Starting the Day Right (Even When You Don’t Feel Like It)

After coming home from six months of travel, one of the biggest hurdles I had to get over was re-establishing stability in my life. Along the way, I learned some cool things I want to share with you.

When you’re traveling, you have to deal with moving from place to place, meeting new people all the time, and trying to make the most out of your trip. You experience a lot of twists and turns, sleepless nights, and unexpected misfortunes. But in the end, you love every single bit of it.

And then bam — you’re home.

Unlike being on the road, things aren’t as fast-paced. Even though there can be just as many challenges to face and fire to put out, everything in your life is much more stable: your habits, routines, and relationships.

When I returned home, I began to notice something weird. Despite being focused on building stability in my life, my mind was still on “travel mode”. And no, I am not talking about jet lag and the time difference. I mean the way that I approached things.

Here’s an example. This is how my morning routine looked while I was traveling:

  • Wake up at 10. Or maybe 11. If I’m hungover, push it to 12.
  • Get dressed, grab some street food. Or head to the beach. Or both.
  • Think about cool things I can do today. Or think about nothing in general.

Seems normal, right? After all, who makes big plans while traveling.

But imagine if I applied the same routine to my life back home. Suddenly, I’m not being a spontaneous adventurer. I’m just another lazy, procrastinating dickhead.

But hey, that’s okay. Recognizing a problem is the first step in solving it. Once I identified what needed to be changed, it was just a matter of figuring out how to change it.

Building a Smart Morning Routine (That Actually Makes Sense)

Okay, so the first thing in getting my productivity and discipline back on track was changing the way I start my day.

(I’ve previously written about why this is important).

But this time, I wanted to take it one step further. I didn’t want to just get back to my old routines. I wanted to build new, improved ones.

There are things I’ve desperately wanted to make a part of my life more frequently, like meditation and reading books. After years of trial-and-error, it became apparent that I need to change the way I approach building habits.

Like any routine, you need to keep it simple and efficient. But that’s not enough: your entire routine needs to work together. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute.

This is how my current morning routine looks like (takes ~ 30 mins):

  1. Turn off my alarm and get out of bed immediately.
  2. Make my bed and get dressed.
  3. Drink a glass of cold water.
  4. Quick journaling and meditation for 10 minutes.
  5. Stretch, then eat a healthy, varied breakfast.

Eeeeeh…

Seem pretty vanilla, right? Nothing spectacular or groundbreaking. It doesn’t even have any cool, hidden steps that make you think “oooh that’s clever”.

Well, you’re wrong. This entire routine was designed very cleverly. Even though these steps may seem random, all of them build on top of each other.

Let’s break down each of these steps to see what’s going on behind the scenes.

1. Turn off my alarm and get out of bed immediately

This is something that EVERYBODY knows they should do. It’s widely known that “snoozing” is a myth, as it doesn’t really help you feel any more rested. And setting ten different alarm clocks or putting your phone on the other side of the room doesn’t seem to work either (at least, not for long).

So what’s my trick for starting the day right every single morning?

The answer is identity-based habits. This is a concept discussed by James Clear in his ingenious book Atomic Habits.

The idea is this: Instead of building habits around a certain outcome, built them around an identity.

What does this mean?

Well, instead of saying “I will not snooze my alarm clock tomorrow” (outcome), say “I am the type of person who doesn’t snooze my alarm clocks” (identity). Seems like a small change, but it makes a big difference.

If you hype yourself up not to sleep in tomorrow, you still think of yourself as somebody who usually sleeps in — just not tomorrow. But if you think of yourself as a person who generally doesn’t sleep in, you are more likely to act on it because it’s “who you are”.

It’s nothing but a mind game you play against yourself. But it works wonders.

So every morning when my alarm clock rings, I remind myself: “I’m the type of person who doesn’t waste time in bed”. Then I shut the alarm off, jump up, and grab the world by the balls. And since this is “who I am” — or, at least, who I want to be — I never have to think twice or convince myself to do it. I just do.

2. Make my bed and get dressed

Okay, so I’m up. Now what?

Well, I still feel pretty tired. Maybe I should sit down. But my bed is a mess and if I sit on it, I’m likely to just crawl back under the sheets and sleep some more. But we already established I’m somebody who doesn’t snooze, so I’m not going to do that. Better make my bed to avoid temptation.

Yes! A chair next to my desk! I can sit there. But wait, what’s that? There are clothes on my chair, so I can’t sit on it. Well, better put the clothes on and get dressed.

Hey, what do you know. I’ve already completed the second part of the routine!

TMOS Tip: You can boost the effectiveness of your routine by sprinkling little rewards for yourself along the way. For example, when I get dressed and make my bed, I allow myself to pick up my phone and check my messages. I don’t browse the social media feeds, I only allow to check notifications and messaged I received during the night.

This motivates me to complete the first part of my routine as fast as I can, so I can reap the reward, which in turn satisfies me enough to keep going.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering, TMOS stands for The Mind of Steel. Remember it.)

3. Drink a glass of cold water

Pretty self-explanatory. But it has a hidden benefit.

It requires me to physically move to another location. I have to go to the kitchen, grab a glass, fill it with water, then come back to my bedroom. By doing this, I am slowly waking my body up more from the sleepy state I was originally in.

4. Quick journaling and meditation for 10 minutes

This is where things get interesting.

This seems like it would be the hardest part of the entire routine. I mean, writing and meditating this early? I’m already feeling sleepy. There’s no way I can focus on these tasks with enough effort.

And usually, I would agree with you. I tried doing these tasks upon waking up on numerous occasions, but they never seemed to stick. I would fall asleep meditating or just say “fuck it, not today” and skip them entirely.

The solution? Once again, keep it simple.

For journaling, I use a great app called stoic (iOS only, sadly). What makes this app great is that it’s designed around the philosophy of stoicism, which puts great importance on focus and mental clarity.

So every time I open the app, I am greeted with an inspiring quote from ancient stoics. The quotes talk about embracing pain, building mental strength, or keeping your emotions in check. This already puts me in the right mindset.

Then, I am presented with 4-5 simple questions that make me reflect on my life. My answers are usually very short, but they require me to think and reflect on my life. Altogether, it takes me about one minute do answer them all.

When I finish the last question, the app says: “Complete one of these stoic exercises to start your day.”

And what do you know, the option for meditation is right there. By answering self-reflective questions, I have already put myself in the right mood for meditation. I tap the timer, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing. Before I know it, 10 minutes have passed.

TMOS Tip: You can always just write down your own questions in a notebook instead of using an app.

5. Stretch, then eat a healthy, varied breakfast

As soon as I finish meditating, I stand up.

Ah, damn. I feel all cramped up. Sitting with my legs crossed takes its toll. Hmmm… what can I do to relieve this pain?

By now, you should see where I’m going with this. Every part of my routine builds on top of the previous one. By completing one task, the next one becomes easier to do as well.

After about 5-10 minutes of stretching, I feel calm, relaxed, and focused. I’m ready to start my day and deal with any challenges I might face. However, before I do that, there’s one last part of my routine.

Now that I’ve fueled my mind, I decide to fuel my body too. I go to the kitchen and prepare a breakfast that currently consists of:

  • Freshly-squeezed orange juice
  • 3 boiled eggs
  • Rye bread with turkey ham
  • Some vegetables
  • Green tea with lemon

Like everything else, it’s simple but effective.

The first thing I do is squeeze the orange juice and drink it. Whooosh. My entire body can feel the instant vitamin bump. I put the eggs on the stove and boil the water for the tea. By the time I prepare the rest of the breakfast, the eggs and tea are done. Bon appétit!

TMOS Tip: During this phase, I like to listen to some positive and uplifting music. Not only does it spice up “boring” activities like stretching and making breakfast, but it helps put you in a positive mood as well.

Build Your Own Smart Morning Routine

The goal of this post was not simply to share my own routine and say “this is the best routine you can follow, otherwise you suck!”

Not at all.

It was meant to illustrate the psychology behind my choices, so you can understand what makes this routine so effective for me. The building block of smart routines is something known as habit stacking.

Once again, this is an idea borrowed from the habit master James Clear (who in turn borrowed it from BJ Fogg). It works by “stacking” a new habit onto an existing habit. The formula is: when X, then Y.

Examples from my routine include:

  • When I get out of bed, I will make the bed.
  • When I make my bed, I will get dressed.
  • When I finish journaling, I will meditate for 10 minutes.

And so on. Each step builds on top of the previous.

So now we get to the most important question — what does this mean for you?

You probably want to implement different things in your own routine. Maybe you want to replace meditation with breathing exercises. Or replace cooking with reading. Or remove a step altogether.

It doesn’t really matter what you do but how you do it.

Start simple: Getting out of bed. How can you make sure you skip the snooze button and jump up ready for action? (You can adopt the “identity” principle like me or think of your own creative solution.)

“I’m the type of person that gives double thumbs up to clouds.”

Then, it’s just a matter of building the next step in a way that takes the least amount of effort. Just remember to keep it simple: 3-5 tasks, 30 minutes max. The more complicated your routine, the easier it becomes to procrastinate or skip it.

When you get a good grasp on a simple routine, you can start focusing on the details, like changing the time you get up, or trying to complete the routine faster. The more you do it, the easier everything becomes.

A few years ago, I asked reddit for advice on building a successful routine. This comment really stood out:

It’s like learning to juggle. You can only do one ball at first, then two then three and so on. When introducing a new ball makes you drop all the balls, then go back to the amount you had before that.

Now that you’re armed with everything you need to smart-up your own morning routine, get to work. Write down habits you want to build and see how you can stack them on top of each other.

In other words: Throw the balls up in the air and start juggling. And don’t stop.

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