How to Create a Morning Routine (A Lazy Person's Guide)

Back in the 1980s, the United States Army ran a recruiting campaign with the slogan "Be all that you can be." In one commercial, a young man jumps out of a plane, parachutes to the ground, and then jumps in a jeep and drives away. Cut to a scene of the young man drinking coffee with fellow soldiers as the sun is still rising. The narrator says, "We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day." 

I don't know about you, but I don't jump out of planes at sunrise every morning. I'm pretty sure I'm the "most people" the Army was talking about back then. 

But studies have shown that a good morning routine can create greater confidence, more energy, a sharper mind, and less stress. So how can "most people" (like me) tap into the superpowers of a morning routine when we want to hit the snooze button instead?


You Already Have a Morning Routine, But…

All of us have a morning routine, whether we know it or not. We get up, and we do certain things in more or less a particular order: have some coffee, take a shower, grab some breakfast, brush our teeth. So the question isn't, "Do I have a morning routine?" The question is, "Is my morning routine moving me closer to, or further away from, my goals and the person I want to become?"

As a Christian Productivity Coach, I know the importance of a morning routine. I often talk with clients about developing The Daily Five. The Daily Five is five things we do every morning to show up to our day as our very best selves to achieve our goals. 

The Daily Five varies for each person but typically includes things like:

  • Quiet time (Bible, prayer, meditation)

  • Exercise

  • Journaling

  • Planning the day

  • Drinking water

  • Eating a healthy breakfast or prepping a healthy lunch

In the short term, morning routines create a cause and effect in our day. When our morning is hectic and chaotic, we're more likely to have a hectic and chaotic day. We're constantly in reaction mode. When we spend our morning intentionally investing in positive habits that move our life forward, we are calmer, more confident, able to think more clearly, and have more energy. 

In the long-term, morning routines shift the trajectory of our life a few degrees. Over time, that course will lead us closer to our fullest potential or further away. 


A Morning Routine Gone Wrong

Recently I had to admit that my morning routine had gone to pot. 

My husband and I have gone through several changes in the last six months. We moved out of a New York City high-rise to a house in Connecticut. We spent months renovating the in-law unit. We listed that in-law unit on Airbnb and started getting bookings. We were excited about this new direction, but suddenly our lives felt very different. 

Typically my ideal morning routine includes quiet time, writing, exercising, and eating a healthy breakfast. But over the last few months, it had become grabbing coffee and immediately reacting to all the decisions to make and details to manage. I would eventually sit down at my desk around 9ish, two cups of coffee in, sometimes I showered, and already felt overwhelmed before the day even started. 

I realized I was reacting to my life instead of being intentional and powerful. My big goals had taken a backseat to administrative tasks. I was no longer taking ground in the way I used to. I felt more anxious and generally more "in my feelings" than usual. Something had to change.  

I decided to get my morning routine back on track, but I didn't want to feel like it was just one more thing added to a to-do list that I already felt was never done. I needed a better plan. And that's when I was reminded about habit stacking. 


What is Habit Stacking?

I was reminded of habit stacking when I recently re-read Atomic Habits by James Clear. Habit stacking, in basic terms, builds on the success of one positive action by adding another to create momentum. 

That might look like this:

  • Get up

  • Do ten pushups

  • Drink a smoothie

  • Read a chapter of a personal development book

Sounds easy, right? That is until the alarm goes off and you realize you don't want to do ten pushups, you don't like smoothies, and you'd rather see what's happening on Instagram than read some book. 

So how do we, "most people," make habit stacking work for us?


Habit Stacking for the Rest of Us 

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear outlined a system that I found helpful in getting my morning routine back on track: cue, action, reward. 

Here's how the sequence works:

  • Step 1: A habit you already do every morning (the cue or trigger)

  • Step 2: A new habit you want to add (the action)

  • Step 3: A reward for that habit (the reward)

I thought about how I could leverage my existing morning routine (which was not optimized to reach my goals) to a more intentional start to my day. 

For me, it looked like this:

  • Step 1: Pour a cup of coffee (a habit I already do without thinking)

  • Step 2: Sit down at my desk for quiet time (a habit I want to add)

  • Step 3: At the end, pour a second cup of coffee (reward, because I really love coffee)

I was able to add a positive habit back into my day almost effortlessly by stacking it in between two things I already do and enjoy every morning. 


Create Your Habit Sequence

I could see how the cue, action, reward system would work to add one positive habit back into my morning routine, but what about adding multiple habits? In addition to my quiet time, I am also working on writing and health goals this year. How could I use habit stacking to create an entire string of positive daily habits and move closer to my goals?

To make this easy, I created a sequence of positive habits that used the reward for one habit as the cue for the next one. I can only drink so much coffee in the morning before it becomes counterproductive to a calm and confident day, so I decided to use journaling as a reward. For me, journaling is more of a free flow brain dump than writing. I love doing it, and it always helps me think more clearly during my day. 

Here's what my sequence looked like: 

I wanted to be more consistent in my quiet time for my first habit, so my first sequence was: 

  • Cue: Pour a cup of coffee

  • Action: Quiet time

  • Reward: Second cup of coffee

I wanted to be more consistent in writing every day for my second habit, so my second sequence was:

  • Cue: Second cup of coffee (also reward from action 1)

  • Action: Writing time

  • Reward: Journal

I wanted to be more consistent in working out every day for my third habit, so my sequence was:  

  • Cue: Journal (reward from Habit 2)

  • Action: Workout

  • Reward: Smoothie

By stringing these habits together (cue, action, reward), my morning routine seamlessly flowed with one positive habit leading to the next. I spent less time deciding if I would do something ("Will I work out today or not?") and simply followed the steps. 


Start Small, Then Build

I knew I wouldn't do all three habits every morning right from the start. I think most of us can relate to this. It's like waking up on New Year's Day with five major changes we want to start at once and abandoning all of them by the end of the first week. I had been through that cycle too many times, and I didn't want to repeat it. Instead, I decided to add one new habit each week. The first week, I just did quiet time. The second week, I stacked quiet time and writing time. The third week was exercise. 

If you want to create a more intentional morning routine, but the idea of adding several habits at once seems overwhelming, try starting with one and building from there. 

Here are some examples:

  • Start with one habit and add a new one each week (stretching the first week, then stretching and running the second week)

  • Start with a smaller goal and work your way up (start with five minutes of meditation and add five minutes each week until you reach 30 minutes)

The goal here is simply to create a win you can build on. It's okay if it isn't perfect (it probably won't be). That's the beauty of a morning routine. Every day you wake up and get another opportunity to take a step forward.


Set Yourself Up for Success

The success of a morning routine starts the night before. It's hard to get motivated when you wake up and have to declutter your desk or charge your wireless headphones to work out. Just the thought of a cluttered desk is enough to keep me in bed, covers over my head, hitting the snooze button. Our environment is a significant predictor of our success in reaching our goals. 

What you do every evening before you go to bed will depend on the positive habits you want to build in your morning routine. Here are a few things I do every night before I go to bed that help me feel more motivated to start my morning:

  • I clean off my desk and put my Bible and journal in the middle of my desk. 

  • I put my computer and writing notebook in easy reach. 

  • I put my workout clothes on my Peloton. 

  • I set up my coffee the night before, so it's ready when I wake up. 

Think about your own morning routine habit stack. What steps can you take the night before to set yourself up for success? 


Take Action This Week

If you're like me ("most people") and want to get your morning routine back on track, habit stacking can be a great way to start building positive habits (or build on the ones you have).

Start with one positive habit and ask these three questions:

  • What is one thing I do every morning without thinking? (cue)

  • What is one positive habit I want to add to my morning? (action)

  • What is one thing that I enjoy every morning? (reward)

Even spending a few minutes each morning developing positive habits can make a noticeable impact on your productivity and move you closer to your goals. 


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