Start the Day on Your Own Terms

The best morning routine isn’t the one that leads to more productivity. It’s the one that actually works for your life

Illustration: Abbey Lossing

We all have mornings that don’t go perfectly. For me, the culprit is a 10-month-old baby. For you, it may be anxiety about an afternoon presentation. Or a text from a friend. Or construction outside. The point is: the morning can easily get sidetracked, and that can be problematic, as it’s a period of a few minutes that can define the rest of your waking hours.

Fortunately, the “right” morning routine is the one that works with how you wake up, not against it, whether you’re an early morning phone checker or not. No, you don’t have to spring out of bed at 5 a.m. to an hour of Peloton in order to maximize your mornings. This isn’t even necessarily about squeezing the most productivity out of each hour — it’s about starting the day on your own terms.

Here’s a guide to taking control of your morning routine

Let’s say you…

…wake up on your own, before your alarm.

Good for you! One survey of employed people found that 80% used an alarm clock during the week, and that the other 20% woke up naturally. These people were more likely to report feeling well-rested during the day. Waking up without an alarm tends to be a sign that you’ve gone to bed at a time that allowed your body to get enough sleep. If this is you, you can drift in and out of sleep if you like, enjoying the creative, pleasant borderlands between dreaming and wakefulness.

When you feel like it, get up, and start whatever morning routine you’d like: exercising, reading something inspirational, doing creative work. A morning routine doesn’t have to be long to matter; even small bits of exercise can boost energy for over an hour.

…wake up to a traditional alarm clock.

It’s best to start your day in a proactive, rather than reactive, state. Using a regular “dumb” clock is a great way to avoid the temptation of starting your day reacting to what’s come in. Whatever you do, don’t hit snooze. Snooze sleep is not restorative sleep. You’re better off setting your alarm for the time you intend to get out of bed, and enjoying every last second of deep sleep until that time. To increase the chances of actually rising, put the alarm clock on the other side of your room. Once you’re up, you’ll probably stay up, and you can start the day with stretching, meditating, or whatever works for you.

….wake up to your phone’s alarm.

If you’re going to use your smartphone, resist the lure of email and texts by putting the phone in airplane mode (or do-not-disturb) overnight. You won’t wake up in the middle of the night to errant alerts, and in the morning, when the alarm goes off, you won’t see high numbers on your text or email apps and feel compelled to check these new arrivals. Instead, you can choose a non-reactive, non-screen-based start to the morning, and switch your phone out of airplane mode as the last step in the process.

…wake up to your phone that is not in airplane mode.

One IDC Research study found that 79% of 18–44 year old smartphone users looked at their phones within the first 15 minutes of being awake; 62% looked at their phones immediately. And I’m willing to guess they aren’t being greeted by a pile of emails and text messages containing positive affirmations nudging them on to great things. Okay, I understand the temptation or need to do this. But whatever you do, don’t click on your email icon (or whatever is the most tempting/triggering to you) first thing. Consider moving it away from your home screen if possible. You have the entire day to read through the drama of a colleague accidentally hitting reply-all, or to stew about your boss’s non-response to your carefully worded question. You also have the entire day to read through headlines. For a few moments, you can exist in blissful ignorance.

To increase the chances that you don’t spend the first chunk of the day doomscrolling, choose something else that you always do first. Do a yoga pose or two until your brain is ready to deal with the world. And if you are going to go online? Choose one other destination to visit before email or social media: the Kindle app for five minutes of reading, an app or website that offers morning devotionals or inspirational quotes, a playlist of your favorite music, a site showcasing great works of art. You could also make sure that your first text of the day is one you send: to a friend or family member to check in and say you’re thinking about them.

If you’re going to start the day plugged in, do it in a way that gives you energy instead of sapping it.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at

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