As a morning person I am always looking for new ways to get the most from my morning routine to set up a great day. Here are seven old and new suggestions from Dr Stephanie Estima.
1. Make Your Bed
There’s nothing like a small, early, quick win, and making your bed is the best one to start your day with.
Making you bed is the quickest dopamine hit I can think of to start your day productively. Your mother was right…making your bed is important! Now, I am not talking about going all Martha Stewart with perfect folded corners, with the perfectly placed throw pillow and freshly ironed sheets. I’m talking about the minimal effort to get the desired result. The MVP — the minimal viable product. For your bed, it is straightening out your sheets, and hiding the pillows underneath. Simple, and done in under a minute. Done is better than perfect.
Dandapani was one of the first people to teach me this. I was fortunate enough to meet him earlier this year at an event called Archangel Masters. I have been making my bed every since, and, while it may seem like a negligible thing, the effect of starting off with a win compounds through the day. I feel in some strange way that I have control over my life, no matter what happens to me that day. I’ve won because my bed is made. I’ve created forward momentum. This is especially true on days when I am working from home. My home office is right beside my bedroom. The constant visual cue of a messy bed often translates to messy thoughts, and a less than productive day.
2. Take An Ice Cold Shower
Brutal truth time here — I started off absolutely hating the idea of a cold shower. I thought, what could be worse than a freezing shower?!
I was (and still am) a blazing hot shower aficionado. and when I first read about the benefits of this from Wim Hof, I immediately dove into the research with the intention of proving him wrong. I unfortunately did not succeed.
The benefits of a freezing cold shower on energy production, skin, brain are amazing. This one was the hardest things for me to implement…so I made a conscious choice to compromised. I knew I needed to do START my day with an ice cold shower, and that is what I started doing. A 5 minute, ice cold shower. Gaaaaaahhhh. But damn it wakes you up and brings your brain online.
However, I wanted it all, so decided I would also continue my hot showers by ending my day with hot shower before bed. This also an efficiency hack for me — when I take hot shower, I wash my hair so it can dry overnight (ladies with long hair will appreciate this struggle…a shower in the morning with my hair takes upwards of 1 hour to dry…not efficient and who has the time?!).
The cold shower is akin to that first jump in the lake on summer holidays. Whenever I go to the beach, the water would start off feeling like it was FREEZING. Once you get in and get used to it — not such a big deal…in fact, it felt amazing. I felt alive. Cold showers are the same. The first few seconds are painfully cold. But you get over it…and you even start to look forward to the burst of energy and clarity it brings.
The neuroscience on meditation is indisputable. Higher brain centers dominate, increased parasympathetic activation, and it brings you into a proactive (rather than reactive) state. This is something I initially struggled with as well. The voice in my head would circle: Am I supposed to sit in a lotus position? Do I chant? Is that a thing? What do I chant? What is white space supposed to look like? Am I seeing white right now? How does this stuff work? Am I doing this right? How am I supposed to DO this?
Enter in the incessant chatter, self doubt, the perfectionist and inner critic. I would eventually drift off into my to-do list, and a million other thoughts.
I struggled with meditation and “doing it right” until someone told me that meditation is just focussing on being the present, coupled with breath work. EXPECT that your mind will wander. EXPECT that you will drift off into other thoughts. This is totally normal!
The genius of meditation is that is trains you to become aware when your thoughts have drifted, and to train you to bring your attention back to your breath. You come back to the now.
Every time your thoughts drift, and you become aware of it, that is like the equivalent to one meditation “rep”. You will go through many “reps” during your meditation time, and that is the point — to become aware of the breath.
One of the most useful tools (if you are a gadget person like me) is the Muse headband.
In the morning, I often dedicate 5–10 minutes to my breath work, which is my version of mediation. You can choose whatever length of time works best for you. Some quick math on this — if you can commit to 10 minutes of breath work and meditation in the morning, this is the equivalent of 60 hours per year. You add that up over several years and the cumulative effect of on your brain is astounding.
One of the surprising and lovely benefits is it allows you to be more present, focused, and calm. It connects you with your body so that you can check in with yourself with greater ease, learn your rhythms and patterns. So often we are lost in the algorithms in our heads, we lose the ability to lean into the intuition, or our physical responses to the environment. Meditation allows you to master your responses to your external environment. It cannot change your angry boss, your toxic friend, or your annoying neighbour, but it will help with your responses (both physiological and emotional) to these stimuli.
4. Exercise Lightly
Actually Dr Stephanie suggests Physical priming, which is simply choosing movement — any movement — and do it.
Push ups, jumping jacks, squats, lunges, sit ups, handstands, rebounder, dance to your favourite song…anything you want. The point is to just pick something and do it. Choose 20 reps of any exercise, or 5 minutes of dancing like nobody’s watching, put on some tunes and GO!
This physical movement, albeit short, creates massive momentum for your ability to think, ideate, and create. It is powerful cognitive priming.
A whopping 90% of the stimulation to your brain comes from your spine, doing a short bursts of activity is a short quick win AND it wakes up your frontal lobe (the area where creativity, focus, and decision making lives) by lighting up the motor, premotor, and prefrontal cortex. This is a great hack to get you into state and flow. For clarity, I am NOT asking you to a full workout. In fact, the morning is absolutely not the best time for a workout. Not HIIT. Not weights. Not cardio.
I know this may come as a shock to many, but when we look at peak cognitive times, the time we are best suited for creativity, focus and productivity — it is the morning.
The issue here is most people wake up and run to the gym to workout, to get it checked off their list ‘before their day starts’.
Now, I am always going to be an advocate for exercise. But, if you are interested in maximizing your day, becoming someone who produces at twice the rate they were before, the morning is not the optimal time to workout. There are good times and excellent times to do things. There are good ways and excellent ways in which to do them. Knowing and applying this is going to be the difference between you have an average life and a great one.
A general rule to follow is brain work first, body work second. Our peak productivity often starts to taper after the late morning. Our temperature slowly begins to rise as the morning goes on, which lights up our working memory, concentration and alertness. It falls after it has reached this peak temperature. This is the perfect time for workout — around lunch time.
It is a cognitive break from the work we have been doing all morning, the movement will get your sweating, stimulate your spine, and therefore recharge and refuel your brain. For most people, somewhere between 12–4 pm is the ideal time for a workout — any it can be any workout you choose — high or medium intensity interval training, weights or endurance training.
After 6 hours of cognitive work, I look forward to my workouts as a mental break, a way to let thoughts simmer somewhere in the background. It serves as a reset for an afternoon of massive productivity.
I used to push myself to wake up and immediately workout at 5am. Before the kids woke up, I thought, was the most efficient use of my time. I was forcing the workout to happen. When I let go of this idea and started working out in the afternoon (right before I go pick them or on my lunch break), I was able to dedicate those morning hours to personal development, AND be a happier, present mother for my children when they were home.
A midday workout is something I have started to look forward to. I am able to push harder, dig deeper, and recover faster in a midday workout than I am first thing in the morning.
5. Read and Write
After physical priming, I begin reading and journaling in my morning ritual. Get a book you’ve been wanting to read, and have a journal beside you. When you read something of meaning to you, or you notice your thoughts connecting dots, or how a passage is relevant to your life, stop reading.
Pick up the pen and start writing down all the thoughts that are coming up for you — from your past, from your future, how this makes you feel right now. How or why is this thought or idea relevant to you?
This is the magic of real change. Listen, we can all read a book. But the big divide among us, in terms of who gets the most out of a book, will be the ones who can apply the idea in their lives in a meaningful way, and the others who will passively read it and do nothing about it. Reading is simply not enough. You must play with the ideas, manipulate them in an abstract way, and apply it to your life right now. You must UNDERSTAND the concepts and apply them in a meaningful way in your life.
It is not rote memorization, or passive reading that creates a leader, or gives someone the power to shape their life. It is someone who understands how to use it that is best suited for them. Benjamin Hardy talks about the value of journaling, and in this article. “It’s usually the idea after the idea that really matters.” — Benjamin Hardy
But most people take their ideas for granted, or they just continue their reading.
I worked recently with Chris Smith who said something utterly profound to me — we often take our realizations for granted. The realizations we have are clues to our unique genius, our purpose, and who we are at our core. A realization is simply a thought that can relate or provide clarity around what your reading and how it applies in your life.
It makes more sense to play with the ideas that come to you, to make them your own…to UNDERSTAND the concepts you are reading, and them make a leap to KNOWING them and how they relate to you — rather than passively reading the words on the page. Ben believes this is how you make quantum leaps, every day toward your goals. When you are gaining powerful insights that have meaning — they will improve how you live, how you see things, and ultimately your behaviour.
This is why learning every day is so important. I will sometimes put down my book, and just write the most nonsensical ramblings that are coming to me. I keep at it until I start to dig down, until I get to juicier thoughts and associations. This technique is described in The Artist’s Way.
Just write, even if it is the silliest thoughts. Get them on paper. Download your thoughts, and what is coming up for you. The more you write, the more you simmer on the thought and the thought patterns, you free up space in your brain for other things. This process also quiets the incessant internal chatter, sometimes called the monkey mind. These thoughts are often full of self doubt, telling you that you must not, you should not, you will not as you will surely fail.
6. Face Your Anxiety Head On
For most people, analysis paralysis runs the roost. What I mean by that is we can so overwhelmed by our to do list, and it may seem long and unending that we are so overwhelmed that they become paralyzed by not knowing what first step to take forward.
Tim Ferriss talks about starting off your day by writing down the 3 things that are causing you the most anxiety. It is likely these things that are being bucked to the next day, next week, next month are precisely the tasks that are causing you the most grief, and hoarding of brain space. Tim suggests allotting a dedicated block of time TODAY to work on one of these anxiety producing tasks, with the intention of getting it done. A dedicated, uninterrupted chunk of time, like an hour, to work towards completing it. Not the 15 minutes in your Uber ride, or in between checking Facebook. Carve out time and space to complete them. And then do it.
Whenever I have to buckle down and work on something, I use the Pomodoro technique. My phone goes on airplane mode, and I dive fully into my work with no distractions, for 20 solid minutes. A quick break for 5 minutes, and then right back into my work for another 20 minutes. That, my friends, is how you #gsd. It is also a way to train your focus and concentration. We are constantly bombarded with stimuli, and shutting down and disconnecting from the online world and all distractions will train your frontal lobe to be able to sit and work.
Further, the cost of brain switching from your phone to your work not only slows down your ability to finish the task, but the task will likely stay on your to do list for much longer than it needs to, producing more anxiety than it should. The energetic waste of brain space by having these anxiety-producing tasks linger and pull on your attention cannot be understated.
7. Drink water
We all technically fast for 8 hours overnight while we sleep. When we wake up, it is important to rehydrate your body. I strongly prefer rehydration over food in the morning. I’ve written about fasting and time restricted eating here, and here, and here if you’re interested in learning about the physiological benefits of fasting.
A big glug of water (I usually drink about 750mL of cucumber or lemon water first thing in the morning) is enough to rehydrate your cells and get rid of that dry sock in the mouth feeling. Rehydration is a great way to continue with your morning momentum- both with metabolism, alertness, and productivity.
We also producing the most ketogenic in the morning, and continuing by not eating is wonderful for your clarity and focus. We all know we need to be drinking more water. You can get creative and put mint, cucumber, blueberries, limes, whatever you love.