8 Lessons Learned from Testing 1,000 Morning Routines

organized desk with "DO MORE" on the mac screen

It’s Friday afternoon and, once again, there wasn’t time to get enough of the important work done this week.

You’re overwhelmed by the needs and agendas of others — email hounding you from the moment you wake up until you set the phone down for the night.

When you finally dig into an important project, the day is half gone. You think, now I can get some real work done. But endless interruptions make it hard to gain any traction.

There just isn’t enough time.

And, at this rate, it feels like you’re never going to get ahead. It’s so frustrating — like trying to paddle against the current of a mighty, tireless river. It’s exhausting, and sooner or later you will lose.

If only there was a way to gain a head start on the rest of the world. To get your boat in the race before others have even thought about their first cup of coffee.

Successful Men Know This Secret

By now I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of praise for the almighty Morning Routine. Maybe you already have one.

From Mumbai to Minnesota, men are dragging themselves out of cozy beds, stumbling crusty-eyed toward the bathroom well before sunrise.

You may be asking, “Why make such a sacrifice?”

Because the stakes are high.

Not only does the status quo of being busy-but-not-productive feel terrible, it’s an insidious force — corroding your dreams and aspirations. It sends a message to your soul that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never get ahead.

The accumulated regret of never gaining enough momentum to breakthrough and accomplish more feeds the illusion that your current speed of progress is your max speed.

Each day lost to inefficiency takes us farther from what could have been achieved in our lifetime. All while moving us toward that sad moment of future regret and unrealized dreams. That moment where we take stock and wonder why we didn’t create the health, wealth, meaning, fulfillment, or legacy we could have.

I Learned to Take Those Magic Hours Seriously

From the time I started getting serious about productivity (about 6 years ago) until now, I’ve easily tested well over 1,000 morning routines.

From this experience, and those of my clients — the men I work with to achieve sustained high performance — I can attest to the magic of the morning hours. A time to get your head on straight. To set the tone for the day — a positive, productive tone.

Not only is it good for your attitude, it also creates space for what Cal Newport describes as “Deep Work.” A period of quiet, focused productivity. Work free from interruptions and distractions.

Although it took me a few years to really get consistent (for reasons we’ll explore below) with my mornings, persistence paid off.

Mistakes were made along the way. Lessons were learned and insights gained. That is what I’m going to share with you today…

1. Your Morning Routine Begins at Night

The single biggest saboteur of my mornings (for years) was an inconsistent bedtime. More often than not, I’d stay up with my wife watching an extra episode of Criminal Minds (or whatever we were into at the time).

On the days when I managed to get in bed on time, I still woke up feeling tired. Why? Because irregular sleep and wake times confuse your body’s circadian rhythms — leaving you feeling “off.”

Here’s the thing. My intention was to get to bed on time, I just didn’t have the right system in place to ensure that it happened consistently.

Mornings do not exist in a vacuum. They are interconnected with the rest of your life.

What you do during those precious hours ripples out, affecting the rest of your day. Likewise, what you do the night before affects the quality of your morning.

Think of the night before as the beginning of your morning routine.

How well you sleep is just as important as how much (7–9 hours for most people). If you get to bed on time but your sleep quality sucks, then your morning routine (and overall health and productivity) will suffer.

Here are some (evening) steps to improve your mornings:

  • Prepare anything you need for the next morning, like gym bag, journal, or snacks
  • Stop drinking alcohol within 2 hours of bedtime
  • Don’t eat large meals late a night (it can be helpful to have a light snack before bed)
  • Keep your bedroom cool
  • Avoid blue-light exposure from electronics (TV, tablet, phone)
  • Limit or completely avoid the use of stimulants — especially later in the day (coffee, nicotine, chocolate, and certain medications)
  • Release anxious feelings by writing any racing thoughts or nagging concerns in a journal (don’t underestimate the power of this!)

Your evening should be a series of steps that walk you toward restful sleep. Being in bed, reading, teeth brushed, the house all buttoned up for the night— that’s a strategy for success.

2. Being Consistent Required Persistence

There’s something you should know.

The mind can get squirrely when you do something new and uncomfortable. Your old, unproductive identity (the one who likes to sleep in but regrets not having gotten more done each week) will resist the new way.

It will fight for its unproductive little life. Play tricks on you — telling you you’re too tired. Or that you should come up with a whole new routine right then and there (instead of doing the actual damn routine!).

Don’t fall for it.

Get up anyway and go through the motions, even if you half-ass the rest of the routine for the first week. The key is to build that initial habit of waking up at the same time consistently.

As your routine begins to gel into a habit, things get easier. Your body and mind will work for you — pulling you toward the constructive activities, instead of fighting you.

Wake up at the same time every dayEven on the weekends.

Wait, just hear me out on this one…

I used to sleep in on the weekends. On Monday the struggle would begin all over again. By the time I’d get back into a groove it would be the weekend.

Remember what I said about irregular bedtimes and circadian rhythms?

When I finally became consistent with the timing of my evening and morning routines, it became so much easier. Now I often wake up before the alarm (annoying).

Having said all that, being consistent doesn’t mean being rigid. There will be days when you really should sleep in.

3. Make Your Routine Less Routine

Okay, I can hear you… “James, you’re not making any sense.”

Bear with me for a minute.

I know that (like me) you’re always changing, growing, and picking up new interests.

You know what’s cool, though? You can still benefit from the momentum of habits while enjoying a bit of novelty.

We’ll discuss exercise more down below, but just as an example: Your morning routine may include exercise from 6 — 6:45 am. But, during that time window, you can do different types of exercise on different days. So, if on Mondays and Wednesdays you run, then Tuesdays and Thursdays you can do calisthenics. Or, maybe you like to run daily in the summer and hit the weights during the colder months.

Doing it this way builds the habit of exercising at the same time each morning. It keeps things novel and doesn’t mess up the habit-momentum you’ve been so diligent about cultivating.

The idea is that, at the same time every day, your body and mind are expecting to do a similar activity — and pulling you in that direction.

We’ll look at some other activities you should include in a powerful morning routine shortly.

4. Focus, Or Forget It

We live in a world designed to hijack our attention and energy.

If we don’t carefully guard those precious resources, we risk frittering away our mornings.

Some effective ways to waste a perfectly good morning: Check your inbox, pop over to reddit, or scroll through Facebook or Instagram. And if you’re going anywhere near your phone then you may as well just sleep in.

About the phone…

Get it out of the bedroom and (if practical) away from wherever you’re going to do your morning routine. If you’re headed out, keep it on airplane mode. If you find yourself scrolling through Instagram and you have no idea how you got there (old habit momentum), use site blocking apps.

Likewise, if you’re going to be working at your laptop/desktop, then it’s a good idea to use site blocking apps there, too. There are free options like Self Control, as well as paid options like Freedom or RescueTime (and many more).

The key is to stick to the routine. Do nothing that is not part of your routine. If you catch yourself going off track, stop. Immediately go back to your routine.

You don’t want to get in the habit of doing a half-baked, unfocused morning routine.

5. Get Your Ass Moving

What you do in the morning affects the entire day — how you feel, think, perceive, and act. It sets the tone.

Doing something physical is key. You’ve got to get the blood moving and the feel-good neurotransmitters flowing.

Some of the early morning physical activities that I’ve enjoyed over the years include self-massage, foam rolling, hot and cold showers, qigong (Chinese meditation and movement practices), hiking, calisthenics, weightlifting, and martial arts.

Do something you enjoy.

A confession… I don’t exercise in the mornings anymore. I do self-massage instead.


I’m a lean guy with a high metabolism. I’ve found that my workouts are much better after I get a couple meals in me. If I workout hard in a fasted state I’ll feel wiped out for the rest of the day.

Maybe it’s because I’m in my 40’s now.

We’re all a little different. I like self-massage because it feels good and prepares my body for all the movement practices I do during the rest of the day.

Remember, you choose a time for physical activity and either have a set activity to do on specific days or you can keep it flexible. If you’ve been living hard, you may opt for a hot shower and some self-massage for recovery. If you’ve been feeling sluggish, then doing a run may be better.

Decide the night before so you’re not wasting precious time in the morning.

6. Move Forward on Meaningful Matters

One of the greatest benefits of having a consistent morning routine is the ability to do deep, focused work.

Uninterrupted. Quiet. Glorious work.

Depending on when you wake up, you can get as much as 2 hours of solid work done before breakfast. This isn’t just any “busywork.” This is work that is fresh, focused, and untainted by the demands of the day.

Your best work.

Imagine doing this daily. For weeks, months, and years.

As Owen Wilson would say: “Wow!”

Seriously, though, what would that mean for your life? It’s made a huge difference in my output, confidence, and mental well-being.

That’s right. It’s good for your mental and emotional lives.

I think you follow, but in case I lost you…

How terrible does it feel to be unproductive? How anxious, sad, frustrated, and overwhelmed do you feel when you can’t make headway on the important stuff?

Okay, erase all that. Gone.

Everyday you can walk into the storm of life knowing you’ve already conquered the day. That productive momentum carries forward and you actually get more done throughout the rest of the day.

Awesome. I know.

7. Make Up Your Mind for the Day

Speaking of mental health…

This is one that my clients are often tempted to skip. In my experience, that’s a big mistake.

Including some version of meditative introspection into the routine aligns your daily actions with your values and goals.

I prefer journaling.

Whether it’s something like Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, or simply free-writing in a notebook, it helps immensely to clear your mind and set your intention for the day.

Although I highly recommend a writing practice, some people just won’t do it. That’s fine. You can also meditate or go for a walk in nature (or on the treadmill) and ponder life’s greater meaning.

Reading spiritual or philosophical texts or listening to audio-books and podcasts that remind you of your values can serve a similar purpose.

I do my journal writing at the end of my morning routine, but you can do it whenever feels right.

The reason I do it at the end is because I’m already enjoying the momentum and good feelings from taking care of my body and getting some great work done. That makes it easy to feel positive and optimistic about the rest of my day and sets the tone for my self-reflection.

And, if for some reason you’re feeling challenged or are facing resistance or fear, this is an opportunity to resolve it and connect with more constructive thoughts and feelings.

8. Too Much of a Good Thing?

Going on a three hour hike before breakfast is pretty amazing. Doing three hours of meditation and movement can be life changing. And, hammering out three hours of deep work is epic.

I’ve enjoyed them all. But…

I wouldn’t recommend going that route if you want the all-around most effective morning routine.


Because I’ve found that the best mornings are balanced. They include a mix of something physical, some time for focused work, and a way to get my mind and heart aligned for the day.

You can get creative and combine practices.

For example, go on an hour hike with your wife and discuss your goals and how you’re going to crush it that day. That’s great. You’re doing something physical, enjoying the benefits of nature, and getting your heart and mind aligned. Then you can come home and dive into focused work until it’s time for breakfast (or do your work first, then enjoy your walk).

There are activities like yoga, qigong, and Tai Chi that combine physical movement with meditation. I love qigong and have practiced it for years (I like doing it in the evening).

So, what does my morning routine looks like.

I wake up and write from 5:30 — 7:30 am. Then I do self-massage for 20 minutes. Then I write in my journal for about 10 minutes. Then breakfast.

Simple? Yep.

Life changing? Definitely.

Time to Wake Up and Make Your Dreams Real

Our lives can feel like a giant river of distraction, full of currents that threaten to pull us into the depths and drown our dreams.

When we finally get down to doing meaningful work, it’s like the world is conspiring against us — calling for our attention at every turn.

We suspect that we may never get ahead — a very real possibility.

I think you’ll agree that if we want to make progress towards our goals, then we must get up before everyone else — before the chaos of life hijacks our time and attention.

With the eight lessons above, you are equipped with the knowledge to create a powerfully productive morning routine.

Follow these guidelines, experiment, and persist.

Remember to guard your attention and focus like your life depends on it (because it does). Be consistent, but not rigid. Include physical activity, a little soul searching, and deep work — work that matters.

We must swim with all our might toward the shores of productivity, dragging our soaking body up the embankment — away from the noise of the raging river of distraction.

We must find a quiet, sunny place to gather our wits and focus our attention. Then, in that place, away from the noise and currents of life, we can do something important. Something meaningful. We can decide where we’re going in life, instead of fighting to stay afloat in the tumult.

Let tomorrow morning mark the beginning of a new way. Let it be the day you prioritize achieving your productive potential.

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