Habits and routines: What do you do first thing in the morning?

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Image description: early morning scene on a country road winding to the right, big sky, mountains in the distance (Photo: near Salida, Colorada, July 2022, Tracy Isaacs).

In the spirit of the new year, blank page, fresh start mindset that many of us find ourselves in every January, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes it easy to establish habits and routines. We’ve all read that it takes 21 days or 30 days or 66 days (“they” are undecided). Regardless of how many days or weeks it takes, one thing is certain, it takes some time, and it’s hard to make a habit stick.

My main focus this year, for myself, is to establish habits in the form of regular routines. Here are the things I want to do regularly: work on my book 5x/week; yoga daily; meditate daily; run 3x/week; strength training 2x/week. There’s a lot of advice out there for how to make habits stick. The advice involves things like making a plan and sticking to it (seriously, this is not helpful since making a plan and sticking to it until it becomes habit or routine is the entire challenge), start small (my favourite, and I’ll be posting about that on Saturday), have an accountability partner (besides your smart watch), roll with setbacks, track or log your progress. It’s all helpful and I’ve used all of these tips at various junctures in my life to establish habits and routines.

But the one thing that has been most helpful, especially with things that I am likely to avoid (like working on my book, which always seems to take a back seat to everything else) or forget about once my day starts (like meditation, which is not something I tend to think about other than first thing), is the advice to do whatever it is first thing in the morning upon getting out of bed.

This approach has been so effective for me that I am often engaged in an inner struggle about which thing to put in that cherished spot of being the very first thing. Clearly, I can only choose one. Before January came along my morning routine immediately upon getting out of bed looked like this: play with the cats, give Lily-cat her meds, feed them, meditate, do the wordle (and 3-4 other word puzzles!), and after that it was anybody’s guess because I’ve been on sabbatical. What was missing from this regular routine were regular yoga or workouts (which I fit in as desired but somehow became very haphazard in December) and writing/working on the book (which I just avoided, catching me in the downward spiral of procrastination and self-reprimand that goes along with it).

And what had an undeserved place in this routine is the word puzzles. I have no objection to word puzzles, but they are not more important than writing my book. I feel pretty strongly that the morning hours are a precious time of day that hold a lot of promise. What I choose to do first thing in the morning is in some ways a reflection of my priorities. I wouldn’t, for example, pick up my phone and start scrolling through social media before I’ve done anything else. What a horrible way (for me) to start my day. And yet when I reflected on how my mornings go, I had to admit that I was giving these puzzles, and then some reporting on them on various friends’ social media feeds, pride of place immediately following my meditation.

So, starting today I have rejigged the order of priority of the first-thing-in-the-morning task list as follows: cat care (can’t really put that in any other place because they will torment me until they’re fed anyway, and Lily needs her meds), meditation, working on my book for a specified time (exceedingly short but the goal is to establish a routine, so it has to start off short and attainable), yoga (this month it will be Adriene’s January practice), and a short stint downstairs in my building’s fitness centre. Puzzles can wait until later, and are a great reward for successfully making it through my “first-thing-things.”

I did it all today partly as a test run to see how long it would take me. Not being on sabbatical anymore, I need to be more attentive to the timing. That all took about two hours, so when I actually have to leave to be at work by 8:30 or 9, it’s not really going to work. I mean, I didn’t even include showering, getting ready, and breakfast in that. Noticing that, I am moving yoga to the afternoon since I am much less likely to skip it than I am to skip, say, running at the end of a long day.

If there is any advice lurking in this post, it’s that deciding which things will go first is a great way of establishing at least some things as routine. Clearly this won’t work in the case of everything (for example: bedtime routines. But I have even noticed that in order to stick to my morning routine I need to have a closer look at my winding-down process at the day’s end). I do believe that the choices I make early in the day are an indication of what I think is important. To me, though I realize others might have different perspectives on this, the idea of starting my day on an activity that feels like a waste of time (such as scrolling social media or watching tv) makes me feel as if I’m off-kilter with what I care about. This feeling is compounded when I am struggling to find time to incorporate the things I say I care about into my day.

What do you prioritize in the morning? Do you think it reflects what you value in your life?

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