It’s 6.30am. Usually, I would be standing barefoot on dewy grass sipping a warm lemon juice as I watch the birds at their breakfast and see the golden shards of early light fall onto slender gum leaves. I would be unrolling my yoga mat, waking up my body with a half hour of stretches. I would be sitting with my eyes closed, bringing my body and mind to stillness, resting in the spaciousness between breaths, before slowly moving into my day.
This morning, however, I am talking. A guest at a friend’s house, I have been ushered to the kitchen table and handed a steaming pot of strong tea. I look longingly out the window but berate myself to relax, to be flexible. Surely I can handle one morning without my routine. After all, I remind myself, it’s a good research opportunity.
I observe my friend in the midst of her morning routine. The coffee brews as she loads the washing machine and sweeps the floor. Between gulps she finishes the dishes from last night, chatting to me over her shoulder. I tell her the topic I’m writing about. “Best time to get things done,” she says cheerily. “My mum was right about one thing — the early bird truly does catch the worm. I guess it comes from years of raising kids.”
An hour later, her 20-year-old son appears, looking like a bear emerging from hibernation. With barely a nod in my direction he pulls out a bowl and begins filling it to overflowing with cereal. Clearly not a morning person. Reaching for the milk, he bumps a cup which smashes onto the lino floor. Swearing, he stomps over the shards on his way to the broom cupboard.
I sigh. Words have started clanging around in my head like the screech of white cockatoos and my heart is racing from the tea. My friend sets down two bowls of porridge and keeps chatting. It feels wrong to be eating before having moved my body but I dutifully spoon in the oats. My head feels fuzzy, my muscles stiff. I try to concentrate on making conversation but long for silence. Clearly, I am addicted to my morning routine.
Mornings. The dawn of a new day. Each one a new beginning, the worries and regrets of yesterday softened and faded by sleep. All is fresh and new, a clean slate. It is on the edge of darkness and light when images from our dreams leak out into our conscious world, when our passions and desires are remembered, when we often pay attention to the quieter voices within.
Spiritually, dawn is known as the most powerful period of the day, a time of huge energy and potential, when it is said the “mystery” rubs shoulders with us and spiritual practices are most effective. Creatively, many find the mornings to be the most potent, following William Blake’s advice: “Think in the morning, act in the noon, read in the evening and sleep at night.”
Physically, many experts believe that the wee hours of the morning until around 10am is the body’s peak detoxification time and they recommend practices to aid in the elimination of toxins. In practical terms, while we generally can’t control what goes on in the middle of the day once on the treadmill of work, we can usually control how we begin the day. As Richard Whately famously said, “Lose an hour in the morning and you will be all day hunting for it.”
So how do we spend our precious morning moments? I pressed friends to divulge their waking habits.
The answers are as varied as the spring weather. One friend regularly runs 10km before breakfast while another performs an hour of meditation. One sings while another cooks the evening meal. For some the answer is unequivocal — gym three days a week, a 45-minute power walk, yoga and prayer — while others are vague: perhaps a cup of tea in bed; a walk on the beach if there’s time.
There are the potterers who give me a rambling list of rituals that make up their morning (the rinsing of their sprouts, the exact fixing of breakfast, the watering of pot plants), the mums whose routine is determined by lunchbox packing and breastfeeding and others who seize the opportunity of mornings to follow their creative passions and experimental business ideas. I don’t need to ask some friends — I know what they’re doing by the 6am emails I receive — while others (the ones who tell me they’re not morning people) guiltily report a stress-fuelled dash into the shower and the coffee shop before jumping on the bus to work.
I look further afield to the morning routines of the famous.
Barack Obama shows up for work in the Oval office shortly before 9am, after his weights and cardio workout at 6.45 every morning. Anna Wintour, the infamous editor-in-chief of Vogue, plays an hour of tennis and has her hair styled into her signature bob before turning up to work.
Self-help writer and motivational speaker Tony Robbins advises people to follow his “hour of power” routine of motivational sayings and visualisation, while Stephen King rises to a glass of water and vitamins before sitting at his desk for four hours of writing, claiming that starting off with such consistency provides a signal to his mind in preparation for his work.
The Dalai Lama, one of the busiest and happiest people on the planet, models well the benefits of a contemplative morning routine with his 3.30am wake-up, followed by three hours of meditation and religious rituals broken up by a light breakfast in between sittings. Mahatma Gandhi, with a schedule not dissimilar, was famously quoted for saying, “I have so much to do today, I will need to take twice as long to meditate.”
Finding your routine
Google “morning routines” and you’ll be advised to do everything from tongue cleaning to the vacuuming. As one friend said, “If I did everything I wanted to do in the morning, it would take me all day.”
It has taken years for Georgie Cooke, a Holistic Life Coach with Quantum Lifeskills, to find a morning routine that meets all her needs while also being flexible enough to adapt to her varied schedule.
“Over the years I have discovered how crucial and uncompromisable it is for me to have a morning routine,” said Cooke.
“I approach it from a mind, body and spirit perspective, knowing I need to take care of all those aspects of myself in order to set myself up well for the day. I always do some movement: a walk or run and swim on the beach. For me that’s awesome — the ocean cleanses and revitalises me. I also need some quiet time. If I have a busy day ahead, then I just spend five or 10 minutes getting in touch with the awareness beyond my mind and body, getting in touch with the love and peace within me.”
The final, and most important, part of Cooke’s routine is setting an intention for the day ahead.
“I usually make two intentions: one which gives me clarity about what is my number-one priority to achieve in the day and also one about how I want to go about my day. The process is just as important as the end goal. I find this incredibly powerful. It reminds me that I have a huge amount of choice over how I feel moment to moment. If I notice my mind is not serving me, I just keep coming back to that intention.”
When working with clients, Cooke regularly focuses attention on helping them develop a solid morning routine as a bedrock for their day: “Just like children, adults also thrive on routine. It acts like a container for our energies, a firm and stable foundation on which we can then launch our creative selves. It’s really incredibly important.”
Instead of suggesting a particular routine, Cooke encourages clients to find one that suits them: “I suggest looking at what ways they might best nourish their mind, body and spirit, but it’s very much an individual thing. If morning is truly the best time for them to catch up on emails, and they have self-nourishing time later in the day, then that’s fine. There’s no right or wrong. If I give any advice, it’s to have a healthy breakfast — and that includes sitting down to eat it!”
Simply do it
Keeping it simple and habitual is the message being promoted by psychologist Roy Baumeister, whose work on “decision fatigue” was recently highlighted in the New York Times. According to Baumeister, we all have a finite amount of willpower that we can expend during the day and our mental energy is depleted every time we flip-flop over a decision of what to do or not to do. The result of being confronted by a world of seemingly unending choices is a kind of willpower fatigue, where we become overwhelmed and lose the ability to make wholesome decisions by the end of the day.
To guard against this, Baumeister advises making positive behaviours routine parts of our day — especially in the morning. Instead of using willpower to decide whether you’re going to work out that morning, you simply do it because it’s part of your morning routine. The less you think about it, the more likely it is you’ll actually do it.
After 20 years of the same morning routine, 58-year-old Isabel, who lives in a community in northern NSW, says she doesn’t think twice now before rising at 5am for her yoga and meditation practice.
“I wake up, get dressed and walk 10 minutes through the forest to the meditation hall. There are usually between two to six of us who meet five mornings a week. We meditate for up to half an hour and then do an hour of yoga together before walking back to our homes to get ready for work. Lying down at end of practice, all we can hear is the sound of birds and waves. The feeling of peace and relaxation stays with me throughout the day.”
The routine, says Isabel, is crucial to sustain her full-time work in a busy legal centre. “I’m surrounded by stressed people in the midst of life dramas and my practice helps me to be able to be there for them and yet also keep a bit of healthy distance. In the past, when I’ve fallen out of rhythm with my practice, I find I make poorer choices and problems are harder to deal with. It’s a very subtle effect but definitely noticeable.”
While the practice isn’t always easy, according to Isabel, the benefits of her practice are so palpable that she rarely finds resistance any more: “I never regret getting up but will always regret staying in bed. By the end of the practice I already feel like I’ve had a full day.
“I’m still amazed that just an hour of daily practice can have such a powerful effect. I don’t know how it works but it works.”
Every morning is a blessing
The sun has passed over the kitchen skylight and with it any last chance of my morning routine. The list of things to do looms large in my mind and I wonder how I’ll get through the day without biting someone’s head off. It’s then I remember the story of my musician friend, Bec.
After years of luxurious mornings of surfing and journal writing, the birth of her first child brought that to a sudden halt. Waking every two hours through the night for the first seven months, Bec struggled to get out of bed with her usual optimism.
She began a new routine. Every morning she would wake, set a five-minute alarm on her phone, and dance — the sillier and crazier the better — until she was laughing at herself. “It’s not long,” she said smiling, “but long enough to remember that every morning is a blessing.”
I stand, take a long stretch, and send a belated ray of gratitude to the new day.
Claire Dunn is a freelance journalist based in Bellingen on the north coast of NSW, Australia.