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The False Promise of Morning Routines

TheAtlantic 2019-12-02 18:30:00

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.

While the research has fluctuated on the best conditions for productivity, the day’s early hours have nonetheless 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 writer 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 he rises at 2:30 a.m., eats breakfast at 3:15 a.m., then works out for a couple hours, including a golf outing at 7 a.m. By 9:30 a.m., 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, the 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.