Better Mornings than Before

Better Mornings than Before

Monday marked the start of an intentional plan to revamp my morning routine.

It all started when a friend and I started reading through Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before, a perceptive exploration of the art of changing and mastering habits.

What sets Rubin’s book apart from other works I’ve read on the topic is she breaks down habit formation and maintenance into strategies that appeal to different personality types. And she doesn’t just talk about habits–she talks about the games we play with ourselves before, during and after changing our routine. She talks about the mental loopholes we come up with, the things we miss about old, bad habits, the underpinning tendrils that seem to keep us connected to old habits even after we’ve successfully adopted new ones. The result is a book that’s packed with insight and fresh ideas about making changes in your life.

Early in the book, Rubin suggests determining a few things in your life you’d like to change–either new habits you’d like to adopt, or old habits you’d like to quit.

The biggest and hardest thing I wanted to change was developing a morning routine.

Back in the day, for all of college and my first two years of graduate school, I was a master of the morning routine. I did the important things first, before they got a chance to fall through the cracks of the rest of the day–working out, prayer and meditation, eating a good breakfast, things like that.

Then, I don’t know… I started my PhD, I moved overseas, I started my dissertation and got married and started freelancing and… Somehow, all of these things contributed to me basically losing all semblance of a morning rhythm. There were other factors, too. Like, we got a really comfortable bed that is honestly just more appealing than anything else in my apartment. And, more recently, my work schedule changed so that it isn’t the same every weekday–some days, I have to leave by 8 AM to go to the office, other days I’m home all day. Over the last year, I’d tricked myself into believing that because of this minor schedule variation, a consistent morning routine would be impossible.

But I want and need this to change for a lot of reasons.

First, I just need to be a bit more productive during the day. The pace of editing and writing has been picking up the last few months–which is a good thing–and I want to rise to meet it. I can’t afford to languish my way through half the morning in a daze.

Even more importantly, over the last few years, I’ve learned that my biggest depression trigger is not being active in the mornings. I don’t know what it is, but if I don’t consistently manage to get a moderate workout in within 1-2 hours of waking up, I ruminate and stress all day. If I’m not careful, this will continue for weeks and eventually culminate in full-fledged depression. It doesn’t matter if I work out later in the day–if I miss the morning window, my emotional red flags go up.

Do I like working out when it’s still dark out and most people are still tucked cozily in bed? (Ha… I’ll pretend you didn’t just ask that.) Of course I don’t, it sucks the vast majority of the time. How something so unpleasant can have anti-depressant qualities is beyond me. But I try to be grateful. This is something I have full control over, and that’s a gift–as long as I work out in the mornings, depression isn’t an issue for me.

Emphasis on the “as long as I…” part, because that’s where I run into trouble, obviously.

And so, Rubin’s book inspired me to sit down and crunch the numbers–and the priorities. I realized that it only takes me two hours to do everything I want to be able to do in the morning. There’s no reason why I can’t keep the same routine on “office” days as on “at-home” days– 6 AM (for me at least) is not too early to wake up on weekdays. This would allow for a 45-60 minute workout, as well as enough time for prayer/meditation, getting ready and grabbing a quick breakfast.

The next step to changing things was understanding what was standing in my way. (I mean, besides the fact that my bed is just inordinately comfortable.)

As I reflected on the way I’ve been “doing mornings” lately, I realized that I sabotage my own efforts all the time. I’ll “forget” to buy breakfast food at the grocery store, so my “workout” turns into a relaxed walk to the grocery store or Tim Horton’s for morning vittles. I’ll be “too tired” some evening to wash my fitness clothes and reason that surely I don’t need to work out the next day. I’ll save some really urgent work task to do quickly in the morning before working out, and before I know it I’ve been sucked in to stress, tasks and my email inbox, and I can’t go work out when I’m bogged down by that kind of anxiety.

In short, I seem to do almost anything I can to make structured, meaningful morning rituals as hectic and inconvenient as possible.

“But at least I have my morning coffee,” I reminded myself. “That never changes–maybe I can build on that.” When I started my PhD in 2009, I’d gotten into this routine of drinking coffee first thing out of bed. At the time, I needed the caffeine to fuel PhD-level learning, but I’ve since switched to decaf. Even still, getting myself a mug of something hot is the first thing I do (read: persuade my husband to do for me). So, yes, maybe this staple routine had potential. But the more I thought, it occurred to me that this habit might be part of the problem. For some reason, once I have that warm mug in my hand, my brain goes into languishing/contemplative mode. Sometimes I stare out the window for half an hour. Other times I’m seized by some random idea for a blog post, which gets me caught up in inspired writing for an hour or two–though my inspiration inevitably fades, and I never do much with these frenzied posts anyway. Whatever the case, I move at a much slower pace through my morning, and can’t seem to really get into the groove. I’m almost never productive during this time and feel kind of like I am stuck in a Bermuda Triangle, waiting for the actual day to begin. This was the opposite of what I needed to be doing: getting up and getting moving.

I realized if I wanted to do my morning routine right, I’d have to give up my morning hot cup of goodness. Luckily, caffeine wasn’t the issue–it was just the ritual I’d miss. But I could always have some tea later when I started my work and could enjoy it in a non-restless, non-Bermuda Triangle kind of way.

And so, on Saturday, I made a schedule and taped it to my bathroom mirror–just in case, you know, I was wondering what to do if I actually managed to start waking up at 6 AM. Then on Sunday, I made sure there were quick breakfast ready foods in the fridge and hung a week’s worth of workout clothes on the hook in my bathroom for early morning convenience. Prep time: less than 20 minutes. Being ready to face a week of early mornings: priceless? (Yes that is a question mark. I refuse to attach an exclamation mark to anything that involves doing actual things at 6 AM.)

So, how’s it going so far?

  • DAY 1: Well, Monday was a success. I moved so quickly through the appointed activities that I finished a half hour ahead of schedule–go me! The morning was more refreshing and clarifying than I expected–I was barely groggy or bitter at all about the whole ordeal. But I found myself slightly off-kilter later in the day. I think I am just not used to life being that fast-paced in the mornings. This feeling was compounded by the fact that Monday and Tuesday were extremely busy days, schedule-wise.
  • DAY 2: Also relatively successful, though a last-minute schedule change that I found out about Monday night forced me to be out of the apartment by 7:30 rather than 8 AM, which ate into my routine and made things a bit hectic. I still managed, but I still had that off-kilter feeling–like my head was kind of spinning. Part of it is my unusually busy schedule this week, but I wondered if this new morning routine was also giving me extra energy and/or anxiety. Something to watch for.
  • DAY 3: Today, mindful of the off-kilter feelings I’d been having the last two days, I allowed myself to sleep in an extra 20 minutes or so. I went through my full routine, but at a slightly more relaxed pace. Part of me felt guilty–I kept hearing the voice of Gretchen Rubin in my head, reminding me that absolute consistency is key when building a new habit. But it’s what I needed. The rest of the week will be more fast-paced-ness and evening meetings, so I’ll have to be careful to get enough rest if I want this routine to work.

I’m writing about all of this because I know that it’s the best way to reinforce this new, good thing I’m trying to do for myself. I have to share what I’m going through with others and “stick with it” by making my struggle a part of reality.

That said, I’ll check back in next and let you know how it’s going!

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