I’m a big believer in the power of routines, especially a well structured morning routine that’s adapted to your lifestyle and temperament. As someone who’s not naturally high in orderliness routines are particularly important to give structure and coherence to my life: physically and psychologically.
The following morning routine, including breakfast, usually takes 2-3 hours. I’m an early riser, usually up at 6 am, so even if I go for 3 hours I can begin work by 9 am. I appreciate the fact that many people don’t have this kind of time in the morning; it makes a huge difference that I no longer commute to work.
However, even just two or three of these practices could significantly optimize your morning. If you take away one thing it is: you need a morning routine. No, your morning routine is not an oppressive system of rules meant to impinge on your liberty.
Rather, your morning routine is a carefully designed sequence of events that optimizes your capacities for physical, mental and emotional health. It should boost your energize and enhance your productivity. It should set you up to conquer the day.
You will find the right mix through a process of iteration. Everyone is different according to their lifestyle and temperament.
In chronological order, here’s what works for me. I think you’ll find at least some of it useful for you:
Before I hop out of bed I do a quick body scan meditation, noticing the sensations in different parts of my body. This is a way to start training my attention, even before I’ve gotten out of bed.
I start my morning with a cup of tea. Admittedly, I enjoy the caffeine boost, but it’s also a way to start my morning not only by hydrating myself but with a good dose of antioxidants. I rotate the teas that I use but it’s usually one of the following:
-Oolong Tea (preferably with Ginseng)
The process of making tea–and slowly, consciously sipping it–serves to anchor me in a mindfulness practice at the outset of my day.
Using a neti pot is an excellent way to clean out any dust, pollen or other irritants and pollutants you’ve collected in your nasal passages. It’s also a wonderful precursor to practicing pranayama, or any kind of breathing technique.
You need to use a tiny amount of salt to balance out the PH in the solution. It’s a tricky balance–not enough salt, it burns; too much salt, it really burns. Just a small pinch (about half a tea spoon) goes a long way. Ideally, use pink Himalayan salt.
If you don’t want to use an actual pot, which can be a bit trickier with tilting your head, this bottle does the trick and is good for travel. It also comes with the appropriate amount of salt to add, for which you can buy refills:
Source: Neil Med.
Tip of the hat to Tim Ferris for this hack. Tim has spoken at length about the value of journaling for five minutes in the morning. It’s a form of therapy. Get your thoughts out of your head and onto the page. It feels great. If I had a vivid dream I might write it down.
I might start my day with a gratitude exercise: stating three things for which I’m grateful, or by acknowledging what I fear most, how that might be holding me back, and how I imagine myself overcoming that obstacle. Just five minutes of writing, while I’m enjoying my tea, provides an excellent, cathartic start to my morning.
Here is the journal that Tim Ferris recommends, which I’ve been using:
Note: it’s a very nice journal, but if you travel a lot for work consider a smaller notepad. This one is bulky. Your morning journal should be pen and paper–not on any electronic device. Try to not look at a screen for one hour after waking up.
I might practice for an hour or for ten minutes, but I always practice yoga in the morning. It’s so crucial for a number of reasons:
-it increases my alertness and energy levels
-yet at the same time it down regulates my nervous system, increasing feelings of calm and relaxation
-it continues the training of mindful attention I started from brewing my tea
-it just feels really, really good to stretch and to improve the circulation of blood and oxygen throughout my body
Note: I appreciate the fact that many people have to rush in the morning to work. I used to wake up early to beat the traffic and then get into work early to practice yoga, instead of spending that time in traffic.
But even if you just do one downward dog in the morning it can make a world of difference in terms of how you feel. Everyone has one minute for one downward dog.
In Sanskrit “puja” refers to prayer or ritual of devotional offering. Hindus perform a puja to a particular deity, Buddhists make offerings to the Buddha and Jains to Mahavira. So why on earth do you care about this if you don’t think of yourself as a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Jain–or as a theist, at all?
I think of puja as a positive psychology hack. Just as psychologists know that we can increase positive emotions through techniques designed to enhance those emotions–such as gratitude exercises or compassion training through a metta meditation–puja cultivates certainly qualities in yourself and in your life.
I have a meditation room in my house, a specific space that’s reserved for my practice. I took the advice of others to allocate a specific room in my house for my practice and it’s made a huge difference. On the altar in my meditation room, I have an arrangement of statues on my table, such as this iconic statue from Shaivate schools of Hinduism:
This is a statue of Natasja, Lord Shiva in his incarnation as The Dancer.
Image source: http://awakeningtimes.com/nataraja-the-cosmic-dance/
While the intricacies of puja can be complicated–from the specifics of the rituals to the recitation of mantras–consider this simple principle: religious rituals can play a positive role even for people who may not consider themselves theistic.
Currently, I would consider myself religious, though not necessarily theistic. Perhaps that sounds like a paradox, but only if you assume that religious life is defined solely by adherence to particular belief systems. Religion is about much more than metaphysics or the supernatural.
What do religious rituals cultivate…even for the non believer?
- a feeling of offering: to something larger than yourself
- it doesn’t matter if you believe in the divine qualities of the object to which you are offering or not. It need not be an offering to the supernatural, but rather something larger than yourself (“the universe,” or “for the awakening of all beings”)
- it’s a way to train yourself in the mindset that you offer whatever arises–your attachments, your aversions. It diminishes the sense of an author behind your actions (i.e. the ego)
- a relationship to an archetype
- Carl Jung wrote extensively about the pervasiveness of archetypes across human cultures. For Jung archetypes were collectively inherited patterns of behavior or symbols that spoke to timeless characteristics about the human condition: the hero, the trickster, the magician, the lover, the ruler, the rebel, the sage, and so on
- Religious iconography reflects these primordial archetypes that are an essential part of the human condition. These figures are actors in the drama of life who reflect the roles we have to play at various points; the mythology around these characters offers insight into how we should act in the world. This is the function of myth.
- Puja can help us to cultivate a relationship to these primordial archetypes
- a sense of the sacred
- While I have plenty of issues with organized religion, I think that in our modern world we have largely lost a sense of the sacred, and not for the better. My trip to India this past winter affirmed the power of religious rituals and symbols to endow people’s lives with a sense of beauty, veneration and meaning.
- Not only can we derive value from these rituals without committing to particular (theistic) belief systems, perhaps those of us who don’t believe in the supernatural, and who lack the ancient traditions that support these systems, are the most in need of what religious practices like puja can offer
Deliberately developing a sense of the sacred will change the way that you start your day.
After puja concludes, I’ll go into a few minutes of pranayama: yogic breathing exercises. Pranayama is a vast subject matter, which include some advanced techniques. But here are two very simple tips:
- Emphasizing the inhalation
- Ex: breathing in for the count of four, breathing out for the count of two
- this activates your sympathetic nervous system
- increases feelings of alertness
- can be ideal for the morning, especially if you feel the need to wake up
- Emphasising the exhalation
- Ex: breathing out for the count of four, breathing in for the count of two
- this activates your parasympathetic nervous system
- induces feelings of calm and relaxation
- promotes optimal function of your bodily systems
Pranayama is a huge subject deserving of a series of posts, but if you’re not familiar with these breathing exercises consider looking them up. A great place to start would be studying with a very knowledgeable teacher. Richard Freeman has an online introduction to pranayama course which you can purchase through Sounds True.
Disclosure: Richard Freeman is one of my yoga teachers. I do not, however, receive any commission whatsoever from the promotion of his courses. I suggest them to others only because I highly value what Richard and his wife Mary have to offer.
Pranayama is the bridge that can take you into deeper states of meditation.
Ideally, I’ll do twenty minutes of seated meditation in the morning. However, some days I need to start my day quicker than others. Even sitting for just a few minutes in silence–especially after making a series of offering and the recitation of mantras–makes a massive difference in the rest of my day.
I’m more focused, more centered in the heart, more open to whatever will arise. Nothing is a guarantee against the difficult things in life, but this morning series of practices–puja, pranayama and meditation–makes me far more likely to respond mindfully, rather than reactively, to situations that could trigger me.
It not only helps to buffer me against the negative, it cultivates positive emotions: feelings of reverence, gratitude and serenity.
Now that I’m done with my morning mindfulness practices I’ll take my phone out of airplane mode and listen to a podcast or music as I go for a morning walk. Studies have been shown to demonstrate upticks in creativity from standing and moving, which is one reason I do so shortly before starting my work.
I also prioritize getting some form of cardiovascular exercise before I’m going to be in front of a screen for hours on end.
Tony Robbins jumps in a frigid plunge pool to start his day. Tim Ferris takes an ice bath. I don’t have these luxuries, though I take as cold of a shower as possible.
How cold? So cold that you should be shaking, as one advocate put it. For how long? 5-10 minutes.
Placing the shower head on the top front of your skull (prefrontal cortex area of the brain) or on the chest (near the heart) will increase the impact of the cold shower–assuming you’re not doing the full plunge like Tony or Tim, which undoubtedly is more effective.
Arguments for taking a cold shower:
- improves mitochrondial function, boosting your immunity
- drains your lympathic systems, removing cellular waste
- burns brown fat at increased rate
- increase your heart rate…and your circulation
- can help to lower levels of stress in your body
- increases alertness!
- at the very least…it will do this!
Make your bed
Growing up, my parents couldn’t get me to make my bed. I didn’t see the point when I was just going to sleep it in again anyways. Funny, I know. Probably a lot of people, especially guys, who are low in orderliness still do this for many years. If you fall into this camp this is the first, small thing that you can and should change.
Finally, I relented to Jordan Peterson’s exhortations to “clean your damn room!” Cultivating orderliness in the physical aspects of your life will help you to develop more orderliness in other facets of your life, and psychologically, as well.
Tidy up anything that you can clean up, or put away, in a minute or less, as well, then move on.
Vitamin D deficiency is a serious problem for many people, especially people living in urban environments spending all of their day in offices, and/or those living in climates that don’t see much sunlight or suffer from high levels of pollution.
Vitman D is essential for a number of reasons, ranging from calcium absorption to build strong bones to melatonin production that’s vital to a good night’s sleep.
Fortunately, I live in the tropics so there’s no shortage of sunlight. That said, because the sun is so hot I make a point of getting Vitamin D before the sun gets too high and too intense.
Wherever you live I’d highly recommend downloading the app D Minder. This app will notify you when the sun is above 30 degrees elevation–which is what you need in order to get Vitamin D from the sun.
You can select a variety of options that state the amount of skin exposure to the sun then click on a timer that will tell you how much Vitamin D your body is absorbing based on the sun’s elevation in your particular location at that time.
Download the app D Minder to track your Vitamin D levels.
While I’m getting sunlight I stand barefoot on grass. “Grounding” or “Earthing” allegedly helps our bodies to reconnect to the natural, electrical charge of the earth’s energy. While studies on grounding are still seeking to verify the extent of the alleged benefits that advocates claim studies suggest it can decrease cortisol levels and inflammation. It also feels really good, and natural, just to stand in the grass!
As I mentioned at the outset, I totally appreciate the fact that many people don’t have time for such an exhaustive routine, whether it’s because you’re commuting in traffic or getting your kids ready for school. But incorporating just two or three of these routines could make a big difference in enhancing the quality of your morning.
Start small and go from there.
I sincerely hope that some of you will find benefit in these morning routines. They have certainly had a profoundly positive impact on my morning and I hope they prove to be a game changer for you as well.