Success and Your Morning Routine

Sunrise over Twentynine Palms, California (author's photo)

Is your day something that happens to you, or do you take charge of it?

The shock of taking over the watch was like unexpectedly falling into a frigid pool of water. It expelled the breath from my lungs and made me focus on immediate survival. That’s how I’ve always thought about it, anyway.

In the fall of 2004 I was the senior watch officer for Regimental Combat Team 7’s night shift. We had moved to eastern Anbar in preparation for the second battle of Fallujah. As the start of the operation drew near, and especially after it kicked off, the operations center where I worked was intense. Controlled chaos. Orchestrated bedlam. Call it what you will, the incredible volume of information flowing in and out of it coupled with the life or death decisions we dealt with made the start of each of my shifts feel like I was plunging into an icy pool.

The night shift started at 6pm, which was typically a time of frantic activity on the battlefield (there was usually a lot less happening when I went off watch at 6am). Out of necessity I was quickly driven to develop a “morning” success routine. I would wake up by 3pm. I’d get a little exercise, even if it was just sit-ups and push-ups. By 4pm, I would go sit quietly in the operations center, and just absorb what had happened while I was sleeping, and what was going on that afternoon. By 5pm I would go to the mess tent and have something to eat, then be back in the operations center by 5:30. I’d sit with my day shift counterpart and do an informal turnover, and then at about 10 minutes to 6 our night shift would receive the formal shift change brief. Once the brief was complete, the night shift would plunge in. The ritual always prepared me for that shock.

Today I’m a leadership coach and through my professional development, I learned the morning success routine is something many coaches implement with their clients. When I first heard the phrase it made intuitive sense to me, and not just because of my specific experience in 2004. Most of the Marine Corps practices a version of the routine every day, starting with good habits like waking up at the same time every morning, making sure your living area is squared away, and getting some exercise. When Admiral William McRaven gave the commencement speech at the University of Texas a few years ago, he explained how making your bed every morning starts your day with a sense of accomplishment while reinforcing your sense of self-discipline.

In today’s world, intentional thought about your morning ritual makes sense. Our brains are wonderfully optimized to receive information from people through mechanisms like oral storytelling. Our brains are also designed to use our five senses to determine what’s going on in the environment around us. As a species, we have a ways to go before we’re optimized to routinely handle simultaneous inputs from social media, messaging apps, 1,000 television channels, etc. The modern information environment does remind me of my 2004 operations center experience. Both feature a constant, high-volume stream of information from a variety of sources. And to make a coherent picture out of the incoming data, in both cases the synthesis of the data takes place inside the brain of a human being.

In 2004, the intentional resetting of my mental and emotional state as I woke up every day helped me cope with a demanding and stressful environment. I learned that if I applied my daily ritual, I could operate effectively. Today I practice a similar approach. I wake up at about the same time every day, I take a minute to visualize what a successful day looks like, I take my dog for a walk, and then I read a chapter from the latest book I’m working on. Next, I do the day’s most important thing (usually writing or work on a client’s case). Only when those things are complete do I check email or read the news. I’m not perfect in application of this approach, but I do perform my morning ritual about 80% of the time. I can really tell when my day starts off with it, I feel a discernible – and positive – difference.

The morning success routine works in my experience. I recommend it for everyone, especially leaders. Those leaders who start with a grounded foundation every day will have a much better chance of exhibiting the type of consistency our people crave from us. And you’ll have a superior ability to deal with the avalanche of information coming at you, especially the unexpected kind.

Here’s a few things that I believe are helpful for leaders building their morning ritual:

1. Imagine what your ideal morning success routine looks and feels like. Take five minutes the day before to think about how that ideal fits with what you have planned for the next morning. Then, make the adjustments necessary to fit the morning ritual into your calendar.

2. To install it for the first time, just focus on getting started. Focus on the first part of it, taking this initial step will put you on the right path. As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, if you want to exercise regularly, focus on changing into your exercise clothes, don’t focus on the ten mile run you have planned.

3. Even if you miss one day, pick up with it again the next day (or as soon as you can). I know some coaches who have their clients record every time they successfully perform their morning success routine, it’s that helpful. Your goal is to develop a habit that lifts you in mind, body, and spirit every morning, preparing you for whatever leadership challenge comes at you that day.

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