Whenever I think about morning routines, a movie reel starts playing in my head.
I think about Kobe Bryant, and those stories about him hitting the gym at three in the morning, calling his coaches to practice in the middle of the night, living that Mamba mentality.
I think about Mark Wahlberg and how he apparently wakes up at 2:30 a.m., eats breakfast at 3:15, works out till 5:15, plays golf at 6:30, then goes about his busy day as an actor, entrepreneur, and dad.
I think about Marla Beck, co-founder of Bluemercury, and how she automatically wakes up at six in the morning and immediately walks four miles.
And then I think about how I’m not doing any of that. Not consistently, anyway. Not even close.
And if I’m not, is there any way I’ll achieve that level of success? Is it possible to maximize my day if I’m not committed to a routine as insane as those of the celebrities and entrepreneurs we read about every day?
The answer, according to “leading scientists” and “top psychologists” and “world-class coaches” seems to be “no way.” The prevailing advice is that if you’re not waking up at five a.m., brewing up some yerba mate, jumping into some yoga/meditation/cold-plunge pool (or, ideally, all three), and then smashing your to-do list for the day, you’re not really operating at peak performance.
This is the gospel of the morning routine — a standard, prescribed, “perfect” way to start the day and make the most of it. It’s one of the most popular topics in self-help, one of the most commonly-asked questions to high performers, and one of the most compelling ideas in our get-shit-done, productivity-hacking hustle culture.
And like most of us, I’ve tried to organize my life around a strict morning routine at different points in my life, with mixed results. The main thing I learned from those experiments was that the more I tried to live up to some external idea of how my day should look, the less useful and enjoyable my day became. It was a classic example of the kind of self-help that only ends up making you feel terrible.
Because after diving into the latest research, anecdotal evidence, and age-old wisdom, I discovered something fascinating — something that most experts never talk about.
The value of a morning routine isn’t really that it works, but that it works for the person who does it.
Then the rest of us hear about it, and we think that we need to emulate that routine if we want to achieve the same success — not realizing that the one thing that made the routine successful simply might not apply to us, and that’s perfectly okay.
There’s no “right” way to start your mornings. There’s only the right way to start your mornings for you .
Once I realized that — and let go of all the pressure that came with waking up at the crack of dawn so I could live up to someone else’s model — my whole day changed.
I’m happier now. Freer. More productive. Definitely more focused, more capable. Most importantly, I’m more attuned to my own needs, my own interests, my own way of making each day as useful and meaningful as it can be. I’ve found all the benefits that these crazy morning routines promised — not by following them to a T, but by making my own.
And you can do that, too.
The first step is taking a closer look at why morning routines are so seductive, and why they usually end up working against you. Starting with the fact that…
Morning routines often work against your natural cycle.
The gospel of morning routines generally urges us to get up as early as possible and jump into a strict ritual, even if that ritual doesn’t match our energy level or mood.
But as author Daniel Pink explained when he was on the show, that early-bird model doesn’t work for everybody — and could actually be doing more harm than good.
“Part of this has to do with chronotype,” Pink explained, referring to a person’s natural inclination with regard to when they prefer to sleep or when they are most energetic.
According to his research, about 15% of us are very strong morning people, about 20% of us are very strong evening people, 15% of us are “larks” (or super early birds), 20% of us are owls (burning the midnight oil), and two-thirds of us are somewhere in between, or variable.
So while some people do naturally thrive very early in the morning, the vast majority of people function best at other times — slightly later in the day, or at night, or wildly late at night, or at different times depending on the day. And for most people, these chronotypes are relatively fixed, at least for long periods of our lives.
“So I think that there’s a kind of a mythology around people who are these supposed badasses,” Pink said. And while he’d “love to be the kind of badass who gets up at four o’clock in the morning, works out, reads three newspapers in three different languages … and is at the office at 6:15 … that’s not me.”
Why? Because Daniel Pink — bestselling author, TV producer, and former political speechwriter — simply isn’t a lark. “I actually have a chronotype that’s early but not super early, and that tends to be very hard for me to sustain, especially if it cuts into sleep.”
So this idea that anyone can get up earlier by sheer force of will — and perform at an even higher level as a result — is patently false. It ignores the fact that we have to shift our schedules to make up for that lost sleep, and that not everybody is designed to fire on all cylinders at five in the morning.
“So if you’re an evening person and you actually reach your cognitive peak … at 4 or 5 in the afternoon and all the way through 10 at night, you just can’t will yourself to be a lark,” Pink concluded. “It’s not going to work.”
A much better system is to build your life around your cognitive peak — the section of the day in which you are performing at your highest level.
This cognitive peak is the period of the day when you’re able to bat away distractions, hunker down, and focus on your most meaningful, analytic work. Not checking your DMs, or doing expenses, or sitting in meetings, but doing high-impact work that requires heads-down focus and attention — like analyzing data, writing a report, or developing big-picture strategy.
So if you’re a marketing manager who’s a lark, then somewhere between 7 and 10 a.m. would probably be an ideal time to work on a new campaign and review your KPIs. But if you’re a novelist who’s an owl, then you’ll probably bang out much better pages after 6 p.m..
Neither routine is better or “correct.” The only thing that makes a morning routine “correct” is whether it works with your chronotype.
That’s why Pink reconfigured his day to do certain kinds of work, like his writing, during his peak performance window. And Pink isn’t the only top performer who understands this, by the way.
Dan Ariely, author, professor, and behavioral economist, shared the exact same conclusion in his interview with me.
“The hours that we have high capacity are so precious,” Ariely explained. “You [only] have a few of those a day.”
And while Ariely and his team found that the hours between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. were generally a peak performance window for most people, his main point was that we need to capitalize on that window wherever it happens to fall within our day.
Deep down, most of us know that these hours are powerful and precious. “Nevertheless,” Ariely pointed out, “We don’t use them right.” We fritter them away on Facebook, or while them away checking email, or eat them up chatting with colleagues before getting down to work — missing our window completely when it counts.
So rather than conforming to some ideal morning template, design your day around your natural rhythm.
Pay attention to your energy, focus, and mood throughout the day. Try keeping a “peak performance journal” for a couple of weeks to track your energy levels, and identify the parts of the day where you feel most capable, most clicked in, most inspired. Protect that time to do your most energy-intensive, high-yield work, no matter what time of day it is. Then budget the rest of your day to complete your lower-impact, less analytical tasks — which are still important but don’t demand as many critical resources.
That, in a nutshell, is the perfect routine — not because it’s prescribed by some expert or recommended by scientists, but because it works for you .
And if you have a schedule that doesn’t give you that flexibility, then find ways to work within those constraints. Consider talking to your manager about shuffling your meetings so you can focus on high-impact work during your peak performance window. Maybe wake up half an hour earlier to get smaller tasks out of the way, so you can enjoy uninterrupted peak performance time later in the day. You might even hold off on high-impact work until after dinner if you know your creative powers kick in later in the day. There are always small ways to carve out a little more peak time for yourself, even if you can’t control every aspect of your day.
The key is understanding your unique cycles — then prioritizing them over some external ideal of how your morning should look.
Morning routines create negative emotions.
When I started waking up super early, adhering to strict morning rituals, and diving immediately into my work, I have to confess that I felt a certain degree of exhilaration. I’m doing this, I thought. I’m ahead of the game and crushing life, I told myself. It felt gratifying to be so disciplined, so determined. It felt empowering to act like the rockstars I read about.
But a few weeks later, I found myself feeling very different.
If I slept in for an extra 45 minutes, I woke up feeling lazy and guilty. If I took a catnap in the afternoon, I wondered if I was weak and self-indulgent. If I took a day off to catch up with friends or enjoy some spontaneous fun, I felt a weird sense of FOMO — not just missing out on the chance to do more work, but missing out on the experience of doing it within my high-performer routine. (Which is actually pretty hilarious now that I think about it — and a sign that something was seriously off.)
Suddenly, this whole early morning routine thing was creating a ton of negativity in my life. The one thing that was supposed to help me avoid these negative feelings — by giving me some much-needed structure — was actually creating them. Or rather, I was creating them, by trying to force my body and my mind into a morning routine that just didn’t make sense for me.
There is a steep cost to subscribing to a morning routine that doesn’t actually serve your needs.
At first, it feels empowering to live up to a “perfect” standard, especially if that standard is endorsed by experts and role models. But once you discover that this morning routine doesn’t actually serve you, it starts to feel like a straitjacket.
Guilt, shame, envy, resentment — all of these negative emotions then start to bubble beneath the surface. Guilt over not adhering to the routine like you promised yourself you would. Shame for not living up to these crazy high standards. Envy that other people seem to be able to live up to them so easily. Resentment that you have to live up to them at all.
And the longer you stick with the morning routine out of sheer willpower, the more those negative emotions start to infect your whole day, and then every part of your life.
You wake up angry, and you carry that anger into your work. You feel tired, and that fatigue affects your entire mood. You go to bed disappointed, and that stress affects your sleep, your self-esteem, your entire self-image.
All because you’re designing your life around a rigid idea of how your day should look, rather than a ritual that is organic to you.
Morning routines don’t account for your unique needs.
The other problem with prescribed morning routines is that they don’t account for different kinds of lifestyles, goals, and expectations.
It would be absurd for a mother of young children to expect to have three uninterrupted hours in the morning to meditate, do yoga, and journal in total silence before her day begins (not without seriously neglecting her family, anyway). Similarly, it’s probably unreasonable to create a routine where you hold team meetings at 8 p.m., work through the night, and sleep in till 11 if you’re an executive at a traditional company. And if you’re not fabulously wealthy, you might not be able to afford an assistant, a housekeeper, or a nanny to free up a bunch of time for you to fulfill your perfect morning ritual in peace.
But most productivity experts gloss over these realities, because acknowledging them would undermine the allure of a single standard morning routine.
Different lifestyles, responsibilities, and goals call for different needs. Strict morning routines are not one-size-fits-all, even when they seem to work for many people.
At the same time, a morning routine is only sustainable if it really speaks to your interests.
During one of my early-morning kicks, when I was waking up at a quarter to six and starting my day with the perfect smoothie, I suddenly realized one day that I didn’t even like smoothies that much. And I didn’t especially care about breakfast — at least not enough to research weird smoothie recipes that involved things like chia seeds and macadamia milk (which, I should say, I’ve since tried and will admit is fricking delicious).
I realized that I was spending the energy I was supposed to be harnessing from my morning routine on something that didn’t even matter to me. If that was the case, then what good was the morning routine in the first place? Why wake up early if I was going to spend my morning doing something that didn’t actually add to my life?
Choose a morning routine that actually serves your goals and aligns with your interests.
If you’re waking up at 5 a.m. to journal, but journaling is a chore and isn’t bringing you greater insights, then reconsider that ritual. If you’re waking up at six and immediately hopping on your Peloton, but you find cycling torturous and you’d rather go out for a walk around your neighborhood, then switch up your activities.
There’s no reason to stick with a morning routine that doesn’t match your goals, your tastes or your lifestyle just because it’s the “right” way to wake up in the morning. This applies more to the specific activities you do within your morning routine than to the routine itself, but I would be wary of any routine that isn’t aligned with what you find enjoyable, useful, and productive most days.
Morning routines benefit the people who promote them.
If rigid morning routines don’t work for most people — or at least work differently for different people — then why are morning routines still so damn popular?
I think there are a few reasons for this.
First, there’s something comforting about the idea that a morning routine can solve all our problems. If we can just wake up at a certain time, if we can just do the right things in the right order, if we can just ignore our distractions and get down to work, then all of our problems will be solved.
In some sense, the morning routine is a kind of secular religion, and it promises a similar experience to anyone who’s willing to devote their life to it. It’s reassuring to think that if we can just play by a certain set of rules, we too can get out of our own way and crush it.
And since that idea is so attractive, it makes sense that we want to consume it. If there’s a demand for content about morning routines, then you better believe that business books, lifestyle blogs, executive coaches, and body-hackers are going to be peddling this stuff. It’s a surefire way to get hits and clicks, and it’s evergreen content that pulls more and more people into their sales funnel. That in turn makes other people want to write about morning routines too, and suddenly we’re finding the cult of morning routines everywhere we look.
But as we know, there’s scant evidence that strict morning routines meaningfully improve our performance. In reality, most morning routines are just preset rituals for productivity-addicted influencers to peddle to their followers. (That’s why we see 17 different versions of the same book about morning routines, specifically for people in real estate, or people who have kids, or people who own their own business or keep pet iguanas or whatever.)
In fact, I would love to see a poll of how many people who swear by their early-morning routines actually follow them religiously. My guess is that most of them are operating on a different schedule that works for them, or changing it up week-to-week, or just flying by the seat of their pants while they pretend to be monks. But they know what sells, and so they continue to hawk their e-books and their courses about building the perfect morning routine, knowing that they’re tapping into a huge demand for easy productivity hacks.
The people who benefit the most from morning routines usually aren’t the people who follow them, but the people who sell them.
And that’s true for most popular self-help ideas out there, whether it’s dating advice, hustle porn, productivity hacking, or spiritual enlightenment. The broader and less nuanced the solution, the less likely it is to be truly useful. And a rigid, ideal, one-size-fits-all morning routine is about as broad and un-nuanced a solution as you can get.
So if all this morning routine stuff is really just a red herring, then is there any value to morning routines? Do we even need them? Can they actually help? Or should we just throw the idea of a morning routine out the window and let our days unfold however they unfold?
Morning routines are powerful — if you design them consciously, personally, and flexibly.
A conscious, personal, flexible morning routine is one that is created by you and tailored to you.
It isn’t one that you read about in a Medium post or heard from a trainer at your CrossFit box. It’s a collection of small habits, rhythms, and rituals that actually make your mornings more pleasant, more productive, and more meaningful.
A good morning routine is a way of giving yourself enough sleep, productivity and downtime to balance your day. It’s a simple structure that reflects your chronotype, prioritizes your peak performance window, and honors the natural ebb and flow of your energy.
It’s a way of beginning your day in a way that doesn’t create unnecessary negativity or conflict. It reflects the unique demands and constraints of your lifestyle, serves your goals and interests, and doesn’t create too many additional costs or tradeoffs.
Most importantly, a great morning routine isn’t a system that only benefits the person who told you about it (whether it’s a coach who gets paid to dole out advice or a boss who benefits from you getting into the office super early), but a ritual that consistently adds to your personal life in a meaningful way.
If your morning routine is meeting those criteria, it’s probably worth keeping. If it’s not meeting those criteria, then I would explore whether it’s the right morning routine for you, and figure out how you can optimize it — even if that routine doesn’t look anything like Mark Wahlberg’s.
Because ultimately, the morning routines that really work are the ones that we choose and create for ourselves. And as we change, our morning routines should change too. That’s how we know they’re still useful, still fresh, still tailored to our ever-changing needs.
So rather than trying to contort your body and mind into an idealized, pre-packaged structure that makes you look good, I recommend dropping into a practical, organic rhythm that actually makes you good. That’s the real promise of a great morning routine. That’s the kind of ritual that actually makes you want to get out of bed in the morning, take on the day, and thrive.
That’s all I’ve got. Now, off to drink a chia seed and macadamia milk smoothie while I chant in my cold-plunge pool for 45 minutes. Catch you on the flip!
[Featured image by Karthik Thoguluva]