For a long time, I wasn’t a morning person. I didn’t enjoy mornings. I didn’t enjoy even waking up. I would hit the snooze button several times (we’ll talk about that…). I would often rush out the door at the last possible second, making it to the bus stop just as it was pulling up.

I thought I was just a night owl. When I didn’t have school or work, I sometimes stayed up until the sun came up again. But this wasn’t productive time. At best I was reading something that interested me. At worst I was playing through Final Fantasy XIII just to kill time.

The (admittedly weirdly-titled) productivity website Asian Efficiency first introduced me to the concept of the morning ritual a little over a year ago, and a book I recently read called The Miracle Morning gave me some more ideas that fit in with the concept. Both sources are a little bit hit-or-miss with their material (Hal Elrod is especially a little bit too over-enthusiastic-high-school-motivational-speaker-ish for my tastes), but I think the idea is a sound one: starting your day off with a mindful, purposeful, positive set of habits, a routine, a ritual, can really set the stage for a great and productive day.

I’ve been tweaking my morning ritual for the past year or so, and I thought I’d share what’s been working for me. It’s only been in place in roughly this form for about two weeks, so I’m sure it’s not perfect, but I’ve been doing well with it so far.

1. Wake Up Early

My wife Elie introduced me to getting up at 5am by necessity; she’s a 6th grade English teacher who works about a half hour drive away, where the school day starts at 7am.

As it turns out, getting up this early makes me quite productive! There’s something awesome about starting the day knowing that much of the world is still asleep, and being able to see the sun slowly rise through the blinds as I go about my business.

That’s not to say that it’s easy. Especially if I stayed up a little too late reading or ruminating, I often just want to curl back over as Elie gets up and goes to work (and I’ve definitely done this more than a couple of times in the past year). But two ideas have been helping me work through this.

The first is the following gatha (a short recitation, generally on mindfulness) by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, one of my favorite authors I’ve read in the past year.

“Waking up this morning I smile
knowing there are 24 brand new hours before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
and look at beings with eyes of compassion.”

The opportunity to wake up and do something great and bring love to the world is worth jumping out of bed for; realizing this and expressing gratitude for it makes getting up easier.

Secondly, in the aforementioned book The Miracle Morning, Hal descibed energy in the morning rather aptly. When we first wake up, it’s probably at about a 1 out of 10. If that. But after going through all of these other activities (especially the caffeine), it’s significantly higher. Upwards of a 10, depending on how much tea I have. I always try to keep this in mind when I feel like falling back asleep.

I also, of course, make sure to try to go to bed at a reasonable hour (usually around 9:30 or 10pm) so that I get enough sleep to feel well-rested. Sleep debt will accumulate and hit me like a ton of bricks if I don’t get enough of it, so this is vital.

One last note: don’t ever hit snooze.

2. Write in Dream / Gratitude Journal

I like dreams. They’re fun. They keep sleep interesting. I also tend to have kind of crazy dreams, so I like to record them whenever I remember them. Right when I wake up is the best time to do this, because if I don’t, I tend to forget them. I use Day One to record them and all of my other journal entries, but I’ve also used paper notebooks (I like Leuchtturm1917) and plain text files (nvALT, Ulysses, and Editorial are all great).

I also like to think of one thing to be grateful for. I usually try to think of something new and interesting, from something as simple as my iPhone, to modern technology in general, to my college and the people there that have supported me, to my loving family, to my wife… you get the idea. There’s a lot to be grateful for. Finding one thing every morning just puts an extra positive spin on the start of the day, especially writing it down.

3. Drink Water

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need 8 glasses of water per day. Still, drinking water is important. As Chris Bailey from A Life of Productivity points out, there’s a ton of benefits to drinking a big glass of water (or two) first thing in the morning. You’ll rehydrate after going 8 hours without water, and it’ll wake your mind and body up.

4. Bathroom

This probably goes without saying, but it’s an important part of my routine, so I figured I’d put it here anyways. Toilet, toothbrush, and scale all get used at this point.

5. Read Through Affirmations

Most people’s familiarity with affirmations are limited to this SNL skit.

I never used to think much of them, but the aforementioned Miracle Morning book convinced me to give affirmations a shot. I’ve been liking it thus far. I’ve been tweaking my affirmations pretty constantly, as I get to know myself, my tendencies, and what works for me a little bit better. I won’t bother sharing my whole long list, but here’s a couple of excerpts.

Whatever happens happens. I will continue on in spite of it, and every moment will be a learning experience.

I will replace rumination with action.

I am content and grateful for what I have now in my life. I will not take this for granted.

I am present and mindful
I am kind
I am focused
I am free of expectations of the world around me

There’s a whole lot more, but I’m still a little embarrassed, to be honest, about how stereotypically motivation-y it is. But it works! I feel good after reading it. I feel motivated. It’s sort of surprising, really, because I never thought I would buy into that kind of stuff. I’d recommend giving it a shot. You might be surprised, too. Start, perhaps, with a personal mission statement or a statement of your core values in life.

6. Morning Review

I have an evening ritual as well, where I review the day’s outcomes and plan out the next day (that’s for another post, though…). My morning review is where I look over my calendar, tasks, and other plans for the day that I set out the night before. As I’ve mentioned before, I use Omnifocus for my task management, I record my goals in nvALT, and my calendar is in Google Calendar with Fantastical as the front-end.

After reviewing that, I…

7. Visualize the Day

Another rather hippy-dippy trick I learned from The Miracle Morning. After looking over my day, I visualize myself going through everything I’ve set out to do.

I’m enjoying my tasks. It’s all coming easily to me. That one task I thought would be super-hard turned out not to be so bad.

What’s the point of all this? It makes my day seem doable. It makes it just a little bit less intimidating, it’s empowering and energizing.

In other words, it’s more motivation-y BS.

But, again, it works for me! And you know, I have a feeling a lot of people do this without realizing it. I know I can think of more than a few times when I would do this informally, thinking through a big interview or what-have-you. But when that really tough day comes around, it can be easy to get really intimidated and feel a lot of fear and psych myself out when that tough task comes around. Setting aside a minute or two to visualize the day makes it so I psych myself up instead of out.

8. Put the Tea Kettle On

I could never get into coffee, and honestly it took me awhile to warm up to tea, but now, man I’m a tea fanatic. I’ve been really digging Tiesta’s Passion Berry Bolt black tea lately for the morning, as well as their (horribly named) Fruity Pebbles green tea with lunch. Quite tasty, and also fairly cheap at Safeway (much cheaper than Amazon, actually).

9. Exercise

Finding time to exercise is pretty tough, so doing something quick in the morning makes it much easier and also provides another energy boost. I’ve been using FitStar (hat tip to my friend Eva for introducing me to it) for almost a year, and at first it seems super cheesy, but the way it adapts to your ability level is something I haven’t seen any other app or fitness program do in quite this way. It’s not without its issues, but it’s better than a lot of what’s out there.

I was doing longer 30 minute sessions for awhile, but I found it just made me more exhausted than anything, so I bumped it down to 10-minute daily sessions, and then I usually try to go for a run later. I might throw in some extra crunches/push-ups/squats/something for good measure if I’m feeling up for it in the future.

10. Read

By this point my water has reached the boiling point, so I steep it and sit down to do some morning reading, usually some kind of personal development book. This week I’m reading Stephen Covey’s seminal work The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If you can get past the cheesy title and the corporate lingo buzzword salad, it’s actually quite good. (overcoming first impressions and seeing what you can get out of something is becoming somewhat of a theme here… hmmmm…)

11. Meditate

Once I’ve finished my tea and get to a good stopping point in my book, I finish my ritual off with some mindfulness meditation.

Meditation is yet another thing I wasn’t so sure about until about a year ago when I made it a regular practice. Meditation is a lot of things: practice of awareness, focus, clearing the mind, getting in touch with a certain indescribable mindset, taking some time out for yourself… it’s hard to explain without experiencing it firsthand, and really it’s a constantly changing experience. It’s my favorite 15 minutes of the day.

If you’re not convinced, give Andy Puddicombe’s TED Talk a shot. If you are convinced, try Headspace for free for 10 days. It’s what I’ve been using, and I’ve found the paid subscription to be very much worth it.

I take my time with my morning routine, and often I throw in some extra reading before exercising so I’m not in the middle of a FitStar session when Elie goes out the door; then I can give her a hug and kiss goodbye for the day. After all of this is said and done, it’s usually about 7am. If I rush it or do shorter versions of some of the steps, I can finish it a lot quicker. But I like having that time to really stretch out mentally before I get going for the day.

Just a few other quick notes if you want to start your own morning ritual:

  • Going back to sleep totally negates everything. Recently I found myself falling asleep during meditation and decided to go back to sleep. My entire day was thrown off. Commit to it once you start it.
  • Breakfast is optional. Heresy, you might say. But actually, I’ve been reading a lot about benefits of intermittent fasting (in this case, 12-16 hours between dinner and the next day’s lunch), and it’s been going pretty well for me. This Wikipedia article is a good start if you’re interested.
  • After your morning ritual, do the most important stuff first. Complete your “big rocks.” Eat your frog. If you could only do one thing today that would make the day worthwhile, what would it be? If you were to die tomorrow, what would you do today? (Insert other cliché here)
  • I like to check the steps of my ritual off as I complete them to keep me on track. I use (formerly Lift) for this. I don’t use the personal coach part of it, but it sounds like others find that part useful.

So hopefully you got something out of that. And if you didn’t, hopefully someone else that reads it will.

But honestly, I really highly recommend trying to ritualize your morning routine. It’s best to start with just a couple of steps so as not to overwhelm yourself, but I find that stacking the steps one after the other as one routine really helps them stick and make it a habit. Once you get started, you just might find that you hate mornings (even Monday ones) at least a little bit less.

Maybe you’ll even enjoy them.