It is said that the first 60 minutes of each day dictates how your day turns out – in other words, our morning routines (or lack thereof) set the tone for the rest of the day. Productivity experts often cite the morning routine as instrumental in boosting cognitive functioning and overall productivity everyday. And in what is for many an unstable and uncertain time (read: coronavirus pandemic), having a positive morning routine that keeps us moving forward has never been more imperative. We want to take a look at expert opinion - brain and behavioural scientists, industry tycoons, and performance coaches – on how to hack the morning routine.
Countless successful CEOs and lifestyle gurus preach that to be successful, you have to get up early, reinforced by the timeless saying ‘the early bird catches the worm’. However, evidence suggests that it isn’t necessarily healthy to force yourself into becoming a bright-eyed early riser – Oxford University biologist Katharina Wulff explains that when people are left to wake up at their naturally preferred times, they are generally more productive, and have a broader mental capacity throughout the day. Dramatically shifting your sleeping pattern won’t automatically result in better performance if it isn’t part of your natural rhythm. Research shows that only roughly one in four of us are morning people, whilst another one in four are night owls (the rest of us aren’t particularly morning or evening-oriented, but somewhere in-between). Whether you thrive best in the mornings or later in the day is influenced by a variety of factors - age, gender, your environment – to name a few. But regardless of whether you consider yourself a morning person, the first few waking hours of your day are still the most important.
So, a morning routine that primes your brain and body for peak performance is more about what you do after waking up than when you do it. Regardless of the exact time at which you wake up, the hours after you wake up are crucial: as you make more decisions and exert your cognitive energy throughout the day, willpower decreases. In fact, neurotransmitter levels such as serotonin naturally dip mid-afternoon (around 3pm), so it’s best to get started on your most complex, cognitively demanding tasks early in the day, when your brain energy is at it’s peak.
Brendon Burchard, a world-leading high performance coach, personal development trainer, and New York Times bestselling author recommends keeping your phone switched off for the first 30 minutes of the day (or switch it off once your phone alarm has done its job), rather than starting your day by immediately stimulating your appetite for digital distractions – various studies have revealed that those of us who spend the first 30 minutes of our day on devices generally spend significantly longer on our phones (as well as experiencing more anxiety and distractions) throughout the day. Our first article explored the link between dopamine and social media addiction: every buzz, vibration, and notification triggers a surge of dopamine, and since these dopamine hits are highly addictive, they drive our tendency to absent-mindedly and constantly check in on our notifications all day. A useful analogy is that of alcoholism: much like those who wake up in the morning and immediately crave a drink are likely alcoholics, those of us who, on waking, immediately check our phones before we’ve even got out of bed are most likely social media addicts. Burchard says that avoiding devices in the 30-minute period after waking increases both productivity and cognitive function throughout the day.
Neuroscientist, leadership coach and author Tara Swart recommends low-carbohydrate breakfasts (think eggs, avocado, berries, yoghurt) in order to ensure sustained energy and to avoid a mental and physical slump several hours later. And it’s not just what you eat, but when. Swart says that eating breakfast at a similar time every day aids regulation of your circadian rhythm (connected to your body’s internal clock, and sleep-wake cycle) and digestion. Swart says that 80% of the successful leaders she’s worked with have built short but regular mindfulness sessions into their morning routines. Mindful meditation can improve focus and executive function, Swart explains, which facilitate more effective and flexible problem solving – a study on volunteer U.S. marines found that just 12 minutes of mindful meditating a day increased mental resilience.
Establishing a constructive morning routine isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ ordeal, nor is it a quick-fix. It takes around 66 days to establish a new habit, and longer for a routine. In order to create a sustainable routine whilst avoiding burnout, it’s best to introduce new habits - be it a ‘digital detox’ on waking, prioritising challenging tasks early in the day, nutrition, or mindful meditation – gradually; start small by making just one change at a time. If the first habit you want to kick is hitting snooze every morning, Alarmy is a phone alarm app without a snooze option, and gives users the option of completing quick mental maths problems (cue immediate brain stimulation on waking), to turn off the alarm sound.
This article was brought to you by Dig Detox. Our mission is to help people use technology safely because we believe health is your most valuable asset. Please visit www.digdetox.com for more articles, research and information about the movement.
By Effie Webb
University of Oxford
First Published 21st July 2020
University of Pennsylvania