Two important and often overlooked aspects of creating a lasting morning routine

"Those that get up at 5am rule the world" - Robin Sharma

Those who know me, know that I love my morning routine. I’m always making adjustments to it, and at its core it revolves around waking up early (before sunrise), working on something important for an 90 minutes, and then hitting the gym. I recently shared my most recent routine in a blog post about creating new habits.

Today, I want to share a couple of things which I’ve neglected to mention in previous articles about my routine. These two aspects have enabled me to create a morning routine that has lasted several months, and it’s through my morning routine truly becoming habitual that I’ve seen massive benefits. I hope that these two insights can help you, too.

Why wake up early in the first place?

Before I jump into those two key insights that helped me, I want to share some of my thoughts about why you might want to wake up early at all.

Firstly, I’ve observed that many of the most successful people wake up early. In fact, I don’t know anyone who consistently wakes up before 6am and isn’t doing something interesting with their life. Some of the top CEOs are well known for waking up super early, many of them at 4:30am.

Additionally, I feel that waking up early sets the tone for my day of “making a choice”. If I leave it to fate as to when I roll out of bed, then I feel like that’s the outlook I’m taking in general. On the other hand, if I choose to get up early and do amazing things in those quiet hours, that’s when I feel like I’m grabbing hold of my life and controlling where I go. That’s the choice I want to make.

Finally, I’d like to ask you - are you working for someone else and have desires to create your own startup? If that’s the case, then do you leave your “startup building time” to the evening? Why do it after 8 hours of work? You’re going to be exhausted and struggle to be motivated. I advise you to think about what is a higher priority for you - your dream of a startup, or your work for someone else? Perhaps start working harder on yourself than on your job. When I started Buffer whilst working 5 days per week, it was the choice to work an hour first thing in the morning each day when I was freshest that made a huge difference.

So, if you’re thinking about starting starting an early morning routine, here are two things which took me a while to notice:

1. Craft your evening routine to get enough sleep

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One of the most important things I’ve found when I have attempted to keep up an early morning routine for several days and weeks in a row, is that if I let my daily sleep amount get much below 7 hours for too many consecutive days, I will burn out sooner or later.

The best way I have found to counteract this, is to decide how much sleep I need (for me it’s about 7.5 hours a night) and then figure out the exact time I need to be in bed. Once I’ve done this, I set up a 30 minute winding down ritual (for me, it’s going for a walk) which allows me to disengage from the day’s work and not have work in my head when I hit the pillow.

The key thing I’ve found, is that in order to wake up early over a sustained period of weeks, this evening ritual is just as important as how much I think about my morning routine.

2. Wake up early at the weekend too

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Another key aspect I’ve found to having a consistent early morning routine over a long period of time, is to pay particular attention to the weekend as well as the week. I certainly believe that allowing imperfection and some slack at the weekend is important, but I personally made the mistake of having a weekend wake up time which was too divergent from my week day wake up time. Only once I started to think about the weekend, I hit a chain of many days of early mornings.

Once you’ve decided when you want to wake up during the week, I recommend that you don’t wake up much more than 1 hour later at the weekend. This also probably means that you still need to go to bed quite early on Friday and Saturday night. The problem arises when you wake up several hours later on Saturday and Sunday, and then want to wake up super early again on Monday.

The most likely thing is that Monday will be a little later, and Tuesday too. Perhaps by Wednesday you are back to your early morning waking time, but you will not feel that magical state of gliding along, having several days in a row of early mornings and productive quiet hours. If you don’t try to wake up at a similar time at the weekend, it is similar to giving yourself jet lag every weekend. By waking up at a similar time at the weekend, you don’t stretch your body, and therefore you can achieve long term consistency with your morning routine.

Have you tried to have a long lasting early morning routine? Have you encountered either of these two challenges? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with your morning routine.

Photo credit: Kostas Kokkinos

Want to create a new habit? Get ready to break it.

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle

I’ve been obsessed with thinking about, adjusting and building upon my habits for a long time now, and working on good habits is probably one of the things that’s helped me the most to make progress with my startup. In addition, it seems like habits are now becoming popular again. This is a great thing, and books like The Power of Habit are helping lots of people.

I’ve discovered that perhaps one of the things which is rarely discussed with habits is failing with them. How do you keep going with building habits when you fail one day, or you have some kind of momentary setback? I thought it might be useful for me to share my thoughts on habits, and particularly the aspect of failing with habits.

Building an awesome habit

There are the steps I’ve found which work best for creating an amazing habit:

  1. Start so small you “can’t fail” (more on the reality of that later)
  2. Work on the small habit for as long as it becomes a ritual (something you’re pulled towards rather than which requires willpower)
  3. Make a very small addition to the habit, ideally anchored to an existing ritual

How I built my most rewarding habit

The habit I’m happiest with is my morning routine. It gives me a fantastic start to the day and lots of energy. To build it, I took the approach above of starting small and building on top.

I started my habit two years ago when I was based in Birmingham in the UK. The first thing I started with, was to go to the gym 2-3 times per week. That’s all my routine was for a long time. Once I had that habit ingrained, I expanded on it so that I would go swimming the other two days of the week, essentially meaning that I went to the gym every day at the same time. I’d go around 7:30, which meant I awoke at around 7am.

Next, I gradually woke up earlier, first waking up at 6:45 for several weeks, and then 6:30. At the same time, I put in place my evening ritual of going for a walk, which helped me wind down and get to sleep early enough to then awake early. Eventually, I achieved the ability to wake up at 6am and do 1 hour of productive work before the gym. This precious early morning time for work when I was the freshest was one of the things that helped me get Buffer off the ground in the early days.

The next thing I made a real habit was to have breakfast after I returned from the gym. I then worked on making this full routine a habit for a number of months, and I had times when I moved to a different country and had to work hard to get back to the routine after the initial disruption of settling in. It was whilst in Hong Kong that I achieved being very disciplined with this routine and wrote about it.

My morning routine

Today, I’ve built on top of this habit even further. Here’s what my morning routine looks like now:

  • I awake at 5:05am.
  • At 5:10, I meditate for 6 minutes.
  • I spend until 5:30 having a first breakfast: a bagel and a protein shake.
  • I do 90 minutes of productive work on a most important task from 5:30 until 7am.
  • At 7am, I go to the gym. I do a weights session every morning (different muscle group each day).
  • I arrive home from the gym at 8:30am and have a second breakfast: chicken, 2 eggs and cottage cheese.
  • At 9am we have the Buffer team standup video Skype call.

It may seem extremely regimented, and I guess perhaps it is. However, the important thing is the approach. You can start with one simple thing and then work on it over time. I’m now working to build around this current habit even more.

Failing whilst building your awesome habit

One of the most popular and simultaneously most controversial articles I’ve ever written is probably The Exercise Habit. It’s one which has been mentioned to me many times by people I’ve met to help with their startup challenges. I’ve been humbled to find out that a number of people have been inspired by the article to start a habit of daily exercise.

Whilst in Tel Aviv, I met Eytan Levit, a great startup founder who has since become a good friend. He told me he had read my article and was immediately driven to start a habit of daily exercise. I sat down and had coffee with him and he told me about his experience, it was fascinating. He told me that he did daily exercise for 4 days in a row, and he felt fantastic. He said he felt like he had more energy than ever before, and was ready to conquer the world. Then, on the 5th day Eytan struggled to get to the gym for whatever reason, and essentially the chain was broken. The most revelatory thing he said to me was that the reason he didn’t start the habit again was not that he didn’t enjoy the exercise or benefit greatly from doing it. The reason he failed to create the exercise habit was the feeling of disappointment of not getting to the gym on that 5th day.

Get ready and expect to break your habit

"I deal with procrastination by scheduling for it. I allow it. I expect it." - Tim Ferriss

What I’ve realised, is that one of the key parts of building habits might be to know that you will not flawlessly create your habits. You are going to break your habit at some point, you are going to fail that next day or next gym session sooner or later. The important thing is to avoid a feeling of guilt and disappointment, because that is what will probably stop you from getting up the next day and continuing with the routine.

In a similar way to how Tim Ferriss deals with procrastination, I believe we should not try so hard to avoid breaking our habits. We should instead be calm and expect to break them sometime, let it happen, then regroup and get ready to continue with the habit. Perhaps we took too much on, and we cut back a little or try to add one less thing to our habit. Or maybe we just had a bad day. That’s fine, and a single failure shouldn’t stop our long-term success with building amazing habits.

Is there a habit you were building and are not anymore? Why is that? Which habit are you happiest with? I’d love to hear your experiences on creating habits.

Photo credit: darinaniz

The exercise habit

This morning, my alarm sounded at precisely 5:50am. Within a few minutes, I was up and had my running shoes, shorts and a t-shirt on. Minutes later at 6am, I opened my MacBook Air, switched to the desktop with TextMate open and got coding. I worked for just under one hour on some important new functionality for Buffer. At exactly 6:59am, I pushed the few commits I’d made to our Git repository. I then took my octopus card and Fitness First card out of my wallet and put them in my pocket. I put my wallet in the gym bag I’d packed the night before, and headed out of my apartment door. I got the lift down from my eighth floor to the ground floor, cheerily said good morning to the concierge and headed out of my apartment building.

Once outside, I very specifically walked across the street to the 7-11. I entered the shop, said hello to the lady and went to the back where the fridges are. I knew exactly what I would buy. I grabbed a can of red bull and a small bottle of Volvic water. I went back to the counter I’d walked past, put both on the surface and waited for the lady to key in the items. I had my octopus card ready on the scanner to make the payment, and as soon as I heard the beep to confirm the payment, I cracked open the red bull, and walked away with the red bull in my right hand and the Volvic in my left.

I set off on the 3 minute journey to my gym, and sipped the red bull on the way, a little caffeine to enhance my performance during my weights session. As always, I finished the red bull exactly as I approached the Hopewell Centre where the gym is located, and tossed the empty can in the bin as I walked past.

I headed to the escalator, and when I reached the top I walked over to the lift which takes you to the 16th floor where Fitness First is. As always, when I got into the lift I opened up my gym tracking app on my iPhone and checked what my first exercise for the day would be, and how much weight and reps I did last time. As I got to the top, I knew exactly my first exercise and how much I’d aim for this time. I walked out of the lift and headed to the counter to exchange my Fitness First card for a locker key and towels. Once I got to the changing rooms, I put my bag in locker number 115 along with the octopus card and locked it. With the Volvic in hand, I was ready to start and headed straight to the bench for my first exercise: 12 reps of dumbbell bench press, with 30kg dumbbells.

After I’d finished in the gym, I went straight home and had my usual breakfast of 4 Weetabix. As soon as I’d finished, I opened my MacBook Air, turned on the Pomodoro app and set the timer ticking for 30 minutes. I spent 30 minutes replying to emails from my “to-reply” label in Gmail, and then stopped when the timer went off. I quickly packed my bag and headed to Caffe Habitu, ready for a productive rest of the day.

The power of habits

Almost all of this pattern is now completely habitual for me, Monday to Friday each week. I alternate the gym which I do Monday, Wednesday and Friday with running or swimming on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest, however, stays the same. It requires very little mental energy for me to choose what to do, and it requires almost no willpower for me to force myself to accomplish the routine.

By 9:30am, I’ve done an hour of coding on the most important task I have right now on Buffer, I’ve been to the gym and had a great session, and I’ve done 30 minutes of emails. It’s only 9:30am and I’ve already succeeded, and I feel fantastic. The rest of the day is a breeze. I continue to code, and I slot in a 30 minute Pomodoro to fill my Buffer, a 30 minute Pomodoro to read a startup book (right now it’s Delivering Happiness) and one other 30 minute Pomodoro for emails later in the afternoon. I usually also meet with a startup founder here in Hong Kong during lunch and help them with their current biggest challenge. If I start the day like this, I almost always have a very productive day, and in our daily standup team Skype call I have plenty of good progress to share.

Exercise as a keystone habit

The interesting part is, this routine has taken me quite some time to build up. Looking back, it all started with just the exercise. I managed to create exercise as a daily habit around one and a half years ago when I was based in Birmingham in the UK. Over time, it became such a strong habit that there is no way I would skip it. If the rest of my routine falls apart, I will always achieve the exercising.

Right now I’m reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg and everything suddenly became very clear. Exercise is what Duhigg calls a “keystone habit”:

"Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change."

Have you considered starting the exercise habit? Do you exercise regularly? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo credit: Tomomi Sasaki