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The Reason You Can’t Stick to Your Morning Routine

The Reason You Can’t Stick to Your Morning Routine

My sister Elizabeth calls me a "happiness bully," and I have to admit that I do often quiz people about what happiness habits they'd like to master.

Over and over, people have told me, "I really want to develop a good morning routine. But I can't get it to stick."

Of course, that frustration often arises from the fact that we don't have complete control over our lives. If you're managing your family's morning or dealing with an unpredictable work schedule, it can be very tough to establish a solid routine. That's a reality.

But sometimes we can't stick to a morning routine because we need to work harder on setting ourselves up for success—by being specific about what we expect from ourselves, addressing recurring challenges, and being realistic about what can get done in a certain amount of time.

And while we may not have complete control, we may have more control than we realize, to tweak a routine so it works better for us.

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind:

1. Break your "morning routine" into concrete, manageable actions. An example might look something like this:

  • Wake up at 7:00 a.m., and hit the snooze alarm only once.
  • Do a ten-minute meditation after getting dressed.
  • Wake up the kids at 7:45.
  • Cook a hot breakfast and eat as a family Monday-Thursday.

Then take steps to solidify each individual habit. I've identified 21 Strategies for Habit Change that you might use—for instance, for that list, you might use the Strategies of Convenience, Inconvenience, Pairing, Scheduling, or Safeguards.

One powerful strategy is the Strategy of Monitoring, where you keep track each day of whether you've successfully completed that part of your morning routine. Monitoring has an almost uncanny power. It doesn’t require change, but it often leads to change, because people who keep close track of just about anything tend to do a better job of managing it. Tracking boosts self-control in key categories such as eating, drinking, exercising, working, TV- and internet-use, spending—and just about anything else.

Many people find that it's helpful to pursue a "streak" or to tell themselves "don't break that chain." To make it easier to do that, I've created a Don't Break the Chain Habit Tracker which is designed to make it fun and convenient to track, spot patterns, take notes—and keep the tracker as an accomplishment keepsake when you're done. By trying not to break the chain of the individual habits that create your morning routine, you'll strengthen that morning routine.

2. Use the "Four Tendencies" personality framework to help you stick to your routine. Don't know if you're an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Take a moment to take the free, quick quiz (more than 3.5 million people have taken this quiz). Once you know your Tendency, harness that knowledge to help you stick to your routine.

  • Upholders: Make a morning to-do list and put items on the calendar.
  • Questioners: Create the most efficient and customized routine possible, and remind yourself about why this routine works so well for you.
  • Obligers: Use outer accountability to help you stick to your routine. Remind yourself that if you keep your morning routine, you'll help others keep their morning routines. Or think of your duty to your future-self, who will be so happy to start each day with a strong routine. Or create ways that you're accountable to others; for instance, instead of taking a morning walk alone, walk with a neighbor.
  • Rebels: You might not want to lock yourself into a specific routine. Think about what you want from your mornings, and let your actions flow from your desires. Think about your identity and the routines that support and naturally flow from that identity (an athlete, a nature-lover, a thoughtful parent, an artist).

3. Use self-knowledge. People often try to apply one-size-fits-all solutions for happiness and habit-formation, and they get frustrated when those solutions don't work. If you're having trouble keeping a morning routine, try to know yourself better, and to adapt the routine to suit you. No tool fits every hand. For instance:

  • Are you a morning person or night person? If you're a night person, you're at your most creative, energetic, and productive later in the day. If you try to do something strenuous—doing a tough work-out, working on a novel—early in the day, it will be tough. Try moving that aim later in the day.
  • Do you love familiarity or novelty? If you like novelty, you might resist the sameness of a morning routine. Think about how you can add variety and challenge, to keep yourself interested.
  • Do you really care about this aspect of your morning routine? Sometimes we think we "should" do something, but we don't really want to. Make sure that your routine includes items that truly matter to you.

4. Do you simply need more time? Sometimes we're just trying to cram too many items into the morning routine. For most of us, a lot needs to get done in the first few hours of the day, and it's important to be realistic.

My sister Elizabeth told me, "I used to tell myself that I needed a certain amount of time in the morning. And that's plenty of time, when I'm just dealing with myself. But the reality is that I'm dealing with Adam and Jack too, and that means I need a bigger buffer." She started getting up thirty minutes earlier, to give herself plenty of time to deal with herself and her family.

Many people wouldn't welcome the suggestion to get up earlier! But for some people, it's an option. Along those lines...

5. Can you move some tasks out of the morning, to make the morning routine less onerous? You might do a better job of keeping your morning routine if you work on your evening routine. For instance, if you or others need to take things to work or school, get materials organized the night before; assemble lunches the night before; choose outfits the night before, etc.

6. Identify the problem. Are there problems that repeatedly crop up to disrupt your morning routine? Do you regularly sleep through the alarm, hunt for your keys, scramble to put together an outfit, lose track of time? Identify the problem, and figure out a way to address it.

7. Sing in the morning. Look for ways to add an energetic, cheerful note to your morning. When I wrote The Happiness Project, one of my resolutions was to "Sing in the morning" because it’s hard to both sing and maintain a grouchy mood. It set a happy tone for everyone in my family—particularly in my case, because I’m tone deaf and my audience finds my singing a source of great hilarity.

8. You may be in the rush hour of life. The fact is, sometimes we're in a period of our lives when we just don't have the well-oiled machine running the way we'd like! If that description applies to you, remember that things change. One day, the baby who wakes up at 5:00 a.m. needing to be diapered, fed, clothed, and carried will get up and get ready for school all by herself. The days are long, but the years are short.

Have you struggled to create a morning routine? What challenges do you face? What strategies have worked for you?

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Find out if you’re an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or a Rebel.

The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t actOur Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so understanding your Tendency lets us make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress and burnout, and engage more effectively.

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