What is your morning routine?
I’m fortunate enough in my life to wake without an alarm, so my mornings don’t always start at the same time. But I’m definitely a morning person. Left to my own devices, I rarely sleep past 6:30am, and am frequently up well before that. In fact, I’m typing this at 3:30am and was on my mountain bike yesterday morning at 4:50am. I also wake quickly, so long, slow mornings are not part of my life; once I’m up, I’m engaged.
While I wait for water to boil, I usually run a mental preview of the day, check my calendar, and scan my email and texts on my phone to make sure nothing urgent has surfaced since I went to bed. Then I make tea or coffee, eat, and simply plug into a four-hour block of what I call “white space,” which is blocked off on my calendar from 8:00am to noon every workday and which only I have the authority to fill. Writing, business development, board meetings, exercise - whatever. It is how I bring a sense of intent and control to what is otherwise a primarily reactive work environment and how I can structure a morning without imposing too much “structure.”
How long have you stuck with this routine so far?
My morning ritual, though somewhat evolutionary over time, has remained rhythmically consistent. To hijack a well-known phrase, my morning ritual doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. And I have to admit that this holds true spanning back to college, with the notable exception of the block of white space, which I added to my schedule about four years ago and which is the single most powerful recalibration of my work/life balance I’ve ever experienced.
How has your morning routine changed over recent years?
Aside from the addition of that block of white space, my morning routine has been bizarrely stable. Historically, I’ve always started with a cup of tea, but more recently I’ve incorporated coffee into my morning ritual. (I met this remarkable vet who owns his own coffee company, Café Mule, and I’ve been hooked ever since trying it.) But as I cannot countenance the sound of machines in the morning, I hand-grind my beans with the world’s most totally awesome burr grinder made by this badass old machinist in rural northern Idaho. Anyone who loves coffee should purchase the Lido II Grinder from Orphan Espresso Design Shop. It’s wickedly expensive, but it will bring a sense of joy to your morning that is entirely asymmetrical to the scale of the device.
Outside of my beverage and early-morning snack, I’ve experimented over the years with yoga, a brief attempt at developing a sitting meditation practice, regular exercise at a specific time, etc. But none of them have stuck. I think my mind - and my morning - just works best when turned reasonably quickly from the stillness of sleep to the velocity of what lies ahead in the day.
What time do you go to sleep?
The flipside to being a morning person is that I am usually asleep before 10:30pm. Strangely, I have no problem staying awake, which could be an after-effect of adventure racing and mountaineering (my soldier friends have the same capacity). But I prefer to sleep before I am groggy with need, so an early-ish bedtime is definitely preferred.
Do you do anything before going to bed to make your morning easier?
The only thing I do before going to sleep (and not every night) is jot down a brief list of whatever needs to be accomplished at some point in the future. But that is more about clearing my mind for sleep, as I frequently don’t even look at the list when I wake the next morning. I cringe when I recall how often I used to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about stuff that I needed to do, even things that weren’t urgent. That, thankfully, rarely happens now.
Do you use an alarm to wake you up in the morning, and if so do you ever hit the snooze button?
I rise early and almost always have, luxuriating in life circumstances that permit me to wake without an alarm clock. If I could wave my magic wand to give everyone in the world one gift, it would be the ability to wake without that annoying, incessant beeping. There is nothing like simply opening one’s eyes when they naturally want to open to make the world seem pretty much completely okay. After all, it isn’t called an “alarm” for nothing!
How soon after waking up do you have breakfast, and what do you typically have?
My morning breakfast is actually an extended ritual of beverage and food that can span up to five hours, depending on what I’m doing. The beverage is almost always caffeinated, a habit my English father instilled in me as a young boy. He worked early, so he was often gone by the time we woke, but when he was home he would bring us tea and English muffins with butter and orange marmalade made from a can of “Ma Made” Seville oranges, sold by Hartleys. I still start my own batches of marmalade with that same brand, and I still steep my morning brew with high-quality tea from Murchie’s, Mariage Frères, or Grace Fine Tea.
I’m also a big fan of eating a lot of small meals. I almost always start with two pieces of buttered toast spread with homemade jam and usually followed shortly by a piece of fruit. By 8:00am I’m usually hungry again, so when I’m out exercising, I usually have some food with me (I LOVE almond butter and honey sandwiches when riding a bike, but I typically turn to a more easily digested sports bar when I’m running). When I’m working I hoover my all-time favorite breakfast, which I’ve eaten most mornings for many, many years: a massive bowl of my homemade granola/muesli mix, some sort of seasonal fruit, a big dollop of plain yogurt, and a long pour of agave, doused with milk and liberally sprinkled with toasted almond slices. Just writing that makes me hungry.
Regardless of what I have, breakfast is usually over around 11:00am, and I typically don’t get hungry again until 1:00pm.
Do you have a morning workout routine?
My morning ritual almost always involves exercise, and I’m an omnivore when it comes to activity. Running, riding some form of bicycle (I own four, and they all wear the scars of heavy use), skiing, yoga, rock climbing, resistance training (in my super-cool garage gym), rowing (on an erg when I’m in Boise and on the water when I’m in one of the six cities where I am a member of a rowing club), or surfing. Just about anything will do, really, depending on the environment. I learned long ago that I just have to move my body, usually for at least an hour but sometimes all day, when I’m lucky.
Do you have a morning meditation routine?
Exercise is my meditation, my grounding. I don’t think of it as “working out.” Rather, I think of it as “working in,” a way to bring calm and focus and energy to all that awaits. Aware of the research pointing to the benefits of meditation, I tried for several months to develop a sitting meditation practice. I still like the idea of it. But let’s just say that it didn’t work for me. Perhaps when I am older and have less kinetic urgency in my body?
I also really enjoy making coffee for my girlfriend or hot chocolate for my daughter or something for friends who stay with me - important moments of intentional sharing in a life too often defined by possession and competition.
Do you answer email first thing in the morning or leave it until later in the day?
Sated and slaked, I am usually at my laptop between 6:30am and 7:00am, engaging in the daily (and usually fruitless) battle to wrestle the wretched email monster to the floor. Honestly, I simply don’t know how people do it. I just checked, and I have 5,889 unread emails in my inbox; 6,567 unread in something called “clutter” (which is likely to be an entirely appropriately named folder); and 62,742 unread in my deleted folder. And that is just from 2017. At least it gives me no end of pleasure to know that I’ve deleted on average 350 emails per day without even reading them. Bravo for life’s small victories!
I try to keep email to an absolute minimum in the early phase of the day, replying to just the critical responses. I’ve learned through failure that trying to clear my inbox would consume 100 percent of my available time, and I am simply unwilling to give that much of my day to email. Period.
Do you use any apps or products to enhance your sleep or morning routine?
No. In fact, I do what I can to reduce the intrusion of technology into my morning. The last thing I want is to add more technology, even as I live with the benefits of technology elsewhere in my life.
How soon do you check your phone in the morning?
I try to ignore it for as long as possible, but I usually end up looking at text messages and email while my water is boiling, so I’d say within the first twenty minutes of the day. But - and this is important - I have a personal “no phone in the bedroom” rule that is absolutely inviolable and saves me from the humiliation of checking my phone before even getting out of bed.
What are your most important tasks in the morning?
Funny. I’ve never thought of it as a task, but the most important thing I do each morning is steady myself by not allowing a sense of urgency to penetrate. Every once in awhile I find myself in a spin cycle of urgency - a sense of internal panic that the list of things to do is lengthening no matter how hard I try to control it. But I learned long ago (even though I occasionally forget!) that this sense of urgency is nearly always illusory. I am more productive when I am not operating with urgency.
I remember years ago reading a passage in a book about Thomas Keller in which the author marvels at the pervasive sense of calm in Keller’s famous restaurant The French Laundry. How could such incredible food, the author wondered, prepared at such exacting standards, be produced in such a calm environment? The irony is, of course, that the calm environment was the reason for the productivity, as it revealed total mastery of the task at hand. I strive for that same sense of calm mastery, and I occasionally even achieve it.
What and when is your first drink in the morning?
My first drink is one cup of either tea or coffee, with half and half and a squirt of agave or a spoonful of honey. I begin making it before I do anything else.
How does your partner fit into your morning routine?
She usually sleeps longer than I do. One of my favorite sensations is that of her sleeping while I make my morning cup and tend to my email. Something about that feels incredibly tender and protective, as archaic as that sounds. Fortunately, she has really high EQ, so she knows that I need to begin my mornings as I do and gives me plenty of space. But she always checks in on me to welcome the day, which is such a sweet gesture.
Do you also follow this routine on weekends, or do you change some steps?
As I don’t wake with an alarm, I don’t really have a concept of “sleeping in.” I wake when my body wants to wake. And because my workday begins with four hours of white space, which is what most people experience on the weekend, my morning ritual is surprisingly constant throughout the week.
The biggest difference is that I don’t feel obligated to pin the dial with email. I frequently go all weekend without replying to a single email. I check them to make sure I’m not dropping the ball, of course, but in a perfect world, weekends would be in “read only” mode.
On days you’re not settled in your home, are you able to adapt your routine to fit in with a different environment?
Absolutely. I’ve never understood my colleagues who say it’s hard to be on the road. I wake up. I order a room service caffeine delivery, usually with pastry and fruit. I go for a run. (As an aside, one of my absolute favorite things to do is explore an unfamiliar city by foot, taking random rights and lefts as traffic lights direct me, while the city slowly wakes. There is something magical in that experience that never fades.) I have a big breakfast while chewing through email and planning the day.
Having a simple routine that is easily portable and designed to be somewhat flexible helps, of course. I can’t imagine, for example, if I absolutely had to start my day at a specific spin class with my favorite instructor. That would be disastrous, particularly as I travel a lot.
What do you do if you fail to follow your morning routine, and how does this influence the rest of your day?
The beauty of my morning routine - no alarm clock, no fixed beverage, a range of acceptable breakfast foods, a huge range of available exercise, and a dedicated block of white space - is that it is nearly inexhaustibly flexible. So there really is no room for failure. Thinking about it now, I wish I’d been intentional about this, as I’d love to claim that my morning ritual was designed so that it was always accessible. But it emerged as a function of environment, temperament, and preference.
That is, perhaps, the best lesson for any morning routine: make sure it serves as an almost organic, inevitable armature to your morning rather than an exogenously imposed structure that may sound optimal but runs contrary to the natural rhythms of your life.
Anything else you would like to add?
The one thing I would like to add is that “ritual” is too often confused with “habit.” We talk about morning rituals when what we really mean is habit. We seek efficiency, not contemplation. We turn our minds from our morning, preferring to imagine the day. We rush through the morning, thinking that it is something to be endured on the way to work rather than the foundation for every single day, and in so doing, we lose the meaning of ritual. In some ways, I think that a re-ritualization of our mornings might be a culturally positive development.
Photos of Matthew by Rob Bossi Photography.