by Marc Chernoff
Most of us-of all ages and backgrounds-are incredibly distracted from the start every morning, and therefore stumble through each day with diminished intention and lots of unnecessary frustration.
We forget that the morning hours leading up to mid-day are enormously important-that these hours form the foundation of the entire day.
We forget that how we choose to spend these hours on a daily basis can be used to predict the kind of days we’re going to have, and ultimately the kind of lives we’re going to live.
A good morning, and thus a good day, aren’t just experiences that magically happen-they are created consciously.
So trivial activities-checking social media, watching TV, worrying about things we can’t control, etc.-typically set the tone of each day. Which means we waste lots of well-rested time and energy on little things that don’t matter, while gradually losing touch with the significant, controllable parts of our lives that actually do matter.
On the other hand, having thoughtful, deliberate morning hours-generally from the time we wake up until noon-allows us to re-establish a sense of meaningful control, to put ourselves back in the driver’s seat so we can start to live more intentional, effective lives again. Let’s dive in…
Little, Life-Changing Things (Rituals) To Do Before Noon
Why before noon, and not earlier? Because not all of us get up at the crack of dawn. Not all of us have the same schedules. And you certainly don’t have to be on someone else’s schedule to fit these three life-changing rituals into your mornings. The key is to get them done in the morning hours of ‘your morning,’ before the drag of the afternoon gets the best of you.
With that out of the way, I’d be shocked if you haven’t been told to do these things in the past (I know Angel and I have preached about them numerous times on the blog). The problem is most of us slack off on the things we need to do for ourselves, even though we know better. In fact, Angel and I used to be just as distracted and unintentional with our morning hours as anyone else. We used to awake in a hurry and then move through mornings at the mercy of whatever came up, stumbling into work and errands and client meetings in a fog. It was awful, but it was our life. We didn’t know any different, so we didn’t think we could change things. Thankfully, we were wrong.
We gradually implemented the three morning rituals covered below, and everything changed. Our mornings are now solid foundations from which we consistently yield positive results…and we’ve been going strong for well over a decade. In addition, we’ve helped hundreds of course students, coaching clients, and live event attendees implement these rituals in their lives too, and many of them have come back to us later to say, “Thank you!” My hope is that you may find value in them as well.
And please note that I mentioned “gradually” above. If you aren’t doing any of these things before noon right now, start with just the first one, then try adding the second down the road…
1. Wash your dishes, as soon as you finish your breakfast every morning.
You are eating the most important meal of the day, right? Good.
Now you can leverage your breakfast to strengthen your self-discipline.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, self-discipline is a vital skill to be honed. It is the ability to overcome distractions and get the important things done. It involves acting according to what you know is right, instead of how you feel in the moment (perhaps tired or lazy or distracted by something else). And it typically requires sacrificing immediate pleasure and excitement for what matters most in life.
A lack of self-discipline for most of us is simply the result of a lack of focus. In other words, we tell ourselves we are going to do something, but then we don’t.
One of the easiest and most effective ways to build and maintain a daily ritual of self-discipline?
Start small every morning. Very small.
By simply washing your dishes after breakfast.
Yes, I mean literally washing your dishes with your own two hands. It’s just one little step forward every morning: When you eat your oatmeal, wash your bowl and spoon. When you finish drinking your morning coffee, rinse the coffee pot and your mug. Don’t leave any dirty dishes in the sink or on the counter for later. Wash them immediately.
Form this ritual one dish at a time, one morning at a time. Once you do this consistently for a few weeks, you can start making sure the sink has been wiped clean too. Then the counter. Then make your bed. Pack yourself a healthy lunch. Start doing a few sit-ups. Meditate for a few minutes. And so forth. (more on the latter two-exercise and meditation-below)
Do one of these at a time each morning, and you’ll start to build a healthy ritual of self-discipline, and finally know yourself to be capable of doing what must be done, with focus and intention.
But, again, for the next few weeks, just wash your dishes after breakfast. Mindfully, with a smile.
2. Use exercise to train your body and mind (for fifteen minutes or less).
Exercise is the simplest and fastest way to change your life, not only because it strengthens your body, but because it also strengthens your mind. It’s a self-initiated activity that imposes a necessary level of mental and physical effort to fuel growth. And it almost instantaneously instills a positive sense of self-control into your subconscious, even when other circumstances in your life seem chaotic.
In a vast world that is often well beyond your control, exercise becomes a personal space where you are able to train and regain mastery over your world. Only you can move your body. Only you can put one foot in front of the other. Only you get to decide how far you will push yourself.
When you start your day like this-in control-the wider world is far easier to navigate.
Furthermore, a consistent daily exercise ritual literally changes the physical inner-workings of your brain.
In the bestselling book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John Ratey discusses data he collected through years of researching the neurological changes exercise causes in the human brain. Exercise physically elevates a specific protein in the brain that Dr. Ratey calls "Miracle-Gro for the brain." He states, "Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function. Aerobic activity has a dramatic effect on adaptation, regulating systems that might be out of balance and optimizing those that are not-it’s an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to reach his or her full potential."
Angel and I have come to very similar, although less scientific, conclusions on our own too. With over a decade of experience working one-on-one (or two-on-one) with our course students and coaching clients, we have found that exercise truly is a universal medicine to all human mental ailments. It drastically reduces mild and moderate depression, lowers anxiety, counterbalances the negative effects of being overstressed, and more. And the best part is that exercise is obviously not just a mental workout, but a physical one as well-you’re hitting two birds with one stone.
So if exercise is that wonderful, why am I recommending only 15 minutes of it each morning? Because in the beginning that’s enough without being too much. Starting small is important. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but, again, so many of us forget to follow good advice. Start with a morning ritual of exercise that lasts 15 minutes or less. If you feel incredible resistance and fail at 15 minutes, drop it to 10 minutes, or 7 minutes, and then stick to it for at least a full month before increasing the duration again.
3. Establish presence through meditation (for fifteen minutes or less).
The same principle of starting small that we just covered above applies here as well. With that said, however, a morning meditation ritual of only 15 minutes is no easy feat for most beginners. During the first several attempts at meditation, most novice meditators tend to find it near impossible to quiet their mind. Because of this, many of us try meditation once or twice and do not see the value in it-it does not immediately instill the same sense of control over ourselves, and our world, that exercise does. But with practice, and patience, meditation can be far more powerful. And that’s why Angel and I meditate every morning before breakfast.
Meditation is indeed a vital morning ritual in our lives, and in the lives of hundreds of students and clients we’ve worked with over the years. While it may not as easily instill the level of control that exercise does, meditation provides a deeper level of control which ultimately brings out of us what has been stuck inside-it connects us with our truest selves by allowing us to access all the areas of our mind and body that we are usually distracted and disconnected from.
All details aside, the most basic, practical benefits of meditation are twofold:
- lowers mental stress
- increases mental presence (awareness)
And when we bring a more relaxed presence into our morning hours-into the foundation of our day-it makes everything that happens from there much easier to deal with. Because we take the next step more mindfully-without pent-up resistance-fully aware and accepting of the tenseness in our shoulders, the little bubble of hope in our heart, or maybe even the haze of sadness in the back of our mind. And with this awareness and acceptance we find better solutions, healthier ways to cope, and a general sense that people are friendlier and cats purr louder.
On the contrary, when we are stressed out and distracted in the morning hours, our mind is split and frayed. One part is firmly focused on whatever is pressing in upon us, while the other part is giving minimal attention to whatever tasks need to be done quickly in the meantime.
Let me give you an example to make things clear. Imagine that you are late for work and you’re rushing around your house in preparation to leave. If a loved one starts telling you something important about what they are going to do today, how much of your attention is going to be focused on what they are telling you? Not much.
But when we become more present-when we gradually establish more awareness and acceptance of the present moment through meditation-we stop being as distracted and preoccupied. In the space that opens for a moment, we can breathe deeply and listen deeply. For a moment, stress slips off our shoulders. And with practice we can learn to have more and more present moments of peacefulness in our life.
A course student of ours recently wrote:
"Every moment is a new opportunity. The next one is as fresh and full of promise as the thousand before that you missed, and it is completely empty of any judgment whatsoever. Nothing is carried over that you take with you. You don’t have to pass a good-person exam before you enter, it is totally unconditional. It’s as if it is saying… 'Okay, so you missed me the last ten thousand moments, but look! Here I am again… and again… and again!’ And you are welcomed with open arms."
Here’s how to establish presence through morning meditation (note that there are many meditation techniques, this is the one Angel and I are presently practicing):
Sit upright in a chair with your feet on the ground and your hands resting comfortably on your lap, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing for 15 minutes (or less in the beginning if 15 minutes feels like too much).
The goal is to spend the entire time focused only on the feeling of your chest inhaling and exhaling, which will prevent your worried mind from wandering and overthinking. This sounds simple, but again, it’s challenging to do for more than a couple minutes, especially when you’re just starting out with this ritual. And it’s perfectly fine if random thoughts sidetrack you-this is sure to happen, you just need to bring your focus back to your breathing.
Remember, consistency is everything…
The three morning rituals above mean nothing if they are not acted upon consistently. One morning of cleaning your dishes, exercising, and meditation by itself won’t cut it.
It is the compound effect of simple, seemingly mundane actions over time that leads to life-altering, positive results.
There is nothing exciting about putting one foot in front of the other every day for weeks, but by doing so, many normal human beings have climbed over 29,000 feet to the top of the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest.
There is nothing exciting about cleaning dishes, exercising, or sitting quietly in meditation for a short time every morning, but by doing so, Angel and I (and hundreds of students and clients we’ve worked with) have drastically better lives.
Just like every muscle in the body, the mind needs to be trained to gain strength. It needs to be worked consistently to grow and develop over time. And that’s exactly what the three morning rituals in this post allow you to do. If you don’t proactively push yourself in little ways every morning, of course you’ll crumble later on in the day when something doesn’t go your way.
You have a choice!
Choose to clean your dishes when it would be easier to leave them in the sink.
Choose to exercise when it would be easier to sleep in.
Choose to meditate when it would be easier to distract yourself with something else.
Prove to yourself, in little ways every morning, that you have the power to take control of your day, and your life.
(Note: Angel and I build small, actionable, life-changing daily rituals with our students in the "Goals and Growth”" module of Getting Back to Happy.)
July / August - 2017 Issue
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