My Morning Routine: A Q&A with Benjamin Spall

I am a big fan of morning routines. I wrote a whole book — What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast — about the concept! That’s not to say I have an amazing morning routine myself. But I am thrilled every time I wake up, feeling well-rested, before I absolutely have to. I love to savor a good cup of coffee before dealing with anyone else.

So I enjoyed reading through My Morning Routine, a new book by Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander, that is out this week. Based on their popular weekly email, the book features morning routines from various productive people (think Rebecca Soni, Biz Stone, Stanley McChrystal), and tips on making your own morning routine work. Spall was willing to answer a few questions from me about the concept, and what he learned from studying morning types.

LV: How do you define a morning routine — every day? Monday-Friday? Anything you at least attempt to repeat?

Spall: Funnily enough this is the first time we’ve been asked this question! The way we define a morning routine in the book argues that we all already have a morning routine, whether we’re aware of it or not (we all wake up, go to the bathroom, potter into the kitchen, etc). So under that definition sticking to this for just a couple days in a row would be a fair description.

With that said, the way we usually think of a morning routine, whereby you’re consciously choosing to bring activities into your morning such as early-morning workouts, meditation, and/or creative and productive work, we usually define as a weekday thing; though we give extra kudos to those who continue to follow-through with their routine on weekends!

LV: What are the benefits of having a morning routine?

Spall: Having a morning routine, or rather having a conscious morning routine in which you’re actively trying to build a more positive morning, is all about starting your morning with intention and bringing your morning “wins” with you into the rest of the day.

We like to talk about building a habit stack in which waking up is the trigger to begin your routine, which is why it’s harder to build a good habit stack from scratch in the afternoon, since our willpower is worn down by the stresses of the day.

LV: One of my key take-aways from the book is that it doesn’t have to be a 6 mile hike, followed by meditation and quinoa, all by 4 a.m. It’s what works for you! But what are some good building blocks to consider if someone is thinking of creating a morning routine?

Spall: Yes! I’m really happy you got that takeaway as this is exactly what we’re trying to get across with the book. There’s sometimes a misconception when people hear about morning routines (or find out about our book) whereby they immediately feel like it isn’t for them, or as if people who do have morning routines are kind of faking it and not really doing it most of the time.

While we all have our off days (we ask everyone we interview what they do if they fail to follow their routine), the truth is many successful morning routines are very simple to keep and begin much later in the morning than 4:00am! Like you said, it’s what works for you.

But to your question! These are the building blocks we recommend to anyone looking to create a new morning routine:

– Write down your new routine; this helps you to remember it in the beginning.
– Use waking up as the trigger to begin your routine; then use each subsequent element (going to the bathroom, etc) as a trigger to start on the next element.
– Start small; we can’t stress this enough (actually, I’ll stress this more in the next question).
– Give yourself small rewards after completing the hardest parts of your routine.
– Give each new element you bring into your morning routine a fair shot.

LV: Anything that makes it logistically easier to start? Keep at it?

Spall: Keeping your routine short and easy to accomplish, especially in the beginning, will greatly increase the chances of you sticking to it. We’ve found this with our own routines (I only meditate for ten minutes a day, for example), and it came up time and again when interviewing others.

The benefit of keeping your routine short (both the number of elements in the routine, and the length of each, such as your morning run or meditation) is that it makes sticking to your routine easier, while allowing you to increase the length of any of these activities as it suits you, and it also makes your routine much more portable, meaning you can take it (or an even shorter version of it) on the road with you when traveling.

LV: Have you two added anything to your morning routines after seeing so many cool ones?

Spall: Oh, there’s almost too many things to mention! Let me see… well, I no longer keep my phone on my nightstand; I keep it in the kitchen overnight (I believe Michael does this also). I don’t check email in the morning unless I really have to, the idea here being that if I don’t check email I can allow the calm of the morning to last that little bit longer while my wife and I have breakfast. And while I know Michael is more disciplined about working out in the morning than I am, I do try to get some pushups and jumping jacks in when I can, followed by the short meditation I mentioned above.

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Now this is Laura again. Readers, how about you? How’s your morning routine looking these days?

8 thoughts on “My Morning Routine: A Q&A with Benjamin Spall

  1. The photo up the top is upside down 😉

    My morning routine isn’t that great right now. My kids (one year old and almost four year old) wake up between 6 and 6:30, and they invariably get hangry pretty quickly so it’s a mad rush to get some breakfast on the table. Then there’s often some cleaning up to be done (that’s been left from the night before) plus getting ready for the day.

    Now that my one year old is sleeping a little bit better I would like to start waking up early to exercise again. I wish I could get up early to get stuff done around the house too, but our house is small and wooden so everyone would get woken up if i tried to do anything!

    1. @Tyra- Very strange- it’s facing the normal way on my system! Not sure what’s going on!

      Hmm…I agree on morning routines being TOUGH with very little kids. When I hear of someone who has managed to keep their routine through the baby years I know their partner is mostly taking the morning or they have a lot of (probably overnight) help. Both of which are options, but a morning routine has not been enough of a priority for me to make it happen, as I can run and write during the day.

      Oddly enough my kids have never been the screaming for breakfast sort. Even the little guy can watch TV for quite a while without getting mad about it if I need to try to go back to sleep.

  2. I staggered my work hours to avoid the worst traffic during my long commute. So my morning routine at home is very quick–wake, dress, grab coffee, and be on the road by 5:15 a.m. Once I’m at work, I stretch briefly, read one poem from a poem-a-day website, study 30 minutes for a work-required exam, and spend 15 minutes plotting out the rest of the day (with more coffee, of course). There are no calls coming in at that hour of the morning, so rather than be frustrated by missing out on a morning routine, I just chose to split it up.

    I couldn’t do any of this without a partner who takes the mornings, and conversely, I’m home for afternoon driving duties and he never has to rush out of the office.

    1. @Marie – brilliant. Not only do you miss the traffic, you get a quiet space for your morning routine too! And agree that this is a fair split for co-parents if it works. One party takes morning, one party takes afternoon/evening. Upsides and downsides to both, but so it is with everything in life.

  3. I would love to hear what all of these authors comment about those with little kids and unpredictable schedules. Other than going to the bathroom and getting dressed, I feel like nothing else is too predictable in terms of order of events- and it’s definitely not relaxing! I generally try to wake up before them and exercise, shower (and perhaps, have coffee), but at this point, their schedule it too unpredictable making mine extremely unpredictable as well. Also, I get even more frustrated when a kid wakes us within two minutes of starting my run on the basement treadmill.
    I am the only one on morning duty M-f.

  4. I like to exercise first thing in the morning so my husband & I agreed that he would be responsible for our son’s morning routine. After I exercise, it’s on to the normal activities, dress, breakfast, etc. Accomplishing a 20-30 minute exercise program before 7 am makes me feel strong and energetic… just have to go to bed on-time to make it happen 🙂

  5. I typically have a great AM routine but agree with above that small kids throw a BIG wrench into things. I was doing fantastic with reflection, writing, exercise, and even meditation from about October 2016 (when C hit 2.5 years old) until morning sickness struck with a vengeance in 4/2017! I do find it a liiiiiittle bit suspicious that this book was written by two men . . . perhaps they didn’t have these challenges to contend with 🙂 But maybe they address it in the book!

    This morning I slept until 7 am because after waking up at 11:30, 2:30, and 5:30 to feed G I just didn’t have enough energy to do much else. That said my current compromise is to do the early AM stuff on the days that i can, and not sweat it when i can’t!

    1. @SHU- yep. Certain seasons of life don’t always lend themselves well to morning routines! But I could probably start getting back there.

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