There’s No Such Thing As The Perfect Morning Routine

Photographed by Tami Aftab.
I’ve always been obsessed with routine, particularly a morning routine. Ever since I was old enough to take the reins on my mornings I’ve been drawn to finding the ideal one. It makes me feel safe, functional and productive – like you are on top of your shit as opposed to your shit being on top of you.
But unlike when I was a teenager and lucky enough not to have to worry about work and bills, there are now many factors to navigate around morning routines. Far more adult responsibilities, far more things that are important to me and far more things I feel/know I must do to feel okay. Not just feeling like my bones won’t creak when I walk up the stairs (stretching) or my brain won’t spiral because of stress (meditation) but also learning my wife’s native language, meal prepping instead of spending money on breakfast, finding time to read, skincare, chores… All have to be done regularly for the effect to be felt. Trying to negotiate this level of time management and keep it habitual is as much work as the routine itself.
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Whatever formulation of routine I land on, it’s always aspirational – it rarely lasts for more than a month as life gets in the way. Occasionally I’ve become fixated on certain aspects of the routine, to the point of obsession. The fact that whatever routine I adopt falls away seems to suggest it’s inherently unsustainable but I’m still so drawn to it. This is particularly true at this stage of the pandemic — for those of us who have been largely working from home, returning to the office at any scale has uprooted former structures. Now, with the new variant, we’re back in flux. Establishing routines that accommodate the shifting rules around commuting, longer days and the accompanying exhaustion feels like throwing barely cooked spaghetti at the wall. Something may stick but the vast majority is going to bounce off and make a mess.
According to business psychologist David Lurie, there’s a reason why routines are so psychologically comforting. "Routines are associated with a sense of psychological safety insofar as humans are very resistant to change," he tells R29. "The innate way that we deal with change, or avoid change, is by having routines." This spans the spectrum of morning routines: from the almost inconceivably performative Elizabeth Holmes versions to the far more casual daily cup of tea. In fact, it’s impossible not to have a routine of some kind — it just may not fit into what we understand as an aspirational morning routine.

Routines are associated with a sense of psychological safety insofar as humans are very resistant to change.

David Lurie
This plays into the ways that morning routines can be beneficial. 
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Dee Johnson, accredited counsellor and addiction therapist at The Priory, tells R29 that the feeling of security and control a routine gives at the start of your day "can be an important part of a mental wellbeing recovery programme, or just part of making sure you start off every day the right way". She adds: "Having boundaries of self-care by managing that morning routine is about self-respect and taking action that is good for your mental wellbeing, especially if you know you can lose focus or become chaotic." The set structure can stop distractions and scattered thoughts that can build into stress or a sense of being overwhelmed. Equally, it can help you be more efficient and time-aware, taking pressure off yourself and others. In particular, research has found that routine can have psychological benefits for those living with bipolar disorder, ADHD and insomnia.
The benefits of sticking to a routine can veer into obsessive behaviour, however, trapping you and limiting you in your day-to-day. "If you fail to meet a certain aspect of your morning routine as well as you might like, it can quickly lead to a feeling of failure and uselessness," says Dee. If you are already prone to low self-worth and a lot of self-criticism, these feelings can easily spiral out of control. Consequently, if you feel particularly unnerved or anxious on any given day, your morning routine could exacerbate those feelings.
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If you are prone to anxiety, you can get fixated on certain things making you feel better. When they don’t, it develops into rigidity which can become obsessive, exacerbating the sense of anxiety. Say you feel like you have to work out every day and you miss a day for whatever reason. This can put a whole day off-kilter with feelings of guilt and anxiety. Worse, this can spill into a fixation on the next morning, with you becoming restless and losing sleep as you worry about managing what you have to do the next morning.

If you fail to meet a certain aspect of your morning routine as well as you might like, it can quickly lead to a feeling of failure and uselessness.

Dee Johnson
"Being strict and rigid with yourself and then internally self-chastising if you fail can often indicate deeper rooted issues," Dee explains, "from depression, anxiety disorders, self-harm, fear to childhood trauma, insecurity, grief and loss. Here, we are desperately trying to get a sense of control of something in our lives and getting fearful you think you are failing."
Additionally, she adds, strict routines can be a sign of being a perfectionist, which might sound aspirational but "in the long term this can be an exhausting, self-destructive way of thinking and being. Rigid routines will become jaded over time, building low mood and resentment around them, and importantly do not allow for new ways of doing things – stifling motivation and creativity."
This speaks to the wider question of what exactly are we trying to achieve with a 'perfect' morning routine? The answer, ultimately, is happiness.
"We believe [that these routines] will make us happier," David says. "Even if we think we don't believe it, or we say we don't believe it, we wouldn't be setting these goals if we didn't really believe it on some level. Because we're taught to believe it."
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But often this concept of happiness is contingent on aspirations that are largely defined outside ourselves. 
David explains that we’re drawn to aspirational but achievable routines in part because of social pressure, particularly from the media and which has only strengthened with the advent of social media. "When we get to see people's best lives through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and then also have things marketed to us that are always focused on the aspirational, it means that pretty much everybody has a completely unrealistic perception of what life is or what life can be." He says that instead of being satisfied with life as it is in that moment, or seeing small things as achievements, we end up requiring ourselves to meet big goals. These big goals could be specific (such as working out every other day to become fitter) or more nebulous (like reading regularly to feel more on top of things). Rather than improving your life satisfaction, focusing on these large goals actually lessens it.

Take the feeling when you achieve a target you’ve been setting for yourself for years: you may expect to feel elation, joy and satisfaction but it can often result in a sense of loss or even emptiness. And with more nebulous targets, there is no endpoint, just a constant spinning of the wheel. It’s a kind of projection bias — your worth comes from chasing the targets, assuming (or projecting) how you will feel when they have been achieved or ticked off the list. And the expectation rarely lives up to the reality.
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It's a kind of projection bias – your worth comes from chasing the targets, assuming (or projecting) how you will feel when they have been achieved or ticked off the list. And the expectation rarely lives up to the reality.

So if a perfect morning routine is impossible but you need some kind of structure to keep you motivated, what is the solution?
As ever, the key is the hardest thing to find: balance. Dee says: "Balance is about learning to find the middle path — the world is not black and white. Use kind, respectful self-talk if you cannot always manage it. It’s okay, it’s part of being human. Successful thinking is about being flexible and builds confidence as you learn to trust yourself that you can make good and varied choices for yourself and that you are a capable person."
Moreover, it takes looking at what you are including in your morning routine, asking yourself your motivation and seeking out true joy in what you’re doing. Forcing yourself to do something in order to make you happier or more successful will rarely breed actual satisfaction, only resentment. Instead, David recommends finding a perspective that focuses on who you are right now and supporting and celebrating that version of yourself, not a projected future version.
"To a point, your best self is the you that you are at the moment, whatever that moment is, and whatever that you is." He adds that of course habits that promote health and life expectancy (without becoming obsessive) are important – limiting your drinking and smoking, good hygiene, regular movement and so on. But beyond that, "the happiest people I've ever known have been the people who've just enjoyed what they did day to day."

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