Morning routines

I don’t know what it is, but other people’s routines are endlessly fascinating to me. Perhaps it’s because I love psychology and learning what makes others tick. Perhaps it’s because it’s weirdly narratively satisfying to find out how the story of each person’s new day begins. Maybe I’m just nosy. In any case, I devour rituals of famous artists on Brain Pickings, the carefully curated statistics on mymorningroutine.com, and all those Day in My Life and Get Ready With Me videos on YouTube. I’ve not gone so far as to purchase whole books or biographies devoted to the subject, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time.

Routine is as important to me as it is challenging. On what I describe as a successful morning, I get out of bed the moment my alarm goes off, shower, put on clothes, eaten breakfast, drunk a cup of tea, put on my makeup, and am ready to start my first task of the day by 10 a.m. When everything goes to schedule, I feel successful before I’ve even started doing anything. With any luck, I feel alert, awake, and proactive.

On a disappointing morning, however, I will turn off my alarm. If I don’t just sleep in really late, I get out of bed, grab my phone, spend upwards of 45 minutes guiltily scrolling through social media, berate myself into finally leaving my room to make a cup of tea, and open my laptop to stare morosely at the Internet at 11:30 or later. My work and communication for the rest of that day will reflect my guilt and frustration with myself.

An average morning is generally somewhere in between. I might not wake up on the first call of my alarm, but I snooze a couple of times and get out of bed slightly — but not disastrously — later than I’d ideally like to, and the rest of the routine goes as planned. There are also times when I sleep in but manage to rescue the morning by carrying out the routine in full.

I live with Joint Hypermobility/Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, or EDS. I nearly always wake up with moderate to severe joint pain — perhaps even a dislocation or two — and the quality of my sleep is often poor. Unsurprisingly, this affects the way I spend my morning: I might sleep in after a seriously broken night, or have a slow start if I’m in a lot of pain. On a really bad day, I might give up entirely and go back to sleep in the hope that I’ll feel better on my next attempt. It’s almost entirely unpredictable.

For a while, I abandoned the idea of structuring my time in the morning. This didn’t work so well. I found it far too easy to scroll through my phone until gone midday, getting more and more depressed and frustrated with myself. I knew that if I was going to get anything positive out of the day, I needed to form a routine. But how?

Here are a few things that helped me get to the stage I’m at now:

1. Work out why you want to do it.

You’re probably coming at this from “I’m a grown-up and grown-ups are supposed to have morning routines”. That’s certainly where I started. But if you want to make something like this stick, you have to get personal. Why is it the right thing for you to be doing?

I like the sense of reward I get from doing the right things in the right order in the right time frame. I also find it helpful to trick my body into performing all the tasks required in order to imitate a functioning adult human as quickly as possible before I have time to realise how terrible I’m feeling. Once I’ve eaten breakfast and put on clothes, going back to bed feels like more effort than staying awake and doing something with my day (unless I’m particularly ill). I hate the term “hack” in this context, but that’s essentially what I’m trying to do with my morning routine.

2. Define success.

For me, success is being awake, dressed and fed at or before 10AM. This is the minimum I need to achieve before I start doing whatever I need to do today. You might add in a workout, or a commute, or reading and writing, or meditation. Or you might not be a breakfast person. Set a parameter for success. Keep it simple. You can always scale up if you want to, but trying to do too much too soon will set you up for failure.

3. Make a list.

This might feel silly. You might not even need to do it, but I encourage you to keep an open mind to the idea. On my most recent attempt to form a routine, I wrote down all the tasks I wanted to complete before I declared success of a morning. I ended up with a list that looks something like this:

  • Press snooze on my alarm.
  • Perform a full mental body scan, head to toe, in the time between alarms.
  • On the second alarm, sit up and put my feet on the floor.
  • Take my morning medication.
  • Drink a glass of water.
  • Shower.
  • Get dressed.
  • Make a cup of tea and eat breakfast.
  • Brush my teeth, and put on make up if I feel like doing that today.

Personally, I have literally written this list on a post-it note and stuck it somewhere I can easily see it. I struggle with executive function — especially when I’m very tired and/or in more pain than usual — so having a visual reminder of what I’m supposed to be doing can make a huge difference. When I’m having a particularly successful streak, the actions become more or less automatic, which is immensely helpful.

4. Do a little at a time.

Some people can make huge, sweeping changes to their lives and follow through on them with minimal resistance. I am not one of those people. I’ve had to introduce things in increments. For example, I never used to brush my teeth in the morning, so I had to work consciously towards doing it every day.

Some kind of reward system can be helpful here. I use an app called Habitica that turns your to-do list into a charming roleplaying game, and it’s honestly changed my life. Since brushing my teeth is on my daily to-do list (and my little sprite loses health if I forget to do it), I check a little box every time I do remember. It counts how many times I’ve done it on the trot, and I get points in-game for remembering. It’s completely trivial, which is what makes it so great.

5. Stay flexible.

The thing that all my worst mornings have in common is the amount of time I spend telling myself off for not sticking to the routine. I’m one of life’s overachievers, and I can be very hard on myself. As you’re no doubt aware, this never helps.

Habit-forming is a useful way of learning how to recover from setbacks. Even if you don’t have a chronic illness, there will be a good few days where things don’t quite go to plan. Being able to switch things around where necessary is a useful life skill, and this is a great platform to practise from.

Another thing that’s helped me is keeping my list pretty basic. Ultimately, it’s just “get out of bed, get ready, eat something, and go”. It’s more detailed than that because on days when my brain fog is so bad that I keep walking into things, I need the instructions to be a little more specific.

6. Experiment.

I tried doing exercise in the morning. It doesn’t work for me. If I overdo it, I’ll be useless for at least the next 24 hours. But I learned that the best time for me to exercise is actually at lunchtime, when I’m not rushing straight off to do the next thing, or in the evening, when I know I can rest straight away.

Routine isn’t carved in stone. It’s more like working with plasticine — you give it a defined shape, but you can remould it if it turns out not to be quite right. I’m still working on mine, but the progress I’ve made so far is having a noticeably positive impact on my life.