Creating a morning ritual: Why your first moves matter

My grandfather repeated this adage over and over to me when I was a young boy: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

For him, these words became a personal mantra as he lifted himself out of poverty, going from selling beans in rural California to creating two companies that were traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Even 40 years later, I love remembering him as he savored his early morning ritual. Not just his lathering up the brush in his shaving mug, eating half of a grapefruit, or checking his company’s stock price in the Wall Street Journal—instead it was his very first move of the day that made the biggest impression.

Papa Joe, as we affectionately called him, had a degenerative disease that gradually weakened this handsome outdoorsman, and he was forced to move from a cane, to a walker, to a wheelchair. Despite it all, he began each morning before sunrise, rain or shine, with a swim in his pool. I still can see him smiling and waving to me while doing the backstroke. He proudly proclaimed his morning swim was his secret to maintaining good health, and it must have worked, because he was alive and kicking past 90.

True, not all of us are biologically wired to be morning people. Many of us write, think, and create better at the midnight hour. If you’re in a rock band, an actor, or even a star copywriter, you get a free pass to sleep in.

But if you’re like the rest of us, and want to nail it in business, then you need to be up and awake—and functioning at a high level—long before the morning bell is sounded on Wall Street. That’s why I realized that my first steps when I get out of bed are the most important of the day.

Unlike my grandfather’s generation, or even my father’s, the things I do every morning aren’t just about motivating myself for the day ahead. They are about preventing myself from doing the things that I know will keep me from being the most productive. They are a little like speed bumps that I place in my own path to slow me down and keep me focused.

You know what I mean. When you first get up, even before you stumble to the bathroom to brush your teeth, do you reach for your phone to see the latest stream of emails, texts, and tweets?

What a jarring and unsettling, if not downright counterproductive, way to start the day. Would an athlete break into a full sprint before she even warmed up? Would an orchestra perform Beethoven’s 9th before tuning their instruments?

Of course not. But according to the Pew Research Center, almost half of smartphone owners have slept with their device next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls. I fell into that trap before, and now I leave my phone in the closet, powered off.

Ideally, I don’t power up until I’ve taken these steps below:

1. Meditate. The very idea of meditating used to scare me. Being totally alone, not talking, just breathing. What if I think about stuff that I don’t want to think about? Thanks to a Portuguese-speaking yoga teacher named Jose, I learned to slow down, letting my thoughts come and go like the waves in the ocean. I turned to Jose almost three years ago when my stress level had reached a breaking point. Since then, meditation has become a true safe haven. I’ve also discovered that many of the most hard-charging people in business tap into this source of tranquility by deliberately downshifting to first gear.

2. Create something. I begin each day with a blank screen, not the homepage of my favorite website or a list of my unread emails. It could be brainstorming on a project at work, writing a proposal for a new client, or even drafting an article I hope to publish. I imagine I’m a musician opening the keyboard of the piano, and start to compose.

3.Walk the dog. When my oldest daughter asked for a dog four years back, I thought this would be just one more task for my already overpopulated to-do list. But I discovered that I don’t take the dogs out for a walk (yes, there are two of them now); they take me out for a walk. Some of my best business ideas come when I catch myself laughing at my two rescues frolicking in the park.

4. Work out. While many people prefer hitting the gym at the end of the day, I find that after work there’s always a good reason to blow off my workout. There’s too much stuff I haven’t finished at the office, I’m too hungry or tired, need some time with the family, or receive too many tempting offers to go out and grab drinks and dinner with friends and colleagues. Sweating it out before work, whether it’s a run, yoga class, or bike ride frees you up to play once the day is over.

5. Take a shower. When I’m working remotely, sometimes it’s just easier to stay in my boxers and fire off emails from my couch for hours before I realize I haven’t bothered to get dressed and haven’t even taken a shower. That’s no way to start the day. Yes, the rushing water also has another benefit: our minds are free to wander, and creative sparks happen. I’ve actually named companies and products in my shower.

6. Eat something. Skipping breakfast is so easy to do, especially when we convince ourselves that a cup of coffee will do. But our grandmothers were right when they said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. When I skip eating in the morning, the resulting low blood sugar makes minor issues seem insurmountable. I then overcompensate at the end of the day, which only adds more unwanted pounds.

7. Read the newspaper. Not your favorite newsfeed that gives you a narrow range of topics that you’re already interested in, but rather an old-fashioned newspaper that comes delivered to your door. It’s not prescreened or filtered, and instead you’re confronted with photos of refugees fleeing atrocities in the Middle East and Africa, making your own problems seem small in comparison. You also might connect the dots on business developments in the news that can help you with your own business.

For my grandfather, home was home and work was work. He didn’t even take his briefcase home with him from the office, as it would impinge on time with his family, which he treated as sacred.

For good and for bad, those lines of demarcation have been erased long ago. Instead, the responsibility is on you to create your own boundaries between your professional and personal lives. Morning rituals help you prioritize and regain control. You’ll be better prepared to turn on your digital devices without being swept away by the flood of information. You’ll be more focused, informed, and even more relaxed so that you can take on the day.

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