Type “morning routine” into Google and you’re met with 547 million results. That’s a lot – enough to make us fall into a belief that morning routines are the vehicles that carry you to success. I mean, millionaires publish endless content on their intricate morning routines which means it must work—right?
There are nuances worth considering that are often missed in the midst of establishing morning routines like we think a “productive” person should. And these matter, here’s why.
What defines a morning routine?
We all technically have a morning routine, whether we’re being intentional about it or not. However, most of our morning routines revolve around “cheap wins”—checking social media notifications, checking our email, or pressing the snooze button.
At its most basic, a morning routine is simply what you do in the morning as soon as you wake up. That set of tasks could be anything—brushing your teeth, feeding your dog, opening your laptop while drinking a tall glass of orange juice.
This set of tasks you habitually do each morning can help make or break your day, sure. But what happens when you obsess over creating the perfect morning routine by adding a long list of extra steps?
As with anything, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. The more you try to squeeze into your morning, the less you benefit from each task. Why? Well, for starters, there’s this little thing called decision fatigue that plays a part in how productive your overall day is.
You deal with more decision fatigue
Decision fatigue is a real thing. According to the American Medical Association decision fatigue is a state of mental overload that impairs your ability to continue making decisions. That is, the more decisions you’re tasked with throughout the day, the lower your ability to keep making them (and making them well).
The additional time and emotion that goes into additional decisions make us more passive. A recent conceptual analysis on decision fatigue states “Evidence suggests that individuals experiencing decision fatigue demonstrate an impaired ability to make trade-offs, prefer a passive role in the decision-making process, and often make choices that seem impulsive or irrational.”
It’s estimated that the average person makes thousands of decisions throughout the day. It isn’t hard to see how adding extra decision-making tasks to a morning routine can work against you. Look, it’s easy to want to do it all in the morning to set yourself up for success each day. As you build your morning routine with intention, consider decision fatigue as a factor to be aware of.
Too much focus on adding tasks instead of removing tasks
In such a fast-paced world we’re starting to realize that often, less is actually more. This approach also applies to morning routines. Most of us are better off working on simplifying our existing routines instead of adding more tasks.
Adding tasks before simplifying what we’re already doing does a few counterintuitive things:
- It overloads us with decision fatigue
- It decreases our chances of sticking with all the new tasks
- Adding too many habits too soon in the morning can leave us feeling depleted before our bodies have adjusted to the new routine
Rather than adding a slew of new tasks, consider starting by taking away tasks—namely the ones you deem bad habits. This way, you make space for the good morning routine habits you’re trying to practice instead of piling on more to your mornings.
You’re stacking habits in the wrong order
You set yourself up for failure when you try to slap on a morning routine to your otherwise unchanged lifestyle, which includes your current bad habits. For example, as you try to build a morning routine with positive habits it’s more helpful to learn to stop scrolling through social media in bed first thing in the morning before you attempt to incorporate a 90-minute early morning gym routine.
This practice is what James Clear calls “habit stacking.” It’s the practice of connecting a current habit with a new one as a way to strengthen the neural networks your brain creates as it repeats those habits each day. Clear explains it best—
“The reason habit stacking works so well is that your current habits are already built into your brain. You have patterns and behaviors that have been strengthened over years. By linking your new habits to a cycle that is already built into your brain, you make it more likely that you'll stick to the new behavior.”
As you’re trying to build a morning routine, chances are you’re not setting yourself up to stick to your newfound habits, which leads to frustrating mornings. As a beginner, instead of focusing on establishing a full-blown morning routine, consider starting small and habit stacking.
Make one good habit stick, then proceed to add another one. It’s a good way to keep a morning routine from overwhelming you and doing more harm than good.
You’re depriving yourself of an essential human need: Recharging properly with sleep and rest
Humans work in cycles. When it comes to habits and morning routines, two cycles become incredibly relevant—
Circadian rhythms: This refers to the natural rhythm and the physical, behavioral, and mental changes that happen for each of us in 24-hour cycles. This affects our sleep patterns. Each of us is more or less awake at different parts of the day.
Ultradian rhythms: Much like circadian rhythms, our body goes through a series of higher and lower energy levels throughout the day, usually in 90-minute increments (though this can vary from person to person).
Both terms point to the reality of our day-to-day lives: We function in rhythms that ebb and flow. Knowing this, it makes sense that we can’t all function on a strict routine at early hours of the day. Some of us are better off using those early morning hours getting in those additional hours of rest so that we can be alert in the evenings—when some people do their best work.
Complex morning routines aren’t for everyone (neither is working early hours)
Are you a creative thinker? you might thrive in less structure and prefer evening routines thanks to how your circadian rhythms work.
Yet if you search through Google or YouTube for “evening routines” you’d hardly find information on the subject. Why is that? Besides the fact morning routines have gone viral in the online world, creating an evening routine doesn’t sound as sexy or “productive.” However, it’s a seemingly contrarian approach to how we do life and stay productive that can work for many, including the more creative types. Routines aren’t set in stone. Nothing says they have to be tethered to mornings or that (gasp) you even need one.
Consider Van Gogh who thrived through chaos to the tune of more than 900 paintings before his death despite not having a morning routine to speak of. He was a prolific artist that averaged one painting every 36 hours throughout his lifetime!
Stephen King has managed to write 63 novels, 120 short stories, and 20 novellas by habitually writing for 3–4 hours each day. King used a routine to his advantage without needing to create a fifteen-step process for himself. For him, it was as simple as setting aside a few hours in the day, making tea, taking his supplements, sitting, and writing.
In Lisa Rogak’s Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, King goes on to explain—
“The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”
In other words, what mattered and worked for King was the daily repetition of his 8 am routine rather than a complex fifteen-step process. These examples may be anecdotal evidence for why a morning routine isn’t the end all be all when the goal is to build a productive work life. However, they’re real-life examples that to be a prolific creator and do good work, creating a strict morning routine isn’t a requirement that applies to everyone.
Simplify your life with Sunsama
Overdoing a healthy habit to the point where it’s no longer healthy is common. As you learn to add harmony to your work life and figure out how to achieve your goals without burnout, consider simplicity when it comes to your morning routine above all else. In the end, it’s about figuring out what works for you.
Talking about simplicity. Consider adding a minimalist weekly planner to your morning routine. Get started with Sunsama.