My 9 Favorite Early Morning Habits11 min read
So you want to wake up earlier, get more done, and be a morning person. That’s great; when you wake up earlier, you can accomplish tasks, side projects, fitness goals, or dreams because you have that extra time.
Here are my favorite things to do early in the morning.
1. The JUMP START Trifecta
Get up: As soon as I hear the alarm, I jump out of bed. We want to use classical conditioning here; when we hear the alarm, it is time to jump out of bed.
Drink cold water: I’ve just gone nine hours without water; humans need water. There is decreased cognitive performance with even 2% dehydration.4
View Sunlight: Sunlight, specifically bright sunrise light, is a significant regulator of circadian rhythms.1 I view sunlight within one hour of waking up by going for a walk outside. If it is bright, I walk for 5-10 minutes; if it is slightly cloudy, I view it for 10-20 minutes; if it is densely cloudy, I view it for 30 minutes. These estimates are based on Lux’s goals for getting our cortisol release in motion (a primary hormone involved in circadian rhythms).2,3
Exercise lowers your risk for several cancers, stroke, type 2 diabetes, dementia, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Exercise improves sleep, cognition, memory, bone health, depression, anxiety, and quality of life. Exercising releases molecules such as IGF-1 and BDNF that helps our brain create new neuronal connections.10-12
My favorite early morning exercise is a run outside because I get the combination of exercise and sunlight to jump-start my circadian rhythm.
People who eat breakfast are associated with higher physical activity, lower BMI and waist circumference, more fruits and vegetables, and lower sugar intake.15
Children who omit breakfast are more likely to have poor cognition when learning and poor school attendance.16 Eating breakfast influences cognition via several mechanisms, including the beneficial aspects of higher blood glucose.17
I eat a massive breakfast, especially after exercising. This includes four eggs, an avocado, some breakfast meat, homemade breakfast potatoes, strawberries, and blueberries.
I do not drink coffee at this point, however. I save my coffee for about 90 minutes after I have woken up.
Make your bed.
If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another.Admiral McRaven
Beyond making your bed, distractions harm performance. Two studies showed surgery cases, and driving abilities were significantly hampered when distractions were present.13, 14 Hopefully, you plan to do good work for the rest of the day. Distractions, junk, mess, and things hanging from the ceiling, can harm your ability to do that valuable work.
Anything that can help out future Zach, I try and do. Cleaning is one of those great things.
Importantly, this doesn’t mean just physical distractions. One morning I cleaned up all the files on my computer. Another morning I cleaned my iPhone Home Screen. Anything that removes distractions and lets me focus on the important work is positive.
5. Cold Shower
Unfortunately, the evidence for cold showering isn’t great. However, anecdotally I like it and the evidence, if it leans any way, leans towards the benefits of cold showers.
Cold showering serves three purposes early in the morning; number one, it is yet again a helpful regulator of our circadian rhythm. When we wake up, our body’s temperature increases; when you have a cold shower, your body goes into overdrive to keep you warm. That “warming” continues after you step out of the shower, indicating to your internal pacemaker its morning. This is why it is helpful to have a warm shower or bath before bed.5
Number two: cold showering increases cortisol, norepinephrine, and dopamine in the short term, more good “awake” chemicals. Also, in one interesting randomized control trial, people who took cold showers for 30 days, compared to those who took warm showers, had a 29% reduction in sickness absence.6
Number three: mental fortitude. Stepping into a cold shower is tough; people worldwide, including the mighty Romans, have practiced it ritualistically. Training your mind is just like training your body; it takes consistent hard work and effort but will likely make you healthier in the long run.
People who meditate are less stressed. People who are stressed perform worse. Meditation also has been shown to help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years for a reason. I meditate for 10-20 minutes in the morning after my cold shower. Headspace, calm, or insight are good places to start.18, 19
Journaling is one of those sneaky things where the results are worth 10x the effort; this is the same thing I’ve experienced from meditation, exercise, and proper sleep. There is even evidence supporting journaling for learning and anxiety.20,21 Here are a few benefits:
- Brain Dump – Anything stressing you out, maybe even things you don’t realize are stressing you out, will appear on the page. Like the other dump, this will make you feel better after it is done.
- Organization – What is a priority in your mind? What are you thinking about? What can you put aside? Journaling helps organize our thoughts.
- Have something fun to look back on. I have five years of journal entries at this point. About two or three times a year, I look back and read those entries; how interesting they are! What was younger Zach thinking? How was he feeling when he was applying to med school (not great) when he got into med school (super great), when a relationship ended (not great), and when he passed 100k subscribers on YouTube (super great)? For this reason alone, keeping a journal is worth it.
But what do you write about? Anything. You can write about anything. My practice at the moment is a morning journal after I meditate (which is after I shower, hint hint, habit stacking) that takes a MAX of five minutes:
- 1 Big Goal for the Day
- 2 Things I am Grateful For
- 3 Smaller Goals for the Day
- Journal about how I am feeling, what’s going on in my life, literally anything
Importantly, I don’t limit myself to writing in the morning, although that is my most consistent habit. Sometimes I feel like writing down how I feel on a long travel journey or after a particularly crazy day.
- I use a notebook and a pen at the moment.
- Sometimes, when I am traveling or don’t have access to my notebook, I use Day One to journal or clack my keyboard if I feel clicky-clacky.
8. Review my Day
Simply, I’ll check my goals and calendar for the day. First, I will go to my journal and see what goals I have written down and if I need to do any preparation for accomplishing those goals later in the day.
Then, I will take a look at my calendar. Do I have a meeting I need to do some preparations for? Or do I need to send someone a reminder? Do I need to cancel something?
Once I have a picture of what will happen in my head, I’m ready to attack the first job of the day.
9. Work (+ Coffee)
Now, this is my favorite thing to do early in the morning. The world is quiet; distractions are minimal; focus hormones like cortisol are at their highest; this is the time to do great work.8
According to Dr. Huberman, first thing in the morning, we are better positioned, biochemically, to do busy work like replying to emails, cleaning the apartment, or grading papers.9
I tend to eat the frog at this time in the morning or perform the task I least want to do or think is the most important. Which, when I was studying incessantly, was studying. Because I have fewer study requirements, it is like writing this post. I enjoy writing this post, but it’s the most important task I have for the day, so I do it first.
In summary, my optimal morning might go something like this:
- Wake up, immediately drink a glass of cold water, then walk outside for 10-30 minutes or go for a 30- to 1-hour run.
- Cook and eat a massive breakfast, clean all of that up, make my bed, and tidy up the rest of the apartment.
- Have a cold shower, followed by meditating, followed by journaling.
- Have my cup of coffee and work
- Chaput JP, Dutil C, Featherstone R, Ross R, Giangregorio L, Saunders TJ, Janssen I, Poitras VJ, Kho ME, Ross-White A, Zankar S, Carrier J. Sleep timing, sleep consistency, and health in adults: a systematic review. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2020 Oct;45(10 (Suppl. 2)):S232-S247. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2020-0032. PMID: 33054339.
- Ennis GE, Moffat SD, Hertzog C. The cortisol awakening response and cognition across the adult lifespan. Brain Cogn. 2016 Jun;105:66-77. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2016.04.001. Epub 2016 Apr 20. PMID: 27105036; PMCID: PMC4888875.
- Lanca C, Teo A, Vivagandan A, Htoon HM, Najjar RP, Spiegel DP, Pu SH, Saw SM. The Effects of Different Outdoor Environments, Sunglasses and Hats on Light Levels: Implications for Myopia Prevention. Transl Vis Sci Technol. 2019 Jul 18;8(4):7. doi: 10.1167/tvst.8.4.7. PMID: 31360613; PMCID: PMC6656201.
- Adan A. Cognitive performance and dehydration. J Am Coll Nutr. 2012 Apr;31(2):71-8. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2012.10720011. PMID: 22855911.
- Haghayegh S, Khoshnevis S, Smolensky MH, Diller KR, Castriotta RJ. Before-bedtime passive body heating by warm shower or bath to improve sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Med Rev. 2019 Aug;46:124-135. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2019.04.008. Epub 2019 Apr 19. PMID: 31102877.
- Buijze GA, Sierevelt IN, van der Heijden BC, Dijkgraaf MG, Frings-Dresen MH. The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PLoS One. 2016 Sep 15;11(9):e0161749. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0161749. Erratum in: PLoS One. 2018 Aug 2;13(8):e0201978. PMID: 27631616; PMCID: PMC5025014.
- Goodell KH, Cao CG, Schwaitzberg SD. Effects of cognitive distraction on performance of laparoscopic surgical tasks. J Laparoendosc Adv Surg Tech A. 2006 Apr;16(2):94-8. doi: 10.1089/lap.2006.16.94. PMID: 16646695.
- Faith S. Luyster, PhD, Patrick J. Strollo, Jr., MD, Phyllis C. Zee, MD, PhD, James K. Walsh, PhD, Sleep: A Health Imperative, Sleep, Volume 35, Issue 6, 1 June 2012, Pages 727–734, https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.1846
- https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults\Cassilhas RC, Tufik S, de Mello MT. Physical exercise, neuroplasticity, spatial learning and memory. Cell Mol Life Sci. 2016 Mar;73(5):975-83. doi: 10.1007/s00018-015-2102-0. Epub 2015 Dec 8. PMID: 26646070.
- Gomez-Pinilla F, Ying Z, Opazo P, Roy RR, Edgerton VR (2001) Differential regulation by exercise of BDNF and NT-3 in rat spinal cord and skeletal muscle. Eur J Neurosci 13:1078–1084
- van Praag H, Christie BR, Sejnowski TJ, Gage FH (1999) Running enhances neurogenesis, learning, and long-term potentiation in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci 96:13427–13431
- Hughes MA, Swan L, Taylor CL, Ilin R, Partridge R, Brennan PM. The Impact of Novel Nontechnical Stressors (Visual and Auditory) on Simulated Laparoscopic Task Performance Among Surgeons and Students. J Laparoendosc Adv Surg Tech A. 2022 Feb;32(2):189-196. doi: 10.1089/lap.2021.0695. Epub 2021 Dec 2. PMID: 34860611.
- Zhang Y, Kaber DB, Rogers M, Liang Y, Gangakhedkar S. The effects of visual and cognitive distractions on operational and tactical driving behaviors. Hum Factors. 2014 May;56(3):592-604. doi: 10.1177/0018720813495279. PMID: 24930178.
- Fayet-Moore F, McConnell A, Cassettari T, Petocz P. Breakfast Choice Is Associated with Nutrient, Food Group and Discretionary Intakes in Australian Adults at Both Breakfast and the Rest of the Day. Nutrients. 2019 Jan 15;11(1):175. doi: 10.3390/nu11010175. PMID: 30650604; PMCID: PMC6356876.
- E Pollitt, R Mathews, Breakfast and cognition: an integrative summary, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 67, Issue 4, April 1998, Pages 804S–813S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/67.4.804S
- D Benton, P Y Parker, Breakfast, blood glucose, and cognition, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 67, Issue 4, April 1998, Pages 772S–778S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/67.4.772S
- Peterson, Linda Gay, and Lori Pbert. “Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders.” Am J Psychiatry 149.7 (1992): 936-943.
- Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003 Jul-Aug;65(4):564-70. doi: 10.1097/01.psy.0000077505.67574.e3. PMID: 12883106.
- Epp S. The value of reflective journaling in undergraduate nursing education: a literature review. Int J Nurs Stud. 2008 Sep;45(9):1379-88. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2008.01.006. Epub 2008 Mar 5. PMID: 18325522.
- Smyth JM, Johnson JA, Auer BJ, Lehman E, Talamo G, Sciamanna CN. Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Ment Health. 2018 Dec 10;5(4):e11290. doi: 10.2196/11290. PMID: 30530460; PMCID: PMC6305886.
Ross Highley · January 24, 2023 at 4:05 pm
Hi Zach. Just wanted to say thanks for the great job your doing. Your posts never fail to inspire and motivate me. (also, we share the same last name… I just thought that was pretty cool!)
Zach · February 14, 2023 at 7:04 pm
You have an amazing last name, probably the best. Thanks for the nice words!
Panagiota Chasan · February 18, 2023 at 2:06 pm
Currently binging all things “Zach Highley” and wanted to take a short pause to write this comment and say your content is so amazing and I’m so grateful to have stumbled upon it as I’m in the midst of studying for my MCAT. Your content is truly written like nothing else, with a perfect amount of care, patience, and precision, it’s a godsent at this time so thank you so much, keep on creating awesome things!
Zach · April 21, 2023 at 9:58 am
Thanks so much for following me over to the web! Appreciate the nice words.