We’ve been fascinated by morning routines for about as long as we’ve been watching the sun come up. Philosophers from Plato to the Stoics dispensed advice on everything from the appropriate amount of sleep to the right morning mantras, in the belief that these habits shaped character and personal conduct.
Keepers of morning rituals say that having a go-to schedule cuts down on time and energy that could be frittered away deliberating what to eat for breakfast, or whether to squeeze in a morning workout. A reliable routine, early birds say, makes the most of a time of day when energy is high and potential is long.
There is, however, a great deal of variation in how the boldfaced names of history have chosen to start their day.
Former UK prime minister Winston Churchill liked to stay in bed until 11 am, surrounded by newspapers and breakfast; 40 years later at 10 Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher slept four hours a night tops before rising at 5 am to listen to the radio program Farming Today.
Followers of the “eat the frog” school of productivity swear by starting with the day’s toughest task. Comedian Melissa McCarthy starts her day doing her favorite thing first: watching old episodes of Knight Rider or The Incredible Hulk, before anyone else in her house is awake and in need of her attention.
But why bother, really? Why force oneself through a series of rigorous or just monotonous morning activities, when you could just roll out of bed and go with the flow? The New York Times writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner admitted to doing as much in a very relatable recent interview. “I always thought that the thing that made life easier is to not have any routines, since it hurts too much to veer from them,” she told The Cut.
But there are plenty of defenses of starting the day mindfully, perhaps the most elegant of which comes not from a productivity guru, but from the writer Annie Dillard. Much of what’s written about morning routines take a transactional view of organizing the mornings: wake up early and meditate, get promoted/lose weight/produce more in return. In her book The Writing Life, as quoted on BrainPickings, Dillard argues that the routine’s true value is not how it shapes a day, but how it shapes a life.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern. . . . There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.