“I try to take a natural and low-tech approach to sleep, food, exercise, and other human basics. This keeps life simple, saves money, and makes me more resilient.” – John Zeratsky Share this quote on Twitter

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John Zeratsky

What is your morning routine?

Most mornings, I wake up around 6:30am—a little earlier in the summer, a little later in the winter (I live in Wisconsin, where the sun rises at 5:00am in June and at 7:00am in December).

I sit up in bed and grab my glasses and watch from the nightstand. I have a sip of water, say good morning to my wife, Michelle, and then walk into the kitchen. I start coffee and feed the cats. One cat eats faster than the other, so I have to monitor them during breakfast. By the time they are done, the coffee is ready, so I pour myself a cup and go look out the window for a minute.

So far, about twenty minutes into my day, I haven’t looked at a phone, computer, or other screen. We charge our devices inside a cabinet in the dining room, so they are out of sight and mostly out of mind. The physical barrier forces a deliberate decision about when to take that first look, and I’ve configured my devices to make them as distraction-free as possible. Normally I’ll check my phone first, turning on the screen without unlocking it to see if I missed an important text or call overnight. Then I’ll grab my computer and sit down at the dining room table with my coffee.

I like to start my day with a meaningful chunk of work. It might be writing an article or working on a presentation. It could be some design work or web development for Make Time or one of my other projects. Occasionally, it’s not on the computer but maybe a project around the apartment or even some reading. This is my daily “Highlight” that I describe in Make Time.

I view the first few hours of the day as “free,” unclaimed time. If I don’t use it deliberately, I’ll squander it on email or Twitter or the news or some other mindless timesuck that doesn’t make me feel good. Plus, I’ve learned that my focus is better in the morning than it is later in the day; I want to make good use of that time.

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After an hour or two, I eat breakfast, drink a second cup of coffee, jump in the shower, and get dressed—not always in that order. By 10:00am I’m ready to head to the office, continue working at home, or have a meeting—although I normally save meetings for the afternoon.

How long have you stuck with this routine so far?

Since 2012. I’m a natural night owl, and I was inspired to change my morning routine because my schedule was out of sync with my wife’s. By the time I woke up, she’d be off to work, and at night I’d often stay up late alone while she slept.

How has your morning routine changed over recent years?

Until 2017, I was working in a full-time office job at Google Ventures. I would wake up about an hour earlier so I could have my full morning routine and still get to the office at a normal time. This worked well, but now I’m self-employed and set my own hours. Waking up later gives me better energy throughout the day and more flexibility when it comes to evening plans.

There are two changes I’m experimenting with right now:

  1. Waiting longer in the morning to look at my phone or laptop. This is a tough one for me. I like maintaining control over my attention in the first few hours of the day, but I also like to use that time for important work—and for me, that work usually requires a computer.
  2. Using a “calendar template” to consistently plan my mornings. This is a separate calendar where I plan out my days based on what I know about my energy cycles and what I want to make time for. Instead of starting from a blank slate, I’m experimenting with starting from a full calendar and making changes to that plan only when they are truly worthwhile and necessary.

What time do you go to sleep?

Around 10:00pm. This also changes with the seasons, like my wakeup time. I go to bed a little later in the summer and a little earlier in the winter.

Do you do anything before going to bed to make your morning easier?

Easier? No. But my nighttime routine is designed to help me wind down and sleep well, so I can begin the next morning with good energy and focus. The most important elements are:

  • Eating dinner early so it doesn’t interfere with my sleep
  • Spending at least an hour before bed with all devices turned off and put away
  • Lowering the lights in our apartment to parallel the natural rhythm of the day

Do you use an alarm to wake you up in the morning, and if so do you ever hit the snooze button?

I only set an alarm when I need to wake up at a specific time. Most days it is not necessary. This is a big change from when I was working in a full-time office job. In those days, I always had to set an alarm.

My alarm is a small, battery-powered clock that’s designed for travel. It doesn’t have a snooze button. Another quirk is that it’s impossible to advance the alarm time after it sounds. You have to swing the alarm hand all the way around the dial in the opposite direction. In other words, snoozing is not really an option, which motivates me to get out of bed!

How soon after waking up do you have breakfast, and what do you typically have?

I have breakfast at the end of my morning routine, around 9:00am. I usually have a cup of yogurt, a homemade smoothie, and a coffee (my second of the day).

Do you have a morning workout routine?

No. I have my best creative energy in the morning, so I’d rather use that time for writing or other work. Exercise is super important, but working out in the morning feels like a waste of those valuable early hours. Instead, I exercise in the late afternoon, when my brain is fried anyway and I’m ready for a break from sitting inside and looking at a screen.

Weekends are an exception. I practice yoga at a nearby studio on Saturday or Sunday mornings every weekend.

That said, I really love to walk, and I’ll often walk to my office or somewhere else in the morning. It’s a form of exercise, of course, but I don’t really think of walking as “working out.”

Do you have a morning meditation routine?

Not really. I try to think about my day and how I’m feeling while I drink my first coffee and look out the window. And I definitely use any walking time to meditate on problems or opportunities. I call it “little ‘m’ meditation” because I don’t follow a particular process or method.

Do you answer email first thing in the morning or leave it until later in the day?

I try not to look at email until my breakfast/shower break around 9:00am, but sometimes I can’t resist. In any event, I don’t reply unless there’s something super time-sensitive.

Instead, I deal with email toward the end of the day. My calendar template includes “admin” time in the afternoon for things that need to get done but don’t require my highest creative energy (like email).

Do you use any apps or products to enhance your sleep or morning routine?

No. I try to take a natural and low-tech approach to sleep, food, exercise, and other human basics. This keeps life simple, saves money, and makes me more resilient because I don’t depend on technology for the essentials.

How soon do you check your phone in the morning?

I take a quick glance 20–30 minutes after waking up to check for emergencies or urgent messages from overnight. Around breakfast I use my phone to read a page from The Daily Stoic and maybe a couple articles in Feedly or Pocket.

But there’s really nothing to “check”—I keep a distraction-free phone with no email, social media, news, or other infinity pool apps—so I don’t feel a compulsion to reach for my phone.

What are your most important tasks in the morning?

Feeding the cats, drinking coffee, and starting my day with a Highlight of meaningful work I can feel good about.

What and when is your first drink in the morning?

I have some water within moments of waking up, but my first real drink is a cup of coffee, about twenty minutes later.

How does your partner fit into your morning routine?

I’m married, and my wife usually stays in bed later than I do (although not always). She often asks me to wake her up at a certain time, and then we spend the first hour or so doing the same things together: drinking coffee and quietly working or reading.

Do you also follow this routine on weekends, or do you change some steps?

No, I don’t really have a morning routine for weekends. I sleep a bit later, but that’s usually because I stay up later at night. I rarely work on the weekends, and I’m more likely to start my day with reading, working on projects around the apartment, or doing some outdoor activity (weather permitting). Lately I’ve started doing yoga on the weekends—a single class at 9:00am on either Saturday or Sunday.

On days you’re not settled in your home, are you able to adapt your routine to fit in with a different environment?

Usually. But if I’m not at home, that’s because I’m on vacation (and not working) or traveling for work (and might have to be somewhere early), and my routine doesn’t necessarily fit into those scenarios.

What do you do if you fail to follow your morning routine, and how does this influence the rest of your day?

The most common “failure” is that I have to be somewhere early, so the whole thing gets compressed. I always maintain my routine of feeding the cats and making coffee, but I might have to skip my morning Highlight so I can leave earlier than normal. This isn’t too disruptive to my day, because if I’m doing something else (going to a conference, leading a workshop, traveling, etc.), that activity becomes my Highlight and helps me bring my attention and energy to what matters most.

But… if something crazy happens to my morning routine and I don’t have time for coffee or breakfast, all bets are off.

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