Here are my musings on how we craft a morning routine that fuels us towards our potential, increases our happiness and makes us more productive in everyday life. With extracts from ‘My Morning Routine’.
MORNING ROUTINES = HOW TO AVOID DECISION FATIGUE
“Commonly recognized as a reduced ability to make decisions (or rather, to make the decisions
you know you should make) due to being inundated with the sheer number of choices we’re
faced with on a daily basis, decision fatigue is a harmful psychological state that we all
experience from time to time. …
Typical methods for reducing decision fatigue in the morning include planning for the next
day the night before… and wearing a ‘uniform’ to work every day (a tactic popularized by Steve
Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and President Barack Obama). Long story short, the less unimportant
decisions you have to make in the morning, the more energy you’ll have for all the more
important decisions you have to make later in the day.”
Decision fatigue. It’s real.
Research shows we have a finite capacity to process information and make decisions. Which
is why it’s so important to routinise as much of our lives, and especially our mornings, as
In Your Brain at Work, David Rock echoes this wisdom and tells us how powerful our basal
ganglia are at executing patterns. He tells us to: “Use this resource every way you can. Once you
repeat a pattern often enough, the basal ganglia can drive the process, freeing up the stage for
new functions. Develop routines that can be repeated over and over again.”
He also tells us to: “prioritize prioritizing.”
Specifically, he says: “If Emily knew how energy-hungry her stage was, she would start her
Monday morning differently. The big difference is she would prioritize prioritizing. She
would prioritize first, before any other attention rich activity such as email. That’s because
prioritizing is one of the brain’s most energy-hungry processes.
After even just a few mental activities, you may not have the resources left to prioritize. Using
your stage for something energy-intensive such as prioritizing is like flying one of those toy
helicopters you see at parks, the ones that are supposed to be for kids but that dads actually
buy for themselves. Once Dad gets the helicopter off the ground a few times, it won’t get off
the ground again because the power is too low. It gets close, rising a few inches off, and then
collapses back down. And the more you try, the less energy there is. Best to recharge and try
again later. In a similar way, doing ten minutes of emailing can use up the power needed for
prioritizing. Emily experienced this when she couldn’t ‘see’ how to prioritize her day and ended
up dealing with her emails instead.”
In other words, once you blow your brain up with emails and other reactive stuff, it’s REALLY
hard to settle it back down to do any meaningful work.
This is why Scott Adams tells us: “I never waste a brain cell in the morning trying to
figure out what to do when. Compare that with some people you know who spend two hours
planning and deciding on every task that takes one hour to complete. I’m happier than those
Then there’s the whole discussion around choice in general. See The Paradox of Choice for more
on the perils of allowing too much choice into your life.
And, most importantly for our purposes, today: Commit to a morning routine. 🙂
WHAT *NOT* TO DO IN YOUR MORNING ROUTINE
“When we describe multitasking we’re often describing context switching, the act of opening
up our email and looking through it for ‘just’ two minutes before returning to our original task.
Context switching is inherently bad for us—every time we switch between doing our work and
reading an article online, or reading an article online and checking our phones, we experience a
‘transaction cost’ that drains our energy and slows us down.
Multitasking is the act of doing two or more tasks at the same time, with varying levels of
success. While most attempts at multitasking tend to fail (as anyone who has ever attempted to
order groceries online while feigning an all-ears presence on a conference call can attest), certain
activities can be worked alongside each other, such as cycling to work (you get to where you’re
going while getting a workout in), or, if you can do it safely, listening to an audiobook in the car.”
Multitasking. Context Switching.
Whatever you call all those activities you’re engaged in when you’re not fully present: Quit doing
that! You’re wasting a TON of energy and diminishing the quality of your life experience.
Let’s go back to David Rock and Your Brain at Work for a quick look at the IQ points you give
up when you constantly shift your attention to text and email: “A study done at the University
of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an
average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women and fifteen points for men.
This effect is similar to missing a night of sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than
the effect of smoking cannabis. While this fact might make an interesting dinner party topic,
it’s really not that amusing that one of the most common ‘productivity tools’ can make one as
dumb as a stoner.”
And, I love Cal Newport’s point that we create “attention residue.”
As he says: “The problem this research identifies with this work strategy is that when
you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately
follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. …
‘People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor
performance on that next task,’ and the more intense the residue, the worse the performance.
The concept of attention residue helps explain why the intensity formula is true and therefore
explains Grant’s productivity. By working on a single hard task for a long time without
switching, Grant minimizes the negative impact of attention residue from his obligations,
allowing him to maximize performance on this one task.”
The solution? Of course, create some nice, deep time blocks to hammer the essential.
Cal says: “To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full
concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that
optimizes performance is deep work.”
Then we have Brian Tracy who tells us (in Eat That Frog): “Every great achievement of
humankind has been preceded by a long period of hard, concentrated work until the job was
done. Single handling requires that once you begin a task, you keep working at it, without
diversion or distraction, until the job is 100 per cent complete. You keep urging yourself
onward by repeating the words, ‘Back to work!’ over and over whenever you are tempted to
stop or do something else. By concentrating single-mindedly on your most important task, you
can reduce the time required to complete it by 50 per cent or more…
The truth is that once you have decided on your number one task, anything else that you do
other than that is a relative waste of time.”
P.S. From my perspective, the “cycling to work” and “listening to audiobooks as you drive”
examples are less about attempts to “multitask” per se and more about effectively STACKING
Short story: Multi-tasking is when you’re trying to do a bunch of things at once and not doing
any of them particularly well. (Think: That conference call during which you’re online ordering
something.) Stacking your life, on the other hand, is when you’ve identified what’s important
to you and you’ve found ways to achieve multiple desired outcomes in the same block of time.
(Enter: Cycling to work, learning on your drive to work, etc.)
Let’s skip the constant task switching and failed attempts at multitasking and STACK!
5 TIPS FOR MORNING AWESOMENESS
“Mornings are often when we’re at our freshest, so it’s no surprise that many successful people
start their day by taking advantage of their first few morning hours to get as much focused and
productive time in as possible.
This only gets more important with time. Illustrator and writer Mars Dorian notes that: ‘Over
recent years my morning routine has become tighter and focused. The older I get, the less
time I want to waste.’ Neuroscience PhD Darya Rose says: ‘Mornings prime your brain for
how it will function the rest of the day. Are you going to be distracted and bounce around from
project to project? Or are you going to be focused and choose your activities consciously and
with intention? I much prefer to be in the latter state. I get more work done and it turns out
better. I’m less stressed and less reactive. So I do what I can to keep my mornings simple and
That’s another idea from the area of “Focus and Productivity.”
Of course, mornings aren’t just about being focused, we’ve got love and energy to round out
our Big 3, but it’s important, and that requires practical tips. Here I share five on being productive.
1. Write a To-Do List, Then Stick to It. Clarity and commitment are key. (Unless you
want to waste brain cells via decision fatigue a la our chat above.) But… Perhaps we can
swap out “To Do” for our go-to “Success List” a la Gary Keller in The ONE Thing: “Long
hours spent checking off a to-do list and ending the day with a full trash can and a clean
desk are not virtuous and have nothing to do with success. Instead of a to-do list, you need
a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results.
To-do lists tend to be long; success lists are short. One pulls you in all directions; the
other aims you in a specific direction. One is a disorganized directory and the other is an
organized directive. If a list isn’t built around success, then that’s not where it takes you.
If your to-do list contains everything, then it’s probably taking you everywhere but where
you really want to go.”
2. Do Your Most Important Work First. Now THAT I like! I end my days by roughly
sketching out the next day with HYPER clarity on THE #1 most important thing and
I ALWAYS do that first—Creative vs. Reactive style. Plus: Here’s another Brian Tracy
gem on that subject: “Your ability to select your most important task, to begin it, and
then to concentrate on it single-mindedly until it is complete is the key to high levels of
performance and personal productivity.”
3. Don’t Check Your Email First Thing in the Morning. Did we just talk about being
Creative BEFORE being Reactive? Yep. I think this is THE #1 Rule to productivity.
Well, maybe #2. Gotta make sure you’re doing the right thing before email. But, seriously…
Are you checking your email first thing in the morning? Do you think that’s optimal?!
4. Cut Out Morning Meetings and Calls. Amen to this as well. Reminds me of John
Maxwell. He realized he did his BEST work in the morning. And he never scheduled another
early-morning meeting again. Scott Adams tells us we need to “match our energy to our
time.” Know when you’re at your best. PROTECT that time!! If you can get away with it,
push your meetings and calls to the afternoon.
5. Break Down Big Goals into Small Pieces. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a
time. Take your big goal and smash it into little pieces, line up your dominoes and/or use
whatever metaphor you like as you create a bunch of Progress Principle-esque micro wins!!
YOUR LIFE AS AN EXPERIMENT
“I’m always observing and tweaking my routines. I am a big believer in the Hawthorne effect,
which was first identified in 1958 and describes two very interesting sociological phenomena:
1) That research subjects (in this case factory workers at an electric factory) were motivated to
improve their performance simply because they were the subjects of a study and their behaviour
was being observed, and 2) that when a change was made to one of the variables in their
working conditions (in this case, the levels of light at the factory workstations), the novelty led
to temporary increases in productivity—in other words, the determining factor was the fact of a
change rather than the specific change itself.
The Hawthorne effect suggests that 1) the novelty value of change in a routine can lead to
increased productivity, but 2) the productivity increase is temporary, so 3) it’s good to change
things up from time to time.
I treat my life as an observation experiment in which I’m both the experimenter and the subject.
I establish a routine, change a variable, and observe my performance, and when the novelty
wears off, I tweak the variable again. If nothing else, I keep it interesting.”
That’s from a contribution made by Ruth Ozeki, a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest.
We’ve talked about the Hawthorne Effect before and I was familiar with the idea that simply
observing people in a study changes their behaviour.
But, I’d never heard about the take on novelty. Fascinating.
For our purposes, let’s note the fact that, as we’ve discussed, your behaviour changes the moment
you begin observing it—whether that’s a food log or time log or morning routine. Then, let’s put
on our lab coats and goggles and get to work EXPERIMENTING!!!
Establish a routine. Change a variable. Observe your performance. Hit a plateau? Tweak a
variable. Observe your performance. Repeat. Enter: Your life as one big experiment—with you as
both the experimenter and the subject.
Q: What’s the variable you want to start testing? Tomorrow morning a good time? (Or tonight? 🙂
P.S. I think my favourite part of the book might have been the Dave Asprey section simply because
the man is SO RIDICULOUSLY all in on living to 180 years old. He’s the *epitome* of making
your life one big bio-hacking experiment. My favourite of his hacks? The fact that he takes 120
supplement pills every day is pretty epic but I’ve gotta go with his “ping-pong robot that serves
balls really fast, which is a form of brain training that…” Hah. That, my friends, is ALL IN.
TOMORROW BEGINS TODAY
“This is similar in part to the shutdown ritual, as proposed by Cal Newport in Deep Work. The
shutdown ritual, in Newport’s own words, works as follows:
‘Ensure that every incomplete task, goal or project has been reviewed and that for each
you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s
captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. The process should
be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another. When you’re
done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion (to end my own ritual, I say,
‘Shutdown complete’). The final step sounds cheesy, but it provides a simple cue to your
mind that it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.’
Newport notes further that: ‘Trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might
reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had
respected a shutdown.’”
That’s from the principle of “Evening Routines” in which we’re reminded of the fact that “Your
Morning Routine Starts the Night Before.”
And like I say, Cal Newport is everywhere. His “shut-down complete!” ritual is such a
perfect way to capture the power of the fact that your morning begins TONIGHT!! (In fact, as
you may know, in both Judaism and Islam the new day begins at SUNSET, not at midnight.)
So… Let’s remember that the best way to create powerful mornings is to create powerful
evenings. For most people, the best way to do that is to set a very clear digital sunset rule, at least an hour before you intend to go to sleep.
Hope you enjoyed and here’s to the next-best version of YOUR morning routine!