Mornings are pivotal. The feeling when we wake is often so powerful—energetic, miserable, or somewhere in between—that we define not just our days but ourselves by it: “I’m not a morning person,” we say, a shorthand that connects us in spirit to about half the human race, and separates us from the other half.
If mornings are dominated by the commute and school-run and email—all the rough-and-tumble of modern life, especially in cities—they’re something to get through, rather than to celebrate.
But mornings are also special. They come before everything else in the day, so what you do with them matters.
And while we’re often focused on being productive at work, there are plenty of other, more personal ways to capitalize on morning productivity—explorations and adventures that don’t necessarily have to be saved up as indulgences for evenings and weekends.
Carving out some early time to do something out of the ordinary can be mind-altering. You might need to set your alarm for an hour earlier than normal—but it’ll be worth it.
I set out this morning to find some inspiration for how to use the first hours of the day:
Luke Duffy has been at work since 3.15am. Is he a morning person? “I think I have to be,” Duffy told me, as he turned out mounds of risen sourdough onto a tray.
Even for those of us who don’t bake for a living, baking in the morning makes sense. It’s cyclical: a slow, soothing round of mixing, rising, kneading, rising again. Duffy, who works at London’s E5 Bakehouse, has found that it suits his own rhythms: “Most of my optimism, my productive thinking, happens in the morning.”
At home, making dough the night before, ready for baking in the morning, is a way to avoid the truly early starts of professional bakers. Even taking the time to bake ready-made rolls and eat them with butter and coffee is a wholly different experience to grabbing a quick bowl of cereal on the go.
Morning raves. Sound like the silliest, most hipster-filled fads in town? They are; but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
Morning Gloryville is a group that started staging 6.30 am dance parties in London in 2013 and have since become so popular they’ve since spread to more than 20 cities worldwide, from Toronto to Bangalore. The mission of Daybreaker, another transnational group, is “coming together to wake up our senses,” the site says.
It’s not easy to drag yourself out of bed to put on dance clothes and gyrate around in a pre-work, alcohol-free environment. But the benefits include a really great workout and a subtle sense of subversion for the rest of the work day.
If raving really isn’t your thing, turn off the news radio and put on your favorite music first thing in the morning. Even a kitchen dance party can make a big difference to your mood.
Depending on your own internal circadian rhythm—some people are indeed “larks” while others are “owls,” and age can affect when we are most productive and receptive—mornings can be a great time to learn a new thing, or enjoy something you already love, before the mind gets distracted by work and social lives.
Before starting my first job in financial journalism, I woke up an hour earlier every day and read about finance in bed. Not getting up allowed it to feel more like luxury than learning, even though it’s not the kind of reading I’d normally do there.
Learning languages, reading philosophy, studying works of art—can all be done without having to leave your cocoon.
Exercising in the morning is one thing, and we’ll come to that shortly. But swimming gets its own category; especially swimming outdoors.
Outside London Fields Lido in east London this morning, early morning swimmers cited different reasons for swimming early: a cure for insomnia; clearing the head; beating the crowds. But what many share is a feeling that to dunk yourself in a cool pool at the start of the day is a brilliant mood-changer.
“It’s the immersing yourself in water,” Laurie Nouchka, an artist and swimwear designer, told me as she stood at the side of the pool. “It brings you back to life.”
With this one, there are no shortcuts (showers don’t count, though you could try a cold one). To give yourself the best shot at getting to the pool, plan ahead. Work out your route to the pool the night before; wear your swimming costume, and pack your work bag. Just don’t forget underwear.
Even in homes packed with families or roommates, mornings can be insular—dominated by functional conversation or silence. Giving yourself more time one morning a week for actual conversation, when your brain is fresh instead of exhausted from the day, can be a revelation. It’s why mornings can be a good time to schedule therapy sessions.
A morning chat can help you work stuff out with a partner, get a deeper sense of what’s on your kids’ minds, or catch up with friends over a pre-work cup of tea.
The bravest will challenge themselves to talk to a stranger. It’s unusual to break the traditional commuter silence, but it can lead to rewarding interactions. (This morning, for example, I learned that Bernadette, the lido receptionist, has never been in the pool. It’s too cold. She only swims in the sea on holidays to Jamaica.)
Couples who work will know that the end of a weeknight isn’t the sexiest time. However much we might want to sink into our partners’ arms, it’s often to sleep, rather than anything else. Waking up earlier than normal can allow space for lovemaking when we’re fresh out of sleep, instead of while fighting to stay awake.
Ok, so exercising in the morning isn’t a new idea. But plenty of us lie in bed, feeling we should get up and go for that jog but equally desperate not to.
Quartz has already written about how to optimize exercise before work, so here’s the juice: Schedule workouts carefully, rather than trying to motivate yourself when you first wake. Start gently and stretch. Find a buddy, so you can spur each other on. Master the transition from gym to desk. And reward yourself so you’ll want to do it again.
What’s the difference between a commute and more exciting forms of travel? Commutes are routine. They’re boring, taking you on the same old route every day. They also tend to happen while everyone else is traveling, and so involve cramped train carriages, clogged roads, and irate fellow commuters.
Experiment with turning your commute into a journey. Not every day, perhaps, but some days, take extra time and go a nicer route. If it’s possible, cycle or walk. Car journeys are a great time to listen to podcasts, and trains to read poetry—which can be short enough to be satisfying even if you only have a few stops.
One great way of seeing a commute differently is to take a camera, waking up the visual sense to what’s actually around you, and finding the beauty in the mundane.
And if you only have five minutes to spare…
Just stop somewhere quiet and listen (ideally with a beautiful cup of coffee, like the one from E5 above). Ok, mindfulness is trendy right now, but it works. Here’s a moment I recorded, from London this morning:
All the photos in this post were taken before 9 am, on my way to work.