The morning is sacred. The streets are empty. The sun is rising. The dew is gently evaporating. Your phone is silent. Your inbox is empty. The day is full of potential, silently buzzing with energy. And everyone else is asleep. But you’re not. You’re awake, seizing your life and taking advantage of these precious moments everyone else is wasting. This is your huge advantage over most of the world. You must treat it with care.
Not everyone is a morning person. Some people are wired to stay up into the wee hours of the night, hitting their stride just as others are heading off to bed, and may sleep in till the afternoon, long after many others have already been chipping away at work. Others wake up before the sun even cracks over the horizon, and can be heard making coffee and doing chores from down the hall while you are snuggled up under covers thinking it’s the middle of the night – though these people can often be found falling asleep during movies at 9pm.
But both of these people are in the minority. Most people have an even-keeled schedule that is more strongly determined by environmental factors than by their own innate tendencies. They are flexible sleepers, who can often be found occupying the bedroom from roughly 11pm-8am, but maybe not if the mood strikes them. They may stay up late because in their peer group there are frequent late night parties, or because they work second shift. Likewise, they may get up early because they have a long commute to work, or because joint pain prohibits them from lying down too long. Gradually these behaviors become habits, which become a sleep pattern. These people’s sleep schedules are malleable. They just have to change a few external factors.
If you do your best work at night, by all means do what works for you. But if you are a flexible sleeper, making the changes necessary to ensure that you can get up early in the morning can give you enormous gains in productivity, which will translate into professional competitiveness and personal fulfillment.
What makes the morning so conducive to productivity?
You have the most control over your life in the morning. The daytime is unpredictable. You can’t control what the people you work with are going to do, and you may have to react in unplanned ways and perform unpredictable tasks throughout the day. Evenings are also often spontaneous. And that’s fine – who want’s every minute of their day to be regimented? But in the morning, you usually have the power to make it go exactly how you want. There are fewer distractions since fewer people are awake or working yet, and you are less likely to be bothered by phone calls or emails. You have time all to yourself and can use it exactly how you need to.
Furthermore, you are at your best in the morning. If you are eating right, staying active, and getting a good night’s rest, you will wake up refreshed and alert. You are at your maximum mental capacity and energy charge when you first wake up, and this is only going to fade over the course of the day as you are taxed by work and decision making.
I’m a flexible sleeper. And I’m also a flexible worker. Freelance design work gives me a long list of things to do each day, but no virtually rigid schedule to complete them on. That’s a lot fluidity for one flawed human being. People need structure! I need to create positive constraints on my day that force me to respect my time, prioritize my goals, and optimize my performance. If I don’t I’m likely to resort to unproductive behaviors and habits that, while I may be convincing myself are easy or efficient, actually sabotage the rest of my day by sapping my energy or making more work for me in the end.
So we know why to optimize your morning, but what about how? Here I will share five techniques I use every day to ensure that I’m making the most of my morning and setting myself up for success throughout the day.
1. Get up when you wake up.
Consistency is important. If you don’t have a schedule, you can’t have a plan, and if you don’t have a plan, you can’t use your time and energy resources wisely. For this reason it’s important to wake up at a consistent time. A daily schedule is like the scaffolding you build your daily achievements on, and waking up on time is the foundation.
One modification to this principle, which those with a flexible work schedule are often able to take advantage of, is, when possible, you should wake up with the sun. The time of the sunrise changes as the seasons unfold, earlier in the summer, later in the winter. The human body evolved for a long time to be in sync with this cycle, and it’s probably a good idea to conform yourself to the sun’s schedule a bit, rather than impose a simple, mechanical routine, which may not serve your body’s more arcane needs, over top of it. So try to build in 4-12 annual adjustments to your daily wake up time. You will be rewarded with the loving embrace of the sunrise and some Vitamin D each morning.
Never hit your snooze button. Pick a (right) time to get up, and get up. Unless disturbed or chronically malfunctioning, your body is wired to wake up at the end of a sleep cycle. If you wake up at peak REM, then hit snooze and fall back asleep, just a few minutes later when you have to get up, you’ll be forced to wake from NREM, which will leave you groggy and disoriented for a while (sleep inertia).
If you are not very in touch with your sleep rhythm yet, there are apps that can help you keep track and wake up at the right time. Sleep Cycle uses sound or motion sensors to determine what stage of sleep you are in, and will wake you up at the optimal time, up until the time you set the alarm for.
Lastly, when you wake up, say good bye to your bed. What I mean is, take the opportunity of physically transitioning out of your bed space, to mentally transition out of your head space, from a attitude of rest to an attitude of productivity. You’re used to resting when you’re in bed, so trying to get things done from bed sends your body mixed signals. Keeping non-sleep activities like working and watching TV out of the bedroom will also help you fall asleep more easily at night. To aid yourself in moving onto a new part of the day and new actives, move to a new room that signals a different purpose.
2. Make Your Bed (Small Victories)
Just like first impressions set the tone of a relationship or meeting, the first actions you take in the morning will either catalyze a chain reaction of positive thinking and therefore positive outcomes, or negative thinking and negative outcomes. Start the day with a sequence of small victories to set the tone for a day full of big victories. Remember, as the day goes on it only become more chaotic, so this time is your best chance to shape it.
As they say: you make the bed you lie in.
A great way to take advantage of the chance to make the bed you will have to lie in later, is to… make your bed every morning. Many people do this instinctively, either because they dislike the visual clutter or because they hate returning to an unmade bed at night. But many people, often men it seems, don’t seem to care and will sleep in an unmade bed. Even if you think you don’t care if the bed is made, ensuring that the first thing you do when you wake up is a victory, even a small one, will set off a chain of positive achievements.
No matter what happens today, at least you made the bed; you haven’t totally failed. This may seem trivial or irrational, but our emotions aren’t rational. How many times have you felt like a complete failure? I have many times. If you start by anchoring your motivation on small actions like this, it will train your mind to a more self-compassionate way of thinking which will help you build toward more ambitious achievements by preventing you from despairing over small failures.
This same principle applies to whatever other “minor” tasks you may meet throughout your morning. Learn to ride the wave of positive energy you get from making the bed all the way through brushing your teeth, washing the dishes, and making the kids’ lunch.
3. Practice Mindfulness
So you’ve woken up ahead of the pack and claimed victory over your bed; what’s next? It’s important to have a practice that helps put you in the mind-space you want to be in. If your mind ins’t well cultivated, then it won’t matter if your morning is optimal. For this, I practice breathing meditation, a form of Vipassanā. There are many other options, from Transcendental Meditation to Zazen, to something like Tony Robbins’ morning manta ritual.
Virtue is a habit, and developing a virtue like mindfulness results from the consistent performing of many small acts which accumulate over your lifetime into a habit. Meditation is more powerful when done routinely than when done only on occasion, making morning the perfect time to prioritize it.
Just 5-10 minutes of meditation daily will noticeably change your mental acuity, emotional balance, and physical comfort, and has many health benefits. Breathing meditation basically consists of sitting in a upright position, closing your eyes, scanning your body to become aware of its sensations, and breathing normally. Then, focusing awareness on the sensation of your own breathing, gently noting the in and out breaths. When your mind begins to wander as it inevitably will, gently and kindly remind yourself you are intending to focus on your breathing, and return to awareness of your breath. It is very common to do this exercise using a guide of some sort. Two apps that are very useful for this are Headspace and Insight Timer. Headspace has a cohesive and polished curriculum, but is subscription based with a free trial. Insight Timer is free and has a large library of guided meditations from many teachers and styles.
I often combine my meditation practice with “earthing” – the act of making contact between your bare skin and the earth. The idea is that the earth is negatively charged, and that contacting it with your skin allows negative ions to pass into your body, which has a variety purported health benefits. So I often meditate outside, in the morning sunshine, with my feet on the grass. It helps if the grass is a bit wet, to aid the connection.
I meditate in the morning because my routine is more consistent, so I can do it reliably. I have found that meditating while fatigued or tired is much more difficult, so doing it right before bed is not ideal. If I am going to meditate before bed, I will use some form of Yoga Nidra meditation guide to induce deep relaxation while I drift off.
4. All Fuel No Filler
Breakfast. Some men can’t even say the word. If you know much about healthy diet, you probably already know that starting your day off with inflammatory, insulin-spiking foods like simple carbohydrates is a bad idea. If you are going to eat breakfast, avoid the SAD options like toast, serial, fruit, or pancakes. Instead eat something high in saturated fats and proteins. Eggs, broth, and sardines are all good options.
Personally, I don’t eat breakfast. That’s because I stick to an intermittent fasting regimen. Intermittent fasting is a form of fasting that is done frequently for shorter periods of time. In my case, every day, from dinner time till lunch time the next day. After about 16 hours of not eating, your body goes through metabolic changes that enable you to process food more efficiently. Regular eating results in full glycogen stores and sufficient blood sugar levels, leading to food energy inputs being stored as fat. The fasted state leads to insulin sensitivity which encourages your body to store food energy inputs as glycogen in the muscles and liver. This difference has a number of benefits. It leads to fat loss since your body must burn fat stores (glycogen) instead of food energy. It also results in increased Ghrelin levels (which activates food seeking instincts and I believe acts as a cognitive and physical performance enhancement drug), increased HGH levels (which leads to increased muscle growth), and decreased LPL levels (an enzyme that causes you to store fat).
But the optimization doesn’t have to stop there. Just because fasting is good for your blood sugar and hormone levels doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from a little better living through chemistry, too. I usually like to spice my morning up with a hot beverage to keep to my pallet entertained and my brain chemistry augmented while I work (and look forward to lunch). Here are a few beverages I’ve experimented with and liked:
Bulletproof Coffee: This recipe, recently popularized by Dave Asprey (who sells proprietary versions of these ingredients) consists of high quality coffee blended with grass fed butter and MCT oil. The idea here is that, in addition to just being good for you, butter and MCT absorb caffeine molecules and release it into your blood stream more slowly, resulting in a longer lasting and less jittery caffeine high without the comedown. I usually forgo the butter and only add the MCT, for one because butter would break my fast, but also because I’m in it every bit as much for the neurological effects of the MCT as for those of the caffeine. MCT consists of medium-chain triglycerides, meaning that, in comparison to long-chain triglycerides, they have very short carbon tails. This allows them to speed through your body, bypass some digestive processes, and become accessible more rapidly. Essentially, MCT gets a VIP pass straight to your brain. When it get’s their, it supplies it with ketones, which the brain can use to fuel itself when blood glucose is low, as it will be this far into your fast.
My own take on this recipe, besides passing on the butter, is using specifically emulsified MCT oil. MCT is basically pure oil, and no matter how thoroughly you blend it into your coffee (for example using a Vitamix, as I do), it will still float, creating a gross lens of oil at the top of your drink, and not fulfilling its intended purpose. Emulsified MCT oil, however, mixes right in and stays mixed.
Of course, another important consideration of this recipe is the coffee itself, and that’s where the next beverage comes in.
Kimera Koffee: It’s important from a health standpoint to consume high quality coffee. Ideally high-altitude grown, wet processed, organic coffee. This is where Kimera Koffee comes in. Kimera is harvested from a single-estate plantation in the Dominican Republic and is processed in such as way as to minimize contamination from mycotoxins (mold toxins). But not only that, it is mixed with a cocktail of nootropics designed to increase cognitive function. The nootropics in Kimera Koffee are amino acids typically found in protein-rich foods in small amounts. One cup contains 725mg of their proprietary nootropic blend, which includes Alpha GPC (mproves memory, enhances mental focus, and increases power output), Taurine (delays cognitive decline due to aging, fights oxidative stress, reduces fatigue, and helps boost fat metabolization), L-Theanine (balances daily anxiety, improves sleep patterns, and helps prevent cholesterol-related damage), and DMAE (boosts mental performance, increases energy, improves oxygen efficiency and promotes red blood cell function.)
So try giving Kimera a shot next time to make bulletproof coffee – a few more mind altering drugs can’t hurt.
Titanium Tea: A beverage I prefer even more than bulletproof coffee is a recipe I first heard about from Tim Ferriss, though the variation I have tried came from a podcast conversation and isn’t what you’ll turn up if you just google it. The ingredients are:
- Green or Pu-erh tea
- fresh grated ginger
- fresh grated turmeric
- MCT oil
I usually steep the ginger and turmeric in a Ball jar for a few minutes using a tea strainer before adding the tea, so I get plenty of ginger spice but don’t oversteep the tea. Then into the Vitamix with some emulsified MCT oil it goes.
This is an awesome drink with loads of medicinal properties. Ginger aids digestion and lowers blood sugar. Turmeric is anti-inflammatory and encourages neurogenesis. The tea has caffeine, but the tea is one place where this recipe still might be further optimized, and that leads us to my next favorite morning beverage:
Matcha: Matcha is rich in nutrients, antioxidants, fiber, and chlorophyll. The health benefits of matcha exceed those of other green teas because when you drink matcha you ingest the whole leaf, not just the brewed water. One glass of matcha is the equivalent of 10 glasses of green tea in terms of nutritional value and antioxidant content. Matcha contains L-theanine, an amino acid known to have a relaxing, mood enhancing effect on the mind. L-theanine, combined with caffeine, creates a sustained calm alertness, in contrast to the jittery and often short lived effect obtained from coffee (i.e. caffeine) alone. Some Buddhist monks drink matcha to assist in meditation, which comports with my experience of the psychoactive effects of the drink as very “zen”.
So try using matcha next time you make Titanium Tea, and prepare yourself for a relaxed and alert state of mind. Keep in mind, you will need special tools to prepare matcha.
5. Power Hour
Really, all of the aforementioned practices are in service to the optimization of this next step. Performing all of those rituals should probably take about a half hour. 0 for waking up; 3 for making the bed; 10 for meditating; 7 for making tea; and let’s say 10 for things like putting on pants and brushing your teeth. So you’ve been up for 30 minutes and you’re all ready to kick ass.
Now the denouement of a great morning: Power Hour. If you succeed at Power Hour, your whole day will in all likelihood be a tolerable success in terms of productivity. If you miss this, it probably won’t.
Power Hour is premised on the simple and eminently applicable 80/20 Rule. In general, this rule states that 80% of your results will derive from 20% of your work. The key to optimizing productivity is to focus on winning this disproportionately effective 20% of activities. It follows from this that there is 20% of your daily energy supply and 20% of your daily time supply that will be the most effective. For all of the above mentioned reasons, this time is likely going to be first thing in the morning. If the average work day is 8 hours, then the first 96 minutes of the morning to be more precise – so more like an hour and a half, but that doesn’t rhyme.
If you fail to take advantage of this 20%, you’re going to be stuck relying on that reaming 80% of the day’s effort, when you’re tired or the distractions start to seep in, to complete the requisite progress – but that 80% likely won’t net you much more than 20% of the desired results.
The practice of Power Hour is the practice of thoroughly setting aside the first 90 minutes of your day for immediate and uninterrupted work on your main project for the day. (If you are interested in learning more about formally prioritizing your goals for the day, read my post about combining Google Keep and the Getting Things Done method). The goal is to use the morning time, when distractions are limited and mental and physical performance are at a max, to knock out that 80% of your daily goal.
This hack is simple: just make 90 minutes of uninterrupted work on your main project for the day the first thing you do with your work day – no caveats.
One factor I have found to be consistently present in making Power Hour work is “email hygiene”. If you’re a freelancer or work in the digital world, email is a big deal. Email is a huge time suck. Remember, whenever you write or respond to an email, you are ensuring that one or more emails will come back to you later, and in this way it causes your workload to expand. And while sometimes (but not often) necessary, email generally isn’t the kind of work that’s netting you 80% of the results. It’s important to keep emailing to a minimum no matter what, but during Power Hour it’s critical. Here’s a simple rule to help with that: don’t look at your inbox, read, or answer any emails at all until after Power Hour. Simply delay your first email session till after you’re done winning the day. That way, you preserve your time and attention for the task at hand, and by the time you get to your email, very few things could be in there that could effectively derail your day, since you’ve already done 80% of your work anyways.
That’s it! Now you know my 5 most used hacks to make sure my morning is leveraged to the fullest extent possible, my mind and body are poised for all day responsiveness, and a precedence of productivity is set for the rest of my day. Onward!