For as long as I can remember, I have used an alarm clock to wake myself up in the morning to be productive. I despise the jarring beeping sound. But it’s better than when my kids beat my alarm to the punch before dawn.
The routine I thought would lead to productive mornings
Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to seize the day by setting up a strong morning routine. I began setting my alarm earlier, often waking for a 5:30 a.m. run or hot yoga class. At 6:30, I would stare at my computer screen for a while, unable to form words because my brain was still not functioning, and I would linger over making my to-do list for most of those early hours. I drank a lot of tea, felt cranky for most of the day and was dying for a nap around 2:30 in the afternoon when it was time to pick up my three kids from school.
I felt pretty productive most mornings, but I also felt really tired. Those extra couple hours I got in the morning were lost to the midday slump. I was finding my routine to be unsustainable. If I forgot to set an alarm or decided to rest on the weekend, I felt like I could sleep forever. I set my bedtime earlier and earlier to combat the fatigue, sometimes going to bed at 8:30 p.m. I still couldn’t wake up without an alarm.
It felt like there was no amount of sleep that was sufficient for me. I could sleep eight hours or I could sleep 12 hours. But if I was up before the sun, it still felt onerous to pull myself from bed. Then, one small change revolutionized my morning routine and led to a whole pack of great new habits.
Changing my approach to the day
You see, I was great at structuring a productive morning routine with time for fitness, meditation, work and planning. But I didn’t have the energy to actually engage in that routine because I hadn’t set up a strong evening routine first. I usually spent my prebedtime hours watching TV, working (since I wasn’t getting much creative work done in the morning) or scrolling mindlessly through my phone for some downtime.
So I took a more holistic approach to my routine to feel productive from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep. That meant not simply going to bed early, but going to bed mindfully. I began setting a bedtime for my electronics, making sure that I didn’t spend my evening hours in front of screens. Instead, I started using that time for reading and prepping my to-do list for the next day. It was hard to kick my technology habits. But in just a few days, I saw that it was well worth it. I began waking up before my alarm went off, a major milestone.
The routine that actually led to productive mornings
Soon, I was waking consistently between 5:30 and 5:45 a.m., my mind and body anxious to get up. I kept waiting for the inevitable exhaustion to snatch me back into my old ways. As long as I kept the screens at bay, my tired days stayed behind me.
Now that I had the bandwidth to really think about what I wanted out of my routine, I rearranged my day to optimize my morning performance. I began working out lightly in the morning so I wasn’t too tired to get in some productive hours of work. I started eating my meals at set times each day (and planning them ahead) so my energy levels wouldn’t crash. But most importantly, I kept putting away all the screens two hours before bed. Those evenings spent reading got me through at least eight books a month and fueled my morning creativity like nothing I’d ever known before.
Some days I catch myself wondering when it’s all going to come crashing down around me. I still can’t believe that the solution to my sluggish mornings could be so deceptively simple.
Each part of my routine supports the whole, but the screen bedtime was the game changer that set everything in motion. It not only gives me time to unwind, it allows me the space to think about how I want the next day to look and feel. I have a head start on making better choices. It sets the routine in motion in my mind. By the time morning comes, it feels like I’ve spent all those sleeping hours preparing to be productive. Now, I’m actually ready to seize the day before it begins.
This article was published in February 2019 and has been updated. Photo by Prostock-studio/Shutterstock