Over the past five years, I have interviewed over three-hundred successful individuals about their morning routines. I wanted to know: how do high-performers start their day, and do these initial hours help propel their success? Is there some magic in a morning that could help someone reconfigure their life?
Answer: Yes. In the last half decade, I’ve spoken to artists, entrepreneurs, creatives, authors, Army generals, endurance athletes, and company presidents. I spoke to parents and grandparents, people in their 20s and people in their 80s, captains of industry and the most fertile, creative minds of our time. I wanted to get as broad a cross-section as possible of high-performers and see what common threads could be found across all of their rituals. If something worked for both a writer and a soldier, I reckoned, it would work for me and others.
The people I interviewed were honest about what works for them in the morning, and maybe more importantly, what didn’t work. Over the course of doing this research, I discovered that while there isn’t one “best” morning routine for everyone, there are best practices—and by following them every day, you can powerfully shape the course of the rest of your day. And the best part: you don’t have to be superhuman or super successful to do it.
So without further ado, here are some of the most crucial lessons I learned over the last five years while looking at the first hours of the world’s top performers:
1) Start your morning with intention
Nearly all of the world’s best and brightest start their mornings in a deliberate way. They don’t leave their mornings to chance, and they build a plan that helps them set the tone for the rest of the day.
That seems like an obvious point, but it’s not. After all, how many of us just wake up to the sound of our alarm, roll over and check our phone, head to the bathroom, and fall into the day? If we’re honest, a lot of us, I’d bet. Mornings tend, for many of us, to be a frenzied time, when we’re just trying to get the engine started. They aren’t a time when a lot of us plan, or plot, or set up a structure for the day.
What I learned speaking to hundreds of top performers is that you have to start your mornings with intention. In some cases, “intention” is literal. In our interview with media mogul Arianna Huffington, for instance, she told us that when she wakes up she takes a minute to breathe deeply, be grateful, and set her intention for the day. She’s one of the busiest people on the planet, and even she finds time to calm herself and set out a path for the day ahead.
For others, this intention setting can be something as simple as saying “I will have a productive morning” or as concrete as “I will finally complete the project that’s been weighing me down for months.” Vanguard Chairman Bill McNabb told us that his morning intention is to spend ninety minutes reading, thinking, and preparing for the day ahead. Again, all he has is a book, his thoughts, and a planner. There’s no special app or gadget, and he’s not doing anything that the rest of us couldn’t do.
The point of an intention is that it calibrates the rest of the day. Think of it like choosing a direction with a compass and a map; even if you’re not quite at your target by lunch time, at least you’re not four towns over wondering how the heck you got so far off course. Try a day by setting an intention, and it’s a sure bet that you’ll feel a lot different about those crucial morning, late morning, and afternoon hours.
2) Keep your routine short, simple, and easy to accomplish
Keeping your routine short and easy to accomplish, especially as you begin to change it, will greatly increase the chances of you sticking to it.
Here’s the thing: it can be tempting to want to have a long morning routine, one that tries to stuff in every change or improvement you want to make in your life. But a morning like that almost always end up harried and full. If you decide that you want to go for a ten-mile run every morning, followed by a two-hour meditation, followed by yoga, followed by a healthy brand-new breakfast, followed by deep breathing, you’ll have a hard time sticking to it—and before long, you’ll either give up the routine altogether, or you’ll feel like your whole day is eaten up by your morning routine. The last thing I’d advocate is creating a morning routine that makes you resent your mornings!
Instead, begin by making small changes that don’t take much time. Maybe that’s some light stretching when you wake up. Or a five-minute meditation in a comfortable chair. If you keep those changes small and practical, you’re much more likely to stick to them over the long term. As marathon runner Morgan Jaldon told me of her routine: “I do light yoga stretching before I do my push-ups…Nothing too extravagant, just mainly concentrating on my breath and one good yoga flow.” That routine can seem simple when you remember that she’s a Boston-qualified marathon runner and an ultra-marathon runner (meaning races beyond 26 miles!).
Over time, if you’re successful with these small changes, you’re likely going to want to increase the length of your routine. General Stanley McChrystal told us that he wakes up at 4:00am every morning and works out for ninety minutes before he gets into work. And he’s been doing this same routine for decades, including when he was deployed in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Here’s another benefit to having a short routine: it’s easier to take with you on the road. When you travel, you can always accomplish a short routine, even if you’ve crossed over multiple time zones, or don’t have access to your favorite gym, or aren’t within any distance of a kitchen. Xerox Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) Kevin Warren told us that he keeps a suitcase pre-packed with thin gym shoes, socks, and workout clothes so he’s always ready to exercise on a moment’s notice. Because his morning routine is short and simple—he works out his core and does some strength training to get his days going—he has no excuses not to do it when he’s traveling.
All of this is based on a simple principle: Short routines get done. And in some ways, the point of the morning routine is not necessarily the substance of the routine itself: it’s starting the day with a feeling of accomplishment and purpose. So pick something small, doable, achievable, and repeatable, and you’ll be well on your way.
3) Make changes slowly, and give each change its due
After I started doing these interviews, I always had the nagging feeling that I ought to overhaul my whole morning routine from scratch. Take it from me: don’t do that. Don’t feel like you have to change your entire morning over just because of the stories and lessons of a few successful people. Just like keeping your routine short and easy to accomplish, aim to make change, additions, and subtractions to your routine slowly, and give each change its due.
Some top performers we spoke to actually made a virtue out of routines that change. Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams told us: “My routine changes over time. If you threw a dart at my timeline it would always be a little different, but there are some things that don’t change.” In fact, just recently, he broke his old morning routine of waking up with an alarm clock, and he’s started to let himself wake up naturally, to see what it does to his energy levels in the morning.
Your morning routine will and should be adjusted for the seasons of your life. If you’re a new parent, don’t expect to have a long and leisurely morning routine. If you’re crashing on a project, you might need to skip out or put new things into the routine to get your work done. These changes should be deliberate and in accordance with your deepest values and your changing priorities. If a certain part of your morning routine really isn’t working for you, then you should adapt or remove it, but if you’ve been thrown a tough situation, this is your chance to rise to meet the challenge.
It’s completely normal—and frankly, encouraged!—to want to change your routine from time to time. But this should be done on your terms.
4) Put an evening routine in place (and don’t skimp on sleep!)
One of the best things I learned had nothing to do with morning routines, but had a powerful effect on how those mornings played out: top performers pay attention to how they’re winding down their day, in order to make it wind up better. In other words, instead of simply running up the hours until you’re finally bored enough or exhausted enough to go to bed, you should structure an evening routine that helps you wind down from the responsibilities of the day and get a head start on your morning.
Clif Bar & Company CEO Kevin Cleary told us that he sets out everything he needs for the morning the night before to make his early hours more streamlined. “I lay out my bike stuff and my running stuff because I find that it gives me less to think about [in the morning]…I make my protein shake in the morning, so I’ll lay out all the pieces and parts for that the night before.”
While your evening routine can (and should) be relaxing, also use it as an opportunity to prepare for the next day by laying out your clothes for the following morning (if you plan on exercising first thing, laying out your workout clothes is a great way to increase your odds of actually doing it), cleaning up around your home, and making a to-do list for the next day. The founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, James Freeman, told us that he always cleans the kitchen and tidies the house before going to bed. He told us how gratifying it is to wake up to a peaceful, clean environment.
And one final word on the evenings: don’t skimp on your sleep! Arianna Huffington, who has become a sleep evangelist, told us that most nights she is in bed by 11:00pm, and that her family jokes that she always has to be in bed to catch the “midnight train.” Similarly, designer Jon Gold talked about an experience that’s familiar to any of us who have easy access to smart phones and laptops. He’d find himself aimlessly wandering the byways of the internet, just wasting time on random websites. Then he realized it was keeping him up, sometimes all night. So he set a new rule for himself to be in bed by 10:00pm, and to sleep by 11:00.
You deserve to give yourself the best shot at your morning routine, and the best way to do that is by making sure you’re well rested, and that your evening is a good primer for the day to come.
5) Draw inspiration from other people’s morning routines
After years of talking to people about their mornings, I’ve completely reconfigured my own. Before starting My Morning Routine, I would immediately wake up, grab my phone, and scroll through Twitter and email while holding my phone a couple inches away from my face.
Now, I do all I can to ensure that I have a calm and productive morning. I keep my phone in the kitchen overnight, often not turning it off airplane mode until I start work. I meditate for ten minutes and do some pushups and jumping jacks before making breakfast for my wife. I generally view the morning as a separate, calming time of day, compared to that of my actual workday.
And the truth is that reading the routines of successful folks who do this stuff every day was what propelled me to make these changes to how I began my day. It didn’t happen right away—sometimes you need to be beat over the head with the same message several times over until you follow through with it!—but I’d urge you to study the mornings of the people you admire to start making these changes in your morning.
Remember also to be open minded when studying other people’s mornings: just because you can’t relate to someone personally doesn’t mean you can’t learn from the way they spend their mornings. As it turns out, the very best performers across a wide range of fields take these early hours seriously, and they follow many of the same principles while doing so. There’s something to that—something powerful in starting your day with intention, calm, clarity, and structure.
Make your morning great, and you might find that the rest of your day follows suit.
Benjamin Spall is the co-author of My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired, and the founding editor of mymorningroutine.com.