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The Truth About Morning Routines

Many morning routines are a distraction. Here's how to make your routine work for you—and not the other way around

The Truth About Morning Routines

I recently posted a thought on social media that drew a lot of love—and some pushback. I wrote:

What I enjoy most about this newsletter is that we can dig into the nuance in a way we can’t in a 280-character Tweet or Instagram post. So let’s do just that.

I’ve appeared on many podcasts since the release of The Comfort Crisis. They’re all fun, and I enjoy every conversation.

The question I’m asked most often that isn’t directly related to my work is, “what’s your morning routine?”

I found it strange that I was getting this question so often—until I learned that morning routines are having a moment.

The idea is that a well-choreographed morning routine is the secret to success in (insert anything). As one popular podcaster said, “a correctly scripted series of steps in the first 60 to 90 minutes of your day dictates whether you’ll have an optimal day.”

Morning routines first became popular among self-optimization gurus. Now Google searches for “morning routine” are up 600 percent. Major media outlets ranging from the New York Times to CNN to Self are running stories on constructing the perfect morning routine and delving into celebrity morning routines. TikTok videos tagged with #morningroutine have been viewed around 15 billion times.

We’re not talking about common morning behaviors, like brushing teeth and eating breakfast.

These routines are filled with complicated wellness- and- productivity-related hacks. It can sometimes feel like a Saturday Night Live Stefan skit, with online influencers telling us our morning routine should have “... everything. 4 a.m. wakeups. Twenty minutes of meditation. Gratitude journaling. No phones. Athletic Greens. Cold plunge. Fifteen minutes of sunlight exposure. Breathwork. Butter coffee but only after 90 minutes of being awake. Zone 2 cardio …”

Routines, first of all, are just a sequence of actions we regularly do in a given environment. Whether we plan them or not, we all have routines because routines provide structure and predictability. A good routine should improve our focus and ability to reach a larger goal. A bad one leads to distraction and procrastination.

So the idea of designing a morning routine is good: it’s a conscious effort to clear the runway to reach our biggest goals.

But the more I’ve looked at the rise of complicated morning routines, the more I wonder if we’re straying away from that intent. I worry that, instead of clearing the runway, we’re actually putting barriers on it.

Carl Cederstrom, a professor at Stockholm University who studies the wellness industry, attributes the rise of morning routines to two phenomena happening at once.

First, self-optimization became popular. “We live in a time that is hugely obsessed with success and finding hacks to get into success mode,” said Cederstrom.

Second, Cederstrom said social media allows us to broadcast the details of our lives. It incentivizes us to show the world that we live a “perfectly balanced and meaningful life,” as he put it.

I agree with both of those points. But I also think there’s a third reasons at play.

I spoke with many brilliant behavioral psychologists for my next book, Scarcity Brain. As you know if you read The Comfort Crisis, humans are wired to avoid physical and psychological discomfort.

Morning routines are marketed as what kickstarts us to achieve our biggest goals, usually work-related. For example, building a business, writing a book, coding a program, raising good kids, etc.

But these big goals are uncomfortable and uncertain. They take a ton of agonizing hours and effort. And we never know if we’re doing things right.

It doesn’t matter what your big goal is. How do you know you’re doing the right things to reach it? For example, how do you know your parenting will lead to good kids? How do you know your business decisions will create the largest profits? You can’t. You never will. And that uncertainty is uncomfortable.

Morning routines are different. They provide clear outcomes and “little wins.” We either meditated for 20 minutes or didn’t. We got in the cold plunge while drinking the green smoothie or didn’t.

These little wins feel good.

Do Morning Routines Predict Success?

I emailed my friend Leila Hormozi about this. She’s built and sold a few eight-figure companies and now focuses full-time on her and her husband Alex’s investment company, Acquisition, where she grows and scales businesses and helps people who work in them reach big revenue goals.

She told me that “there’s no cookie-cutter routine for success. I know billionaires who watch cartoons when they wake up. I also know broke people who have complicated two-hour morning routines. Vice versa. It's all about finding what works for you to achieve your goals.”

For every successful person who follows a 90-minute morning wellness routine, many more wake up and do things that would send online wellness and productivity gurus into a death spiral.

For example, Warren Buffett is worth $105 billion and arguably the smartest financial mind of our time. He wakes at 6:45 a.m. and pokes around some newspapers. Then he drives to McDonald’s and buys a Sausage McMuffin with Egg and a Coca-Cola. Full sugar.

Elon Musk rolls out of bed and immediately fixates on a screen and sends emails. Mark Cuban does the same. Sheryl Sandberg and Serena Williams don’t do anything but deal with screaming kids from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m.

One of my favorite writers, the brilliant Hunter Thompson, would wake at 3 p.m. Then he’d ingest enough booze and drugs to kill a horse. At midnight, he’d begin writing.

What Actually Helps You Reach A Goal

As complicated morning routines became popular, we seem to have lost sight of what actually helps us reach goals.

What really helps us achieve big goals is doing the actions that directly relate to the goal. For example, entrepreneurs build businesses by making sales calls, developing marketing strategies, hiring the right employees, emailing clients, etc.

Morning routines give us little wins that feel good. But those wins may not necessarily count towards the game we think they do.

Most of the behaviors in morning routines are good in and of themselves. It’s good to exercise. It’s good to go outside. It’s (maybe?) good to drink green stuff. But we can’t say doing those things upon wakeup helps us “optimize” or perform significantly better in unrelated domains.

And some rather pernicious problems can occur when we try to force together cause and effect—when we genuinely believe that a morning routine causes success in other areas of our life.

Consider: Scientists at Texas A&M and the University of Wyoming conducted three studies on work performance and morning routines.

They found that when employees’ morning routines got thrown off, they became flustered, and the rest of their work suffered. In turn, the employees were less likely to reach their bigger goals.

Routines as Superstition

Psychologists call what happened with those employees who had their morning routines interrupted and suffered for it “superstition.” Superstition is when we falsely believe one behavior influences the outcome of another.

Baseball players are a classic example of superstition. Before throwing a pitch or stepping up to the batter’s box, many baseball players do all kinds of weird stuff.

They’ll often wear the same pair of unwashed underwear, tap their bat or pull on the brim of their hat x number of times, chew the same gum, etc. Baseball players are so superstitious that there’s an entire body of research on superstition in baseball.

Of course, the research shows that none of these superstitious behaviors improve performance. They don’t increase the odds of a player getting on base or throwing a strike.

But problems arise when a baseball player can’t go through his or her choreographed routine. Studies show that when the superstitious routine gets interrupted, players get flustered—and that can decrease performance.

We can all realize that it’s silly when a baseball player doesn’t wash his underwear, chews the same gum, or pulls on the brim of his hat or taps his bat a specific number of times.

But somehow, the morning routine gurus have many of us believing that plunging into cold water, drinking Athletic Greens, or gratitude journaling for a specific number of minutes before our day makes us “optimal” or better at everything.

In truth, these routines might make us more like superstitious baseball players: If we can’t execute our routine flawlessly, we can get flustered. At best, this stresses us out. At worst, it can decrease our performance in working toward our primary goal.

This can make routines more of a liability than an asset. Research on a concept called mental flexibility backs this up. Not to mention, complex morning routines can be a waste of time we could have put into doing the stuff that actually moves the dial.

How to Use Morning Routines

If you have a morning routine that works for you, keep working it. As Leila put it, “do more of the stuff that helps you and less of the stuff that doesn't—it's pretty simple.”

But also make sure that what you think is helping you is actually helping you. This applies to all sorts of behaviors.

It can pay to get vicious in drawing a clear line between cause and effect.

How does a complex morning routine filled with a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with your primary goal help you reach that main goal? Why are you doing the routine, and how is it helping what you want it to help?

If you hear of some new routine you want to try, ask yourself, “what problem am I trying to solve with this new behavior, and how will this new behavior solve that problem?”

How I Fixed My Morning Routine

Take my own experience. The early morning hours are my prime time for writing. I’d heard on a podcast that making pour-over coffee can be a relaxing way to start the day. I figured that might clear my head before I started writing. So I made complicated pour-over coffee every morning for a year. It took fifteen minutes.

I eventually realized that making pour-over coffee didn’t change my writing. It only cut into my most creative and productive writing time. So I bought an automatic coffee maker and can now immediately start writing—and that allows me to get more and better words on the page, which is my main goal.

What we’re after here is freedom. Freedom from believing we need one thing to happen to make us “optimal” enough to make another thing happen. The more steps you need to accomplish something, the more barriers you’re putting on the runway.

What if you’re already optimal right here, right now? What if the runway is already clear?

So ... what do you think? What are your thoughts on morning routines? If you have a morning routine that's working for you, I'd love to hear about it. Reply to this email. Good news: The 2% Newsletter will soon have a comments section so we can all share ideas.

Have fun, don’t die, make your routine work for you and not the other way around.

-Michael