Script Your Morning


Bill Walsh, the legendary football coach, used to script the first fifteen plays his offense would perform on the field.

At first, I didn't understand why. Football isn't like a music recital — or at least, I've never seen a recital where eleven slabs of muscle gang-tackle the flautist. But Walsh found that if his offense rehearsed those fifteen plays during the week, it could settle into an easy rhythm when it mattered. His players found comfort and confidence in a deliberate routine and could focus on what they needed to do next.

“So your big insight is ... a morning routine?” — Like all fundamental things, the point isn't what you should do, it's why you should bother. Any yahoo can tell you to work hard, but if that advice isn't rooted in your beliefs and values, it's not going to flower.

Here's my pitch for taking this seriously: like a novel's first page, your first act sets the tone for what follows. If your routine makes you feel alert and strong, that frame will carry over into what you do next. If your routine makes you feel tired and apathetic, that frame will carry over too. Then days become decades, and a whole life is gone.

How do you want to feel every day, and how well does your first hour support you?

Until recently, I followed the Routine of Champions, if I followed a routine at all:

  1. Sleep in an extra 10 20 45 minutes.
  2. Blearily trudge to the bathroom.
  3. Zone out in the shower for 15 minutes.
  4. Stand dully in front of my closet and pick some clothes at random.
  5. Read Hacker News.
  6. Notice that half an hour has passed and find breakfast.
  7. Realize that I forgot to shave, again.

Despite my best effort, the Routine of Champions didn't cut it for me. Where had I gone wrong? I did some soul-searching:

  • After I wake up, I want to feel — awake and productive

  • After I wake up, I currently feel — like my head is duct-taped to a kettlebell.

  • The amount of thought I've put into my routine is — what routine?

  • Does my routine support my highest priority in life? — no.

I wanted to feel awake and productive in the morning, so I decided to do this:

  1. Wash my face first thing in the morning, which helps me wake up. I keep a small bowl of water on my dresser. When I get out of bed, I see the bowl and cue into the routine. I like the ritual of it, and it feels like I'm starting the day off on the right foot.

  2. Meditate immediately after, but not for too long. I left a meditation cushion on the floor by my bed, so that I can't leave the room without seeing it. I sit for just a minute or two, enough for the rest of me to wake up a little more. Once this routine is more solid, I'll sit for longer.

  3. Make my bed. It sounds goofy, but it's a small win that makes my world a little nicer. And I'm not the only one who finds this valuable.

  4. Drink some water. When I forget to drink water, I feel tired and sluggish. So I drink at least a glassful, which also helps for step 5.

  5. Exercise. I take care of my physical health first, since everything else depends on that. I try to do enough to work up a sweat, but if I'm hurt for whatever reason, I just go for a walk.

    To help make this easy, I set out my exercise clothes the night before, and I use whatever shirt I slept in. I also like exercises that I can do in my room or with minimal equipment, since there are fewer barriers to getting started. (Thanks to Matt Might's post on strength training for the tip.)

  6. Shower, etc. Since I'm more awake, I'm in and out much faster and don't zone out.

Here are specific actions I took that helped all of this stick:

  • I went step by step. I started with the morning walk, which I enjoyed, and then I added more pieces onto that once it became habitual. If I had tried this all at once, I would have probably given up after the first day.

  • I did things I liked. Water on my face in the morning feels refreshing. Sitting down to meditate feels calm and intentional. Exercising feels useful and healthy, and I like the morning air. I do things that are connected to my interests and values, so it feels fun and self-affirming.

  • I kept standards low. I meditate for a minute or two, not a whole hour. If I had set an hour as the standard from day 1, the routine would have fallen apart immediately. Ditto for exercising — success is getting on the bike at all, not biking for an hour. Once the routine sticks more, I can slowly raise the bar.

  • I kept it short. The routine is long enough that it feels useful but short enough that it doesn't rule my day. I don't know if a full day can be scripted, or if that's even desirable. (Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.) But you probably know already what your limits are and what's useful for you.

  • I built in some choice. I get restless and resentful when I follow a rigid routine for too long, even if it's one I made. So I built some choice into parts of it. For example, I know I'm going to exercise, but I choose whether I want to go for a run, hop on a stationary bike, or try something else.

  • I kept my phone somewhere inconvenient. I don't ever use my phone in my bedroom, and I keep it somewhere a little out of the way (e.g. a shelf in another room) so that I don't stumble across it in the morning. In my bedroom, the only device I have is a boring digital clock. I keep it on the floor so I don't see its light when I'm in bed.

There are certaintly days when my routine falls apart. And not everyone has the luxury of spending their mornings however they like. But the more I follow this little script, the more consistent I become, and the better my days ago.