Self-Care: The Real Breakfast of Champions

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

 

Every morning, I get up way earlier than I need to and practice a self-care routine. I’m going to describe each piece of my morning routine and explain why I do it, but there are some things you should know first.

I developed this routine gradually, one piece at a time, over the last three years. You probably shouldn’t try to jump into such a rigorous and lengthy morning routine right away. Grow into it.

You don’t need to do any of the specific things I do in order to have a beneficial morning routine. The point is not to convince you to do what I do, but to show how doing what’s right for you first thing every day is a really good idea. Mine is just one example of a morning routine. I encourage you to run some little experiments and design your own.

If this is radically different from your current approach to mornings, that’s okay. Please give yourself permission to be human, and don’t aim for perfection. Any progress toward a healthier, more productive morning is worthwhile. Everything counts.

I was inspired by Hal Elrod, author of The Miracle Morning, who transformed his life by developing a daily self-care routine. Elrod’s program has six parts, known by the acronym “Life S.A.V.E.R.S.”: silence, affirmations, visualization, exercise, reading, and scribing (journaling).1 Although we only overlap on a couple of specific behaviors, the purpose behind our morning rituals is the same:

“How you wake up each day and your morning routine (or lack thereof) dramatically affects your levels of success in every single area of your life. Focused, productive, successful mornings generate focused, productive, successful days—which inevitably create a successful life—in the same way that unfocused, unproductive, and mediocre mornings generate unfocused, unproductive, and mediocre days, and ultimately a mediocre quality of life.”

–Hal Elrod1

Starting your day with healthy behaviors is a powerful way to build positive momentum. You’re more likely to engage in other positive behaviors for the rest of the day because you’ve already started down that path. Likewise, starting each day with self-care is a powerful way to build positive momentum in your life as a whole. The small steps you take to improve yourself every morning add up and compound over time, radically transforming your life.

“We become skillful at taking action by taking action.” –Gregg Krech2

Objections

Now, you’re probably thinking of reasons why this isn’t right for you. So before I lose you, let me address some classic objections to having a morning self-care routine.

“But I’m not a morning person!”

Me neither. In fact, I’m the opposite of a morning person. I naturally stay up late and prefer to sleep in. I function far better late in the evening that I do early in the morning. In fact, I’m writing this particular section at 11:15pm on Sunday night, after a 12-hour workday. I thrive at night and I struggle in the morning. Night owls, you know what I’m talking about.

However, rather than being an excuse, this is actually the best reason of all to have a morning routine. Let me explain.

When we’re tired, our prefrontal cortex operates at a severely diminished capacity, if it works at all.3 This is unfortunate because that’s the area of the brain that’s in charge of focus, emotional regulation, decision-making, and, most importantly, willpower.3 When I wake up – and for the first hour or two of my day – I’m so tired that my ability to make decisions and exert willpower is almost nonexistent.

But that doesn’t matter because my morning routine is so well established that it doesn’t require any decisions or willpower. I don’t have to think about it; it’s just what I do. So instead of wasting the first two hours of my day bumbling around like a fool (all of my life prior to three years ago), I get in some critical self-care activities and make a bit of progress toward my long-term goals.

Side note: this is probably the #1 reason to build your routine gradually, one piece at a time. If your willpower is highly limited in the morning, then it can only realistically be applied to building one habit at a time.

“But I’m a creative, and routines are inherently uncreative.”

Actually, creativity is enhanced by routine. Many writers, artists, and other creators do their work on a regular schedule. When will the muse show up? That’s unpredictable. When will the creator show up? Every day, rain or shine, at the same place and time. Why? Because the muse is far more likely to show up if you’re putting in consistent effort. When inspiration strikes, by all means, get to work, but don’t let a lack of inspiration prevent you from showing up.

Furthermore, a morning routine is about ensuring that self-care actually gets done, and self-care is essential for sustained, long-term creative endeavors.

And lastly, the things you do in the morning aren’t where you should be innovating. You should be using your mental energy on things that matter, not on deciding what to do when you get up in the morning.

“Routine enables innovation where it’s most valuable.” –Tim Ferriss4

“But routines are boring!”

I agree. My morning routine is quite boring. Here are some other things I think are boring that I (and probably you) do anyway: brushing my teeth, showering, getting an oil change, grocery shopping, cleaning my home. Just because something is boring doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary. Routine maintenance is typically quite boring, but it’s absolutely essential. Without it, our lives fall apart.

“Your only path to success is through a continuum of mundane, unsexy, unexciting, and sometimes difficult daily disciplines compounded over time.” –Darren Hardy5

“But I’m too busy to spend time on self-care in the morning!”

I understand. I’m not the busiest person in the world, but business is not a valid excuse. At the time of this writing, I’m working six days per week, and half of those days are longer than 10 hours. As a result, I often feel compelled to begin the day being productive. There’s always work to do, after all. I’m excited by many of my projects, and I love my work. Plus, there are often many visible chores awaiting me when I wake up, in addition to whatever is on my to-do list.

But although I feel a strong pull to jump right in, I’ve learned that everything goes better if I wait. My overall productivity is actually enhanced by reducing my short-term productivity in the mornings. Why?

Because I am my #1 asset.

Therefore, every day, my top priority is self-care. All of the elements of my morning routine improve both my short- and long-term wellbeing. They increase my mental endurance, improve my physical health, and support my psychological strength. My morning routine is making me happier and more effective, both today and for the long haul.

Forcing myself to slow down in the morning also changes the way I feel about the stress and business of my life. Because of self-perception, the slow pace of my morning demonstrates to my brain that I have plenty of time and that I don’t have to rush. The busier you are in reality, the more important this is.

Self-Care is Self-Love

Self-care behaviors are the antidote to thinking you don’t deserve to spend time taking care of yourself, which, for many people, is connecting to feeling like you don’t love yourself.

So I start every morning with self-care, whether or not I feel like I’m worthy of it, because actions speak louder than thoughts. It’s a way to communicate to myself that I love myself enough to take good care of myself. And then I naturally go about my day holding myself in higher esteem.

And while this does benefit me, it’s not really a selfish thing to do. The airplane safety advice “secure your own oxygen mask before helping others” is actually good advice in general. The only sustainable way to be able to serve others is to take good care of yourself. And the only way to reliably feel like you can serve others is to first feel like you’re well taken care of. I cannot help others if my own needs are so profoundly unmet that they’re all I can focus on. I begin my day by going above and beyond what is required for myself, and that makes me more able to go above and beyond for others.

My Routine

And without further ado, here is my morning routine:

Bright Lights

The first thing I do in the morning is open the curtains and turn on all the lights in my apartment. We’re not a nocturnal species, so human nature has made it so we’re inclined to feel tired when it’s dark and awake when it’s light. Bright lights help me wake up. This is the first of several behaviors that shake me out of my sleepy daze.

Splash Cold Water On My Face

The next step is to give myself a bit of a cold shock by splashing cold water on my face. It’s definitely uncomfortable, but it works.

Drink Water

The next move is to drink a glass of cold water. Again, I’m hitting myself with cold to wake up, and I’m also rehydrating.

Cold + Fresh Air + Movement

At this point, I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt, no matter what time of year. Doubling down again on the cold-wakes-me-up program, I step outside onto my deck. While there, I go through a series of circular movements to loosen up my joints. I live next to a park in the Pacific Northwest, so there are also beautiful trees to look at and some delicious fresh air to breathe.

Balance

Next, I come back inside and stand for a minute on this wobbly balance disc, trying to keep my eyes closed without losing my balance:

This helps awaken my coordination as well as my mind. My brain seems to understand that if there’s a risk of falling down, it’s probably time to wake up.

Juggling

Okay, this one’s weird. I do it for the same reason as the balance disc, and also to wake up my hand-eye coordination specifically. I’ve found that this helps reduce AM clumsiness. Plus I get a little better at juggling each day, so, if all else fails, I can join the circus.

More Movement + Stretching

Then I’m on the floor, doing some movements and stretches that are key to my physical therapy regimen.

Exercise

Now that my body is more or less fully online, I’m ready to work out. I put on some high-energy music and get at least five minutes of exercise, usually more. What I do ranges from riding my stationary bike, to lifting weights, to ab workouts, to lunges and squats, to going for a walk in the park.

Up until this point in the routine, everything except drinking water has been pretty eccentric, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s for everyone. Exercise, however, is something I consider fundamental to success and happiness, so I would strongly advise you to include this in your morning routine.

But here’s the kicker: I don’t exercise in order to get in shape, look sexy, or live longer. I exercise in order to feel and think better today. There is a growing mountain of scientific research that shows how exercise improves the brain. Here’s Hal Elrod’s take:

“Morning exercise should be a staple in your daily rituals. When you exercise for even a few minutes every morning it significantly boosts your energy, enhances your health, improves self-confidence and emotional well-being, and enables you to think better and concentrate longer.”1

Harvard’s John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, agrees, writing, “exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health. It is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems.”6

Why wouldn’t you start the day with something that will make you both happier and smarter?

Coffee and Wisdom

This is actually how my morning routine started three years ago. I discovered Brian Johnson’s Philosopher’s Notes on YouTube, and began watching one each morning with my coffee. At the time, I was at an emotional rock bottom, suffering from severe depression and anxiety, and still nurturing a marijuana addiction. A month after I started watching Brian’s videos, I got clean and sober. A month after that, I was well on my way out of depression. This was not a coincidence.

Starting each day with good ideas makes your day go better and gradually makes you better. Sometimes they’re new ideas for how to live or think in healthier, more productive ways, and sometimes they’re just helpful reminders of old wisdom you already knew. Either way, hearing good ideas in the morning increases the likelihood that you’ll make good choices throughout the day.

If you’d prefer to read some wisdom rather than listening or watching, grab a book like Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic or Richard Carson’s Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff and read a passage each morning.

Meditations

With my mind primed for good thoughts and awakened by exercise and coffee, I’m ready to hit the mental gym: It’s time for meditation.

I do two morning meditations. The first is a loving-kindness meditation, which is sort of like a Buddhist prayer. Really, it’s a series of deliberately compassionate thoughts that you work through. More on that in a later post.

The second is a breathing meditation, which is the most classic form of mindfulness training. Breathing meditation trains the brain to relax and focus.

Writing

Next, I sit down to do some writing, usually on a blog post. As with exercise, I do at least five minutes. Often I do more, but even five minutes is enough to encourage my brain to continue caring about the things I’m writing about, which makes creative insights more likely.

Importantly, I still haven’t taken my phone out of airplane mode, read the news, checked email, or looked at social media. Most serious writers and innovators advise us to be creative before being reactive.

“The most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second. This means blocking off a large chunk of time every day for creative work on your own priorities, with the phone and email off.” –Mark McGuiness7

Breakfast + Learning

Finally, it’s time for breakfast. I like to take this meal as an opportunity to expand my knowledge and stoke my curiosity, so I typically watch a TED Talk or a science video on YouTube. PBS Digital Studios is an awesome resource for this. I love learning, so this is a fun way to end my morning routine.

Out of Airplane Mode

The event that really signifies the completion of my morning routine is taking my phone out of airplane mode. I only allow the world to interrupt me after I’ve completed my self-care rituals and done a minimum amount of creative work. I have priorities, and I’m going to ensure that the outside world doesn’t drag my attention away from those priorities.

In the not-so-distant past, we didn’t have 24-7 access to one another through wireless communication, and that was okay. In fact, it’s still okay. Too many people start their day by immediately checking their phones or their email or social media or the news. Doing so derails any routine of self-care and creativity you’d hoped to have in the morning, and it also makes you less happy. Give yourself time to wake up before reacting to whatever the outside world wants to throw at you today.

The #1 thing I’m not ready for first thing in the morning is also the #1 thing I’m compelled to engage with: email. Checking email is a compulsion. It’s automatic. It’s an addiction. And first thing in the morning, when I’m still groggy, and before I’ve taken care of myself and set my mind up for success, I’m far from ready to engage with email.

Now, most of the time, it’s actually fine to check email first thing because there are no fires to put out, no difficult questions to answer, no bad news. So you can get away with this more often than not. But disaster strikes when there’s something big, hairy, ugly, bad, or just complicated waiting for you in your inbox. And you’re still waking up, so you’re not ready for it. My worst mornings have all been caused by this.

Tim Ferriss advises:

“Never check email first thing in the morning. Instead, complete your most important task before 11am.”4

Seriously, you’ll be fine. And you might just make progress on something meaningful.

“We got to the moon and built the pyramids without checking email. You can go a couple of hours without checking.” –Eric Barker8

Many people feel an obligation to read or watch the news first thing in the morning. But most of the reported news is bad news, and it’s usually things you can’t do anything about it. This makes you feel powerless, sad, anxious, or angry. What a lovely way to start the day! It’s good to be an informed citizen, but you can wait until lunchtime to find out what’s going on in the world.

What I leave out of mornings may be far more important than the specific things I include. Your personal morning routine might have a wholly different set of self-care activities, but I can unequivocally say that you should spend at least part of your morning unplugged.

The Choice

Perhaps the most important aspect of any morning routine is that it’s a choice.

Rather than waking up at the last possible minute and just barely getting out the door on time, you choose to wake up early. When you do that, you’re switching from an “I have to get up” mindset to an “I choose to get up” mindset. That alone has a subtle but significant effect on how your mind unconsciously perceives the world, making you more likely to be positive and grateful throughout the day.9

Your self-care routine is a daily choice to do more than the bare minimum. It reinforces your chosen identity as a person who goes the extra mile, strives for excellence, and aims to bring value into the world. A morning routine reaffirms that you’re an active agent in life, working hard to write your own story.

 

Did you like what you just read? Then please share this with anyone who might find it useful.

And if you haven’t already, enter your email here to subscribe to this blog.

Subscribe and you’ll receive an easily accessible list of over 50 of my favorite self-improvement resources!

This curated list includes recommended books and book summaries, essential blogs and excellent articles, helpful videos and talks, and free online courses, sorted for your convenience into these categories: Mental Health & Happiness, Purpose, Mindfulness & Meditation, Social Skills, Behavioral Change, Productivity, Creativity, Entrepreneurship, Effective Learning, and Brain Exercise & Curiosity.

Subscribing is also the best way to keep up with the latest posts from Becoming Better. I promise, no spam ever. Unsubscribe at any time.

 

Works Cited

1 Elrod, Hal. The Miracle Morning: The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life Before 8 AM. Hal Elrod International, Inc., 2012.

2 Krech, Gregg. The Art of Taking Action Lessons from Japanese Psychology. Todo Institute Books, 2014.

3 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.

4 Timothy Ferriss, The  4-Hour Workweek, Expanded and Updated Edition, Crown Publishers, 2009.

5 Hardy, Darren. The Compound Effect Jumpstart Your Income, Your Life, Your Success. Vanguard Press, 2012.

6 Ratey, John J., MD. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little, Brown & Company, 2008.

7 Glei, Jocelyn K. Manage Your Day-to-Day Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (The 99U Book Series). Amazon Publishing, 2013.

8 Barker, Eric. Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. HarperOne, 2017.

9 Inspired by Awaken Your Strongest Self by Neil Fiore