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I Tried 7 Different Morning Routines — Here’s What Made Me Happiest

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.

The Verdict

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?

The Verdict

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.

The Verdict

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 Verdict

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.

The Verdict

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.

The Verdict

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.

The Verdict

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.

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