This time last year I sat by the pool at a resort in Hawaii and took a long hard look at my life. It’s become a tradition for me to take time off work, go somewhere tropical, and do a bit of a “life evaluation.” What did I do this past year? Where is my life headed? What do I want to accomplish this next year? I’ve grown to love the process and intend to write more about it in a future post.

For now, I want to write about what came out of last year’s introspection and goal setting—something that quite literally changed how I live my life. My daily morning routine.

Why Can’t I Stick With My Resolutions?

No matter how hard I tried to exercise, meditate, study from good books, or do just about any other of the typical New Years Resolutions, I stopped partway through the year. Why? Was it a lack of willpower? Did I set too ambitious of goals? Surely I was capable of doing all of those things, and while I wanted to say, “I don’t have time,” I knew better.

As I looked back on the previous year, I began to see some interesting patterns.

First, I noticed that my willpower progressively weakened throughout the day. First thing in the morning – refreshed and ready for the day – I could get myself to do just about anything. But come 6pm, and after a long and emotionally draining day at work, Netflix and chill seemed like the only reasonable activity.

Second, I noticed that work, errands, or other commitments often ate into my evenings more than I expected. This in turn pushed my “resolutions” farther and farther back until it was time to hit the sack. In these instances, I used the excuse, “I just ran out of time.”

As I recognized just how often I used these two excuses, I realized that the secret to actually doing what I committed to do was simple: do it first.

Rocks and Sand

What came to mind was an object lesson I’d seen as a child. A friend of mine was given a pile of rocks and a jar half-filled with sand. He was told to fit all of the rocks into the jar. No matter how hard he tried, he could not get every last rock into that jar. There was no way—at least not without getting rid of the sand. Then, our teacher emptied the jar, put the rocks in first, and added the sand back in. Almost miraculously, all of the rocks – and every last grain of sand – fit into the jar.

You’ve no-doubt seen, or at least heard, that analogy. My life is now living proof that it works (and, spoiler alert: it’s awesome.)

I silenced my inner tired critic and committed right then and there to set my alarm for 7:20 each week day and commence the following morning routine:

  • 20 minutes of exercise
  • 5 minutes of studying a good book
  • 5 minutes meditation

Now as I write that out, that actually feels pretty ridiculous. 20 minutes of exercise? Only five minutes of reading and meditation? That might have been pretty pathetic, but I was going for was consistency. The fact of the matter here is: I was not currently doing these things at all. My plan was to establish a habit first, then see if I could gradually up each item as I saw fit.

Tracking my Progress

To help with this, I created a “Goal Tracker” spreadsheet in Google Docs to keep me accountable each week. You’ll notice in the screenshot below that there are far more lines than just my morning routine. You can learn more about what those are – and get a free copy of this Goal Tracker – here. Updating this chart quickly became one of my favorite things each week, especially as I began to see my own progress and success.

One Year Later…

I’ll skip the monologue and cut to the chase: it worked. Beautifully, wonderfully, insanely well. It obviously wasn’t magic – it definitely still took commitment and willpower – but by restructuring my days, I was setting myself up for success.

Instead of having to exercise ridiculous amounts of willpower each day after work, and instead of being at the mercy of whatever happened throughout the day, I made sure – before anything else – that I got my “rocks” in. All I had to do was get to bed at a decent hour and wake up by 7:20. Once I was up (and decided, of course, that going back to bed wasn’t an option), driving to the gym wasn’t too difficult. Once there, it was pretty easy to start walking, lifting, or stretching. Once home, I made my morning smoothie, then read and meditated. Taking five minutes for each wasn’t bad at all.

Before I knew it, I’d gone a full month with being 100% on my morning routine. I vividly remember coming home from work several times, feeling the oncoming feeling of dread, and thinking, “I do not want to go to the gym right now.” Then—the most amazing realization: I had already done it! And not only had I exercised already, but I’d also studied and meditated. I could now eat, watch TV, or do whatever else I wanted/needed to without guilt. I had put myself first and lived up to my commitments.

It Starts the Night Before

As it turns out, the key to sticking with my routine began with getting to bed on time the night before. As long as I got to bed by 11:20 pm, I’d start my morning routine with eight hours of sleep. I think back often to a quote I heard years ago:

Never stay up late to do something you wouldn’t wake up early to do.

That ruled out late-night Netflix binges pretty quickly, and a whole slew of other things as well.

Believe it or not, once my routine became a habit (after a month or so), sticking with it became a highly fulfilling, enjoyable part of my life. There are absolutely still days that I have to force myself to stick with it, but by and large, it’s now pretty automatic. I’ve since grown and adapted my routine into something I’m even more proud of:

  • Wake between 6:00 – 6:30AM
  • Exercise for 20-60 minutes
  • Write in my book for 15 minutes
  • Study for 15 minutes
  • Meditate for 5 minutes

It’s still nothing dramatic, but boy is it life changing.

Little Things Add Up

If you haven’t read The Slight Edge or The Compound Effectthey are must reads. The basic premise of each of these books is that small actions – whether healthy or harmful – lead to significant results down the road.

By sticking to my routine five days a week, I’ve accomplished the following in one year:

  • 200 hours (12,000 minutes) of exercise
    • burning an additional 78,000 calories
  • 65 hours (3,900 minutes) of study
  • 22 hours (1,300 minutes) of meditation
  • a 20,000-word rough draft of my book (in 5 months; I didn’t add this to my routine until later)

The cool thing? I hardly feel like I worked for those accomplishments. They are the “automatic” results of sticking with my simple morning routine.

Bend, Don’t Break

One final note here: while I committed to be 100% on my morning routine, I’ve learned to be flexible when necessary. I did not let “life is busy” excuses get in the way, but when I was literally traveling for 16 hours in a day, it just wasn’t reasonable (or healthy) to then sacrifice even more sleep to get 20 minutes of exercise in. I could (and did) still keep all my other commitments while on the plane, though.

Other “bends” to my schedule came about when I had to be at a video shoot or catch a flight at some ungodly hour (3, 4, or 5 AM). In these cases, I would schedule in my routine for some other time in the day—the sooner the better to avoid other things from encroaching. At those points I had built up enough momentum (and a solid green line in my goal tracker) that I wasn’t about to break my streak over one day.

The Key: Start Small

I can’t imagine my life now without a morning routine. I think back to the days, months, and years that I hit the snooze button, rolled out of bed, and rushed to school or work. I can’t believe I ever went more than two days without working out. 

They key for me was to simply start small—so small that I couldn’t justify not doing it. Once it became a habit, I began to reap the benefits of self mastery, and had my own intrinsic motivation to increase the length and content of my routine.

Do you have a morning routine? If so, tell us a bit about it in the comments below.

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