How to Take Back the First Hour of Your Day
A five-step guide for going beyond the typical morning routine.
On social media, mornings look blissful. It seems everyone greets the day with beachfront meditation, green elixirs or a sweaty endorphin rush. While these are all worthy pursuits, I suspect those blissed-out moments are the exception, not the rule. For many of us, mornings are tough. The alarm goes off far too early. Then we're juggling kids, pets, text messages, missing files and burnt toast.
I've learned that the first hour of my morning directly influences the rest of my day. If I hit snooze and skip the gym, I don't feel settled until lunchtime. But if I wake up rested and start the day with intention, I'm ready to tackle whatever happens next. For entrepreneurs, every day brings new possibilities. The question is, how will you capitalize on them?
Treat Yourself Like a Toddler
"Morning dread" is that mind-racing, pulse-racing feeling that often emerges right after you wake up. Suddenly, your brain starts cataloguing all your to-dos and any struggles you're facing. First, take a deep breath. Then consider some powerful research from neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. As Barrett explains, emotions are not hard-wired reflections of our external reality. They're actually guesses our brains make based on previous experiences.
"Anytime you feel miserable," Barrett writes in her book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, "it's because you are experiencing an unpleasant effect due to physical sensations."
Related: 14 of the Best Morning-Routine Hacks
Our brains try to predict the reasons for those physical sensations, and they often miss the mark. For example, you might be tired from a restless night. Or maybe you're hungry, hot, dehydrated or sore. Before you drown in negative thoughts, address your basic needs. Drink a big glass of water and eat something nourishing. Enjoy a hot shower. Don't let your mind spiral into dread or anxiety when the issue is often physical.
Establish Your Favorite Rituals
Raise your hand if you're tired of "morning routines." Me, too. For the past few years, we've heard that a productive day demands everything from pre-dawn yoga to dunking yourself in ice water. So, let's talk about rituals instead. The first hour of your morning should ground and energize you. It should highlight activities that make you feel calm and, ideally, excited about the day ahead. That could mean meditating or even just making your bed. Maybe you want to savor an exceptional cup of coffee.
There are no rules — only what works for you. Experiment to discover what sets you up for a great day. Then, reflect on how those activities make you feel. We're more likely to continue with specific rituals if we label the positive feelings they elicit. Efficiency can also be your friend. Minimize friction by pre-planning your wardrobe (or establishing a daily uniform), meal prepping and setting up fitness "appointments" in your calendar to reduce decision fatigue and transform rituals into habits.
Speaking of decision fatigue, it's increasingly difficult to make good decisions as the day unwinds. That's why it's easier to choose a healthy breakfast or a gym session in the morning than at 6 p,m., when you've already made hundreds, even thousands of choices. If you're able to exercise before work, that's a great option. I love knowing it's done before I reach the office.
If mornings simply don't work for you, sign up for a workout class at the end of the day or plan to meet a friend for a walk. Make it non-negotiable. Studies show that regular exercise improves concentration, sharpens memory, speeds up learning, prolongs mental stamina, enhances creativity, lowers stress and elevates mood. As psychologist Ron Friedman writes in Harvard Business Review, "Instead of viewing exercise as something we do for ourselves — a personal indulgence that takes us away from our work — it's time we started considering physical activity as part of the work itself."
Tackle Critical Tasks First
If you've ever struggled to do tough-yet-essential work early in the day, you can blame what scientists call the "urgency effect." Our brains are wired to seek immediate satisfaction over long-term rewards. New research also shows that we're more likely to pick small tasks with urgent deadlines over important tasks without timelines. We have to battle our own biology to be productive instead of just busy.
To trick your brain, try setting micro-goals. Take a critical task and break it down into the smallest possible units of progress. Then attack each task one by one. You can also try the five-minute rule. Pick a project and commit to working on it for just five minutes. Then stop — even if you want to continue. This technique strengthens your "starting" muscle and primes you to return to the task at hand. Consistently choosing to do what matters in the first hour of your day also builds confidence, which ultimately feels better than a dopamine hit of instant gratification.
There's a reason why so many people practice mindfulness in the morning. Ideally, your brain is refreshed and open to the world around you after a night of sleep. Mindfulness can include meditation, but it might also mean free writing, listening to music or gentle stretching. According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, mindfulness is "maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment through a gentle, nurturing lens."
Mindfulness helps to foster empathy and the ability to be present, which is essential for business, but also for a satisfying life. Even if sitting quietly or journaling doesn't feel like a smart use of your time, it will pay dividends. Much like exercise, mindfulness reduces stress, improves health outcomes and can make you a better leader and manager. Most importantly, it sets a calm, positive tone for your day — and that's one of the best investments you can make each morning.
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