Why Most Morning Routines Don’t Work

Photo by Danielle MacInnes

Making time for yourself is important. Making time to do the most important tasks is important. So it makes sense that doing all those in the morning would be a great start of the day. But just because it makes sense, doesn’t make it true.

On the repeated recommendation of several friends, I picked up a copy of “The Miracle Morning” by Hal Elrod. It was inspiring and exciting. I decided to give the miracle morning a try for at least 2 months. Any consistent change is difficult so I thought a 2 month span would give me enough time to get a feel for the costs and benefits.

The recommended “S.A.V.E.R.S.” routine to start off with goes like this:

  • Silent Meditation

In the first 2 weeks it was exciting. In the weeks thereafter I did the routine without giving it much thought. The miracle morning is advertised as something that will make you want to jump out of bed every morning. One day, about a month in, I got up to do the routine and realized that I was actually looking forward less to getting up instead of more. All of the activities except for reading were things I didn’t particularly enjoy doing, and doing them in the morning before having breakfast was not something to look forward to. It also made me feel rushed right from the start, because there’s a short time slot for all these activities (I went with 10 minutes, making the routine an hour in total) and so my timer had gone off 6 times already before my normal wake-up time.

I quit after 2 months.

The post-mortem

A post-mortem allows you to retrace what happened and conclude what killed the patient, so to speak. Why did the miracle morning not work for me?

  1. It was too long

I’ve met many people who had positive experiences doing visualization and affirmations. The same goes for journaling and meditation. At one point or another I’ve tried each of them. But none of them stuck as a routine. I found these activities somewhat helpful some of the time, but not so rewarding that I stuck with it. Bundling them up together didn’t make their impact bigger, so after my preset 2 months I had no motivation to continue doing them.

Moreover, keep in mind that getting up earlier doesn’t give you more time. It trades in evening time for morning time. That might be helpful in some ways. But you still don’t want to be doing things that have no apparent point for you to be doing.

I’ve recently picked up meditation again in the morning, in a way that does work for me (more on that later). It’s not that there’s something inherently wrong with any of the activities in S.A.V.E.R.S.; it’s that getting the most out of one thing and making it a habit is already challenging enough. You have to do things in a time and manner that you can keep going until it becomes rewarding. Exercise is good, but if you do it haphazardly or following a training program that doesn’t work for you, chances are that you’ll feel good about doing it for a while and quit after the novelty has gone and life takes over.

You’ll quit unless you get a reward you don’t want to live without.

The first years of college I went to the gym 1–2 a week with friends. I felt good after the training and I felt good doing a healthy activity with friends. But our schedules changed and increasingly we couldn’t make it at the times we used to go. Sometimes I’d go by myself. By the end of college I hardly went once a month.

Now I go to the gym three times a week, by myself. Why? Last year I followed a running program that helped me complete a marathon in less than 5 months. Running was the sport I disliked the most. I never thought I’d run 10K, let alone 42. The program worked for me because 1) it started out very easy, 2) it was rewarding on a very regular basis and 3) it had a big attainable goal. I felt my body change and see my progress shoot up exponentially. Every week I was able to run more than the last by a large amount. After the first month, I basically surprised and impressed myself on a weekly basis. Now that creates motivation to keep going!

That experience launched me into the next fitness goal. This time I knew the winning formula. I set my goal to do 3 consecutive muscle-ups. Muscle-ups are like pull-ups++: you do a pull up and then keep going until you’ve pulled your upper body completely above the bar. As someone who has been hunched over since teenage years from sitting at the computer 24/7 and has chronic neck pain and back complaints, doing a muscle-up is akin to running a marathon.

What keeps me going? My arms were so thin that I could feel the increase in muscle every week in the first month. My neck and back problems decreased by 50%. Last year there were nights I took painkillers just to have the occasional good night of sleep instead of waking up 4 times a night from neck pain. Now I find myself having slept soundly and waking up in positions that would’ve KILLED me 3 months ago. Pain is a very powerful motivator.

The magic behind morning routines

The magic behind morning routines is that getting up in the morning is the single most consistent thing most people do. Every habit needs a trigger and what is more reliable than that? Also, most people happen to be at home when they get up in the morning, which is the perfect starting point for almost any activity; it’s an environment that’s in your control.

That’s why I think morning routines are a GREAT idea and you will definitely want to use the power of a morning routine.

But morning routines are not magic bullets, at least not in my experience. Changing anything takes time and even if you’re doing it right, it takes a while before you get results. It can be difficult to pull through that gap between putting in the work and reaping the benefits. So don’t set yourself up for failure by starting 10 things at the same time like I did with the miracle morning.

“Focus.” That’s what Warren Buffett and Bill Gates said in unison when asked what they thought was the single biggest contributor to their success. It might be simple, but it’s not easy. Time and again I see myself and those around me add more and more to what was supposed to be a short list of high-priority items. Adding doesn’t mean you’ll get more done. Remember that every time you add something, you make everything that’s already on the list LESS important.

Creating a morning routine that DOES work for you

Pick one thing that your morning routine is supposed to do for you. Just one. Meditation, reading, journaling, they’re not in the morning routine for the sake of being there. Whether it’s getting into a positive mindset for the day, reflecting to make better decisions, improve your focus, or help you learn consistently, they’re there because they’re supposed to accomplish something. Rather than wanting all those things, imagine what would make the biggest difference in your life at the moment if you did it every day.

For me that was getting rid of my neck pain. I was in some degree of pain almost all the time. That affected everything I did and everything I wanted to do (or not wanted to do because it also made me grumpy a fair amount of the time). For you it might be making progress on your side business, or being in touch with your family. It might be having some time to yourself to do something you enjoy. It can be anything. But it cannot be everything.

This might be the single most useful distinction in the entire English vocabulary. You can pick anything, but you cannot pick everything. Pick ONE thing.

Then choose which activity would help you achieve that goal. Maybe it’s 15 minutes of exercise. Maybe it’s sending messages to loved ones. Maybe it’s having a cup of coffee and studying for your next career move. Try to pick something that takes less than 20 minutes to start off with.

Then stick with it for at least 2 months. Don’t add stuff. Just do the thing you planned to do. Make it as easy as possible for yourself to stick with it. Life Will come racing at you and a 60 minute chunk is much more likely to get run over in the process than a 20 minute one.

Don’t give up

You have a vision for your life. That’s why you’re looking into morning routines in the first place. Whether it’s the wish for a better start of the day, or more progress on something that’s important to you, you know it’s possible. So keep trying until you get there.

Especially when you’ve had a bad day and didn’t do what you set out to do, don’t take that as an excuse to give up altogether. Remember: EVERYBODY has a bad day sometimes. We’re human. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we plan poorly and don’t manage to make the time. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just keep in mind: skipping once in a while is human, skipping twice in a row is the start of a new habit.

Entrepreneur. Humanist. Medium addict. B.Sc. Artificial Intelligence. M.Sc. Cognitive Neuroscience. Learning through sharing.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store