Death and Mornings. One in the same?
If you are anything like I used to be, you probably put mornings right up there with death on the scale of things you most fear. I used to wake up in a fog, feeling just as tired as when I went to bed, and immediately I began to fear the inevitable feeling that creeps into your stomach and throat…
…here it is again, I would think to myself as I pulled the covers over my head. Fearing that this is how I would feel every single morning for the rest of my life. No confidence that I could ever make myself feel better.
I had always heard about how the most successful people like Gary Vaynerchuk, Tim Ferriss, and Ben Franklin had daily, morning routines that helped them wake up energized and ready to take on the day. But in the midst of my anxiety, the thought of waking up at 4 am to hustle was the last thing on my mind. I needed to find a way to model the morning routines of the most successful people in business in a way that was focused on decreasing my anxiety.
“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself:
‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’
And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” – Steve Jobs
Over the last 12-months, I have studied the top authors and thought leaders in the space and realized that by setting an effective, consistent morning routine I can drastically reduce my anxiety and get more done than I had ever thought possible. In fact, it has been one the most beneficial things that I have done to overcome my anxiety.
I realized the “morning routine” I used to follow was setting me up for increased anxiety and failure throughout my day.
My previous morning: I’d wake up about 30 minutes before I had to walk out the door, after snoozing the alarm a couple of times. I would lay there staring at the ceiling as the all too common feeling of anxiety would start to fill my entire body. Still here I guess. Next up, self-defeating thoughts…
I am always late.
Why can I never wake up early?
I will never overcome this anxiety.
I am still so tired. Maybe I won’t get up today.
Today is going to suck. I have so much to do, and I already feel anxious.
Then, in order to calm my monkey brain, I would check my email to see if I needed to respond to anything urgent. Really, this was just an affirmation to feel needed and necessary. Nothing was ever that critical. Next, onto the socials to see if I had missed anything while I slept. Usually, this would just increase my anxiety, as I swiped up, looking at the highlight reel of everyone else’s life, wondering why I couldn’t be more like them. Free from anxiety. Then the sweat would start to form and it would become too uncomfortable to lay any longer. So, I would haphazardly get ready for day. Mind in a blur. No direction for the day. Pure Excellence.
I had no idea how much damage this routine was wreaking on my mental state. I was creating an environment in which my anxiety thrived and multiplied. It was so foreign to me at the time that by simply changing the first 60-90 minutes of my morning, I could drastically reduce my anxiety and massively increase my effectiveness.
Maybe, you aren’t like me. Maybe you already wake up at a set time every morning and crush out an effective morning routine that sets you up to stop your anxiety and increase your life. Great! This guide may not help you that much….
…but maybe you are like I used to be. Waking up with no sense of direction. Fearing you will never be able to overcome this feeling. Rushing out the door every morning in a blur. Your mind and body feeling completely on edge and overwhelmed with the day ahead; already wishing to be back in bed; hoping that just maybe…tomorrow will be different.
If so, great. Sit back, take a couple deep breathes, because we are going in. In this post I am going to show you what has worked best for me, along with some great resources, to decrease my anxiety by taking control of my morning. Although these strategies have drastically helped me reduce my anxiety, I am far from being over it. However, when I follow this routine I notice a substantial increase in my well-being. Some of these things may not work for you. That’s fine. My goal is for you to get one nugget out of this post that decreases your anxiety and creates more joy in your day. Let me know in the comments what you found most/least helpful!
Empowered Morning: The 8 Step Guide to Decrease Your Anxiety by 60%
Section 1: Why a morning routine?
Massively reduce anxiety
The main goal of this guide is to help you implement an effective morning routine that massively reduces your anxiety. It will also help with your productivity, energy, etc. But those are ancillary effects of lowering your anxiety and feeling more alive.
I wish there had been a guide like this when I was first struggling with anxiety during my senior year of college. On most nights I was going to bed after 2. I would procrastinate anything that felt remotely difficult in fear it may trigger more anxiety. My mornings were always a nightmare. It was my daily reminder of that I had a problem.
Then something happened on my journey to overcoming my anxiety, I started to view my mornings as a gift rather than a nightmare. I begin to trigger my brain, from the moment I first opened my eyes, to see the beauty in my life. Creating a morning routine has been the single best habit I have implemented over the last year. It has aided in my overcoming my anxiety. It has allowed me to get more done than I ever thought possible, while also helping to keep me grounded throughout the day.
I used to struggle to get out of bed most mornings. Fearing the outside world. Not sure whether I could muster up the strength to get ANYTHING done; let alone wake up earlier and focus on the MOST important things. But over time, I have been able to add, piece-by-piece components to my morning routine that have made me happier, more successful, and massively less anxious.
And that is what this guide is about. Helping you overcome the anxiety in your life, so that you can live the life you were meant for. There is no lack of content out there on how to crush your morning or how to wake up at 4 am and get more done by 7 than most people do in a week. That is all great, but for the anxious among us, we just want to feel good again. The success stuff is great, but if it comes at the cost of an unhealthy mind, I want no part of it.
That is the main goal of this guide. Not to teach you how to shave hours off of your day (you will learn that, though), but to give you the tools necessary to implement the morning routine that reduces your anxiety (not adds to it) and helps you feel more alive. Because after all, once you start to feel more confident and effective, your anxiety will start to diminish.
Once you begin starting your day off with a positive, structured, and intentional note, you will be amazed by the reduction in your anxiety as well as the other benefits you will receive.
Early Bird Gets the Worm
According to the Harvard Business Review, those who wake up early are more successful in their careers. Their study stated that the reason those who had morning routines were more successful was not necessarily because of the time they woke up, but because they were proactively setting themselves up for success. This was the differentiator. They were being proactive by getting up early and doing the work to achieve their goals before other distractions could come in. Also, the study showed that the people who had morning routines were much more likely to spend time developing themselves personally, which is a direct correlation to success. As Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” So, if you wish to see the world being a more loving and less anxious place, do the work on yourself, first.
We only have a certain amount of energy and willpower when we wake up each morning, and it slowly gets drained away with decisions. This is especially true if you’re making hundreds of small decisions in the morning that mean nothing yet will affect how you make decisions for the remainder of the day. Try to have the first hour of your day vary as little as possible with a routine.
According to Chris Winfield, Researchers at the University of Nottingham and National Institute of Education, Singapore conducted an 83-study meta-analysis and further discovered that self-control is strongest at the beginning of the day. This spike in willpower and drive in the early morning hours can help tremendously!
More Time + Less Guilt
To start overcoming anxiety, it is important to detach yourself from situations and get better at disconnecting. The morning is one of the best times to do just that. We have so many demands on our time throughout the day, and it can be hard ever to step back for a second and pause. That is where a morning routine comes in.
A morning routine is the perfect way to intentionally invest time in yourself to overcoming anxiety. Before all of your other demands start creeping in. It may seem like you are giving up time in the form of sleep, but by spending a couple minutes every morning working on yourself, the ROI will far outweigh that of sleeping for an extra 30 minutes.
Section 2: Overcome Limiting Beliefs
According to Tony Robbins, the #1 business & life strategist, “the key difference between the life you’re living now versus the life you were meant to live comes down to your own limiting beliefs.” A limited belief is a belief that dis-empowers you from the life you want. In our case, a couple of examples could be:
I am not a morning person…I will never overcome anxiety…I can’t wake up early, I am a night person…My anxiety makes me too tired to wake up.
Sometimes these beliefs are so ingrained in our subconscious that we don’t even realize they are guiding our behavior. So, guess what, if you keep telling yourself that you will never be “x” or that you aren’t that “type” of person, that is exactly the result that you will get.
To overcome anxiety and set up an empowered morning routine, it is crucial that we tackle the most negative beliefs and learn how to overcome them by creating a habit around the routine.
Creating a habit around the routine may seem difficult, but it is the best and most effective way to overcome your limited beliefs surrounding your anxiety and morning routine. In his extremely useful guide on habits, Chris Winfield talks about how to create habits that actually stick. He is an expert in the area and I recommend you check out his guide. It is packed with useful tips and strategies for creating habits that stick. Here is a short clipping from his guide:
Not to fear, because there is some good news about motivation that can make it more of a permanent part of your life.
According to Stephen Guise, the author of Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, you don’t have to be motivated to take action as taking action itself can actually help build your motivation. Let me say that again. You don’t have to be motivated to take action as taking action itself can actually help build your motivation.
The reason this works is simple. Your brain wants to align with your body so getting your body to do something is the first step to getting your brain on board. Make sense?
Now that we have dispelled our limiting beliefs, let’s add our most empowering one.
Section 3: Focus Your Purpose
In Stephen Covey’s, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, arguably the most popular business book ever written, it states that the top performers in all areas of life start with the end in mind. Or said another way, German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche is famously known for saying that “if you know the why you can live any how.”
But how could this relate to overcoming anxiety with an empowered morning?
By focusing your morning on overcoming anxiety!
By attaching a deep, psychological significance to your morning routine you will be able to overcome the barriers and obstacles that will be thrown at you. My purpose for setting up a morning routine was simple, I wanted to overcome my anxiety and start living fully again. It was not easy, but with a constant purpose for what I was doing I was able to keep going, even when I felt like death would be easier.
I focused all of my rituals on things that would help me feel better and a funny thing started happening about 4 weeks in – the obstacles and barriers stopped seeming so impenetrable. Because I focused my morning routine on overcoming anxiety, I turbo-charged my brain to do whatever it took to keep the habit going. I wasn’t distracted by all of the other things I could be doing in the morning. I was hyper-focused on doing things that would help me overcome my anxiety and feel better.
Even if you aren’t currently struggling with anxiety, it is vital to focus your efforts on a single purpose. As Chris Winfield says, “no matter what your reasons, being fully and consciously aware of them will help make getting up early easier. It will also work in your favor when you are struggling and all you want to do is tap your snooze button, roll over, and tell yourself that you’ll try it again…tomorrow.”
Here are some top resources for how to focus your morning on what matters most:
1. Padhia Avocado, an LA-based street artist, and writer, suggest a great 5-step plan help you prime your brain for positivity.
2. 7 Powerful Morning Rituals to Stop Anxiety before it starts
3. 9 Tips to help reduce anxiety with a morning routine
Section 4: Why it starts the night before
When I first heard about “effective morning routines,” I immediately focused all of my energies on setting up rituals that would make my morning the most empowering. When to wake up. What to do. Where to do it. But I had no focus on the key ingredient to a great morning; a great night of sleep.
Within the first two weeks, I failed over 50% of the time to wake up to my first alarm. Even on the days that I did wake up, I was such an anxious wreck that I couldn’t do any of the rituals I had planned. I was left even more frustrated. But I was not going to stop (see: Purpose). I later figured out that the reason I was unsuccessful the first go around was because I was setting myself up for failure by not having an effective nightly ritual that translated into healthy sleep.
Lack of sleep can have many negative consequences on your mental state. However, the research is clear that simply by getting the adequate sleep you can drastically lower your anxiety levels. Not to mention, you will wake up and feel more energetic to get the most important things done, which will, in turn, lower you anxiety as well.
However, if you are in the claws of anxiety, falling asleep can be a very difficult thing to do. Worrying about the day ahead. All that you have to do. Whether your anxiety will be there again in the morning. Or even if you will be able to sleep…
Luckily, there are some hacks that when implemented could drastically improve your sleep quality, which in turn with lower your anxiety and set you up for success the next morning.
What I do
1. Set an Alarm: I set an alarm to go off at 8:30 to tell me to get ready for bed. My goal is to be asleep by 10. This helps to be a reminder and I am very strict about following it. As soon as the alarm goes off, I stop any work I am doing and start my night routine.
2. Set my alarm for next day using Sleep Cycle which wakes me up between 5:15 – 5:30 based on my phase of sleep. Sleep Cycle is impressive. It tracks sleep quality and tons of other data that can help you optimize your sleep.
3. Turn phone on airplane mode and stop using all devices. Not only will this stop the EMFs from screens negatively affecting your sleep, it will allows allow you to be more mindful in the last hour before sleep. Calming your mind is key.
5. Get in bed and do my night journaling, which helps set my mind up for positivity the next day.
1. What have I learned
2. What have I contributed
3. What could I improve
6. Read a piece of fiction / spiritual text for 10-15 minutes. It is important that you do not read a business book before bed. It will keep your brain in problem-solving mode, which will create a cycle of thinking that will keep you awake. Pick up a good novel and let your mind start dreaming.
Section 5: Simplicity
Simplicity is key at the start. I tried to change everything about my morning. From what I ate (or didn’t eat) to the time I woke up to what I did. This created, even more, anxiety and resulted in me failing to get value out of the exercise at all. Even if it is as simple as saying an affirmation as soon as you wake up or making your bed, it will lead to a more rich morning.
When you are first starting off, pick one or two things that you want to do over the next 2-week period and track them. Do less than you think you can do at the start. If you want to sustain the routine, it is important that you can complete it, giving yourself small wins along the way.
To begin you could start by just setting your alarm 15-minutes earlier to allow your mind and body to adjust. Then you can increase it by 5-minutes each week until you hit your target wake-up time.
To keep things simple, I focused all of my morning rituals around overcoming my anxiety. I would meditate. I would do a gratitude practice. I would take cold showers. I would focus my morning on whatever tool or trick I was trying at the time to lower my anxiety.
Focus on the essential few and ignore the rest.
Section 6: My Empowered Morning [1 hour]
1. Wake up between 5:30-6:00
According to Hannah Hepworth, an expert on natural anxiety relief, “when you wake up early you can have plenty of time to get where you need to go. Instead of rushing and yelling…you can work calmly.”
2. Make Bed
The reason making my bed is so powerful is that it allows me to successfully complete a task first thing in the morning, which then builds momentum to continue doing more for the rest of the day. It has taught me that how you do anything will be how you do everything. No matter how bad or stressful your day becomes, you can also make your bed. And if that is all that you complete in the day it is still success.
3. Meditate for 15-minutes
Like some of you, I used to be very skeptical of meditation. Just the word itself has an aura of incense and ommming. I didn’t want to lose my edge or be one of those hippies sitting cross-legged playing the banjo and singing Kumbaya. But as I dug deeper into the research, I found that mindfulness meditation (devoid of religious ties) can have massive, positive effects on your brain and help decrease your anxiety and depression, substantially.
According to an article written by the Harvard Medical School, “Mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.”
Well… if Harvard said it worked, I better try it. So, I gave it a shot using the free 10-day trial from Headspace. And the results have been amazing. I started to feel calmer and had more clarity of my thoughts and emotions after five days. However, It took me several months to make this a recurring habit, but now that it is a staple in my morning routine, the benefits have been less anxiety, more clarity in business decisions, and overall increased happiness.
4. Take a Cold Shower
Disclaimer: This sounds awful. In fact, when I first heard about it I didn’t try it for months because I didn’t think it could help and I loathed the idea of taking a freezing, cold shower. However, after 3-months of consistently taking a cold shower every morning, I can ensure you the benefits are enormous.
The science behind cold exposure is not new science. Cold shower therapy is an ancient Ayurvedic remedy that has numerous health benefits such as treating anxiety and depression, improving circulation and toning skin. The use of coldness as a ‘good stressor’ on the body can help to trigger several helpful responses within the human body. It allows the controlled elicitation of the body’s natural cell repairing, pain & inflammation reducing and metabolic processes.
A study by Researcher Nikolai Shevchuk of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine found that cold showers can alleviate, and even prevent, depression and anxiety. Shevchuk theorizes that short, cold showers may stimulate the locus ceruleus, or “blue spot,” which is the brain’s primary source of noradrenaline — a biochemical that could help mediate depression and anxiety. The body is stressed by a hostile factor–in this case, icy water–that stimulates a healing response in the body and can lead to lower levels of anxiety and depression as well as a plethera of other benefits.
The easiest recipe to get the psychological lift is by taking a cold shower for 2 to 3 minutes once or twice daily, preceded by a five-minute gradual adaptation to the temperature (i.e. start you shower hot and then finish it with 2-3 minutes of pure icy goodness). Only taking a cold shower can strengthen your body’s parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, increase proper circulation of blood through your body, and contract your muscles to eliminate toxins and poisonous wastes.
5. Drink Bulletproof Coffee
Find the recipe here.
According to Dave Asprey, the man responsible for promoting the beverage, “[bulletproof coffee is] the creamiest, most delicious, highest octane cup of coffee you’ve ever experienced. People who use this precise recipe experience a kind of mental clarity and focus that is hard to express in words. You owe it to yourself to try it at least once before showing yourself that changing the ingredients doesn’t work very well.”
Although I think Dave is overexaggerating a bit, I have seen some boosted levels of energy throughout my mornings by replacing my breakfast with this creamy cocktail. I try to use high-quality, single-origin beans for my coffee because it has drastically lowered my post-coffee jitters.
This is not for everyone, but if you are looking for a way to keep hunger at bay for the first 5-6 hours of your day, give it a try.
6. Brain Dump at Desk
I’ll Let Tim Ferriss explain the benefits here…
“I don’t journal to “be productive.” I don’t do it to find great ideas, or to put down prose I can later publish. The pages aren’t intended for anyone but me.
Morning pages are, as author Julia Cameron puts it, “spiritual windshield wipers.” It’s the most cost-effective therapy I’ve ever found. To quote her further, from page viii:
“Once we get those muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts [nebulous worries, jitters, and preoccupations] on the page, we face our day with clearer eyes.”
Please reread the above quote. It may be the most important aspect of trapping thought on paper (i.e. writing) you’ll ever encounter. Even if you consider yourself a terrible writer, writing can be viewed as a tool that you can and should use. There are huge benefits to writing, even if no one — yourself included — ever reads what you write. In other words, the process matters more than the product.”
The Two Main Reasons I Journal:
1. Brain Clarity
2. Detachment from thoughts
“Could bitching and moaning on paper for five minutes each morning change your life? As crazy as it might seem, I believe the answer is yes.” – Tim Ferriss
I write the three things I am most grateful for today.
The key here is not to repeat that you are grateful for your family, life, and god. The key is to focus on being aware of the smaller things in life that you would miss if you were gone. This is a very powerful practice that has been utilized by the Stoics, Billionaires, and monks to help them appreciate life and reduce anxiety. Dr. Emmons, a gratitude researcher, confirms that practicing gratitude daily can reduce anxiety and depression.
The three “topics” I find easiest to channel are:
1. Person – I write one thing about my fiancé that I am grateful for every morning. But it could be anyone for you and probably helps if you change it every day to realize how many people you are grateful for.
2. Small object close by – The wind blowing on your face, the warmth of the coffee mug, the silence of your bedroom. This is a stoic practice to realize that even if everything you owned were taken from you their are still small pleasures in life.
3. Something I would miss if it were gone – running water, heat, the ability to run, etc.
8. Morning Three
1. Affirmation: By stating three affirmations in the morning I am able to put myself into a charged state. It may seem hokey, but it has been hugely beneficial to my mental state.
2. What do I get to enjoy today: By starting my day thinking about what I get to enjoy today, I put my mind into a positive mode and trigger my brain to see the upside of the day.
3. Daily Intention: I start out each day with intention. Whether its as simple as “I will be present today” or “I will choose to see the beauty in everything that happens to me today.” It doesn’t really matter, but I have found it extremely helpful for lowering my daily anxiety to be intentional about what I want my day’s purpose to be,
9. Today’s MITs: 3-5 Most Important Tasks that need to get done
Even a basic plan of attack for your day can drastically reduce your anxiety by decreasing the cognitive load that comes with increased decision making. Each morning we wake up with a finite amount of brain power and every decision we make detracts from it. By having a basic structure that decreases the amount of decisions you have to make about what you are going to do next, you will be able to take control of your day and calm your restless mind.”
Every morning, I write down the 3-5 things that are making me the most anxious or stressed out. They tend to be things that I have pushed off for days on end. And more often than not, they are the most difficult or uncomfortable taks that I need to do in order to move myself forward.
Once I have written out the 3-5 MOST important tasks – and no more – I ask myself the follow questions to help me prioritize which to focus on first:
1. What task, if completed successfully, will make all of the others obsolete?
2. What task do I have the most anxiety/fear about?
3. What task will move me closest to accomplishing my number 1 goal?
10. 90 Minutes of Deep Work on Top MIT
Once I have prioritized my top MIT for the day, I block off 90 minutes of time to focus exclusively on it. This is a common strategy known as the 90-90-1 rule.
Why is it so important to get the top MIT done first thing in the morning?
Well, according to psychologist Ron Friedman, the first three hours of your day are your most precious for maximized productivity. “Typically, we have a window of about three hours where we’re focused. We’re able to have some strong contributions regarding planning, regarding thinking, regarding speaking well,” Friedman told Harvard Business Review.
I understand we all have different schedules and responsibilities, but if we want to overcome anxiety and move our goals forward truly we must protect our mornings. If we don’t take control of our mornings, something else will.
Don’t check your email or social media until you have spent at least 30-90 minutes of uninterrupted time on your number 1 MIT. Use your mornings for output, not more meaningless input. As productivity expert Benjamin Hardy says, “[p]rotecting your mornings means you are unreachable during certain hours. Only in the case of serious emergency can you be summoned from your focus-cave.”
Not only will this help you complete your number 1 MIT, but it will also do wonders for your anxiety throughout the day.
“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.” – Mark Twain
Section 7: The Routines of Titans
The Titans of our day all follow routines that make them successful and fulfilled. Here is a couple. Pick and choose what works best for you.
- Leo Babauta’s Morning Routine [zen habits]
- Top 10 Ways to Upgrade Your Morning Routine [Lifehacker]
- What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast [Fast Company]
- The Morning Ritual [Hack the System]
- Create a Morning Writing Ritual [Freelance Switch]
- Slay Your Dragons Before Breakfast [Michael Hyatt]
- 5 Morning Routines that help me win the Day [Tim Ferriss]
- Tony Robbin’s Intense Morning [Tony Robbins]
- What We Can Learn from Ben Franklin’s Daily Schedule [Ben Franklin]
Section 8: Make it sustainable for you
The purpose of this guide is to be a roadmap, a blueprint, to help you reduce your anxiety by creating a empowered morning routine. It is packed with strategies and loads of scientific research about what routines and habits are the most effective to lower your anxiety and increase your life. But the most important strategy of all is to remember that when you are creating your own confident morning it needs to be sustainable for you. The best routine is the one you actually stick to.
If you are anything like I used to be, you need to listen to this part. I used to spend so much time worrying about the “perfect” morning routine. Should I wake up at 5:45 or 6:00. Should I meditate before or after, I shower? Should I exercise or not exercise? This constant need to be perfect kept my mornings stressful and prevented me from forming habits with my morning.
However, once I realized that basically all successful people differ in the specifics of their morning routine, I became less worried whether my coffee should be boiled at 175 degrees and more worried about implementing a system that worked for me. You see, it isn’t so much what they did in the first 90-120 minutes of their day, but that they did something. It was their proactive mind. Their disciplined system. That is what separated them from the rest. Not the specific tools, hacks, or routines.
So, my hope is that you try out some of the ones that worked wonders for decreasing my anxiety and test if they make a difference for you. If they don’t then drop them and try something else. The key is to keep testing what works and what doesn’t for you and your life. The more you test; the closer you will get to your confident morning.
An Empowered Morning isn’t something that just falls into your lap — it’s created consciously. I hope you are able to implement some changes in your morning and more importantly, I hope it lowers your anxiety and gives you more excitement in life!
The Morning Routine Experts
Although I may be out of the anxious ‘weeds,’ I am far from being completely over anxiety. I still have my days and weeks that I feel anxious, however, whenever I stick to 70-80% of the routines above I notice a measurable increase in well-being.