Do you find yourself hitting snooze over and over again every morning? Do you drag yourself out of bed so late that you end up rushing to get to work on time? Are you dependent on coffee to get you out the door? For too many of us, the morning grind is a struggle that sets a negative tone for the rest of the day. Difficult wake-ups, checking emails before even getting out of bed, rushing to get showered and dressed—all these things add up to a lot of stress. As I write about here, this kind of chronic stress can chip away at your wellbeing and contribute to chronic health problems like heart disease and depression. Research suggests the overeating of comfort foods in an attempt to manage chronic stress may even be partially responsible for the current obesity epidemic.
Okay, so mornings generally suck for many of us, and they cause potentially harmful stress. What if I told you there was a better way – something simple that might just improve your whole day? Here’s how a morning ritual can make you more productive.
Sleep Better and Deeper
A major benefit of establishing a morning ritual that includes a set wake-up time is that it helps you get better rest. We all know how hard it is to function after a sleepless night, and research shows too many of us are chronically sleep-deprived. According to a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control, one in three adults isn’t getting enough sleep on a regular basis. This statistic is troubling because not only does lack of sleep inhibit your ability to function at work and at home, it’s also linked to serious health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
When you know the exact time you’re going to rise and shine, you can adjust your bedtime habits to make sure you’re getting the sleep you need. I offer some tips for better rest here. Aim for at least 7 hours, but preferably 8.
Boost Your Brain Power
I’m a big fan of mindfulness, and I believe a morning routine that includes a few minutes of meditation can make a huge difference in your ability to relax and focus throughout the day. Don’t want to take my word for it? Consider the science. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, conducted studies involving brain scans of meditators. She found that people who had been meditating for a long time had increased grey matter in the auditory and sensory cortex, which she attributes to the mindful attention paid to breathing, sounds, and other stimuli during meditation. She also discovered more grey matter in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with memory and decision making. According to Lazar, meditators in their fifties had the same amount of gray matter in one part of the prefrontal cortex as people in their twenties in spite of the fact that the cortex is known to shrink as we age. Another study found that people with generalized anxiety who followed a stress-reduction program based on mindfulness were considerably less anxious than those in a control group who were taught other stress management techniques. With evidence this compelling, why not set aside a few minutes every morning to practice mindfulness? You can even use your smartphone to guide you—I list some of my favorite mindfulness apps here. Starting out your day with a 10-15 minute app-guided meditation can change your entire outlook for the day from one of REACTIVITY to one of healthy RESPONSIVENESS.
Increase Gratitude and Proactivity
After a meditation, and BEFORE checking emails, I found it very helpful to take another 5 minutes to write down a few things I am feeling grateful for and what would make the day a win for me. The gratitude list helps you notice positive things more easily, since many of us are conditioned to pay more attention to negative things. Writing down your “win list” helps you stay proactive in what you get done that day as opposed to simply responding to what comes at you, responding to emails and putting out fires.
So let’s say you decide on a morning ritual—you’re going to wake up at the same time every day and spend a few minutes meditating, or maybe you’re committed to hitting the gym before work at least a couple times a week. How do you establish a routine? In a HuffPost blog, BestSelf co-founder Cathryn Lavery suggests doing something she calls “habit stacking” where you add a new habit (like meditating) onto an old one (like brushing your teeth) so that you’re more likely to remember it and incorporate it into your morning. Another way to help yourself stick to your routine is to set a clear intention. Clearly stating exactly what you plan to do can make a huge difference in whether or not you’re successful, as I explore in detail here.
Ready to take control of your health? To help you determine where you need to focus your energy first, take my Men’s Health Quiz. It only takes a few minutes and can even be done on your smartphone.
Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.