Of all the themes that constantly resurface in self-improvement writing, the ever-elusive “optimal morning routine” is certainly high on the list. We seem to love (or hate?) reading about CEOs who rise at 4 a.m. to drink chia smoothies and get a jump-start on running their empires. But so often the conversation revolves around sheer productivity, as though we’re machines whose ultimate goal is to become perfectly calibrated for success. I reject this view for the same reason I embrace taking real weekends — because, frankly, the thought of reducing my existence to output is thoroughly depressing.
However, I do like the idea of viewing mornings as more than harried periods of preparation. And though I am pretty good about going to bed at a reasonable hour, I recently realized that I often wasn’t enjoying my mornings. Even with sufficient sleep, I was still leaving for work in a frenzy—keys flying, my mind a cyclone of mundane worries. If I was going to sacrifice the late-night vices I once loved, I might as well make the most of those extra hours. So I decided to do an experiment: I’d spend my morning seven different ways and gauge them by how happy they made me.
Day 1: Do Something Escapist
I remember being scandalized when a very successful friend told me that she routinely watched TV in bed before work. The thought of letting myself off the hook that early in the day, before achieving anything of value, seemed incredibly subversive — an affront to the relentless work ethic so deeply engrained in our culture.
I altered her method by reading one chapter of a novel when I first woke up. One study showed that reading is incredibly effective in reducing stress; even six minutes can be enough to reduce stress levels by more two-thirds. Given that I begin most days with a vague sense of dread at the thought of leaving my cozy cocoon to invite an onslaught of demands into my life, any strategy promising that much relaxation was welcome. After making my usual coffee, I crawled back into bed—an indulgence in itself—and dove into a world of fictional problems before acknowledging my own.
Doing something I genuinely like had the dual benefits of lifting my mood and expanding my perspective. It reminded me not only that is there a world outside my often-claustrophobic work life, but also that I am a whole person outside of my professional identity, with creative interests and forms of intelligence rarely required in my current role. For this reason, I was happier walking into work. However, I’m not sure how relevant this was to the rest of my day. Though I likely won’t make it a habit, I can see doing this again if I’m feeling bummed out and in need of comfort so I can muster the strength to get going.
Day 2: Exercise
And then there’s the old “work out at sunrise” regimen, a practice I regard with some degree of spite on principle alone. Is anyone more obnoxiously smug than the person who wakes up at dawn to hit the gym?
What finally got my attention was not the promise of fitness, but of reduced anxiety and sharper focus. A friend who has dealt with ADHD her entire life — a struggle I suspect we share — told me she got through the most stressful job she ever had by rising at 5 a.m. to go to barre class. It calmed her down, helped her focus, and allowed her to wean off coffee, which in turn reduced her jitters.
Turns out, she’s not the only one. Research suggests that exercise is highly useful for managing attention disorders—one possible reason being that, like stimulant medications, exercise increases the levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine in the brain. In one study, children who participated in a half-hour exercise program before school for 12 weeks showed improvement in many behaviors associated with ADHD, including impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity.
The prospect of feeling both mentally and physically better was seductive enough to get my cynical self out of bed. Often, after long periods of sitting, I felt overcome with fidgety energy. My legs, specifically, seemed tortured into submission. I fantasized about tiring them out to the point where sitting was a relief.
I knew the gym was part of my mental block because of all the packing and communal showering it requires, so I decided on a short run outside. To prevent any excuses, I laid out my clothes the night before, down to my socks and hair tie. As soon as I got out of bed, I suited up, opened my door to the chill air, and started jogging toward the nearest park. It felt key to not push myself to the point of resentment, so I kept a slow and comfortable pace. Having good music helped a lot. Within 10 minutes, I was warm enough to take off my sweatshirt. Within 15 minutes, I was awake enough to observe the small amusements of the world around me: a shock of red flowers, thin sunlight lacing through the leaves, a dog sitting in protest as his person pulled him along.
The obnoxious folk are, of course, correct. True, my lungs and ears did not love the cold air. But once it’s over, exercising has virtually no downsides. I did have more energy. I did enjoy knowing I’d gotten that crucial part of self-care out of the way. But while I did feel a little less anxious, the main sources of my stress were still there waiting for me when I sat down to open my inbox. It was absolutely helpful, but not a cure-all.
Day 3: Meditate
I almost hate to write about meditation, only because it’s become so trendy as to border on off-putting. At the moment I write this in a café, two bearded dudes are browsing data science jobs on shiny, matching Macs and talking about the meditation app Headspace. Still, zeitgeist aside, I am genuinely heartened to see more people explore the practice, as research has shown the meditation can help alleviate stress, chronic pain, insomnia, depression, and more. The challenge comes with making it a habit. I just haven’t been able to bring myself to do it with any regularity.
During the week of my experiment, I had to help host a huge event for work, so I figured that was as good a time as any to calm my mind. Using the free app Insight Timer, which has more than 6,000 meditations and for some reason includes a social element showing me what users are doing across the globe, I chose a 10-minute guided meditation for morning and energy.
Though I was still pretty scatterbrained that day, I know from numerous people that it really takes weeks of daily practice to feel the full benefits of meditation. My biggest takeaway from this test was how easy it really is to make the time, and thus how obsolete my previous excuses were, especially when using a timed app.
Day 4: Do Something Social
In a New York Times article published earlier this year on the health benefits of friendship (which include, among other things, increased happiness, fewer health problems, and increased longevity), the author writes that she routinely goes on a morning walk with “up to three women.”
The idea stuck with me long after I’d read it, reminding me of a corporate lawyer I’d known who kept an early morning breakfast ritual with some guy friends “to keep him honest.”
What intrigued me about these rare examples of early morning socializing is that they seemed so counterintuitive and yet so aligned with my values. The longer I live, the more firmly I believe in prioritizing close relationships above all else. Even without substantial evidence supporting the benefits of friendship (one researcher wrote that “those with close social ties and unhealthful lifestyles (such as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise) actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more healthful living habits”), I know from personal experience that my happiness is directly related to how much time I spend with those I care about. Given the importance I give this area of my life, it seemed foolish to not at least try starting my day with it.
So I tried this two different ways: going out to breakfast with my partner, and having a friend over to spend the night and making her a huge, fancy egg scramble at my place in the morning.
Spending quality time with others before anything else was uplifting and created some of the best memories I’ve had in a long time. Still, in some ways it made transitioning to rote, stressful tasks even harder. I think I get equal, if not more happiness from meeting up with people immediately after work, when we can blow off steam and validate each other back to sanity. The important thing is that I make time for relationships at all. That said, I love the idea of having very occasional morning dates, just for variety’s sake. And this exercise showed me that if I’m really struggling to make time for relationships after work, there’s another way to fit them in.
Day 5: Get Right to Work
If I really think about it, most of my day-to-day stress derives from two sources: navigating the emotional nuances of my interactions, and the simple yet constant fear of not staying on top of my responsibilities. While the former is probably a lifelong challenge, the latter seems like something I could easily handle better now. My main nemesis is constant interruption, either via email or in person. It’s a pretty well-circulated fact that every time we’re interrupted, it takes more than 20 minutes on average to regain focus. It’s also shown that conscientiousness — a bundle of characteristics that basically describes your annoying co-worker who never loses a file or forgets a meeting — is more valued than any other quality in the workplace. So on Day 5, I did like all those notorious CEOs and got right to it, before the angry mobs (that is, the emails) descended.
As much as I hate to admit it, starting work earlier was a pretty effective way to reduce my stress. The sheer luxury of working without interruption was grounding and calming. And if feeling unorganized is a huge source of my unhappiness, taking an hour to “sort myself out,” as the Brits say, seems a small price to pay. Even just clearing off my desktop, both physical and digital, made a difference.
Day 6: Indulge in a Small Luxury
Few days go by that I don’t suppress the urge to buy one of the obscenely large pastries winking from their glass case at my neighborhood café. But as Oscar Wilde said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” Moreover, research suggests that indulging in more small luxuries, especially if they diverge from our normal routines, may bring us more happiness than spending on fewer, more extravagant expenditures.
So on this day of the experiment, I bought a giant cheese croissant and a flavored latte, spending more than I often do at dinner.
This was, unsurprisingly, a joy in the moment. But compared to every other indulgence of the week, it was truly fleeting. And, of course, sullied by the dual-pronged guilt of eating poorly and frivolous spending.
Day 7: Foster Creativity
If the “getting right to work” strategy is all about mastering the type of regimented, linear thinking rewarded in many of our jobs, my “creativity” day would do the opposite — deliberately engage the part of my brain that often gets relegated to the sidelines. Since I enjoy writing but rarely do it with a purely “artistic spirit,” it seemed fitting to devote Sunday — the day traditionally reserved for spiritual reflection — to enter a higher plane. Though I hadn’t gotten much sleep, that was apparently a potential boon, especially if I was not a natural morning person: A recent study suggests that, oddly, we are more creative when we’re tired and our brains aren’t functioning at peak efficiency.
Inspired by numerous early rising authors I admire, such as Haruki Murakami, who wakes up at 4 a.m. to write his novels, I rose early to sit at my favorite café (without buying the giant croissant this time) and wrote a short character sketch of a fictional person based on many people I’d known.
Being out of practice of making art for art’s sake, there was a lot of ego to get over before I could allow myself to enjoy it. I felt silly spending time doing something that wasn’t truly relaxing but also wouldn’t be rewarded in any way. But once I got into it, I was sad to stop. In fact, I don’t think I could do this on a workday because I’d be so distracted by my ideas. But maybe something more abstract — like making a collage or painting shapes — would stimulate my brain without being overly distracting.
Ultimately, it was the less-fun activities — exercise, meditation, and just getting to work — that set me up best for a day at work. But all of the strategies were better than my usual frantic M.O., and simply trying them was a useful and fun exercise. To some extent, I think the “optimal” routine depends on how we spend the day. My current job is pretty frenetic, so it helps to be calm and centered. If I transitioned to a more creative role, that might not be the case. But maybe I’m thinking about it the wrong way. Maybe if we insist on designing our mornings to reflect the values we want to inhabit, the rest of our lives will follow suit.