A no-nonsense, no-yoga, no-meditation approach to early morning success – and why a morning routine can do miracles.
Since the 2015 Stanley Cup run of the Chicago Blackhawks I can be safely filed under “early morning bird”. The only way to follow each game live from Europe (e.g., games usually would start at 2-3am every second day) forced me to get creative.
Split-sleeping was killing me: I tried to sleep from around 11pm to 2am for 3 hours and then right after the game had ended (mind you – all those overtime nights!) another 3. This cycle was doing horrifying things to my body and brains.
I was totally cracked and people started to worry.
Then I made it more simple. My goal was to get up at 2am every day (or night?). I wanted about 6-7 hours of sleep. A minus B equals… well… 8pm.
Somewhere in late April I started to go to bed at 8pm. Until the Blackhawks secured the Stanley Cup in Game 6.
That was June 15th. In Chicago. And It was already June 16th in Europe.
Why the hell am I telling you this?
This Essential Guide will help you to master your morning routine and start each and every day with great achievements before most others get even out of their bed.
Hi, I am Juergen and I got sick not achieving my goals while still having enough time to reminiscent about that.
Most of you will telling me “early mornings are not for me”. Or “I’m different”. Or “I just can’t do it”.
Well, of course you can. Stop this bollock self-limiting beliefs.
The real question is… do you have any incentive to get up early?
If it’s just about getting up early, you’ll have no real trigger to do that.
Back then in 2015 I discovered that as I would often start working already at 6 or 7am I had super productive runs. Because nobody was calling me, no one was mailing me.
I was just on my own focusing on my task.
Early mornings can do miracles. You just need to have good idea what’s your purpose.
Damn, I hate the word “purpose”, actually. It is one of those from every other guru and influencer.
No worries, next thing is not that I am going to tell you to do yoga, meditation and waking up your spirituality.
However, what I do you will show you is a no-nonsense approach that is extremely minimalistic and will help you to push your most important tasks towards completion.
This guide will help you to….
- Implement a short and simple morning routine that works
- Ensure you are prepared as hell for any distractions
- Kill your feelings of guilt during the day of not having progressed on your most important tasks
Nothing more, nothing less.
Some of the most successful people are big fans of getting up at the crack of dawn and start their day early.
There is a connection between successful people, early mornings and lazer-focused work.
You connect the dots!
Here is what you will get in this guide
We start in Part I where I take you through the ups and downs of my way to a perfect morning routine. Part II shows you what the science tells us about mornings, how our body and mind react to it. You will see that while not all animals are equal, most actually are.
We will understand a simple morning routine framework in Part III – I promise, you are not forced to do yoga or get up at 5am! Part IV helps you to make execution trivial and avoid any pitfalls in your way to own your morning.
Are you in for that?
Table of Contents
Part I – I failed for months with my morning routine
I did feel the need to write this guide because… I had failed the last months.
What is a morning routine anyways?
A morning routine is nothing more than a (more or less stable) set of activities you follow each morning, usually before the real madness starts and everybody else wakes up.
No, I did not fail at getting up early (mostly). Typically, at 5am or 5:30am. But I did not use my mornings productively. I did not work on my most important tasks.
I was surfing the web. Playing around with social media. Reading random blog posts. Watching some YouTube-Videos.
It was frustrating. Sometimes I thought to myself: “If you waste your morning like this then you might as well just sleep in”.
Sometimes during the day, I found myself sitting around lamenting about not having done anything yet another morning. Instead I could’ve done… this… and that. So many ideas!
That was one of my problems. I would have tons of ideas but come the next morning, I would sit there now precisely knowing what’s the concrete thing I was supposed to do right now.
When I sat with my fiancée to discuss our future plans, I realized: I am only talking – and not acting!
It buggered the hell out of me.
Either I would get back to work on my goals in the morning, or all else I just fail. This was during the 2020 Corona crisis, which at that point did not really affect us – yet.
But you never know. Something else, and it doesn’t have to be as big as COVID-19, can take you out.
Unless you work on your plans before the unthinkable happens.
I was held accountable by my fiancée. And I made sure I would not disappoint.
It’s less of disappointing her, but myself. I knew what I was capable of, it was “just” about delivering.
The same day I took not even 15 minutes and designed a very simple, 5-step morning routine on the whiteboard of our home-office.
I stood there looking at it and thought to myself:
“That’s the plan. But what do I need to do in order to make this bullet-proof?”
To make execution trivial.
I just used my own advice in my productivity-guide: First of all, properly plan what you are going to do each and every morning of the week. Second, analyse all possible distractions and pitfalls preventing me to just execute the plan.
Basically, before I was waking up, taking my tablet and smartphone from the side of the bed and went to the couch to check what happened last night. Killed! Tablet is loading in the office now and I have a clear rule – which I obey without problems anymore – to check my phone before I finished my morning.
Why do I even have my phone next to my bed you might ask? Because I want our parents being able to reach us in the case of emergency. If they call the phone will ring, if anything else happens… there is no noise or vibrating notification.
Sitting on the couch in the bathrobe doesn’t really want to make you get up again (except for new coffee maybe)? Found a way to get around that.
Taking a shower is actually a problem because new clothes are in the bedroom (and I don’t want to wake up my lady – that could cost my me life!).
Come on! Just sort that problem out before you got bed!
You see there’s not a single, real obstacle to overcome. It’s rather simple.
If you’re honest to yourself, then you can often quite easily find ways to work around those little pitfalls.
Probably you have different issues – like the infamous “Snooze” disease. There are various things you can do. First of all – just set one alarm and only one!
Then you maybe do want to put our phone out of reach, also within the room. Just so that you simply can’t just hit snooze within a micro-second. The moment you need to get up and walk some metres to hit snooze is already half the way to getting up.
By the way, if you’re not sleeping alone then your partner will anyways kill you if the alarm goes off for seconds at 5am or so. Trust me!
Here is your action step:
Take notes about your mornings – and the evenings before!
- What do you in the 1-2 hours before you go to bed?
- What is on your mind? Do you think already about the next day?
- When do you go to bed? Is it always around the same time?
- How is your quality of sleep? When do you wake up? Do you “snooze” in?
- What are the things you do in the morning?
- Are your weekends the same?
It is super important to be aware what you are doing right now!
Part II – Why even focus on your morning routine?
Whatever the topic is that comes to my mind and sparks my interest, I always try to figure out what others are saying – and especially what science is thinking.
How our body and brain work
The first thing I learned – there is something called “chronobiology”. Which basically means the science of “good timing”, it refers to “the day-night cycle that affects the human organism when the earth rotates“.
Are we really at our best in the morning? In that case, could we just scrap the rest of the day?
Why do so many people claim, “I am just not a morning person”? Or is maybe all of this just big hocus pocus and all big marketing?
You see, questions over questions, and I found some quite interesting things.
Look, I used to be a real night owl in my teenage years. Somehow naturally that changed, latest when I got my first real job at a bank.
But during spring 2015, not only became the Blackhawks Stanley Cup Champion – but I turned into a real lark.
Generally, one in five people is a night owl, while roughly 60% to 80% of us do our best in the mornings. Clearly, things like age have an effect on this behaviour (we’ve all been there, right?). There’s a reason why science tells us it’s not in the best interest for our kids (at least of a certain age) to start school at 07:00’ish.
In a Twitter-study Macy and Golder found (published in the eminent journal Science) a remarkably consistent pattern across people’s waking hours. Positive affect generally rose in the morning, plummeted in the afternoon, and climbed back up again in the early evening.
This graph from the book “When – The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” takes the hourly ratings for happiness and subtracts the ratings for frustration.
In many tests the outcome is: We do our best mostly in the earlier hours of the day. I am not talking about 5 or 6am, though – take this example here by Simon Folklard, as early as 1975:
„Subjects performed two tests of logical reasoning at each of six different times of day. In terms of speed, performance on both tests was found to improve markedly from 08.00 to 14.00 and then to fall off fairly rapidly. […] It is suggested that the larger the short-term memory component of a task the earlier in the day performance peaks “
Creative writing might be at its best just after waking up as this is the time of day when the prefrontal cortex is most active. A scientific study of brain circuits confirmed that this creative activity is highest during and immediately after sleep, while the analytical parts of the brain (the editing and proofreading parts) become more active as the day goes on.
It does make sense. You’re rested (I mean, if you got a good night’s sleep), at that point you have not been confronted with the stupidity of the world (that’s why you should avoid emails and social media as long as possible in the morning) and “your mind is more vigilant”, says Daniel Pink in his book “When”.
All clear? Well, not quite. There come our friends Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks in the game.
Timing is the key
Suddenly they come and publish a paper called “Time of day effects on problem solving: When the non-optimal is optimal”, which basically says we might be most creative at non-optimal times. Meaning, that imaginative insights are most likely to come to us when we’re groggy and unfocused. The mental processes that inhibit distracting or irrelevant thoughts are at their weakest in these moments, allowing unexpected and sometimes inspired connections to be made.
As Professor Sian Beilock puts it: “Sometimes people’s ability to think about information in new and unusual ways can actually be hampered when they wield too much brainpower.”
So I had to do more digging and stumbled over “When”, a very interesting book by Daniel Pink.
He basically concludes that we all have a clear peak, a through followed by a rebound throughout the day.
Generally, there is clear evidence that alertness and energy levels, which climb in the morning and reach their apex around noon, tend to plummet during the afternoons, say a study by Robert Matchock and Toby Mordkoff (“Chronotype and time-of-Da Influences on the Alerting, Orienting, and Executive Components of Attention”, 2009)
For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the majority of the folks – mean larks and third birds. However, the concept of course also applies to night owls, it’s just the timing that is different.
Pink states that all of us experience the day in three stages:
- A peak, a trough, and a rebound → and about three-quarters of us (larks and third birds) experience it in that order.
- But about one in four people, those whose genes or age make them night owls, experience the day in something closer to the reverse order—recovery, trough, peak.
He as well states, not all brainwork is the same and should be packed into the morning. Remember Wieth and Zacks? Yes, the “inspiration paradox” – the idea that “innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms.
Hence, it is more about the understanding that a certain type of work is most suitable to be done in the morning – and others maybe later in the day. This is quite an important aspect.
This variances the right timing can cause 20 percent of the variance in human performance on cognitive undertakings! That is certainly a lot!
This book and its concept can not only be applied to the daily life but also to projects and hell, to our entire life.
You must not only think about how to do certain things – but also when.
What type are you?
So, now that we have sorted that out – how do we find out what type we are and what we should do in the morning?
Well, first of all – I believe mostly you will know to which group you rather belong, right?
If not, here is an online test that can give you a result within a few minutes:
Test yourself: https://www.danpink.com/mctq/
I took the at that time available alternate version – and was actually surprised! I barely “made it” to a “definite morning person”!
The more important thing is – what are now the types of work?
Daniel Pink has also an answer to that and matches to what you have read before:
Successful people and their morning routines
Very often in any kind of articles or books certain more or less well known, and more or less successful people are listed as “early birds”.
Can you learn anything from their morning routines?
I mean, they are successful – right?
Here are some examples of people known to own their mornings (note that someone is actually really having a late morning!):
It is really important for you to understand:
Having a morning routines will not make you super-successful. This requires a lot of other things, too! But it can be a great and important part of your story!
We often try to mimic successful people – but focus only on one single thing. Sure go ahead and to what Tony does in the morning.
You’re not going to become him or anything like him. But it may improve your morning routine.
A lot of the things you hear and read about their morning routines is tactical and out of the big picture. I stopped researching those guys and focused on the science, which is much more helpful when you try to understand the mechanics behind.
However, all those people sure serve as a great part of inspiration and you sure can learn one or the other thing!
Nothing more, nothing less!
Here is your action step:
Think about what kind of type you are!
If you do not know – then follow the test (actually, take it either way): https://www.danpink.com/mctq/
What tasks and activities are the right ones you should and want to focus in the mornings? These do not have to be only work-centric! Focus on yourself first!
You want to drink a juice? Do so! You want to skip or delay breakfast after the first things have been completed – fine!
Make sure the type of work matches your performance capabilities of yourself in the early hours!
Part III – A simple morning routine framework
When I was held accountable for a task, I got a very simple question: “Why did you not finish your task”?
Deep down I knew it very well. I did not use my mornings productively. I went from the bed to the couch, made myself a coffee and was “just reading the news”. Then only “15 more minutes” of YouTube and there was yet another morning wasted.
Feelings of guilt throughout the day. So many things I could have achieved but did not.
Just imagine where I would be if… well, if I would actually make use of my mornings.
So the same day I stood in front of my whiteboard and made a plan.
A simple plan for the morning. Something that works, each and every time.
The basic idea was – do one full pomodoro cycle! That means 4 times 25 minutes of lazer-focused work. Including breaks that’s exactly 2 hours.
All I had to figure out was – how to get there, meaning start my working cycle, without the usual pitfalls?
“What do you need to do in order to be ready to rumble?”
Then it all came to me very easily.
The framework for my personal morning routine
- Get out of bed
- Drink some water, get a coffee!
- Get a shower, get dressed.
- Use 15 minutes to activate your brains.
That’s all. 5 steps. You can’t get it anymore simple than that. Unless you hate coffee. But then you have a different problem anyways.
In order to make it even more precise, I wrote exact times next to each point.
- I usually get up at 5am.
- Water, Coffee, make sure I get my contacts in my eyes and have a toilet break starting at 05:01am.
- Showering & getting dressed is scheduled at 05:10
- At 05:25 I am ready to activate my brains and body a bit. Really nothing fancy – just walking around a bit (if it’s warm enough depending on the season go the terrace), actively think about my goals I want to achieve.
- Work is starting exactly at 05:45 – the minutes in between are used to wake up the computer, grab another coffee, etc.
- I even wrote at which times a 25-minute work session would start, followed by a 5-minute break (so one at 05:45, 06:15, 06:45 and 07:15am)
By 07:45 I have 1 full pomodoro cycle of work behind me – before most of the world is even remotely active.
The moment I made this so concrete I gave myself little to no room to anything else. Maybe have a short toilet break, but that’s about it.
I aim to follow this schedule every workday, meaning I intentionally don’t at weekends.
Why? Because my goal is not to be as soon as possible ready for work.
I still get up early, but not at 5am – simply because I go to bed a little later than usual. However, I still wake rather early – and have a good time to read or research about other things I love, like cooking, coffee, wine.
I believe it is absolutely okay to say to yourself: “Weekend is off time”.
A few days after plotting this plan I re-visited it. I looked at it and asked myself: “Where could you possibly f**k this up?”
Most of it is anyway avoided by having a rather tight schedule. There is not much time to waste in order to stick to the plan.
However, to spark creativity and focus I made additional rules:
- No checking of my smartphone before the job is done! No mails, no social media, no WhatsApp, no nothing. If the world fell apart last night, it still is after I’m completely done with my work.
- In the 5-minute breaks between the 25 minutes of work – do literally nothing. You can fill up coffee, get another water and the likes, the best is to get up and move around a little. But no “quick” surfing the web or anything – see previous point.
- Don’t even think about getting your ass on the couch!
Sometimes it is really that trivial.
What a morning routine is … and what NOT!
I don’t need to follow 48 tips for morning routines – from doing yoga to talk to your spiritual self, or journaling (if something comes to my mind, I just write it on my whiteboard and that’s it), no 3 up-side down smoothies or fancy meditation.
Mostly, that is irrelevant, tactical stuff – but a working framework at all!
You simply don’t need most of that, so forget about the “39-things you should do in the morning” advice.
All I need is get myself in the position to work as focused as possible, as soon as possible. However, if you want to incorporate this – go ahead of course!
That’s why coffee has its dedicated part. Because to me – this is important.
Let us also talk about the “getting dressed” part. It’s a classical home-office trap.
A trader who worked from home once said: “Dress sharp, work sharp”.
That is the point. As much as positive words help our attitude, so does the way you feel. Sure, I could be even faster by just putting a bathrobe on. Nobody would notice.
However, the feeling after a shower and fully dressed is priceless. It contributes so much to going out there (I mean, going into my home office) and kick ass.
This framework for a lazer-focused morning routine is as simple as it gets. 5 steps. 2 hours of work.
Of course there are many options to extend this framework, and it is currently my focus to evaluate this.
You could simply – after a little longer break – add another pomodoro cycle, just don’t plan too many cycles because your vigilantness will decline over time.
Maybe you could have breakfast between cycles.
Right now, I am looking into this, and as soon as I have a satisfying answer I will update this guide. It is quite tempting to just add more cycle, but the issue is: More is not always good.
You can also let me know what your ideas are – just post in the comments.
The important point is: 2 hours of focused work in the prime time are more than most others do, ever. Let alone on a consistent basis.
Those mornings can do miracles
Just imagine the possibilities this gives you!
When a morning routine starts
However, your good and fresh start into the morning starts the night before!
You might not be at your best if you don’t have a good, long enough sleep the night before. Say you somehow got stuck in front of Netflix until midnight and then go to bed – that is not precisely gonna help you get up at 5 or 6am!
When I want to get up at 5:00am I have my bed time at 10:30pm at the latest – and an alarm for it! Isn’t it strange that we have an alarm to wake-up but none to tell us “go to bed, now!”
I try to avoid using my smartphone or tablet in the evening, but especially in the hour before bed time. The main reason is that screen’s blue light harms melatonin – which is exactly hormone responsible for controlling your sleep-wake cycle.
It is incredible how much better I am falling asleep just because of this change.
A lot of quite successful people follow a similar approach, ever heard about the 5am club? There is even a quite popular book of the same name by Robin Sharma.
While I find it – let’s say emotionally very tough to read (it’s a bit over-spiritually written) the key message is clear: Get up early and do miracles!
But what should you do if you are not a lark right now and want to “try the 5am club”?
There is two ways how to achieve this, depending on when you get up right now:
- You just make a hard transition – that’s what I did. It is going to be pretty nasty in the beginning, but you’re faster where you want to be.
- You make soft transition – e.g., start waking up 15 minutes earlier each or every second day.
The only recommendation I have: Don’t go for some sort of sinus-curve! Try to become consistent when you get up. It’s like when you come back from vacation, it will be hard the first days.
Nowadays, I am extremely good and even getting out of bed with the first notes of my alarm-sound – even if I did not make it into bed at my target time. Because it is already a habit and I don’t really think about it anymore.
Here’s a disclaimer: It doesn’t need to be 5am. It can be later, or earlier. This is not the key at all.
This whole 5am thing is a bit of “I am so cool because I get up so early” – no that’s not why I have chosen that particular time! I tried many times, and this one simply works best for me!
What is the key though is to get up early enough in order to be well rested and following your routine in order to kick as when you are at your best!
You might want to read the entire book “When. The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel H. Pink, which brilliantly cover the timing aspect of your day (and life, for that matter).
If that means 7am or even later, that’s fine – go for it!
Here is your action step:
Build the framework of your morning routine!
Split it in two parts:
- The night before – when to go to bed, when to get away from the phone, preparing topics for the morning, etc.
- The morning itself – when to get up, what do you want to do and why
Be precise! Especially in the beginning, don’t aim for too much and avoid “10-15 minutes” slots. Between activities, have short breaks (I have 5 minutes!).
PS: I am always surprised about “6am wake-up – 6-7am yoga”. That’s B/S! Toilet, water, dress-up… easily 10 minutes before you’ll do anything that looks like yoga!
Part IV – Make execution trivial and effective
The important thing when having a plan is to ensure it is executable. Not just once, but every time.
The previous chapter mainly focused on the framework as such. However, now let’s focus on the content.
You probably know by now – I am a fan of making execution trivial. Otherwise you’re just doomed to fail.
Plan your morning routine ahead of time
That is why the next thing is hopefully not going to surprise you:
You need to know exactly what you are going to start working on at 05:45. I talked a lot about this in my Ultimate Guide for Productivity.
There’s nothing worse – even though you have plenty things to do – and then sit around in the early morning thinking: “Well, it’s probably a good idea to work on my book… or maybe even review the outreach mail I was thinking about yesterday”.
Plan your week ahead!
I have calendar entries in my outlook for the 2 hours each morning with the things I need to focus on. They include links to documents, descriptions, whatever is necessary such that it takes me 3 seconds to start.
You should not spend the precious time, when your brain is well rested and at the top of its capability, on planning or any administrative things.
Yet sometimes people tell me exactly that!
Why would you make your taxes in the morning? You can collect all your papers in the usual down-time in the afternoon, that’s much better. Follow-up on customer complaints? Really?
Focus on essential things only
You definitely need to focus on those items which move the needle. The things which bring you a step closer to your goals. That’s what mornings are here for.
I have witnessed this times and times again, whenever I hadn’t properly planned before there was a good chance, I would just waste time by procrastinating.
Planning ahead not only makes the execution part easy as hell, but also ensures you are working on the right goals.
There is yet another supercharger to this!
Supercharge your routine
I have directly on my whiteboard noted how many times I have successfully completed by morning routine. Every morning when I have finished, I make another green circle, every week gets also a solid, green circle.
This gives you a visible score and helps you remembering your success of working according to your plan! Positive thinking is going to help you stay motivated.
Looking at this makes me remember that I did not only finish today, but also how many times before and what this actually means for me and my business. It makes me even more dedicated because I don’t want to break the streak!
In the end, what you need to do is understand what you want to achieve (e.g., in my case work 1 full pomodoro cycle) and make sure to eliminate any pitfalls to the largest extent possible.
When I made all of these changes, my mornings literally skyrocketed in terms of productivity.
Forget about all the unnecessary pseudo-morning things you could possibly do – focus on what’s essential.
Here is your action step:
What are the pitfalls for your morning routine?
You are checking the phone but you shouldn’t? Find a way to get around! Put it in a different room, or once you’ve turned the alarm off don’t take it with you, leave it where it is.
You tend sit around in the bathrobe for too long? Schedule a shower immediately!
The point is: Identify where it is going wrong and find a way to limit the possibility of failure.
Part V – Early morning and its effects
Whenever I started living by this morning routine, I found 2 remarkable outcomes:
- First of all, I was able to proceed with important tasks in an unseen speed.
- Second of all, because I was able to make progress, I felt liberated at 07:45 already. Energized, positive and happy.
No more feelings of guilt throughout the day. Even if that was it – I had already achieved a lot super early in the day and was off to a great start.
Not doing admin work and shifting this – I can live with that.
But not making progress where it matters, I can’t tolerate that.
You should also ensure you have a defined time where you can do amazing things, work lazer-focused and simply crush it – and science shows the morning is ideal.
Know what to do, and also when to do it.
Mornings are simply ideal for it. You’re rested, have still all the unnecessary stuff of the day not yet on your mind and most likely nobody is buggering you.
What effects did you see with your morning routine? How do your key cornerstones look like? I am keen to learn! Then share it with me or post in the comments below!
Also, if you find this guide helpful then please share it with other people!