For the third time this week, you hit snooze one too many times, so now you only have 20 minutes to shower, eat, let the dog out, and be camera ready for back-to-back Zoom meetings. The day's barely begun, and you're already feeling discombobulated and overwhelmed. Long before the week is over, you're burned out, and you know you won't finish everything on this week's task list.
How do you get out of this miserable rut? One word: Routines.
Morning and evening routines prime you for success. They help you achieve more, think clearly, and do work that actually matters. They keep you from stumbling through your day and make sure you get the most important things done.
All it takes is a bit of discipline, along with routines that will set you up for success. Here are the what and why of routines, along with 12 morning and evening routines you can implement to create more productive days.
The science of habits and creating routines
First, let's define what routine means: a routine is a sequence of actions that you do repeatedly.
Brushing your teeth nightly and getting ready for bed is a routine. Waking up at 6 a.m. and exercising every morning is a routine. Purchasing a bagel and reading the news before you head to work every morning is a routine. Even eating chips while watching Netflix is a routine. They're all actions that happen again and again—a rhythm in your daily life.
That doesn't make them all good routines. They're simply routines by virtue of being done regularly. Helpful or not, every routine is powerful.
Routines create high achievers
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
In his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey writes about the habits, routines, and rituals of hundreds of artists, including Maya Angelou, Frederic Chopin, Haruki Murakami, Nikola Tesla, and Louis Armstrong. Even though their routines varied wildly, each individual had steps they followed to put them in an optimal state of mind.
After studying the great artists, Currey came to this conclusion:
"In the right hands, [a routine] can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one's mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods."
Media mogul Shonda Rhimes has a strict morning routine to get her into a creative state of mind: eating breakfast, exercising, and writing from 8 a.m. until noon while listening to music. Productivity expert and author James Clear (a Zapier user!) has a simple "pre-game routine" to kickstart his day: pouring a cold glass of water.
Whether it's a multi-step routine or one tiny act that tells your brain it's time to get into work mode (or whatever mode is needed), high achievers tend to find routines that work for them and that they can stick to—it's typically something they credit as core to their success.
Routines put our brains on autopilot
But what makes the routines of high achievers so powerful? As it turns out, we're creatures of habit and can use that to accomplish whatever we want. In The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business, Charles Duhigg details how habits put our brains into an automatic state where little or no willpower is required.
It works like this:
Step 1: Something happens that serves as a cue to your brain, putting it into "automatic" mode. A simple example is waking up. When I wake up, my brain immediately knows that it's time to turn on the coffee machine. This habit has been ingrained in my brain over years.
Step 2: Execute the routine. This is where I actually turn on the coffee machine, wait for it to brew, pour it into my favorite mug, sit in a chair by the kitchen window, and finally drink the coffee.
Step 3: Reap the rewards of the routine. The delicious flavor and high-octane caffeine reinforce the routine so that the next morning I repeat it again.
Making coffee is just one small routine, but the daily consistency of it helps keep me going. Imagine if other, more powerful tasks that can empower you to accomplish big things came as easy as making coffee?
This is the power of routines. The small, repeated actions can have an exponential effect. By implementing routines in the morning and evening, you can prime yourself for maximum productivity each day.
Habits vs. routines vs. rituals
Wondering what the difference is between habits, routines, and rituals? Here's a handy cheat sheet.
Habits are things that you do automatically, like checking your email first thing in the morning or putting your keys in a specific spot when you get home.
Routines are usually a collection of habits or actions you do on a regular basis to bring order to your day, such as checking your email and then writing your day's to-do list as a way of getting the day started.
Rituals are like routines with one key difference: your attitude behind the actions. For example, taking a walk every day at lunch could be considered a routine if you think of it as something you need to do for your productivity. Or it could be a ritual if you think of it as a way to break out of the mundane and enjoy nature. Most routines could be turned into rituals with a change of perspective.
6 morning routines to kickstart your day
While everyone's routines vary—from writing uncensored pages to start the day to no-social-media mornings—the key is to find a routine that works for you and that you can consistently do. Regardless of your morning schedule, here are six of the best ways to start your day and set yourself up for success.
1. Rise early
There are plenty of accomplished night owls, but many high achievers rise early in order to prepare for the day. In those early hours, they can execute their routines while the rest of the world is asleep.
Consider these examples:
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson wakes at 5:45 a.m. to kitesurf and eat a proper breakfast.
Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi used to wake up at 4 a.m. to read her emails before getting to work no later than 7:30 a.m.
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey rises at 5:30 a.m. so that he can go for a six-mile jog.
Even if they aren't naturally morning larks—the opposite of night owls—they've trained themselves to wake up early for the many benefits an early rise can bring. Those include increased productivity with fewer distractions and greater creativity due to an energized mind. It could make you happier, too. In one study, researchers found that morning-type individuals reported higher levels of positivity and well-being.
Tip: Even if you're a night owl, you can train yourself to become a morning person using practical strategies such as keeping your curtains slightly open or ditching that second cup of coffee.
2. Make your bed
If there's one habit you should adopt to improve your life, it's making your bed every day. That, at least, is the advice from Navy Seal Admiral William H. McCraven:
"If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another. And by the end of the day that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.
Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can't do the little things right, you'll never be able to do the big things right. And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made. And a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better."
It's all about the small things.
3. Recite affirmations
Affirmations are positive statements you can use to reframe how you think about yourself and the day to come. They're also helpful for overcoming negative self-talk. A great example of affirmations in action is four-year-old Jessica having a particularly great day, resulting in one of YouTube's greatest hits.
And if you're looking for more examples, here are some simple affirmations you could use in your daily life:
I'm doing my best, and that's more than enough.
I will be promoted to [insert job title] by [insert date].
Your aim is to affirm and visualize the things you want to happen. As you focus on these things, you begin to believe that you can and will achieve them, which then enables you to take action on them.
Although it might sound wishy-washy to some, affirmations are effective tools for self-improvement.
4. Get some exercise
There are few things more transformative than starting your day with physical activity. Exercising in the morning increases blood flow, releases endorphins, and strengthens your body. It prepares you for the coming day, increases your overall energy levels, and helps you remain in optimal health. Additionally, numerous studies have shown that regular exercise can help you manage symptoms of depression and anxiety.
And you don't have to work out in a gym to reap the benefits: a brisk walk in your neighborhood, a seven-minute workout, or a quick yoga session are all great options to start your day.
Need more motivation to get moving? Try tracking your activity automatically with Zapier, a no-code automation tool. With logs of your runs or workouts, you can see your progress and challenge yourself to keep at it. Here are a few Zap templates (what Zapier calls their pre-built workflows) to get started.
Create detailed Google Calendar events from new Runkeeper activities
Add completed MapMyFitness workouts to Google Sheets
5. Eat a nutritious breakfast
The food you consume in the morning has a significant effect on your mood, energy levels, and ongoing performance. That's why your first meal of the day should be rich with nutrients.
Registered dieticians Jessica Jones and Wendy Lopez recommend staying away from sugar-heavy breakfast bites, such as croissants and sweet breads. Instead, they suggest a healthier breakfast mix:
Lean proteins (eggs, greek yogurt, or tofu)
Healthy fats (avocado, nut butters, or flax seeds)
Complex carbohydrates (oatmeal, steel cut oats, or whole grain toast)
Fruit and/or veggies
These nutrient-dense foods will give you energy and satisfy your food cravings while setting the stage for good decisions throughout the day.
6. Take a cold shower
This one may seem a little extreme, but many people swear by taking cold showers each morning. It's similar to a re-energizing cold plunge, although slightly less frigid.
Why a cold shower? Some studies show a link between cold exposure and an increase in various brain chemicals associated with well-being such as noradrenaline. While research on cold immersion is still emerging, the anecdotal evidence is enough to get these scientists jumping into frigid waters every day:
NYU neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki takes cold showers every morning because it makes her "feel so alive."
Neuroscientist and dopamine researcher Kenneth Kishida comes out the other side of cold showers in "higher spirits."
These might seem like minor things—waking up early, making your bed, saying your affirmations, exercising, eating a good breakfast, and taking a cold shower—but taken together into one consistent daily routine, and you're well prepared to face anything that happens after. A morning routine takes the stress out of the start of the day and puts you on the best footing from the get-go.
Of course, you should customize your morning routine for your own preferences. My morning routine offers 200+ examples of morning routines you can adapt and adopt for yourself.
6 evening routines that set the tone for the next day
The close of each day is just as important as the start. By implementing evening routines, you minimize the resistance you encounter in getting things done, recharge with a restful night, and ready yourself for the next morning.
1. Prepare goals for the next day
Determining your objectives for the coming day does two things.
First, it allows you to identify your most important tasks in advance—before all the pressures of the day arrive on your doorstep. Ideally, the first few hours of each day should be spent conquering your most challenging task. This idea has been given various names, such as "eating the frog" and "slaying the dragon."
Second, it allows your brain to begin thinking about those tasks as you fall asleep. In their book Organize tomorrow today: 8 ways to retrain your mind to optimize performance at work and in life, authors Jason Selk, Tom Bartow, and Rudy Matthew say:
"Identifying daily priorities might seem like an obvious or insignificant step to take, but writing your most important tasks down the previous night turns your subconscious mind loose while you sleep and frees you from worrying about being unprepared. You'll probably find that you wake up with great ideas related to the tasks or conversations that you hadn’t even considered!"
2. Reflect on your daily achievements
It can be easy to lose sight of your victories after a long day. Taking just a few moments at the end of the day to reflect on and celebrate your wins puts things into the proper perspective and gives you encouragement for the coming day. It can also help you overcome the discouragement that often comes with setbacks.
Zen Habits author Leo Babauta puts it this way:
"If you reflect on the things you did right, on your successes, that allows you to celebrate every little success. It allows you to realize how much you've done right, the good things you've done in your life."
You can do this in a variety of ways, including jotting things down in a blank notebook, a gratitude journal, or an app on your phone. Or you could automatically track your productivity with a time-tracking app and Zapier.
Turn new time entries in Toggl into daily highlights in RescueTime
Add new rows to Google Sheets with daily RescueTime summary reports
3. Clear your head
It's easy to take your work to bed, making it difficult to fall asleep as you mull over the stack of paperwork waiting on your desk or the disagreement you had with a coworker. Clearing your head before sleep allows you to put aside the challenges of the day and ready your mind to shut down. There are numerous ways to do this, including:
Playing Tetris (for productivity!)
Watching a peaceful television show (The Walking Dead probably isn’t your best bet)
Journaling (do a "brain dump" of all the thoughts in your head)
Here's how Buffer CEO Joel Gascoigne clears his mind and disengages from the day:
"For me, this is going for a 20-minute walk every evening at 9:30 p.m. This is a wind-down period, and allows me to evaluate the day's work, think about the greater challenges, gradually stop thinking about work and reach a state of tiredness."
Your goal is to engage your mind in something completely non-work related.
4. Prepare for the next morning
In order to minimize the amount of thinking you need to do in the morning, take time to prepare things. Pick out the clothes you'll wear, pack the food you'll eat (and your kids' lunches, if you're also in charge of keeping other people alive), prep the coffeemaker, and organize any work-related materials you need to bring. If you're going to the gym, lay out your workout clothes and water bottle.
The less time and mental energy you expend on inconsequential things, the more you'll have for the things that matter.
5. Tidy up
Waking up to a messy home isn't the most motivating way to start your day. Without regular sessions cleaning up and putting things away, you'll find your place quickly in disarray.
Spending just 10 to 20 minutes a night tidying up will help reduce stress in the mornings and help you avoid marathon cleaning sessions on the weekends. If cleanliness and organization don't come naturally to you, that's ok—try to do the next small thing.
6. Practice proper sleep hygiene
Very few people practice proper sleep hygiene, and their sleep suffers as a result. Generally speaking, you should:
Stick to the same sleep and wake schedule.
Minimize blue light from screens (this can be done using F.lux on your computer and "Night Mode" on your mobile device).
Set the temperature in your room to between 60-65°F (15-18°C).
It can be easy to minimize the importance of sleep, but it's absolutely essential for optimum performance.
To develop consistent morning and evening routines, try creating a checklist that you walk through every morning and night until it becomes ingrained in you. You can also use your phone to automate the first step in your wake-up routine. For example, you can use your alarm to trigger Spotify to automatically play your morning tunes.
While building routines may feel tedious at first, try to stick with it. The more consistent you are, the more you'll find them seamlessly folding into your daily life—to the point where you may find it harder to not do them.
This article was originally published in April 2019. The most recent update, with contributions from Jessica Lau, was in December 2022.