It’s 6:00 am, and I’m awake. My alarm isn’t set to go off for another two hours, but I’m always woken up early with a giant pang of anxiety. The anxiety is quickly followed by a pang of guilt — I know I’m not going to actually get up and deal with the things that are making me anxious. I’m just going to lay here and fret, and I hate myself for it. The guilt makes me more anxious and fuels a vicious cycle. It’s 10:00 am before I actually get out of bed, two hours after I had aimed for, yet somehow I don’t feel rested at all.
This scene may be familiar to anyone who lives with anxiety. My anxiety is mostly well-managed after years of therapy but the mornings can still be particularly bad.
The impacts of a bad start can be felt throughout the rest of the day. Most productivity gurus can tell you that the morning is key to jump-starting to your day. So, when I start my day an anxious mess, the rest of my day tends to follow suit. Sometimes, my mornings can be so bad that I feel that the entire day is basically a wash, and give up before I’ve even started.
Getting my morning anxiety under control is not only important for my mental health but vital for my long-term success as a writer. I’ve learned over the years that there are a few things that make a big difference in managing my morning anxiety.
To be clear, I’m not a psychologist (although I do have a degree in psychology) and that these tips are more from personal experience than clinical trials.
I should also admit that I’m being a total hypocrite.
I have been failing to do these things lately, and I’ve noticed my morning anxiety flaring up. These tips are as much for you as they are for me.
1. Identify the source of your anxiety
If you’re not already in therapy, you probably should be. A trained therapist can help you identify the source of your anxiety.
Even on your own, though, you may be able to figure it out. Why are you dreading waking up? What about your day feels so overwhelming and stressful that you are loathed to face it?
These are the things you need to tackle. For me, I often feel simultaneously overwhelmed by everything that I need to do, and guilty for not doing enough. I procrastinate waking up and starting my day because I know I need to be “working harder” but I don’t have a plan to do that.
Pinning down exactly why you feel anxious in the morning will help you make the appropriate adjustments going forward.
2. Have a routine
Anxiety often comes from the unknown — and a routine is a perfect cure for that. Routines tell your mind and body what to expect and, over time, can also form into habits. The longer you can stretch your routine throughout your day, the better (mileage may vary depending on your job, kids, etc).
I realize that in the realm of productivity, routines can often feel scary. You don’t have to wake up at 4:00 am to start writing like Barbara Kingsolver. If your goal is simply to reduce morning anxiety, your routine doesn’t need to be ground-breaking or aggressive. In fact, the simpler, the better.
Here is an example of a simple morning routine that works for me:
- Wake up
- Listen to NPR’s Up First podcast in the shower
- Brush my teeth and get dressed
- Go downstairs and make coffee, then sit in a quiet room with good light
- Listen to NYT’s The Daily podcast while I check email and notifications
- Put on music and start writing my daily article
This routine works well for me because it is simple and consistent.
I use podcasts not just to get my daily news fix, but because they help me keep time during activities that can easily run long: the shower and checking social media. Up First is usually 12–15 minutes, the perfect shower length for me. The Daily is usually 20–30 minutes, the max amount of time I want to spend checking social media in the morning. When the podcast ends, I know that’s my cue to log off.
3. Don’t check social media right away
Social media is consistently one of the biggest sources of morning dread for me. I’ve written a few times before about how much I hate social media and how I try to find ways to reduce its impact on my mental health — but, being a writer, I need to get my work out there. So for now, social media is still a part of my daily life.
As a woman who writes a lot about feminism, I tend to receive a lot of nasty comments, hate mail, and even threats. I try not to read the comments, but sometimes they creep into my consciousness anyway.
Waiting to check social media (and email) until I’m showered, properly dressed, and drinking my coffee ensures that I am in the proper mindset to handle what is thrown at me. Staying logged out of social media on my phone prevents me from checking Twitter, etc, while I’m still in bed.
4. Plan your day the night before
This one is big. The feeling of overwhelm that hits you when you wake up is probably largely due to everything on your plate and your uncertainty at how to handle it all.
Historically, I’ve written my to-do list and planned my day in the morning once I sit down to work. This tactic doesn’t help prevent my morning anxiety, though, because it means that until I write that list I still don’t know my game plan.
Writing your to-do list the night before means that when you wake up, you already know exactly what’s on your plate and how you’ll tackle it. This also includes deciding what you’re not going to do that day and the order in which you’ll do things.
Try to plan your day in accordance with your natural energy levels, and be sure you structure in time for breaks/food. It doesn’t have to be complicated, though. Again: the simpler, the better.
This is what my (simplified) to-do list for today looks like:
- Write my daily article + promote it
- Put that letter in the mail
- Scout some new writers for 4W
- Pitch 3 new publications
- Plan a daily writing schedule/goal for NaNoWriMo
- Feed the cat & scoop her box
- Finish the book I’m reading
- Take Juneau for a walk
Once you have a to-do list planned out in order around meals, you’ve essentially created a schedule for the day. Now, you know exactly what your day will look like, so your morning uncertainty is decreased. If something goes wrong, you are better prepared to handle it because you already know what the rest of your day looks like and what can be shifted (for example, if writing went long I could cut my reading time short this evening).
5. Do something you enjoy first
Some people like to get the hard chores out of the way first thing (scoop the cat litter, clean the room, etc). I’ve learned that this only adds to morning dread, and leads to me procrastinating waking up in order to put off the horrible chores.
Instead, doing things I enjoy first thing in the morning helps me start the day off right and keeps me on track for a productive day — including eventually cleaning the cat box in the evening.
Writing alone in a bright, quiet room with my morning coffee is what I enjoy the most. Even if I am too anxious to drink caffeine, making myself a decaf latte is a small indulgence to put me in a good mood. So, this is what I do first.
These little things make a big difference beyond the morning, adding up to a more productive day, week, month, and year. Over time, productivity compounds — and those of us with anxiety shouldn’t let that prevent us from collecting interest.
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