Magical Mornings & Habit Stacking

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat in my bedroom facing my floor-length mirror, with my hands in prayer position. Listening to mellow music, smelling a lit incense and appreciating my dimly-lit reflection, I thought to myself: “I’m becoming the person I’ve always wanted to be.”

Let’s rewind.

For several weeks, I’ve incorporated at-home yoga into my weekday morning routine. This is a big deal for me, as it’s been a goal of mine to have a daily yoga practice for as long as I’ve made goals.
It’s not for lack of time. There was a time when I was far less busy, had one fewer child that was at a stage that required less attention, less friendships to nourish, a smaller home to maintain, and more free time. At a different stage in my life, I was doing the same amount of yoga as I am now for a longer period of time, but I was driving about a half an hour each way to visit the studio where I was a member.

So WHY has it taken me over a decade to make this a part of my daily life? Better yet, what am I doing that makes this daily practice, rather then the one at the studio with a built-in community, a series of amenities, and great teachers hit differently? 

It’s the big picture. This time, I’m not doing yoga at 9 a.m. or 11:30 a.m. or 4:30 p.m., depending upon which time of day I paid attention to the clock and was able to pull away from my freelance work and get ready in time to commute to the studio. I’m beginning the day with the practice while my teenager is still rubbing the crust off his eyes and my toddler is still resting quietly in his bed. It’s that I’m beginning my day in a nourishing way, in conjunction with other habits that I’ve integrated into my mornings.
Yoga isn’t the only part of my morning ritual that I’m finding satisfying. Slowly, over the last several months, I’ve adjusted my morning routine in such a way that makes me excited to wake at 4:30 a.m., Monday through Friday. 

Waitwaitwait—don’t stop reading. You might be thinking, “There’s no way in hell I’m waking up that early, let me move on to some different advice.”

I’m not advising you start the day in the exact same way, nor to wake up earlier—I know some people get really grumpy if you dare suggest they wake earlier. Rather, I’m celebrating that after trying many different methods presented to me in self-help books, productivity podcasts and various mental health media, I’ve finally found what’s working for me to not only begin my day on the right foot, but create a domino effect so that I’m more focused and intentional throughout the day. In the midst of that celebration, I’d also like to dissect the changes that occurred within me and the steps I took to get into these habits, so that if (and when) my habits are disrupted by a new stage in life with a different schedule or unforeseen obstacles (because that’s how life goes), I’ll be able to replicate what worked in the past.

Over the years I’ve seen many posts like this 

And this

And thought, “That sounds amazing, but easier said than done!!” I would implement a checklist on my phone that looks like this (updated to reflect current schedule):

On and off for the last four years or so. But it wasn’t habit. So, if you’re looking to create a morning routine that you feel really good about and has you hit all the targets without referring to notes or checklists, below are some tips. After all, checklists don’t feel natural. Routines allow your brain to go into autopilot from task to task, which frees up your mind to be more creative throughout the day.

Why wake earlier?

As a mother, wife, woman(!) I constantly feel as if I am being pulled in a million different directions throughout the day. Someone always needs something, there’s always a new task that appears through email or an appointment on a calendar or a text message comes through that I don’t answer but still feel really guilty about. I implement many boundaries, but still I often don’t have a ton of control over the flow of my day as I’m constantly addressing the needs of others as a caretaker. I do have agency: I can control how I start and end my day. The earlier I do it, the less it effects the other members of my family and the more freedom I have. So, 4:30 a.m. it is for me.

Tricks to wake up earlier

1. Go to sleep earlier! 

Waking up earlier does NOT mean getting less sleep. Rest is crucial for overall well being and having good sleep hygiene is the way to make it happen. If you’re a night owl now, create a night time routine that will signal to your body that rest awaits, and incrementally make bed time a little earlier, night by night, by just a few minutes at a time. You can’t expect yourself to start feeling sleepy earlier than usual right off the bat, and laying in bed longer won’t get you more sleep.

2. Start slow

Just as your eyelids won’t get heavy an hour earlier than usual right away, waking up earlier will feel wrong and half-awake you will not believe you’re rested enough even if you’ve had a full eight hours. Instead, make small changes and celebrate your progress along the way.

3. Stop the snooze button for good

I know most people swear by the snooze button. It’s an old friend that seemingly gives you comfort, more rest, and a little shot of dopamine because it rewards you with more sleep. I thought I could never go without it. A decade ago I started using tried and true methods and unconventional methods alike to wean myself off of it. My alarm was placed on the other side of the room, then the other side of the house. When that wasn’t working, I purchased a literal cage to put my alarm in so that I could lock it up but still hear it go off from the other side of the house. Then I used an app that required me to vigorously shake my phone/alarm so that the alarm would stop going off, called Wake n’ Shake. Later, I used a different app that required you do do several push ups or jumping jacks before turning it off. That one doesn’t seem to exist anymore, but here are a few apps to get you more awake enough that you won’t hit snooze.

I don’t use any of those tools anymore, other than putting my phone in the next room, because even when I used all those apps, I wasn’t going to bed early enough and my brain still believed the snooze button was an option after I’d rapidly shake my phone or put a combination in to open a lock.

Becoming an early riser was a goal of mine since I created my bucket list eleven years ago, so don’t think for a second I’m just naturally wired differently. I’m not! It’s important for you to retrain your brain so that when you hear your alarm, your body isn’t confused about it being wake up time or snooze (aka, shitty quality sleep) time.

This isn’t to say I never change my wake time. Sometimes my toddler wakes me up in the middle of the night for a snuggle downstairs or I wake up feeling like I need a bit more rest. In those cases, I set a different alarm, with a different sound for 25 minutes later. It’s not a snooze, it’s more intentional (and lengthy) than that.

4. Wash face, drink water

Drinking water first thing in the morning has a lot of benefits, but the most important one for the sleepy version of me is that it wakes up my body. So does splashing water on my face first thing for a face wash. Awake the senses, friends.

5. External commitment

This. is. key. I haven’t yet been able to replicate my magical mornings on the weekends, because Monday through Friday, I have a gym class to attend at 5:30 a.m. and I need to be out of the door for that at 5:19 a.m.. I see my friends there, who also show up before the sunrise every morning, so there’s a big group of people who aren’t holding me accountable on purpose, but I sure am happy to see them every day & I look forward to the fun I’ll have at my workout enough to not fall asleep, pen in hand, with my journal open.

…because that’s definitely happened on many weekend mornings. On Saturdays, the earliest class is 7:30 a.m. and there aren’t any classes on Sunday. For a while I found myself oversleeping to the point of disliking weekends, but I’ve found a happy medium in waking at 5:55, and have considered posting a snap story to “check in” with an earlier wake up, so I can have an outward display to hold myself to. Ultimately, it’s always a journey, and I’m listening to what my body wants and needs in the meantime.

Making your magic morning

I shared my morning routine above, but not everyone wants to wake at 4:30 in the morning for 3 hours of indulgent pampering of the self before their preschooler takes charge of their day, and I get that. I feel giddy and cherished after my morning routine, but there may be other tasks that you find fulfilling. When creating your own morning routine, try the following.

1. Think of who you want to become

Though this image I screenshotted from social media last spring has attributed this idea to someone I’m unfamiliar with, I had written down a quote from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, from a 2017 Unmistakable Creative Podcast episode where he presented this idea, so I think it can be attributed to him.

What I loved then and still do about this way of looking at lofty (or not-so-lofty) goals, is that you’re you’re breaking things down to a micro-level, you’re thinking about the smallest of habits that will get you where you want to go.

Right now, I’m working on my evening routine. I’ve decided I don’t want to drive “the hot mess mobile”–my car filled with trash and items I’ve collected over the last six months between cleanouts–anymore. I want to feel like I have it together when I’m driving from place to place, and not hear water bottles crash around in my door. (Anyone else feel me? Or do I drive a very expensive garbage truck?) The type of person who doesn’t feel like a hot mess whenever they pull out of their driveway would probably take the stuff they needed for that day out of their car every night. Today was day one. Maybe I’ll even start washing the darn thing.

2. Gradual habit stacking

This is another one from James Clear, but not pre-publishing his bestselling book, like the last. Habit stacking has been a game changer for me, more than any sticker on a calendar (more on that in another post) ever could.

Instead of trying to follow a list of activities I wanted to do everyday–which was never sustainable for me–I stuck to a good habit long enough for it to come naturally, then added other tasks in through habit stacking, which is simply associating an existing trigger with a new habit you’d like to create. For example, I was already going to the gym every morning and needing a shower afterward, so I began to associate the end of my shower with caring for my face with a skincare routine. Later I used that as a cue to moisturize my whole body, later than that I snuck yoga in between coming home from the gym and showering, etc.

3. Make it fun and pleasurable

I can’t stop smiling by the time my 3 year old wakes up for the day. I’ve gifted myself with pure joy before my day “had” to really begin, and it’s hard to shake those good feelings, no matter what the day throws at me.

4. Create environments

Above is from James Clear’s weekly newsletter–literally the ONLY email I am ever happy to receive (have I mentioned I hate emails??) but I highly recommend this podcast episode on environments for a deeper understanding of how where you are effects all that you do.

There are different places where I complete the different tasks for the day, and they’re all set up to be utilized immediately when I approach them in the morning. How?

5. Nighttime preparation

In the evening I put out my clothes, journal and planner in my office. I put my shoes in the same spot by my back door. Everything is where I expect it to be, so I don’t have hurried stress as a part of my morning.

An important concept in building habits is removing the friction. You want it to be as easy as possible to do the thing you want to do, not the thing you’re trying to stop doing. So help yourself out the night before.

6. Go through much of the motions

Some mornings, you’ve got an early appointment. Others, something else gets in the way. Maybe you were at a cocktail party the night before. Even if things are shaken up, I try to have quick nods to each of my tasks, or an abbreviated version. My routine is grounding and a gift to myself and everyone who interacts with me through the day. Sometimes it might have to look like a downward dog with a three year old hanging from me, but it still feels great.

5 thoughts on “Magical Mornings & Habit Stacking

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  1. Lovely post. Morning routines are essential for my wellbeing, and since I live outside a busy street, I like getting up earlier before the hustle and bustle begins. Thanks for sharing your routine. I feel the productivity already rubbing off on me

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