The problem with the “morning routine”

The morning routine is one of the great topics that a productivity blogger loves to post about. We want to see what other people do, we want to hear a simple, step by step to become the next big thing. It’s been a thing for a good long while now, Ben Franklin said “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” That might be not the first case, but it is certainly the most notable.

While there is sure to be some science in there regarding our circadian rhythms, or some psychology about routine, there is also a lot of subjective data points. The biggest sticking point, of course, is that some people aren’t morning people.

I’ll regularly catch myself frustrated with these recommendations as the bloggers posting them seem to indicate there is one only one way, and this is it. I get it, to get people paying attention you have to make some absolute claims. Nobody wants to read “what if you do this” type posts as they are little more than thought exercises. But there is some benefit to letting people figure this stuff out on their own.

I’ll throw my hat into the ring. I tend to go to bed around 10, but spend at least an hour reading before I roll over to sleep. I wake with the sun, so in the summer I’m often up before 6 and in the winter I’m sleeping past 7. I don’t punch a clock, so if I get to work at 8 or i get to work at 9:30 I’m fine. I’ll admit I’m lucky in that regard. The question is how do I spend my mornings? I agree with the idea of routines, removing micro decisions. For breakfast I do “butter coffee” which keeps me from being tired or getting caffeine jitters easily until 12-1 pm. I take care of the pets… but at present, thats the extent of my routine. I would like to write more, but some days I don’t know if that’s what I want to be when I grow up. I’d like to design more, working out solutions to problems in my workshop, or with my house. I also play games, video games. It’s been a while since I mindfully sat down to meditate, or do yoga. Both things I know I should do. I’m horrible about stopping my distractions to do my good things.

So there you have it, worst productivity guide ever. I like to think I’m not abnormal in this regard, but I know nobody aspires to my “mess around until I have to be busy” routine. But there is a lesson to learn in it. Some days I’m happy for this luxury. Some days I’m happy to have the option and freedom to not be 100% productive. Some days I’m able to catch myself and point out that whether I’ve just launched a million dollar idea or I just spent the last 15 minutes on the floor petting and loving on my dog, happiness is there. I don’t have to be rich or uber productive to be happy. But there are other days…

Other days, I am disappointed with how much time I spent browsing Reddit and Imgur. Other days I go to bed with little filling my mind of what I did that day and I’m frustrated that my biggest memory of the day is waking up. Other days I wish I was actively improving the world. Other days I wish I had just done these things in the morning to be more productive or to accomplish things.

I don’t like the other days where I’m disatisfied with my life. (Why would I?) But the beat of the world has good and bad days. I try to look at the “bad days” with an eye to what made them bad, or what made the “good days” good. I don’lt think my lazy good days are sustainable… at some point I’m bored by that standardness and I want to do more with myself. The lessons I take from both days are these, and they feed to my original comment about “best morning routines.” I feel the best on days where I feel like I did accomplish something. I feel pretty awesome right now for actually changing browser tabs and creating. I feel great that the past 2 days were spent in my workshop working on a loft bed for my son. I feel great that I have a workshop in a yard big enough for my dogs to have zoomies with minimal restriction.

For a morning routine, I say this.

  • Sleep as much as you comfortably can, try to live without an alarm clock if you can.
  • Be mindful when you can, if you have time to meditate, do that, othewise just try to be present as you do your standard tasks. Appreciate the smell of your coffee or the taste of your yogurt.
  • Exercise or stretch as your body allows. I go bouldering 2-3 times a week and go on 2-3 mile walks 3-4 times a week. These happen later in my day. If I can, yoga or weight lifting feel best in the morning.
  • Journal or drop notes as you feel inclined. I think a daily journal is idea, but if you just do it a couple of times a week it still feels good to just think about your life. Try to be thankful for your good stuff.
  • Plan what you can, when you can, the way you can. I find that just starting my day in an “organized” fashion sets me in the right state of mind for the rest of my day. I don’t plot every event, but I try to allow that I want to accomplish certain things. For me, it feels better to think about what I want to do tomorrow as I’m lying in bed. Often my sleep time gives me ideas.
  • Eat healthfully and mindfully. This one, I do encourage eating as healthy as you can… but that means different things to different people. As I’ve gotten older, I don’t burn calories so readily, so I’m “intermittent fasting” to get my metabolism doing it’s thing. I like bacon and eggs. My suggestion for “healthy food” is as little processing as possible. Eat as close to raw as possible, or at least try to eat things that didn’t have to go through too many processes to make them last longer. If the thing you ate was alive a week ago then you’re in great shape.

For me, my goal is shaping up to performing some routines in the morning every morning just so I don’t have to think “what will I do today” but keep them loose enough that I’m still able to move slowly. I won’t be getting up earlier (though I might try going to bed later.) I’ll aspire to define 3 things that will make me feel like my day was a good one each day. (I like 3, it’s a simple enough number that I can create a list without getting caught in the details.) I’ll push to spend at least 15 minutes each day jotting down thoughts, digitally or analog, to at least “groom” my mind for more organized things later.

We each have our own goals, we each want to accomplish our dreams, we each feel we’re unique and special. If this is the case, why spend that time trying to live other people’s life? Set yourself up for success by loving yourself first, then start your day (at whatever time) enjoying being yourself. Pursue your happiness first, see if you can let that bubble out into making others happy second, and finally if you make some money then that’s just icing on the cake.

Money doesn’t Buy you Happiness

I was browsing Imgur in my early morning distractions today and came across a “dump” containing images of various displays of monetary excess. That’s to say, diamond encrusted cars, yachts that can store other yachts or luxury cars, even a gem-encrusted “hamburger” (non-edible.) The point of this post was to suggest that “Money CAN Buy Happiness” and the topmost comments were all in support of that. Now, many of these consumer sites are just an echo chamber for our own ideas and never a place for debate so I just moved on.  But it did get me thinking. Many of these images were purely objects, no person in sight, no indication of who owned it or if it was just something made to be made. Without a person to see being happy, it’s hard to say that any of those things made anyone happier.

Happiness is a noble pursuit, I heartily encourage everyone to seek it. Things, however, are just things. You can find a penniless monk who has more than his share of happiness, suggesting that owning things isn’t the answer. You can also find millionaires who are unhappy, having more things isn’t a guaranty that problems go away. Much like pursuing happiness is great,  things can be fun to pursue as well. I will not say that being penniless is the answer, rather I think it’s worth remembering that you can be happy before you buy something and then buy it anyway.

I see this mentality all too common, I definitely see it more with younger folks. When I was growing up, we called it “Keeping up with the Joneses”, the assumption that you needed to own the things that others had. More recently, with the Internet, it’s even more widespread. You could argue that Apple computer’s greatest success is creating this cult following for their products. If you aren’t using an iPhone then you must be poor, and poor is increasingly the worst condition possible. Instagram is the great re-enforcer of this as well. There are countless Instagram influencers who spend their time posting pictures of them holding, or sitting in, objects of monetary excess. The entire purpose of these posts is to create some sort of envy which will encourage others to go out and spend as well. Increasingly, the Internet and social media are making materialism the most primary of human needs.

The state we’re in now is a by-product of what has been growing regularly in America these last 100 years. The most important thing is to get as expensive an education possible to get the highest paying job possible. The goal, in America… the American Dream even, is to get rich. To that end, we place this crown on the head of any “successful business person.” It is presumed that if you’re rich, you’re done something right and you deserve total respect. You’re the one that parents tell their children to be like. The most important goal is to make as much money as possible. Sadly, this becomes more and more about the money and less about making a difference or contributing to the world. Wealth is the goal, the definition of success, rather than looking at what you’ve contributed.

The point I’m trying to make is that being mindful of yourself, your actions and your effect on those around you should be the highest pursuit. The world would be a happier place if, when we’re hitting midlife, the crisis isn’t that we haven’t earned enough money, bought enough things, travelled to enough places. The world would be happier if we hit midlife and then look back on all those people that we’ve helped, all those smiles we created or the things we have crafted. The great news is that many, maybe most humans as they move into their golden years start to realize this. The retirees that spend their time helping others, or just taking more time to cultivate relationships instead of amass wealth, are happier than they were in their early career. Somewhere, 50 years into our lives, we start to take enough of a look at ourselves to see what matters and start to make that change.

Your mindfulness challenge here is to be aware when you’re comparing yourself to others and consider instead what you have. Actually take a moment to be thankful for the blessings you already have, or the wealth of experience you have available to you.

Just Today

As I stepped outside this morning to do my morning chores, I noticed how beautiful a day it had already become. It was just another day in my life but some measure, it was also the end of a workweek and I had a moment of “It’s almost the weekend” mentality. I’ll be honest, it’s hard NOT to be excited about having time that is completely MY choosing, but I realized that it was a day that I could rush through or one I could enjoy. How often do I rush through a day to get to my night time activities? How often do you rush through a week to get to weekend activities? The older I get, the more often I consider what the long-term perspective looks like.

In addition to rushing through “right now” moments, I also suffer from procrastination. I’ve had skills or goals for years that I would work on tomorrow, for example, my nice acoustic guitar sits in its case in the basement, after a year of lessons I was still unable to play a whole song. I think to myself, one of these days I’ll pull it out and practice enough to learn a song. I want to write a program, a web app, a mobile app, something that includes writing code. I’ll work on that tomorrow I guess. I’ve wanted to do a world travel family vacation but figured I’d wait till the kids were older. They’re older now… still no plans in sight there. How many more tomorrows are there? When will my kids move out? What will I have done to show for it? But let me pump the brakes, this could quickly turn into “mid-life crisis” territory and that’s not my point. It does no good to dwell on the past, just as it does no good to rush through to tomorrow.

Today, right now, this moment, is an opportunity. Realizing that rushing to tomorrow just wastes today gives you a chance to slow down. Ruminating on missed yesterdays can reinforce that point, but considering those de-prioritized yesterdays can let you reconsider what is really important today as well. I still want to code, I still want to play the guitar, I still want to travel. When my workday is done, I can take the time to work on them, or I can play flip through Imgur or Reddit and pass the time. Both are acceptable, as long as you’re mindful enough to recognize the value of whatever action you’re pursuing right now. By being mindful, you can set priorities for your day, your week or your life.

My challenge to you and myself is to stop thinking about what can happen later, or what you’ve missed. Be present right now, present enough to think about what matters and consider how your actions today will affect your actions tomorrow. I’ll wrap up by leaving a statement from Mr. Thoreau regarding today’s actions. Don’t flip through your phone/tablet/life,  “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”


Slow Down

Mindfulness is a contemplative pursuit, you’re not seeing a mindful racecar driver or fireman, at least not while they’re on the clock. The truth of this is that mindfulness might not work in too fast-paced an activity, though once you’re done… No, mindfulness really shines when you can slow down enough to reflect. Mindfulness is a practice, the more you do it the faster you get, the more automatic it is, but more often than not it’s just a pause button that lets you consider your situation more fully.

If you’re finding it hard to be mindful in the middle of a conversation, while writing things down, while driving or working outside then try slowing down from the start. Enter your task with a slower mindset from the beginning; if it’s a conversation then talk slower or make your focus to listen to the other versus trying to come up with your response. If you’re writing, take a breath after a sentence or a paragraph or try doing the writing by hand instead of typed. If you’re driving, just stay in the right lane and observe the posted speed limit. Keep returning to these points as you proceed and try to stay on the slow path, try remembering or being aware of your breath as you go about your task.

I know it can be hard to be deliberately slow, it often takes some planning. If you’re in a hurried conversation then it might be because you’re trying to make a point, if you’re typing really fast then you might have more you need to type so you want it to be as fast as possible and if you’re speeding to work then you might be excited to get to work or maybe you’re just running late. Being slow and deliberate is a planned act, so you might enter a conversation to hear someone else and just connect, if you’re typing or writing then you might be slower while journaling and if you’re driving, just leave a little early. In any of these cases, you have to be prepared for the slowness. The more often you practice, the more instinctive it’ll become.

Slowness as a mindful habit is definitely easier said than done, remembering that you want to be slower goes against much of the automatic life that most of us live. To get started, rather than try to take a thing you already do and make it slower, you can instead create blocks of time where you’re going to work on it. Do something that isn’t automatic for you normally so that you’re being forced to be double mindful and concentrate on the task. Go for a walk, with the restriction that you’ll count your breath, or do a soft-focused gaze as you walk, this will force you to be aware of yourself and your surroundings. Do it for 1 minute, 5 minutes or as long as you’re comfortable. Make a point of noticing your surroundings, be where you’re walking rather than focused on the horizon, or your pace, or the meeting you need to get back to. As weather warms up and it’s nice outside, there are plenty of natural things you can do slowly.

Ideally, by starting with deliberate acts and then normal “mindless” tasks, you’ll reach a point where your first instinct is to slow your mind and body. I said at the beginning that a racecar driver or fireman can’t be mindful at work, but with a constant practice, that driver will be noticing all of the cars around them, that fireman will be aware of their dangers in their rooms. I may have even been wrong to suggest they were NOT mindful, as their tasks require a very deliberate presence of mind that seems like instinct at first. Feel free to explore tasks that might NOT be mindful, then challenge yourself to look at them from an “always present” mindset and consider that maybe the more intense the task, the more likely you’re forced to combine automatic behavior with spacial or personal awareness. Maybe mindfulness is possible in everything we do.

The Mindset is the key

As I’ve practised mindful habits and become more self-aware, I’ve noticed that my fundamental approach to life has changed… is continuing to change. I’m constantly moving towards some inner goal that is peace or happiness. I’m not necessarily trying to change that part, I’m just slowing down the things I do enough to be mindful and the result is that I’m feeling less hurried. Working for work’s sake, not so important. Pursuing money to “get rich” less relevant. Whether I work harder or not, I am still happy. Whether I have more money or not, I’m still content. The ends no longer justify the means and increasingly the rat race seems less compelling.

I’ll allow that much of this is perspective that comes with age, but when I look at what I want in the rest of my life (and I’ve still got more than a couple decades of “work” left in me) increasingly I see the merits of what I’ll call a Retirement Mindset. I’ve spent too many years looking at how to make more money for the sake of some illusion of wealth and not really any time truly looking at what that means. I’m still young, but moreso look at the benefits of retirement here lately. Now, when I say Retirement Mindset, I don’t mean no work, going fishing all the time. When I say Retirement Mindset I mean looking at what I’m doing each day, evaluating it against my values and my happiness. Realizing in your 40s that life is short and you should spend your time in pursuit of meaning can be a blessing, I’m happy to start to have this perspective now. To realize it sooner? Oh, what a joy that would have been.

Retirement Mindset, to me, means I get up without an alarm. I spend my morning in contemplation or exercising, or journaling or some combination of the three. When I’ve finished my morning meal or coffee then I look out the window, take a deep breath and consider what I might do today that has some value. As I consider that money doesn’t grow on trees and I have nothing coming in for free, I still spend my week going to work and doing my best to be mindful in this job for someone else to be my best, to try to learn from it in a way that helps me. Ultimately, one day I want to spend MY time in MY interests, whether it’s revenue generating or not.

Sadly I sometimes let the negative voice get too loud, he’s saying the same thing you might be saying. “Yah, that sounds great if you’re independently wealthy.” But I’m not, far from it. As I’ve grown older I realize that having more doesn’t bring more happiness. A bigger house is just more to clean, to heat, to cool. Having more “stuff” just means I have more clutter to deal with and be frustrated with. That being said, I still want stuff, new stuff (see my last post about buying a car) but when I catch myself getting too caught up in that then I can step back and try to re-acquire this mindset. Unfortunately, I don’t wake up with that mindset every day or even most days. Today, I’m feeling blessed as I look out at the world, as I look in at my world, and I feel that money and working more won’t fill me, so I wanted to take the time to consider that.