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The C-Suite Way to Hack Your Routine to Become a Morning Person

May 16, 2018
How do executives start their day and is it the secret to their success? One writer changes his diet and wakes up early to find out.

For about a year, I had a Post-it stuck to my computer monitor at work. On it, I’d written: “Discipline is the art of remembering what you want.” I don't know where I heard it, but this stuck with me, and it was something to think about when I got to the office. Did it make me more disciplined? No. Did it make me want to be more disciplined? Yes. I thought about not eating the Cheez-Its before I ate the Cheez-Its.

The value in staring at the Post-it was that it put me in a positive mind frame: Today was the day I was going to be my best self. My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired (Portfolio/Penguin; $25) made me think similarly. The book, by writer Benjamin Spall and product designer Michael Xander, is a collection of interviews with chief executive officers, presidents, founders, entrepreneurs, and other professionals about what they do when the alarm clock sounds. (Or doesn’t: Apparently, successful humans don’t need them.)

The people that Spall and Xander interview sleep an average of seven hours and 29 minutes a night; their bedtime is 10:57 p.m., and they awaken at 6:24 a.m. Fifty-four percent meditate, 78% exercise, and 60% check their phone immediately. For breakfast, 53% eat fruit, 40% have eggs, 33% down oatmeal, and 21% drink smoothies.

What becomes clear in these 270-plus pages is that the interviewees’ success affords them luxuries. The best way to have an awesome start to your day, apparently, is to be high enough on the corporate ladder that an underling’s morning gets ruined first. Or to own your own business or be scheduled so far outside the normal 9-5 that you lose all sense of what most people’s mornings are like.

Jenny Blake, author of Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One (Portfolio, $17) and a speaker, says: “I love reading nonfiction books, with a candle lit, for an hour or two until the sun rises.” Novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki says, “Sometimes my husband Oliver brings me coffee in bed, in which case I noodle around, writing in my journal first, and watching the deer nibbling the heads off the yellow flowers outside the bedroom window, before I move on to zazen [meditation] and fiction writing.” Bob Moore, founder of Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, plays jazz piano for 20 minutes with his assistant. Middle managers, these are not.

I used My Morning Routine as an inspirational guide, thinking about the word “routine” in the best light. I wasn’t carrying out monotonous tasks, I was “habit stacking” — performing a series of linked actions that gave my morning intention, which gave it meaning, which gave it purpose, which led to happiness, which is why I wanted to think about all this to begin with. I laid out my gym clothes the night before to avoid “decision fatigue.” Like Dave Asprey, creator of Bulletproof Coffee, I played ping pong with a ping pong robot to increase communication across my left and right brain. Well, maybe I didn’t do that.

To be fair, many of the subjects struggle with everyday problems such as getting the kids to school on time. And what nearly all of them share is a willingness to forgive themselves when they don’t stick to their routine. There’s no point to a plan that makes you feel bad about yourself; if there are components you’re always skipping, swap them out. Ozeki talks about the Hawthorne effect, identified in 1958, which showed that the novelty of any change in working conditions can lead to temporarily increased productivity.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been attempting to Hawthorne my way to a better morning routine. I signed up for 6 a.m. personal training sessions, and I downloaded a meditation app and another app that makes white noise so I can sleep better. Have I thought of about 14 ways to cancel the sessions? Yes, but as of this writing I haven’t been late once to meet with Rhondel. Have I used either app? No. But now I eat poached eggs for breakfast and wash them down with a banana-blueberry smoothie. I don’t know that the planking and the blended fruit has made me more productive, but who cares? They’ve made my mornings suck 23% less. That seems like success to me.

by Bret Begun

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