It’s no secret that I love morning routines. And you should too. Rather than telling you the morning routine you should follow, let’s cover some foundational components of what makes for a great way to start your day so that you too can create your own custom morning routine.
I’m weird. In fact, I’m so weird that in medical school and residency, I refused to rush my mornings, even at absurd hours. While doing plastic surgery, I often had to be in the hospital by 4:30 AM. Most of my colleagues would roll out of bed at 4:10, throw on some clothes, and rush out the door, getting to the workroom just in the nick of time.
I would wake up at 3 AM, brush my teeth, stretch, journal, meditate, make a meal replacement protein shake, wash my blender, and get out the door by 4 AM so that I could get to the workroom at least 10 minutes early. As they say, early is on time, and on time is late.
Why would I sacrifice an hour of sleep for this? Am I really that nuts? Well, yes. But if you follow these steps and implement your own morning routine habits, you too can experience the magic of a well-calibrated morning routine.
This article was updated January 2022. It was originally published February 15, 2020.
1 | Starting Reactive vs. Starting Proactive
First, drop the phone. This will be the hardest step for most of you. If you start your morning by checking social media, your email, and the news, you’re suffocating the ability to set intentions for your day. This is a reactive way to start the morning rather than a proactive way.
Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist, describes it well. “When we wake up in the morning and turn our phone over to see a list of notifications, it frames the experience of ‘waking up in the morning’ around a menu of all the things I’ve missed since yesterday.”
By checking your phone as one of the first activities in the morning, you are willingly starting your day on someone else’s terms. Got an angry email from a colleague? What about a confusing comment on social media? Or maybe it’s news about a politician saying something nonsensical again that makes your blood boil.
You’re limiting your starting point and leaving the trajectory of your day outside of your own control. You’re being reactive. Instead, use the morning as a blank slate or a fresh start with endless possibilities.
You decide your intentions on your own terms. This way, you’re in the driver’s seat. As Benjamin Hardy describes in his book How to Consciously Design Your Ideal Future, “The fastest way to move forward in life is not doing more. It starts with stopping the behaviors holding you back.”
2 | Beat the Chaos With Organization
Chaos breeds chaos, and order breeds order. Start your day off with positive momentum. Give yourself a small win by making your damn bed.
Why should you make your bed? As Admiral William H. McRaven said in his UT Austin commencement speech:
“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right. If by chance, you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that’s made. That you made. And a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”
It doesn’t have to be perfect. I take no more than 60 seconds to make my bed, and that alone makes my bedroom a much more pleasant place to come home to and spend time in. If it seems like a chore you’d rather not do, just practice doing it for a couple of weeks. You’ll soon feel like it’s not a big deal—because it really isn’t.
It’s all in the little things when it comes to battling chaos. When you change in the morning, throw your dirty clothes in the hamper and tidy anything else away in the closet. Champions don’t start their day with clothes on the floor and their room in disarray.
3 | Fuel and Hydrate
Right after waking up, you probably use the toilet, and you’ll notice your urine is quite concentrated. Take the morning as an opportunity to rehydrate—water is really all you need. If you choose coffee, keep in mind that caffeine inhibits antidiuretic hormone (ADH) release, resulting in diuresis, meaning your kidneys excrete more water than they would normally.
Decreasing friction, even in minor ways, is an underrated component in motivating yourself to perform certain behaviors. For that reason, I always keep a large water bottle filled nearby, as it decreases the friction to stay hydrated. This way, I don’t have to go through the trouble in the morning to go to the kitchen, grab a cup, and fill it up. I know—life is tough.
The nutrition piece of the equation is optional here. First, I don’t believe you necessarily need to eat anything in the mornings. I personally follow a 16/8 intermittent fasting schedule and start my feeding window at 12 PM, several hours after waking up.
That being said, if you are going to eat breakfast or snack in the morning, get the ball rolling in the right direction. Avoid garbage food, like sugary cereals, pop tarts, or sweetened yogurt. In fact, it’s better to skip breakfast altogether rather than eating these highly processed foods.
If you want to learn more about the science of nutrition optimization and intermittent fasting, follow the Med School Insiders blog as well as my YouTube channel dedicated to productivity, health, and happiness.
4 | Move and Stretch
If there’s one habit I never miss even going all the way back to 2012, it’s getting my body moving every morning. I created a custom mobility routine, and I’m in love with it.
I first roll out my thoracic spine on a Trigger Point foam roller, which has Goldilocks firmness—not too hard and not too soft. The PVC or ABS pipes are good for the lower body, but they’re no fun on your back—trust me, I’ve tried. Next, I use a lacrosse ball to roll out my piriformis and glutes, and then proceed to a custom stretching routine working on my hamstrings, hip flexors, forearms, lower back, groin, and much more.
I’ve noticed when I do this mobility and stretching routine every morning, I stand with better posture, have more energy, and simply feel better. These beneficial effects were even more dramatic when I had a long day in the operating room or clinic. Given the compounding effects of starting your day off with such a simple yet profound habit, it’s silly not to do this every morning.
You certainly don’t need to follow my exact routine, but I recommend you experiment with motion in some routine form every morning. Stick with it for a few weeks and reflect on how it makes you feel. You can thank me later!
Watch my full morning mobility routine to eliminate back pain and start your day off right.
5 | Practice Mindfulness
Before looking at your phone and reacting to the feces flung your way by life’s proverbial misbehaving monkeys, take a quiet moment to sit down and practice some mindfulness.
For some people, this means following a guided meditation. For others, this means going for a walk outside without distractions. For you, it may be something else. For me, it’s vipassana meditation, where I close my eyes and focus on my breath for 10-15 minutes.
I won’t go into the full details of how regular mindfulness practice will benefit you in multiple ways. Just remember that even Tim Ferriss notes that over 80% of his guests of world-class performers start their days with some form of mindfulness practice. Coincidence? I think not.
6 | Reflect and Set Intentions
Last, practice some reflection and set your intentions for the day. Some people like to combine this with mindfulness meditation, which is an entirely valid strategy. This may include visualization practices of what you envision for yourself later that day. I prefer using a journaling app, Day One, which reminds me with a notification and auto-populates a custom template that I fill out each morning.
This morning template includes writing about three gratitudes, three long term goals, today’s targets, and affirmations.
This helps me center and start the day with a plan. The three targets for the day help me gain perspective on the day’s to-do list, and they remind me that just getting these three elements done means today is a win.
I have a habit of focusing on things I didn’t achieve and how things could be different, but celebrating small wins is important. Sometimes my three targets for the day aren’t even work-related, like on vacation days or days where I’m intentionally trying to unwind and relax. It’s a powerful way to shift the narrative from one of a glass half empty to a glass half full.
Building Your Own Routine
This routine currently takes me about an hour. If this all seems overwhelming, that’s totally normal. Start small and try adding or modifying one element at a time instead of everything all at once. Building small incremental habits is better than biting off more than you can chew and not being able to follow through.
Experiment for yourself. After over 10 years of intentional morning routine experimentation, I’ve found that these are the key elements to a masterful morning routine, but let me know with a comment if yours are different!
A morning routine’s best friend is a Perfect Night Routine. As you learn to optimize your morning, don’t forget about the hour leading up to bed time. For more optimization and wellness articles, check out the lifestyle category on the Med School Insiders blog.