Most productivity advice begins by suggesting you establish a morning routine. This makes sense at first glance. A thoughtful and effective morning routine can set the tone for the day and provide space for the kind of reflection and intention setting that can help us maximize the hours to come. Plus, plenty of celebrity super achievers swear by them. So what could be wrong with this perfectly sensible sounding bit of time management advice?
If all that’s intended by injunctions to ‘establish a morning routine’ is to avoid sleeping in and then eating coco pops while mindlessly scrolling social media until noon, then nothing. But thoughtful experts warn it is possible to take your obsession with routine too far.
The trouble with rigid morning routines
For one, packing your schedule with tasks and activities, no matter how worthy, can starve you of the unstructured ‘non-time’ that our brains require to make connections and come up with new ideas. Routine is, by definition, the enemy of serendipity, and serendipity is an essential ingredient in creativity.
Second, sticking rigidly to a schedule can cause you to ignore your body’s own rhythms and needs. Sometimes you just really need more sleep or to rest your brain and if you insist on setting the alarm at 5:00am and plowing through your pre-appointed program, you’re going to end up working at a tiny fraction of your usual capacity.
This can happen on a deeper level too. If you’re waking up with a feeling of dread or lethargy each day, sticking to a pre-appointed schedule is actually a distraction from the more fundamental task of figuring out what’s wrong with your life and fixing it. Science (and wise people) tell us that in the end people most often regret doing what they “should” instead of what they truly want to.
You can even lose out when you don’t stick to your schedule. If you think of your routine as ironclad but are unable to live up to your ideal plan, you can end up feeling discouraged and demotivated. That’s the opposite of what a morning routine is supposed to accomplish.
Try a menu instead.
In short, it is entirely possible to be too stuck in your routine. Still, no guidance at all in the morning is stressful for those who love structure and dangerous for those inclined to procrastination. So what’s the solution? Oliver Burkeman, author of the new book Four Thousand Weeks, offered an excellent suggestion in his always thoughtful newsletter lately: why not ditch your morning routine for a morning menu instead?
“Morning routines,” he writes, “have a way of becoming utterly deadening the moment you try to define them too strictly: ‘630am get up, 645am journaling’, and so forth. Far better, in my experience, to draw up a ‘menu’ of things you’d ideally like to do every morning, then select one or two of them each day.”
And “because it’s less yoked to specific clock times, this approach is also vastly better suited to a life in which your routine is liable to be interrupted by small children waking and requiring your attention,” he adds to the nods of bleary-eyed parents.
This more adaptable approach to mornings nudges you towards constructive uses of your time without offering all the pitfalls of a too rigid routine. So why not loosen up your morning routine a little and give it a try? Here’s a handy list of 50 potential items to add to your menu of morning options to get you started.