Why the Best Morning Routine Is the Most Flexible

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
Woman drinking morning coffee
© Eyes on Asia / Stocksy United

You’ve seen the lists: Eight things to do before 8 a.m., six practices successful people do before the sun rises, four habits for your best morning.  

Our cultural obsession with productive or peaceful mornings dates back to Henry David Thoreau’s daybreak dips in Walden Pond and Benjamin Franklin’s routine early rising. And the allure isn’t unfounded — beginning the day by prioritizing your health and wellness helps give you some control over how you’ll feel the rest of the day.  

Exercising in the a.m. can boost alertness, avoiding phones and screens first thing in the morning can reduce stress, and practicing mindfulness can help you feel calmer, says Dr. Sona Bhatti, a primary care doctor who sees patients at UW Medicine Primary & Urgent Care at Ballard.  

Morning routines can help set the tone for your day — but the sentiment works both ways.   

Yes, taking time for yourself in the morning can help you feel more centered; however, if you’re pressuring yourself to complete a lengthy to-do list before dawn, the tone you’re setting might be more burnt out than blissful.  

The key is to find what works for you. By rethinking your routine, you can create a morning schedule you’ll stick with and enjoy. 

Acknowledge how hard it is to get up early — especially in Seattle 

Before you can start your morning routine, you first have to get up (and for those of us who slam snooze like our lives depend on it, this is a task in and of itself).  

Instead of assuming you’ll suddenly be able to rise and shine with ease, make small adjustments to help yourself get up earlier. You can set your clock back 15 minutes each day until you’re waking at the time you want or try using a wake-up light to cue your internal clock if you’re struggling with the dreary PNW mornings. 

“Slow wake alarms as well as light in the room can be stimulating and encourage you to get out of bed. When you do wake up, turn on the light as well, as this light exposure helps suppress melatonin that’s built up throughout the night,” Bhatti says. 

She explains that once you’ve established a routine, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day (yes, even on weekends) will also improve the quality of your sleep.  

Focus on what you want and need 

“A morning routine should not look the same for everybody,” says Lauren Graham, a biopsychologist who teaches classes on stress, coping, goal-setting and behavior change at the University of Washington. 

It’s enticing to follow the routines of politicians, celebrities, influencers and authors, but what works for those folks isn’t necessarily your path to success. (Remember when Mark Wahlberg said he gets up at 2:30 a.m. to workout? Yeah, that’s never, ever happening.) 

Instead, try to pick one or two things you actually want to change about your morning. Graham recommends getting in touch with what your purpose is for a morning routine by asking yourself these questions: 

  • What am I trying to improve or change about my life? 
  • What is the value in the thing I’m trying to shift?  

If you’re a parent or someone strapped for time, you may want to feel less hectic in the morning. The goal here might look like making your breakfast the night before so you have five minutes to sit and eat in the morning without feeling so rushed.  

In other words, your morning routine doesn’t need to be fancy or Instagram-worthy. The best routine is the one based on your goals — not what social media trends, celebrities or even Ben Franklin recommends.    

Start really small  

As in the tiniest first step you can imagine.  

“The biggest lesson I know from behavior change is to take tiny, tiny baby steps. Pick the smallest little action you can take toward a particular goal you have. You want to make it so easy it would be ridiculous to not do it,” Graham says.  

While it may feel silly to set a goal of one minute of meditation or one line in a gratitude journal, these tiny steps are still changes in your behavior, and taking small steps makes it easier to stick with and form new habits.  

Celebrate the little victories  

Along with setting small goals, you also want to celebrate when you follow through on them.  

“You’re creating an easy reward that will help to reinforce your new behavior,” Graham says.  

Sharing with a friend can also help you celebrate the little wins and keep you accountable. 

Practice self-compassion 

One reason it’s so hard to make a change or create a new routine is many of us are self-critical if we don’t feel we are making enough progress toward a goal or if we slip up from time to time. 

One way to help with this goes back to starting small, Graham says.  

“It’s easy to fall off the bandwagon if you’re trying to make a lot of change at once. It’s mentally more attainable to focus on one thing at a time, then over time adding more on,” she notes. 

Another important piece is to recognize how hard it is to change behavior. It’s normal to make mistakes and important to give yourself some grace if you do.  

You can encourage yourself with positive affirmations, practicing gratitude or simply being present to take in the benefits of the new routine. And if there’s a morning when you sleep in or skip the ritual, do your best to be kind to yourself.  

“Let yourself off the hook when plans fail. What we don’t want is to make our mornings worse by feeling bad about ourselves,” Graham says.  

By prioritizing your goals, listening to your needs and giving yourself compassion, you can create a routine that fits in your life, without feeling stressed to optimize every minute of the morning.