important thing is to make a choice, rather than just slip into it with the snooze button.

  • RivkaK

    I am definitely a morning person, and the 4:30am (actually 3:45am) is my preference. But it is hard to keep that up all the time and still be social. My compromise has been to plan on taking a nap in the afternoon if I know I will be staying up late. That way I still get 8 hours of sleep in 24 hours, but it might just not be all together. And if I am really tired I make a conscious choice the night before to let myself sleep in until 5am when needed. The important thing is to make a choice, rather than just slip into it with the snooze button.

  • gemma

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  • gemma

    I want to finish my work in en days .I would to be a excellent person.

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  • gemma

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