The False Promise of Morning Routines

Ana Blazic Pavlovic/

Why everyone’s mornings seem more productive than yours.

My mornings are the messiest part of my day. I do not rise and shine. Instead, I hit snooze on the alarm and throw the covers over my head. As I hear the early bus shuffle through my stop outside my window, my mind fills with thoughts from the night before, with to-do lists and deadlines. The alarm goes off again, and I repeat the snooze cycle twice more. By the time I roll out of bed, I’m a tangle of anxiety.

This never seems to be the case in other people’s morning routines. I know, because those routines now seem to be everywhere: in series like The Cut’s “How I Get It Done” and The New York Times’ “Sunday Morning,” in roundups on news outlets from CNN to Vogue, and in hashtagged Instagram pictures of frothy lattes cut with leafy designs. The subjects of most of these morning-routine reports are celebrities and other conventionally successful people. Richard Branson plays a “hard game” of tennis at 6 a.m. Elizabeth Gilbert makes homemade chai and dances.

Morning-routine stories are a relatively new trend in the undying genre of self-help. In voyeuristic glimpses into a typically private time of day, the rich and the famous reveal how they are almost invariably superhumanly energetic. They meditaterun several miles, make matcha tea, do some yoga—all before 8 o’clock. Some dive into their email right away. Others ban phones at breakfast. But the through line is the same: A carefully choreographed morning routine is the key to a productive day. These people have it together, the stories seem to imply, and so can you, if you just wake up at 5:30 a.m.

I read this stuff obsessively. Like many morning-challenged people, I mine others’ routines in search of some revelation—a tip or technique that will inspire me to transform my feed-the-cat-and-sprint-out-the-door ways so that I may unlock the healthiest and most productive version of myself. But I end up feeling terrible instead, and wondering what’s so great about the saintliness our culture seems to ascribe to early-bird achievers.

Although the research has fluctuated on the best conditions for productivity, the day’s early hours have long been associated with health and virtue. The mantra often credited to Benjamin Franklin—“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”—has appeared in various forms in literature since the 15th century. It was felicitous advice for societies shaped by the Industrial Revolution, which standardized the workweek and dictated when many people woke and went off to their jobs. Even as the gig economy has split schedules into new shapes, the advice still rings true for many people.

The hours before workers sign on could, in theory, be spent doing even more work, especially as technology has blurred the boundaries between our online and offline lives. But many modern workers have translated the age-old philosophy into the idea that mornings are sacred spaces that must be protected from their busy workdays. “For many people, this turns out to be a time of day you can have for your own priorities, before everybody else in the world needs their piece of you,” says Laura Vanderkam, the author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast and other books about time management and productivity. The early morning, in other words, is the time for you—before the boss emails or the kids want cereal.

One notable adherent to this philosophy is Mark Walhberg, the actor and father of four, whose morning routine went minorly viral last year. In an Instagram post, he claimed that he rises at 2:30 a.m., eats breakfast at 3:15 a.m., then works out for a couple of hours, including a golf outing at 7 a.m. By 9:30, he is inside his cryotherapy chamber, icing his muscles. Even three hours behind me on the West Coast, Walhberg apparently has already prayed, sweated, and showered before I wake up.

Most morning routines in the genre are less grueling than Walhberg’s, but not necessarily less performative. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, favors morning ice baths. Marla Beck, a co-founder of the cosmetics retailer Bluemercury, wakes up “at 6 a.m. automatically” and walks four miles. Tyler Haney, the CEO of the clothing brand Outdoor Voices, drinks “a cold glass of lemon water” and does “30 grateful breaths.” The tone of these accounts tends to be cheerful, even airy. The discipline is there, but it’s shrouded in a peppy determination that the effort is worth it. Sure, the perfect morning routine can be a grind, the stories seem to say, but anybody can leap out of bed and do it if they just try.

Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander spent more than six years interviewing hundreds of people for their bookMy Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired, and for a weekly email newsletter of the same name. The subjects ranged from Arianna Huffington to elementary-school teachers. “I’ve definitely seen more of a push toward self-care,” Spall says. Where it once seemed glamorous to chug coffee and dive right into work, it’s now fashionable to slow down and smooth a sheet mask over your face.  

In essence, morning routines have been repackaged as sacred rituals, safeguarded from the cursed bits of the rest of the day. As a label, routine doesn’t quite capture the sense of spirituality that imbues self-care behaviors. “There’s something unsexy about a routine; it doesn’t sound like you’re living your best life. It has this sort of sterile sound to it,” says Daphne Javitch, who offers nutrition and lifestyle coaching through her company, Doing Well. “When I think of the word ritual, I picture moving to Santa Monica and warming up some raw goat milk from my pet goat in my yard.”

Goat milk or no goat milk, the move toward ritualized morning self-care can seem like merely a palliative attempt to improve work-life balance. It makes sense to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual because you want to fit in some yoga, an activity that you enjoy. But something sinister seems to be going on if you feel that you have to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual to improve your well-being, so that you can also work 60 hours a week, cook dinner, run errands, and spend time with your family. In a culture obsessed with self-optimization, “we are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading,” Alexandra Schwartz wrote in The New Yorker last year.

Each edition of Spall and Xander’s newsletter featured links at the bottom of the page to products like cold-brew coffeemakers, juicers, and pillows. The implication seemed to be that your morning routine would be more efficient and less boring with a few Amazon purchases. “I truly hope that wasn’t the message we were sending,” Spall says. “We had a newsletter sponsor nearly every week simply to make ends meet.” Still, people are impressionable. Earlier this year, my boyfriend and I purchased an expensive alarm clock, recommended by the product-review website Wirecutter, that is designed to simulate a slow sunrise and gently rouse sleepers. It has worked well on only one of us.

The idea that us unoptimized folks can learn something from the seemingly perfected morning routines of celebrities worries Gordon Flett, a personality researcher at York University, in Canada. He studies “perfectionist presentation”—the tendency of people to present flawless versions of their lives, particularly on social media—and the way others react to it. People are far more likely to describe their ideal morning than their realistic one, Flett says. (Remember when I said I hit snooze three times? I lied. It’s more like four.)

In this way, otherwise fun accounts of morning routines can become mental-health traps for some people. “I’m concerned about people seeing the way things are for other people and thinking they really have to do the same thing, and they don’t take into account necessarily some of the constraints and realities that they have to deal with,” Flett says. “People are sitting there going, ‘I need to be perfect. Other people are doing it; I’m not. It’s attainable, but I’m not that way.’ And they get locked into a very self-critical pattern.”

But being productive in the morning is not simply a matter of strength and determination. While everyone has the same 24 hours in a day, not everyone has the wealth to make time for an hour on the treadmill by delegating tasks to personal assistants, nannies, and chefs. Nor does everyone benefit from making morning saintliness a part of their public image. “Waking up at 3:30 to run a marathon, and then there’s the green juice and the hour-long meditation session—and for those of us who have normal lives that involve kids and commutes and things like that—you are not going to do that,” Vanderkam says.

Even for people who are in positions to fully optimize their days, humans still have a range of biological predispositions that make some of us utterly useless in the mornings and hyperefficient at night. Staying up late might be preferable for some, but burning the midnight oil is generally associated with being behind, not ahead.

A surefire way to not stick to a routine is by trying one you won’t actually care about, says Bob Pozen, a senior lecturer at MIT and the author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours. “I don’t really care what I have for breakfast, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking, Pancakes or omelettes? or things like that,” Pozen says. “I just eat the same thing for breakfast every morning: Cheerios, a banana, and skim milk. If things are not important to you, they can be routinized. That’s a good strategy for becoming more productive.”

By Pozen’s logic, I would be better off embracing my scattered mornings and pinpointing the bits and pieces I could simplify, rather than mimicking someone else’s morning routine, no matter how nice it looks from the outside. Plus, there are other parts of the day I could stress over. A year ago, Domino magazine launched “The Wind Down, a series of interviews with successful people about their nighttime routines.