Nick Tasler is an organizational psychologist and a columnist for the Harvard Business Review, Quartz, and Bloomberg Businessweek. He currently lives in Ponce, Puerto Rico with his wife and four kids.
What is your morning routine?
Lately, I’ve been waking up around 4:40am. I used to get up at 5:30am, but my wife gets up at 4:30am, so I finally decided to stop pretending that I can fall back asleep for another hour after her alarm wakes me up. I’ve found that it actually works better this way, because my most creative period of the day is always between 5:00am and 9:00am.
After I crawl out of bed, I turn the air conditioner off in our bedroom, make a pit stop at the toilet, and tiptoe out to the kitchen - being careful not to wake my sleeping kids.
Next, I start the coffee maker and go to the fridge to retrieve the water bottle I filled up the night before. A singer friend once told me that you’re supposed to drink a glass of water before anything else (especially coffee) in the morning because it protects your vocal chords. I’ve never bothered to verify the science behind it because, frankly, I just don’t care. And since I couldn’t carry a tune if it were stapled to my eyelid, it is a bit ironic that I follow advice meant for professional singers. But I do give speeches for a living, and I figure if J-Lo is willing to protect her career by taking out a seven-figure insurance policy on her butt, the least I can do is choke down a glass of water every morning, just in case there’s something to it.
Once the coffee is ready, I go out to our screened-in terrace and plop down on the loveseat; always facing outside and sitting sideways with my back against the arm of the loveseat, my rear on one cushion and my feet on the other. I usually spend the next 30-60 minutes doing some kind of prayer/meditation and journaling. This part of my routine has been in effect for a solid decade now, but how exactly I do it and for how long still changes from week to week. It almost always involves reading something and then writing my thoughts about it.
Over the years, the reading has included everything from the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita to the Bible and various works of Stoic philosophy. The one common thread has always been that it is some kind of spiritual text or at least “timeless” wisdom literature. That means no current events, no how-to advice, no productivity tips, no science; all of that comes later in the day. In a nutshell, early mornings are for Marcus Aurelius and Jesus; late mornings are for Stanley Milgram and NPR. For the last couple of years, the early morning routine has had more of a spiritual/mystical flavor to it rather than philosophical or wisdom-based.
Whether it’s reading, praying, or just closing my eyes and trying to pay close attention to the birds and the frogs chirping and croaking outside, the point is always to try to get in touch with something bigger than me: call it the Holy Spirit, the Force, the Field, or whatever you want. In some weird, paradoxical way, spending the first part of each morning focusing on decidedly transcendental topics actually keeps me grounded during the rest of the day. It reminds me that 95 percent of the things I’m going to instinctively want to flip my lid about during the day ahead just aren’t that big of a deal. It also helps me to not take myself too seriously, to keep myself humble (always a constant battle for a narcissist who gets paid to dish out advice), and to generally not be a d-bag to the people and the world around me.
For the past two months, I’ve been experimenting with “officially” signaling the end of prayer time and the start of the workday by jumping into a pool or taking a cold shower. I’m the world’s biggest weenie when it comes to cool temperatures, and even though Puerto Rico never gets anywhere close to what the average Northerner would consider “cold,” the water is a bit chilly at 6:00am. It snaps me to attention and hits the reset button on my brain.
After the polar plunge (okay, technically it’s more tropical than polar, but it still feels cold to me so back off, alright?), I go back to my office to start writing. For the past six months or so, when I first sit down, I’ve been reading the messages on the bulletin board hanging above my desk. I once read that Colin Powell stuck notes with his favorite bits of wisdom under the glass cover on his office desk so that he wouldn’t forget certain guiding principles (kind of like the guy in Memento, except less tattoo-y). Initially, my bulletin board started out something like that - scraps of paper with bits of wisdom, some short-term goals, and sketched diagrams for ideas I’m working on. But it quickly grew to include notes of a more… well, motivational nature.
I can say two things about this part of my morning routine. First, it works. I feel bolder, more confident, and more productive after reading the bulletin board.
Second, if I found the exact same notes on the office wall of one of my friends, I would a) laugh hysterically and then b) ruthlessly heckle him via text message approximately every day for the rest of his natural life. As such, if you thought I was going to divulge the contents of my notes on a public venue such as this, you are mistaken. But if you’re really dying to know, think Ross from Friends leaving a voicemail for himself and (sadly) you’ll be in the ballpark.
Then I write for the next three hours.
Sometime between the hours of 6:00am and 7:30am, one or all of my kids pop into my office to say “hi.” I used to forbid this. So did Stephen King until he nearly died in an accident. He then decided that the small productivity gains in his writing weren’t enough to offset those more valuable moments with his family. (Apparently, writing The Shining wasn’t enough to convince him that writers shouldn’t be isolated.) I have come to agree with him. Besides, taking parenting advice from the King of Horror just seems like the smart thing to do.
Lastly, a little before nine, I run to CrossFit, which puts the fork in my morning routine.
What time do you go to sleep?
I go to sleep at 9:00pm almost every night of the week. Even on those weekend nights when we happen to be at a fiesta, or when I’m with friends that I haven’t seen for a while and I really want to get after it like we did in the Glory Days… yeah, no. Doesn’t happen. I turn into a pumpkin by 10:00pm at the absolute latest. No exceptions.
Do you do anything before going to bed to make your morning easier?
Once I get in bed I always read for a few minutes to calm my mind.
Do you use an alarm to wake you up in the morning, and if so do you ever hit the snooze button?
No. But my wife sometimes does, which is basically the same as using one myself since I’m all of four whole feet away from her alarm. Sorry for the statistically unfriendly answer.
How soon after waking up do you have breakfast, and what do you typically have?
Within an hour of waking up I usually have something small like a banana or peanut butter toast before I start work.
Do you have a morning workout routine?
Yep, CrossFit at 9:00am.
Do you have a morning meditation routine, and if so what kind of meditation do you practice?
I do some kind of prayer/meditation and journaling once my morning coffee is ready. It almost always involves reading something and then writing my thoughts about it.
Do you answer email first thing in the morning or leave it until later in the day?
I do everything in my power NOT to open my email until midday. My mornings are sacred writing time. I can get more good creative writing done in the three hours between 6:00am and 9:00am than I can in the eight hours between 9:00am and 5:00pm. Email invariably sends me down some rabbit hole or another.
Do you use any apps or products to enhance your sleep or morning routine?
How soon do you check your phone in the morning?
Hmm. I use my phone first thing in the morning, but I don’t check it (e.g., check messages). Allow me to explain:
My phone is my bedside clock, and lately I’ve also been doing reading plans on the Bible app first thing in the morning. However, I’ve taken precautions to protect myself from getting sucked into the smartphone distraction trap. I have disabled notifications for all apps. I have moved all messaging apps (Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, etc.) to the last screen on my phone. If I want to check my messages, I have to intentionally scroll three screens over and individually open each app. I’ve put in enough behavioral hurdles that I now rarely think about checking messages until later in the morning.
What are your most important tasks in the morning?
Writing and praying.
What and when is your first drink in the morning?
Coffee and water, right away.
How does your partner fit into your morning routine?
My wife’s wakeup time has influenced my wakeup time. She goes to the gym first thing in the morning and doesn’t get home until after 6:00am, so the first hour or so of my morning she isn’t around. After she gets home, we talk for about ten or fifteen minutes. Then, since we both place a premium on our own morning routines, it is mutually understood that she will go do her thing and I will do mine. That said, it did take us five or six years of marriage to arrive at this happy consensus.
Do you also follow this routine on weekends, or do you change some steps?
I don’t sleep in on weekends, and I typically don’t write on Sunday mornings. I read A.J. Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically a while back, and I remember him noting how the Old Testament law about not working on the Sabbath actually had positive effects on his overall productivity and creativity even though he is agnostic and non-religious. I’ve noticed a similar result. Could be a placebo effect, of course, but I seem to have some of my best ideas for books/articles on Sundays when I’m trying not to write. I jot those ideas down in my notebook, but I do resist the temptation to fire up my laptop until Monday morning.
On days you’re not settled in your home, are you able to adapt your routine to fit in with a different environment?
For the most part, yes. Obviously, I can’t jump into a pool if there isn’t one. Or sometimes if we are at a hotel with all six of us crammed into a tiny room, it’s a little hard to get in an hour of silent prayer/journaling. But those are rare instances. If I’m traveling, I just replace CrossFit with running.
What do you do if you fail to follow your morning routine, and how does this influence the rest of your day?
I immediately tear my robe and curse the heavens. Just kidding. Missing my morning routine sucks, and I don’t prefer it. But the human animal is nothing if not adaptable. So I just try to remind myself that shift happens, and then move on with my day.
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