How to Integrate a Morning Routine Into Your Life
Become disciplined and turn the proactive mindset into a habit
Morning routines are a hot topic in the self-improvement sphere. Everyone has one, is working on one, or wishes they had the discipline to integrate one into their lives.
I was hesitant to write about morning routines because I’ve read a lot about them, and many articles appear to be written by people who have no experience with morning routines whatsoever. It’s almost a cultural meme. Get a morning routine and change your life. Sounds like bullshit.
But, I thought, I’ve had a morning routine for over half a year now. I haven’t missed a single day of my morning routine. So let me tell you how my morning goes — how every morning I have goes.
My morning routine:
- 5:00 — Wake up and journal.
- 5:30 — Shower while brushing teeth and cleaning face.
- 5:40 — Moisturize, put on clothes for the day, make my bed, put on sunscreen (in that order).
- 5:50 — Meditate.
- 6:00 — Write.
- 8:00 — Commute to work.
I have a three-hour morning routine. I follow it every day, except on weekends, when I don’t commute to work. Instead, I continue writing, read a book, or exercise.
The creation of my morning routine didn’t arise from a desire to “be more productive”. It was the opposite: my life was in chaos. I needed consistency, so I forced myself to journal first thing in the morning. Then I added a little bit of writing. Then I wanted to do more, started waking up at 5 a.m. so I could write more. Then I iterated more, and slowly; it became a three-hour monster.
I didn’t plan to keep my morning forever, but after repeating it over months, I didn’t want to go back to the chaotic life I lived before. I used to sleep whenever I wanted, wake up whenever I wanted, and rush to work, frightened I was going to be late. I didn’t write much. I told myself I had writer’s block. Now, I write every day, no matter how tired and uninspired I am. I do it because I’m following a routine.
I can’t go back to the chaos.
🌅 Why a Morning Routine?
“I thrive in structure. I drown in chaos.”
― Anna Kendrick
You’ve heard it before: The first decisions you make determine the rest of your day. Perhaps it’s true (how can science measure such a bold claim?), but that’s not what convinced me to try a morning routine. I learned the habits of high-achievers from Tim Ferriss’s Tool of Titans and Tribe of Mentors, where he interviews 200 world-class performers and compiles his discoveries into a tool-based format and an individual-based one.
A different morning routine for different people
Every guest Tim asks about their morning routines will have one, then explains it. Jocko Willink wakes up at 4:30 and heads to the gym in his garage until 6:00. Tony Robbins drinks an “adrenal support cocktail”, eats breakfast, meditates for ten minutes, and works out for 15 minutes. Tim himself (who we can consider a world-class podcaster) makes his bed, does five to ten reps of any exercise (he prefers push-ups), drinks a custom blend of teas and spices he calls “titanium tea”, and journals for five to ten minutes.
The morning routines look different. And, if you looked deeper into all world-class performers, you would find no two people with the same morning routine. That’s because people are different. There’s no one-size-fits model of morning routines. I doubt there’s another person on Earth who has the same routine I do.
What’s important is that most high-achievers had a morning routine. Sure, the morning routines varied. But they all had one. Barely anyone lived a chaotic life. They had consciously set up their mornings to help them succeed throughout the day. Even more important, every top performer had iterated on their morning routine throughout the years to suit them. They didn’t copy someone else’s morning routine: they created their own.
Is it a coincidence? I don’t think so. I’ve been doing my morning routine for a while, and I have an explanation.
Take charge of your decisions
The most important part (in my opinion) of morning routines isn’t the routine itself. I don’t think any part of my morning routine is life-changing, except maybe meditation. A part of my morning routine is skincare, putting on clothes, and making my bed in the same order. There’s no way that’s critical to my wellbeing. I could remove skincare from my life, and not much would change.
So what could be significant, then? It’s the fact that I chose to do them in that order. And I follow it every morning. A morning routine forces you to be disciplined, and every time you do it, you’re practicing discipline. You make a decision, and you’re listening to what you’ve set out to do. Instead of a reactive mindset where you hit the snooze button and rush out the door just as you need to, you’re in a proactive mindset, deciding how you’re going to use your time and executing on that decision.
This mindset has manifested in my life beyond the morning. I’m incredibly time-conscious, and now rarely binge on Netflix, YouTube, and Twitch the way I used to. Now, that’s not to say I don’t ever watch videos (I still love them). But I never sink hours of lost time into them. The result is that I watch one, sometimes two episodes of a twenty-minute sitcom on Netflix every day. It took me half a year to get through every episode of Big Bang Theory.
I spent that time elsewhere, and I’m grateful for that.
Do a morning routine long enough, and it becomes automatic. I was a writer who chronically suffered from writer’s block. “Deciding” to write was difficult, and I often pushed it to the side to passively consume media. Now, when the clock hits 6 a.m., I write. I never decide to write. I do it because it’s part of my routine, and until 8 a.m., I don’t stop.
It’s the same tactic that Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Barack Obama reputedly use when they wear the same outfit every morning. It reduces decision-making fatigue and saves their mental energy on more critical tasks. You don’t want to wake up in the morning and decide the fastest way you’re going to brush your teeth, whether you have time to shower, or if you should go to work with messy hair.
It helps me reach a deeper state of mind. I want my thoughts to focus on solving more significant problems, not surface-level issues like how I’m going to get through the morning.
Now that you know the key benefits of a morning routine as they’ve manifested in my own life, let’s get into how you can create one yourself.
🗂️ Organize Your Existing Mornings
“Organizing is just one big game of Tetris.”
— Alejandra Costello
I didn’t integrate a three-hour morning routine into my life overnight. I started with the smallest possible step forward: I organized the existing mornings I had into a structure. All I had to do was get out of bed on time, brush my teeth, get dressed, make my bed, and go to work.
Order your morning tasks. The precise order doesn’t matter unless one task depends on the other (for example, don’t eat breakfast before brushing your teeth). What’s important is that you’ve made a decision and you follow it.
Wake up earlier
If you don’t want to be in a rush in the morning, you need to wake up a little earlier. How much earlier depends on how often you rush, but even a good ten minutes is enough to help. That was the case for me. Before I had a morning routine, I woke up at 7:50, got ready in ten minutes, and rushed out to work. I was fast, but it was stressful. I had to keep checking my clock to make sure I made it on time — not a good way to live.
Don’t change the order of tasks unless it will benefit you
Never, never, never change the order of your routine because you got lazy. Unless you make a conscious decision to create a lasting change in your morning routine, don’t change it. It’s important to follow your own choices. That’s the hardest part of setting up a morning routine. Even when you’re tired, and you don’t want to get out of bed, you must.
That said, you can change the order of your tasks when there’s a benefit. When I first started skincare, I moisturized and then immediately put on sunscreen. Eventually, I decided to separate them with other tasks because it was more beneficial for my skin to wait for the moisturizer to dry.
Find the optimal order for your morning, and don’t sway from it unless you have an improvement.
🧘🏾♀️ Add One Task at a Time
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
— Vincent Van Gogh
You were interested in morning routines because you wanted to try something. Doing what you already do isn’t satisfying. There are going to be a lot of people who will try to tell you what’s best for you. Some will say to stretch, others will say to journal. I say to meditate.
But the best first task to add to your routine is the one you’re interested in the most. This is how you start creating a morning routine that suits you: by doing what you believe will help you.
Maybe you’re inflexible, so you want to stretch. Or you want to reflect on your thoughts and love writing in journals. Perhaps you haven’t been mindful lately and want to make a daily practice to improve that.
Once you’ve chosen a task, you need to integrate it.
Research a routine
Whatever you’re doing, do a lot of research and find a routine that fits you. If you’re meditating, decide whether you’re going to use guided meditation, sit in silence, or use no timer at all. Choose the sitting position (Burmese or lotus), where you’re going to do it, how long you’re going to meditate for. Get specific.
You want your routine to be so detailed that you know every step of the day. Visualize it so picture what you’re going to be doing, and fill in the missing steps.
Start small. Don’t jump to ten minutes of meditation if you’ve never meditated before. Choose an amount that you’ll be able to repeat over and over, day after day. That might mean you have to start with three minutes of meditation. That’s fine. You’ll improve later when you’re comfortable with your routine. Don’t think you’ll be stuck with three minutes of meditation for the rest of your life.
Repeat the habit
The repetition is the most crucial part of a morning routine. I don’t get excited about my morning routine. It’s bland, effort-consuming, and sometimes even boring. But I do it anyway. That’s what discipline is: doing what I need to do even when I don’t want to.
I’ve found that as you become more comfortable, you can increase the amount of activity you’re doing. But I caution against doing too much too soon. If you add too much at once, it can feel overwhelming, and it’s tempting to give up altogether. The process should never feel “difficult”, but rather, a slow, smooth transition.
When I started writing in the morning, at first I tried to write for two hours. Jumping from no hours to two hours every morning was rough — almost impossible.
I failed. I almost gave up, and I had just started. The former me would have given up. But I decided to start again, but small. I cut down to thirty minutes. Then I tried something else: I set a word count for myself of 1,000 words. And all I had to do was hit that. I typically finished that in one hour, but none of my words were publishable. My next goal was to write 1,000 publishable words in the morning, and eventually, I reached my current routine of writing for two hours (where I write well over 1,000 words).
📈 Continuously Iterate
“Let the improvement of yourself keep you so busy that you have no time to criticize others.”
— Roy T. Bennett
A morning routine means you do the same thing over and over, which means you get many data points on what it’s like to do the same tasks. From that, extrapolate patterns. If something isn’t working for you, change it.
I used to do guided meditation as part of my routine. But it didn’t work for me. I hated listening to the same tracks, and I got anxiety choosing a track. For me, it was a waste of decision-making energy. Now, I meditate in silence. That’s not to say that guided meditation is useless. For someone else, it might be precisely what they need. But I prefer sitting in silence.
As you repeat your routine, you’ll find these idiosyncracies about yourself. Watch them, listen to them, and configure your life accordingly.
Add to your routine
A longer routine doesn’t mean a better routine, but you might still want to get more done in the morning. Or maybe you just want to try something new, like brewing tea. Whatever you want to try, add these habits into your routine, then measure their success based on how much they’ve improved your life.
My routine has gone through many iterations. The first habit I integrated was the journal (in fact, it was the first daily habit I ever really had). Then, I slowly started waking up at 5 a.m., and that created space for me to write. For some time, that was my morning: journal, write, brush teeth, and get dressed. I wrote in my pajamas, and on a hot day, in my underwear with a mouth filled with morning breath.
Disgusting, I know. That’s why I changed. But I don’t think I could have just started the routine I have now back then. I focused on making it to my desk and writing. Eventually, I couldn’t stand panicking before work after I finished writing, so I reorganized my routine and added a shower, brushing teeth, and getting dressed before I started writing. All of which made me more comfortable writing because I was already ready to go to work.
Then I added meditation. I was already meditating in the evening, but many people meditate in the morning, so I wanted to try it to see if it made any impact. That, combined with my desire to make mindfulness a priority in my life, gave me the motivation to find a way to integrate it into my life. The morning meditation made my writing experience calmer, and I can’t go without it now.
My most recent addition to my morning routine is skincare. My friend, who is a management consultant, convinced me that one’s face is an integral part of one’s personal brand and that a clean look signifies that you take care of yourself. It probably matters more for him because he’s in a client-facing job, but I decided to give it a try. I’m Asian, and many of my friends are Asian, most of whom already had a skincare routine, which contributed to my decision to get into skincare. I found that skincare barely takes any time, and it makes my face feel refreshed after. But who knows how long it’ll last? I might decide that it isn’t worth my time eventually and scrap it.
Someone who hasn’t experimented with the details might find this intricacy unnecessary, even stupid. But it works for me, and if I may make an assumption, this is how the top performers on Tim Ferriss’s podcast create their routines too. Slow, iterative, personal experimentation.
No end to iteration
Improvement never ends. There’s no “perfect” morning routine. We’re always changing, growing, improving, and the morning routines that best supports our lives change with our selves.
I have a three-hour morning routine. It’s complicated, and to be honest, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have a job. The only reason I wake up early is that I write better in the morning, and I start work at 9 a.m., like most people. I would rather sleep in, wake up later, and write.
Tasks are missing from my morning routine: exercise and breakfast. Right now, I eat breakfast at work just before 9 a.m. I starve at 5 in the morning, though I’ve decided not to solve that problem for now because there are benefits to fasting. I exercise in the evenings, most of the time only a few hours before bed (creating less than optimal sleep), but it’s the only time I’ve found to exercise. If I could fit that in before work, I would certainly do so, but alas, I also haven’t found a solution to that problem.
So my morning routine isn’t perfect. And if you have any advice for me to solve my problems, I would appreciate that. But even if I don’t address it, it doesn’t concern me because I know I’m going to improve, and my routine is going to evolve.
🔂 Repeat the Routine, and When You Fail, Try Again
“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.”
— Haruki Murakami
Murakami talks of “mesmerism.” Fancy, but it’s not anything new: it’s what the self-improvement sphere calls habits. Once we build a practice long enough, we do them automatically, as if we were in a state of trance. We don’t decide to brush our teeth in the morning: we just do it. And so our minds aren’t focused on surface-level problems anymore. Our thoughts drift to deeper issues: our projects, partners, and friends.
You want to repeat your morning routine as much as possible, for as long as possible. Ideally, it starts before your routine: you should wake up at the same time every day, so your circadian rhythm is fixed. But I know that’s unrealistic to expect of everyone. Even so, every morning, everyone can — or at least try to — repeat their morning routine, regardless of whether it’s a weekend or weekday.
Accept imperfection and even failure
Try long enough, and you’re bound to fail. There’s no way around it. Once you’ve set a morning routine, you’ve set a goal, which means you’ve set the conditions for your failure. Every morning, you have a chance to fail, and if you live long enough, that chance will manifest in reality.
It probably won’t be long before you fail. Maybe in your first week, perhaps even on your second day.
I’ll let you in on a secret: I fail every day. I announced to Medium that I wake up at 5 a.m. Some days, I succeed, but often, I wake up at 5:07 a.m., and when I’ve had a particularly lousy sleep (which only happens once a month or so), 6 a.m. Most of the time, this is okay, because my hour before I start writing only takes around 50 minutes, and I’ve budgeted for an hour to give myself some breathing room.
But sometimes, I wake up at 5:15 a.m., which means I can only start writing at 6:05 a.m., and I lose five minutes of writing time. This sounds like a small failure, something to brush away. But it hurts; it seriously hurts. A little bit of self-hatred grows in my gut; a pain that tells me that I might as well not write anyway. I have a theory that I sleep in because I’m terrified of writing because, on days where I’ve allocated the writing to something else (like I have to go to work early, or I’m doing an outline for the novel instead of the writing part), I never sleep in.
Another goal I have is, other than to use Insight Timer to meditate, to not touch my phone until 8 a.m. I don’t want to use social media until I’ve finished writing. But I sleep at 9 p.m., which means that my friends message me on Facebook long after I go to bed, and sometimes — no, often — it becomes so tempting that I take a little peek at my messages right after I meditate.
These may seem like minor failures, but they’re essential to me. One of my goals is to be more disciplined, and even though they’re small failures, I’m still failing all the time.
Failure makes me want to give up.
Don’t give up
But I haven’t given up. I’ve continued trying, again and again. It’s a battle every morning, mainly because once I get comfortable, I set the bar higher and higher. There was once a time I only wrote for thirty minutes, remember? It’s two hours now, which makes it a lot harder to succeed.
No doubt about it: failure is going to discourage you. You need to push past it, accept a growth mindset, and continue improving. There’s no way to hold a morning routine for the rest of your life without failure. Okay, there is a way, but unless you’re a discipline master, in which case you probably don’t need to be read this, that isn’t going to be you.
Do not fail forever. Fail once, and try again. Fail again and try again. Fail ninety-nine times, and try again. Initially, you might only be about to do 50% of what you set out to do. Maybe you only got through half the workout you wanted to. Accept that as your new baseline. Then, do 51% tomorrow, 52% the day after, 53%…
A study conducted by Phillippa Lally in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that it takes, on average, 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. But that doesn’t mean you’ll stop failing after 66 days. I’ve kept my routine for over half a year, and I still fail.
I have an elaborate morning routine, but I’m not a robot who executes it perfectly without emotion. I’m not even those self-help gurus who have videos of themselves waking up at 5 a.m. wide awake. I wake up tired in the darkness; I want to cry because I want the warmth of my blanket; my body doesn’t want to move out of bed (it never does). When I meditate, thoughts of jumping off my cushion and running back to my bed enter my mind. Before I write, I drink water, go to the bathroom, and have a mini-panic before I face the blank page. The words don’t always come out, so I sit in my chair and wonder if I should give up writing.
Has my behavior become automatic? I’m not sure. I do my routine every day, but I’m terrible at it. Still, I do it. And unless you’re a perfectly disciplined monk, you’ll end up like me and fail too. But even when you fail this often, the morning routine is still worth it.
The Results: A Disciplined Life
My life has changed a lot since I started doing my morning routine. I won’t go ahead and tell you that it was precisely what I do in the morning that made my life better. I can’t say for certain that it was. But I’m sure the routine itself is part of it. It’s the first time in my life that I’m disciplined.
I didn’t grow up as a disciplined person. I did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Honestly, I still do. But when I was a kid, I didn’t hold myself to any standards, so I drifted into lost time. I played video games and watched YouTube videos in any free time I got.
In the past six months, I’ve written more than I ever have in my life. Recently, I’ve completed the first draft for a novel, and another for a novella. I’ve never written anything that long before. I’m going to be working on my second drafts soon (I’m following recommendations to take a break between the first and second draft).
Follow your morning routine, and you’re sure to become more disciplined. There’s no way you won’t. You’ll be setting out to do the same boring thing every day, the boring task that you know will improve your life in the long-term.
Let me caution, though, that having a morning routine didn’t fix all my problems. I still have work conflicts, relationship problems, and days where all I want to do is sit in bed and hide under the blanket. But it gave me an environment to tackle the rest of my life better. It has made me more proactive; being proactive has even become a habit.
I love my morning routine. But even so, it might change. No, it definitely will change. I’m going to continue modifying it based on my life goals. The routine I have now is the one I use because I want to write. I might give that up one day, and perhaps I’ll be exercising in the morning like Jocko Willink and Tim Ferriss.
Such is life.
Editor’s note: Better Humans is a publication dedicated to evidence-based advice that works, from trustworthy sources. The primary evidence in this article is a case study of personal experimentation. To learn more about how we evaluate evidence and trustworthiness, visit the Style Guide for Better Humans.