I am not empowered or optimised by my current morning routine. I am a bleary-eyed doom-scroller. So I spent a month ditching my phone, exercising, journalling and embracing the dawn, to find out what really works.
Are morning people better than night owls? I was delighted to discover that they are not. The “morning morality effect” – the notion that our capacity to resist lying and cheating dwindles through the day – applies only to larks, research shows; nighthawks behave better in the evenings.
Morning people do, however, have a reputation for getting stuff done. Early rising is associated with energy, optimisation and efficiency; it is a foundational principle of all manner of self-help and self-actualisation programmes.
“If you look at many of the most productive people in the world, they’ll have one thing in common: they were early risers,” says one wide-eyed zealot in the trailer for the motivational guru Hal Elrod’s film about his “miracle morning”, as Oprah Winfrey, Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein flash past. Elrod’s Savers routine – silence, affirmations, visualisation, exercise, reading, scribing – is a classic of the genre, but he is only one of many urging us to seize the day super-early.
The entrepreneur and trainer Adrienne Herbert has created a successful podcast (and now a book) around her concept of a “power hour” in the morning. “First, it’s because solitude is so hard to find at any other time. It’s also about starting the day as you mean to go on,” she says. “That is going to set you up for the day, for better or worse. Without that, you just kind of roll the dice.” It is also a way of putting yourself first, she says: “It’s quite empowering. I’m completely in control of my time before I’m on call for anyone else.”
My own routine is a 7.15am alarm, followed by bleary horizontal doom-scrolling until my elderly dog’s complaints become overwhelming, then a slow trudge to pick up his poo, followed by a pint of tea at my desk. I am not empowered, effective or optimised. “What if you could change anything about your life just by changing the way you start your day?” asks Elrod’s film. Time to find out.
Wake at dawn
There is a simple, earnest romance to rising with the dawn, like a Thomas Hardy character before the harvest fails and tragedy looms. The writer and Observer Food Monthly editor Allan Jenkins is a horrifyingly early riser, sometimes up at 3am or 4am. In his book Morning: A Manifesto, he writes about the dawn light like a lover, observing its shifts and moods, the colours it wears. “I’m a light-driven person,” he says. “Being somewhere on your own with light coming up – it’s slightly magical.”
It is good for you, too: research has demonstrated that exposure to early morning light increases alertness, improves sleep and decreases stress levels. I want all those things, obviously, so I leave my curtains open and switch off the alarm.
I don’t know where the people who suggest this live – the Outer Hebrides, maybe, or the 18th century – but where I live, leaving the curtains open means a massive assault of artificial light, from street lamps to neighbours’ security lights going on and off every time a cat walks past. Light is good for you, but so is dark. I can’t sleep with the curtains open without wearing an eye mask, but I can’t witness the dawn if my eyes are covered. You see the problem.
Fitting exercise into my day is, hmm, I will say “tricky”, but “vanishingly unlikely” also works. Getting it done first thing is the best way to maximise your chances. Herbert is an eloquent advocate for early-morning movement: she started her power hour in 2017, with only 14 weeks to train for a marathon. “The almost meditative beat of my feet striking the ground brings a feeling of invincibility,” she says. “My worries don’t seem so big any more. I can think clearly. I have more energy and anything seems possible.” It doesn’t hurt that Herbert is a glowing, inspirational picture of health and vitality. Count me in.
Imagine a cinematic montage of me falling out of bed, fighting with a sports bra and dozing off as I lace my trainers. My Monday run is bearable. Obviously, I hate getting up, but, after a barrage of online advice, I set my kit out the night before, giving myself one less excuse. The misty dawn is beautiful, as is my smug glow.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, I do early online classes, one called Your Mum’s VHS, the other Boyband Barre. The former involves high-energy bouncing à la Jane Fonda (although the 90s music suggests the mum in question is me, which stings). The latter, meanwhile, is a brutally painful way to start the day – even the instructor appears to be suffering – and no amount of Take That can drown out the screaming from my glutes. On Thursday, I try the app Zombies, Run!, a post-apocalyptic audio tale that provides running prompts. I enjoy running in darkness through a desolate wasteland populated by the undead, desperately searching for food and fuel: it is perfect preparation for Christmas 2021.
The problem, according to Herbert; the most important part of power hour preparation is getting enough sleep. “No one wants to get up in the morning early if they’re tired. If you want it to feel good and not to be a punishment, get to bed early and get the sleep you need.” But this is where life intrudes: I am a poor sleeper, my sons’ adolescent body clocks mean they talk to me only after 10pm and the dog needs his walk before I can exercise. By the weekend, I am rebranding the 10-minute dog walk as “exercise”.
If mornings are painful, afternoons are worse: I experience slumps so intense they feel like out-of-body experiences. It feels as if I am wading through syrup. I ask Herbert for advice. “I definitely get a slump; for me, it’s concentration and focus. The way I combat that – and people don’t want to hear this – is movement. Get up from your desk, get moving, walk around outside, stretch, get a bit of oxygen.” She is right: I don’t want to hear this. I try Jenkins, hoping for sympathy. “Life isn’t perfect, so why shouldn’t you be tired sometimes?” he says. “That’s what tea is for, that’s what sugar is for.”
Speaking of sugar, I eat constantly and indiscriminately this week, with the panicky greed of a rat trapped in a Greggs wheelie bin. Very much #fitnessgoals.
The benefits of meditation don’t need restating: its impact on a wide range of conditions, including depression, anxiety and fibromyalgia, is well documented. Many spiritual traditions that incorporate meditation consider it an early-morning practice, too: “Creating a sacred connection to your higher self when the world and your mind are at their quietest,” as the alternative medicine enthusiast Deepak Chopra puts it. I have hated every previous attempt at meditating – my mind churns like a cement mixer -but perhaps dawn will work its magic.
I try the Calm app twice but, as usual, my brain trots straight to my greatest failings, festering grievances and the expired soup in the fridge. I have the rest of the day for that stuff; I don’t need an extra hour of it in the morning. Instead, inspired by Jenkins’ beautiful and persuasive writing about early mornings in nature – the blackbirds and foxes that inhabit his street and his allotment, the light-streaked sky at “the quiet moments when the day inhales and the night fails” – I try sitting outside, quietly.
I watch the wind move the leaves and the sparrows bustle in the bushes as the dark recedes over 15 minutes. I don’t think it is meditation – my eyes are open, I am not focusing on my breath – but it does have that stilling quality I find so elusive.
The Artist’s Way, a 1992 book by the creativity whiz Julia Cameron, introduced the concept of “morning pages”: freeform first-thing writing to get the juices flowing (yuck). Its more recent equivalent, journalling, is a staple of self-help and personal development morning routines.
The bestselling author Jojo Moyes dabbles in early writing shifts: “When my children were young, I started at 6am (or, if I could face it, 5am). It was the only time of the day that my brain wasn’t fogged with domestic detritus,” she says. “The first half hour was always a struggle, but there is a weird filterless quality to what comes out straight after dreams. It’s a good time for the imagination.”
Early-morning writing works for Jenkins, too: “The stuff I do early just comes, because there’s nothing else around. You can kind of hear it; the tone is there.” The writer Oliver Burkeman tested Cameron’s idea and found it “powerful … at calming anxieties, producing insights and resolving dilemmas”. I need that.
Cameron’s instructions are rigid, yet terrifyingly vague: three full longhand sides of “US letter paper” on anything; a complete stream of consciousness. I fall out of bed at 6am, shuffle to the spare room, open a notebook and start to write. I hate how it feels – and, as for the output… well. Morning pages are supposed to be private, but let me share some snippets: “Wow this is terrible I hate this”; “Jeopardy, no USP chicken estuary”; “This was terrible”. Powerful stuff.
On the third day, I abandon the boot-camp because I have work to do on a tight deadline. I start at 5.30am. Moyes and Jenkins are right: the emptiness, the absence of noise, creates a space where I am not constantly distracted. I finish efficiently, without scrolling through Twitter once.
We are fixated on dissecting the minutiae of celebrity routines, keen to draw any lessons we can from their habits. How did they become so successful, glossy and charismatic? Is it anything to do with their breakfast? This means I have plenty to choose from as I try to capture a bit of morning-routine stardust.
I start with Winfrey, the queen of self-actualisation. In one of the many conflicting versions of her routine I read, she wakes at 6.02am, without an alarm clock. I have no expectation this will work, but I swear that when I check my phone on waking in the morning, it is precisely 6.02. She follows up with dog walking, coffee and meditation in her 3,000-tree garden or “breakfast chair”.
I manage dog and coffee, then I sit in the shed for 10 minutes (it is raining) and check out the Winfrey-endorsed The Bowl of Saki (daily snippets of Sufi mysticism) on my phone, taking in absolutely nothing. Winfrey does assisted stretches (“two, sometimes three, people… come to my house to help me”), so I ask my husband for help. He pulls my arms, briefly and perfunctorily. Winfrey also runs “a giant loop around my home”. I do this, too. It takes 35 seconds.
After Winfrey, things degenerate. I can’t manage Jennifer Aniston’s 4.30am start, or her regime of “keeping your body confused” by exercise, including the ominous-sounding “spin yoga”. My body is sufficiently confused by getting up at 6am, so I ride my bike round the block (this is so fun I do it twice) then sleepwalk through a 10-minute yoga video.
Aniston’s breakfast smoothie is an unholy sludge with cacao (I use cocoa), protein powder, spinach and other horrors: it sits on my desk for hours before I can stomach it. I do adopt, and genuinely appreciate, her “no phone for the first hour” discipline, however.
Victoria Beckham drinks two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar first thing, then does two separate workouts. No wonder she often looks thunderous. I do a 6am run, then drink the vinegar, an experience so unpleasant I decide it counts as my second workout. Beckham is another smoothie devotee – what is it with celebs’ reluctance to chew? – but my blender can’t countenance broccoli, so I eat a few florets instead.
Orlando Bloom’s nonsensical and much-derided regime also defeats me. “I chant for 20 minutes every day,” he says, but I settle for muttering: “I hate this,” a few times. Bloom’s first breakfast of “green powders that I mix with brain octane oil” becomes a cod liver oil capsule and a cystitis sachet (I don’t have cystitis, but it is the only vaguely therapeutic powder in the house). He does “eye-gazing” with his infant daughter, but I daren’t look my 17-year-old in the eye before midday, so I just glance at him as he eats breakfast, stony-faced.
I had hoped to close the month with Princess Margaret’s fabled morning routine, as revealed in Craig Brown’s Ma’am, Darling:
breakfast in bed, two hours of reading the papers and smoking, bath, hair and makeup, then vodka. Sadly, none of that is possible when you have to hold down a job.
After a month of self-actualised, optimised mornings, I am bone-tired and biscuit-dependent; the dog’s body clock has fatally readjusted to require walking at 6am. Even so, I find myself reluctant to give up. I have started setting the alarm earlier and, when I wake before it, something compels me to get up and go outside. It is certainly not because I am more effective, but the peace, the birdsong and the light feel like an initiates’ secret, a gift to myself. “If you can make it work, there’s goodness in it,” says Jenkins. Perhaps I can.
(Article source: The Guardian)