What you do first thing can make or break your day. As well as making you feel super smug about getting stuff done before work, having a morning ritual can help you meet your creative goals. Tap into the science and psychology of daybreak to build your winning routine.
It’s 5.18am on the first Monday of the new year. Later I’ll be back at work after ten days of luxurious Christmas lie-ins. But now I’m lying awake, waiting for the alarm to sound, wondering whether I should get up and do something productive.
Guilt-inducing routines of the driven
Hearing about other people’s morning routines can fill us with guilt about our own slovenly habits. I’m not alone in thinking that perhaps the only thing standing between me and success is a 5am start.
Real life superman Tim Ferris believes that if you win the morning you win the day. His interviews with world-class performers always includes a question about their morning routine. We listen in awe to the 4.30am exercise routines (Jocko Willink), the 5am meditative walks (Tara Brach) and with relief at those who squander time on email (Sam Harris) or drink coffee until they’re caffeinated into conscious thinking (BJ Novak).
Take inspiration from dawn creatives
Mason Currey compiled the routines of creative thinkers and doers in his book Daily Rituals. He found that having a clear routine was important to creativity and that morning was when people prioritised that work. His own writing practice confirms this – the only way he could write the book was by starting at 5.30am! Like Currey we can take solace and inspiration from those dawn creatives.
Julia Cameron’s ‘Morning Pages’ is a tried and tested route into creativity and many thousand have followed her Artist’s Way. Cameron’s psycho-spiritual explanations don’t resonate with everyone. Luckily science provides evidence; research shows our minds are more focused in the first few hours after we wake up. Many other researchers have found a link between morning and creative productivity – my own surveys with writers included.
The science and psychology of morning creativity
Willpower is a limited resource and gets depleted as the day goes on. That means we have more discipline and self control in the morning. Psychologist Roy F Baumeister found “The longer people have been awake, the more self-control problems happen. Most things go bad in the evening.”
As well as having more willpower in the morning we also have more control. The bulk of our daily routine is set by the demands of others, whether it’s childcare, a job, study or chores. We can choose to work on our own priorities first thing before we get too busy and distracted. As Stephen Covey says: “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”
Get into the habit: build your ritual
Habit is very closely linked to willpower as Charles Duhigg’s explains in his book The Power of Habit: “Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.”
By making your morning routine a habit you can can conserve your willpower for other more important activities. President Obama famously limits his suit and tie choices so he doesn’t deplete willpower deciding what to wear.
It’s not easy to make good habits or break old ones, but it can be done. Having a set of activities you do on rising makes it more likely for a habit to become established. The best advice for setting a habit is to start small and attach it to something you do already, like making your first cup of coffee, and slowly increase the time spent. You’ll be surprised how quickly it becomes routine.
Pre-commitment to a single goal
You can avoid willpower depletion and exert control over your morning by committing in advance. An example of this is laying out your running kit and trainers the night before you go to the gym; you’ve set a goal and a reminder to make it easy to get dressed and go.
Baumeister, the willpower psychologist, puts forward a useful tip for writing based on Raymond Chandler’s routine called ‘Nothing Alternative’. He gives an example of resolving to: “start your day with ninety minutes devoted to your most important goal, with no interruptions from e-mail or phone calls, no side excursions anywhere on the web. Just follow Chandler’s regime: ‘Write or nothing … Two very simple rules: a. you don’t have to write, b. you can’t do anything else.’”
Productivity and long term success
Making writing a daily ritual increases productivity and in the longer term leads to greater success.
Researcher Robert Boice compared the writing styles of academics for whom publishing is a requirement for career advancement. There was a spectrum from the intermittent manic writers who would stay up all night writing to the regular page-a-day writers. Over time the regular writers wrote more, were more likely to get published and get tenure compared to the binge writers whose careers often stalled.
There were other gains. Boice found that writing daily, if only for a short period of time, increased output and that regular practice also increases the number and frequency of creative ideas. There was also a link to increased wellbeing.
Happiness and falling short
There’s a genuine sense of wellbeing when you achieve your creative goals. This personal satisfaction can be a driving force to help us strive for creative routines. It can, however, mean you feel bad when you fall short, when you snooze the alarm, skip a day or two of writing, and get distracted by other things.
Take heart from one of history’s most famous goal setters Benjamin Franklin: “tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and happier man than I had otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”
Find your sweet spot of wakefulness and productivity
Back to 5.18am on that cold January morning. After ten minutes of consideration I decided to fling back the covers and win the morning. The first 90 minutes of the day were under my control, I did the activities that made me feel calm, happy and productive and that prepared me to face the onslaught of emails and meetings that hit me when I got to the office.
You don’t have to get up that early – God knows I won’t most days – to reap the benefits of having a morning ritual. Winning the morning isn’t about getting up early, but about using those waking minutes or hours constructively.
I’ve learned there’s no point attempting to do anything creative when I’m sleep deprived. But If I stay in bed the opportunity is wiped out. So what are you waiting for? Set your alarm to find that sweet spot of wakefulness and productivity.