The executive morning routine has turned into something of a status symbol.
Instead of bragging about being busy, executives can now be heard bragging about the rigor of their morning routine.
Richard Branson has shared that he starts his day around 5 a.m., motivated by the sun shining through his window. From there, he plays tennis, kitesurfs, or does another form of exercise, after which he eats a high fiber breakfast and checks in with his family before starting work.
“I find structure to start and finish the day helps me to focus, and achieve the things I need to,” he explains.
Oprah reports that she opens the curtains right after 7, brushes her teeth, and takes her dogs out for a walk in her garden. Then she comes in for an espresso and pulls cards to motivate her day, and then wraps up her morning routine with meditation and exercise.
But morning routines aren’t a new fad.
They’ve been a key feature of the American dream as far back as the 1700’s, when Benjamin Franklin described his own morning routine in his autobiography:
“5-7 a.m. Rise, wash and address Powerful Goodness! Contrive days’ business, and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study, and breakfast.”
And there’s science to back up the benefits of a solid morning routine.
For example, a randomized controlled trial in 2020 found that half an hour of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like running or a dance class, in the morning improves cognitive functions associated with decision-making, and therefore enables you to be more productive for the rest of your day.
It’s not just exercise that makes an impact.
“How you wake up each day and your morning routine (or lack thereof) dramatically affects your levels of success in every single area of your life.
Focused, productive, successful mornings generate focused, productive successful days — which inevitably create a successful life — in the same way that unfocused, unproductive, and mediocre mornings generate unfocused, unproductive and mediocre days, and ultimately a mediocre quality of life.
By simply changing the way you wake up in the morning, you can transform any area of your life, faster than you every thought possible”
— Hal Elrod, author of the international bestseller, The Miracle Morning
A good morning routine can boost productivity by:
- Reducing decision fatigue and stress.
- Optimizing your ability to focus.
- Increasing energy.
- Making you more resilient.
- Improving your mood.
- Powering your motivation.
And while everyone’s needs are slightly different, there’s a surprising amount of overlap in the morning routines of highly productive people.
The Productive Executive’s Morning Routine Checklist
Include the following strategies in your own morning routine to maximize productivity.
A productive morning routine begins the night before.
The most productive people in the world reduce decision fatigue by making their mornings as simple and predictable as possible.
Dr. Lisa MacLean, a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health System, explains, “by the time the average person goes to bed, they’ve made over 35,000 decisions and all of those decisions take time and energy, and certainly can deplete us.”
That average is a lot higher for business leaders, as are the consequences of poor decisions.
You can set yourself up for more clarity and less fatigue by preparing ahead of time:
- Lay out the clothes you will wear, including accessories. Barak Obama famously wears only grey or blue suits to keep his energy reserves up for all of the important decisions he has to make throughout the day.
- Know what you’re going to eat. Food choices can take up a lot of energy. The more you set yourself up with a system around food, the less stressed you’ll be. Making a weekly meal plan on Saturday or Sunday, limiting your breakfast choices, and eating leftovers for lunch are all great tactics.
- Plan for your morning routine. Once you know all of the elements you want to include in your morning routine, decide how much time each one will take so you can wake up early enough to make it all happen.
- Give yourself enough time to ease into your day. Nothing is more stressful than feeling rushed in the morning, so set your alarm early enough to fit all of the desired elements into your morning routine with a few minutes to spare.
- Prioritize sleep. In order to wake up early you have to go to bed early enough to get the sleep you need.
Keep your phone on “sleep” mode after waking
Burnout becomes inevitable when you don’t give yourself time to recharge away from work, and this is just as true in the morning.
Your brain needs downtime to process and make the connections that are essential for creative problem solving and focus.
Scientific American reports that the brain works best when it’s able to move up through different brain wave states incrementally in the morning.
Ned Herrmann, a brain activity specialist, explains, “During this awakening cycle it is possible for individuals to stay in the [relaxed and daydreamy] theta state for an extended period of say, five to 15 minutes--which would allow them to have a free flow of ideas about yesterday's events or to contemplate the activities of the forthcoming day.
This time can be an extremely productive and can be a period of very meaningful and creative mental activity.”
For more energy and better problem-solving capacity throughout the day, it’s essential that you give your brain time to warm up in the theta state before moving up to the highly engaged and productive beta state.
But when you grab your phone first thing in the morning, you jolt your brain straight into beta mode, skipping over other very important brain-wave states.
To optimize your brain function, set up your “sleep mode” to stay on for half an hour after you wake up, be clear on what you’ll do before checking your phone, and keep technology out of your bedroom so you aren’t tempted to reach for it first thing in the morning.
Move your body
Exercise benefits your mind just as much as your body.
And the best time to exercise is whenever you can.
But if you plan time to fit it into your morning routine, you’ll enjoy some added benefits.
According to research, in some individuals, morning exercise improves sleep quality more than evening exercise, leading to increased alertness during working hours.
People who work out in the morning also tend to be more consistent because there is less room for excuses and less decision fatigue, (meaning you’re more likely to follow through).
So, if you’re trying to be more consistent with your exercise, including it in your morning routine can be very helpful.
Drink a glass of water
Even slight dehydration can have detrimental effects on cognition, as demonstrated in a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The randomized controlled study showed that participants who did not drink 300 mL of water during a 4-hour period had significantly reduced memory, focused attention, mood, energy levels, and tasks felt more challenging.
If you want to stay on top of your game, drink a glass of water in the morning to avoid dehydration later on.
Prime your mindset for success
Are you grumpy in the morning?
A 2011 study published in the Academy of Management Journal showed that a bad mood in the morning can have a significant negative impact on productivity.
You can get around this.
Purpose and gratitude are 2 proven ways to lift your mood in the morning.
The first question Benjamin Franklin asked himself every morning was, “What good shall I do this day?” and he ended the day by asking, “What good have I done today?”
Intrinsic motivation has been shown to increase engagement and job performance.
Keep yourself motivated by coming up with a mission statement for the day.
Another question you can ask is, “what am I grateful for?”
The American Psychological Association reports that gratitude enhances psychological resilience, making it easier to handle stressors that can otherwise slow productivity.
And expressing gratitude to others will amplify this effect.
Many executives also enjoy using affirmations to prime themselves for a successful day.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that the use of self-affirmations can improve work performance and executive function.
But be careful about the affirmations you choose.
Sophie Henshaw of Psych Central explains affirmations that are already believed are going to help to boost your productivity because, “if what you are trying to affirm is incongruent with a deeply held negative belief, then all that results is an inner struggle…
With each positive declaration, your unconscious will cry out, ‘it’s not true, it’s not true!’
The end result is that the negative belief becomes stronger as it fights for survival and what you really desire fails to manifest.”
If you find yourself struggling to find affirmations you believe in, try turning affirmations into questions instead.
Questions allow you to acknowledge your negative thoughts without fighting against them, while simultaneously boosting your curiosity about the potential that the future holds.
Adjust “I am” statements to ask, “Am I?” and allow yourself to wonder, “what if…?” to help you find more creative solutions.
For example, instead of “I am fully capable of handling whatever comes my way,” ask yourself, “Am I fully capable of handling whatever comes my way? What if I’m not?”
This allows you to be more prepared when challenges arise.
If, one day, you find yourself in a situation where you don’t feel capable, you’ll feel less distressed because your identity isn’t tied up in the idea that you are “fully capable”.
And in this example, that means you’ll have an easier time asking for help, so you end up “handling” the situation much better than you otherwise might.
Prime your physiology for productivity
Similar to preparing your mindset for success, you can also prepare your physiology for more stress resilience and a deeper capacity to focus.
"Smile in the mirror. Do that every morning, and you'll start to see a big difference in your life." -Yoko Ono
Don’t just smile as a reaction to happiness.
Smiling itself can cause you to feel happier.
Science has shown that smiling can lift your mood, lower stress, boost your immune system, and possibly even prolong your life.
Because when you smile, a chemical reaction is set off in your brain that releases dopamine and serotonin, which help to keep you motivated and focused throughout the day.
Strike a power pose
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy popularized the “power pose” in her famous TEDTalk, Your Body Language Might Shape Who You Are.
Cuddy describes how adopting an expansive posture for just 2 minutes, (chest puffed and head up, as in a “Wonder Woman” or “starfish” pose,) can raise testosterone levels and lower cortisol.
This causes people to feel more powerful and can thereby improve job performance.
A 2015 cross-sectional study demonstrated that meditation “may positively influence job performance, including job satisfaction, subjective job performance, and work engagement.”
And researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center have shown that meditation can change the structure and function of the brain, leading to:
- Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.
- Increased focus and learning concentration.
- Improved memory and attention span.
- Better sleep, and more.
Even just a few minutes can make a difference over time.
Try breathing practices
Similar to meditation, breathing practices have been shown to reduce stress and boost brain function.
When you’re stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, which increases your heart rate and makes breathing fast and shallow.
You can improve your ability to cope with stress by slowing and deepening your breath, which turns down the stress response in your body and helps you think more clearly.
Another, more rigorous breathing technique called “Breath of Fire,” may also enhance brain functions such as memory, reaction time, attention, and concentration.
Executive Morning Routine Checklist for Work
Routine is just as important once you get to work.
A 2019 study published by the Southern Management Association showed that engagement and productivity are dependent on rebuilding a mental connection to your work before you start in the morning.
Make a ritual out of your arrival and switch yourself onto “work mode”.
You can do this simply by spending a few minutes reflecting on your goals and priorities for the day.
If you have a virtual assistant (VA), it can be helpful to schedule a check-in with them every morning to get an overview of the day’s meetings and review your most important tasks.
Your VA can also keep you on track with your priorities and take over the busywork that would otherwise eat up your most productive hours in the morning.
Once you’re clear on your goals for the day, turn on some motivational music, which has been shown reduce stress and improve your performance on cognitive tasks.
And finally, eat the frog.
“If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.”
The Eat the Frog method, coined by productivity consultant Brian Tracy, advises that you tackle your biggest, hardest, most important task first thing in the morning (a.k.a. your “frog”).
This is the task you are most likely to procrastinate if you don’t do something about it.
Persist until the task is complete, and your day is a success.
A well-designed executive morning routine sets you up for success
The most productive people in the world have a predictable routine to start every day off right.
And while the details vary depending on circumstance, all successful executive morning routine checklists include opportunities to prepare the mind and body for the day ahead.
You would be wise to keep your phone off and allow yourself to adjust to the day by moving your body, drinking water, and taking some time to adjust your mind and body to work.
But your routine starts well before you wake up, or even go to bed the night before!
To truly boost productivity, end your workday with a review of what you accomplished, and ask yourself if there’s anything you want to improve tomorrow.
Also, familiarize yourself with upcoming appointments and deadlines so you can hit the ground running when you return to work in the morning.
This is another opportunity to check in with your VA.
Because when you use a VA to help you prepare your day, you reduce overwhelm and have an easier time unplugging when work is over.
And that means you’ll be more focused and productive when you need to be.