Imagine waking up with a supreme sense of calm-confidence. You know exactly what to do and how to do it. And you have all of the energy, focus and concentration to easily get it all done. — I’m guessing this isn’t how most of us start each day. Hence our growing obsession with finding the philosopher’s stone, the silver bullet, the morning routine to end all routines… which, sorry to say, doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get close. This is what we learned by turning to some of the world’s leading health experts on how they start their day…
First of all, why look to morning rituals? It isn’t the precise ritual that we’re after, it’s what a ritual can do for us that matters. New studies from the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University suggest that the ritualization of activities does have innumerable benefits for health and cognition. Some of these benefits include increased confidence as a result of the science of small wins (setting tasks and accomplishing them e.g. checking things off a to-do list), while others may be even more tangible such as preserving key energy-producing metabolites in the brain such as NAD (Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide) and NAD+. Given the reality of decision fatigue, the more energy the brain can sustainably produce, the better and more effective we can be throughout the day. Thus there truly is merit in the old adage: “win the morning, win the day.”
Let’s turn our attention to these top integrative physicians now to see how they start, and win each day:
Dr. Jeff Morrison, MD of the Morrison Center says: “My morning ritual is to wake at around 5am and get to the gym in my building for a workout, or go for a run in the park. Generally 30–45 minutes of morning activity is a great way to get my motor running. Then I follow this with a protein shake, followed by 30 minutes of focusing on something totally unrelated to my profession. I study conversational Chinese.” — As Dr. Morrison noted to us, creating a ritual doesn’t need to be a laborious task. In fact, simpler is often better. A short sequence of 2~5 activities to be performed in the same order at the beginning of each day is all that is needed. Let’s look at some other examples.
Naturopathic Doctor, Mark Iwanicki says the following when describing his morning ritual: “Meditation is probably my number one. I meditate 15 minutes every morning. Just sitting there and focusing on a sound. I have white noise music on my phone that I focus on (like the sound of a fan or rainstorm). I also take Nadovim and have noticed huge improvements in memory. I can remember random things that are at the tip of my tongue now and don’t have to struggle to pull the memory. I also like to intermittent fast in the morning until noon but will have a coffee and sometimes I add MCT oil to it. I also take adrenal support (cytozyme AD and ginseng) which I love for energy support. Sometimes if I do eat food and not fast I try and keep it high protein with boiled eggs, turkey bacon and/or oatmeal.”
Similar to Dr. Iwanicki, Dr. Mike Varshavski makes proper nutrition a priority in the start of his day, and uses many of the same foods and nutrients. “Proteins and complex carbohydrates such as those that come from eggs and oatmeal are a great way to start your day and leave you feeling full” Says Dr. Mike. Prior to eating his breakfast, Dr. Mike first drinks a glass of lemon water upon waking to aid in detoxification. The next thing he does is make his bed as a practice for task completion. Completing even simple tasks first thing in the morning has shown to have a powerful effect on one’s ability to stick with and complete more arduous tasks later on throughout the day. Next he takes a cold shower for alertness and positive hormonal shifts, followed by a small amount of movement exercise akin to a warmup. Finally and just prior to his morning meal, he takes a walk outside with his dog, being sure to leave all devices and technology at home. This he does as his form of meditation to spend time outdoors before the hectic day begins.
Before leaving you with some key principles learned from these physicians collectively, let’s take a look at an additional approach and see what Doctor of Divinity, Dr. Erin Fall Haskell advocates as her 5 key elements of a nurturing morning ritual: While the rituals mentioned thus far emphasize mainly external practices (e.g. exercise, task completion, nutrition & supplementation), this one is focused almost entirely on internal practices such as meditation, visualization, affirmation and gratitude.
Dr. Erin starts each day with a gratitude journal in which she writes down the first things that come to mind for which she feels a strong sense of appreciation. “Directing one’s attention toward all of the many positive aspects of life such as love, beautify, family or friendship is a great way to begin the day by teaching your subconscious mind to focus on the what you DO have as opposed to areas you may feel a sense of lacking”, says Dr. Erin. Next, she performs a brief bout of movement to get blood and oxygen flowing throughout the body before sitting in meditation and observing the stillness and calmness within. Directly following her meditation, Dr. Erin will visualize what she wants to have happen that day or sometimes simply use a visualization to place herself in a state where she feels uplifted, recharged, connected and grateful. The fifth and final piece of her practice is what she calls prayer. Practically speaking, she recites positive affirmations and incantations to mobilize energy and begin the process of actualizing that which she visualized in the previous step. With that as her preparation, she is now ready to go to work on her “one thing” or single most important task of the day and follow it through to completion.
Creating your own winning morning ritual
Despite the differences in specific activities of those rituals we observed above, there are three fundamental elements, each with an important function, that emerge as keystones for a winning morning ritual. They are:
- Meditation (to calm the mind and let go of the previous day)
- Visualization (to identify and create the day’s outcome or intention)
- Actualization (to begin the day with achievement and habituate success)
First, Meditation. Meditation has seen a huge resurgence in popular culture, and for good reason. Creation of anything we’re after in life, any goal we want to achieve, or result we wish to manifest, begins in the mind. If the mind is not calm and capable of focussing, then the act of creation is an uphill battle. But with thoughts at bay and brain function optimized, the mind becomes a clean and clutter-free canvas from which to initiate the next phase of creation.
Visualization. Now that the mind is calm and physiology is approaching a healthy baseline after some sort of meditation or focusing activity, it’s the perfect time to align mental processes with one’s higher Self desires or sense purpose. Visualization can consist of creating a mental image of a result that you wish to create, or it could be the summoning of a feeling such as enthusiasm, that you wish to experience when a certain goal is accomplished. You could visualize yourself having already achieved your desired outcomes, or you might wish to simply imagine yourself with a certain level of vitality and positivity, the feeling of which you aim to produce during this time. When you allow yourself to jump into and fully inhabit the object or outcome of your desire, you set up a powerful neural network that will not only keep you focused on that outcome, but also signal your subconscious mind that you absolutely will obtain it. Your actions will follow.
Twenty-three-time Olympic gold medalist, Michael Phelps was a master of this. Visualization, according to his coach, was one of the most essential components of his success. Not only did Phelps visualize his route to success through every possible racing scenario (e.g. if his goggles were to come off, if he got hit by a fellow swimmer, etc), he also visualized each mundane step leading up to each race (and practice session!). This includes the visualization of how he would change into his swim suit; how he would perform his stretches including which arm and leg he would shake out first, and on and on. Why did he do this and how did it help him succeed? The answer to this question lies in the final phase.
Actualization. The very first thing Michael Phelps did as soon as he finished his highly detailed visualization was to go through the motions in precisely the manner he mentally rehearsed. Everything from the order in which he stretched his limbs, to the foot he lifted first to climb onto the diving block — premeditated. And by successfully accomplishing each small step along the way, the act of winning the race just became a natural extension in his series of rehearsed and (and now actualized) visualizations.
Indeed this science of small wins has been extensively studied and put into practice by some of the greatest athletes and executives alike. The Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University has pioneered the study of habit formation and frequently advocates implementing the science of small wins. Even the US Military employs this strategy when training its recruits by having them make their beds first thing upon waking to build a “muscle memory” around consistent task completion.
Case & point - practicing this sequence: meditation > visualization > actualization with simple tasks first thing in the morning has a transferable effect succeeding at the larger demands of work and life.
Putting it all together
It’s important to note that while there are functional similarities among the routines of the physicians examined above, the specifics of their rituals were highly personalized and likely emerged over time with some trial and error. The following offers some quick examples to use for inspiration of how you can customize the meditation > visualization > actualization formula to create a ritual that works best for you!
Example Morning Ritual:
Your meditation could consist of a conventional sitting meditation where you follow your breath or an app such as Headspace or Inscape. Or if you have difficulty sitting still at first you could spend 5~15 minutes engaging in a focused and repetitive movement practice like Qi gong or Tai Chi. From this calm place, it’s time to get creative.
Whatever outcome or feeling you choose to evolk during your visualization, we recommend that you end your visualization period by bringing your focus to something small that you will do as the very next thing once you open your eyes. This paves the way for actualization to take place and for you to solidify a new neural network of success much like Phelps does.
Say you’ve just stepped into your “successful” self where you see, feel and experience yourself having already achieved your outcome, having had a great day. Now shift your focus to something small such as the visualization of yourself moving from your current spot into your kitchen where you fill a glass of water, add a few drops of juice from a lemon and drink it down. As soon as you finish this last portion of your visualization, you would then carry out this activity exactly as you saw yourself perform it in your mind’s eye. By doing this repeatedly, you build a complete neural circuit that literally habituates task completion, accomplishment, and starts you off with the rewarding feeling of achievement.
Play with different activities for each of these three phases until you find a routine you can stick with and enjoy.
To learn more about ego depletion, brain nutrients and supplementary ways to optimize your mental performance, check out our previous post: The Art of Focus: How to Reclaim Your Mind in the Modern World.