How I conquered my mornings and ingrained high-performance habits.

Running a start-up coupled with my maniacal tendencies to work myself until my body shuts down, I always encounter periods of high productivity and apathy. Except for the JoJo effect, I was also very aware that my output was high but not as qualitative as it could be. I was always in search of figuring out how to be more effective with my time, and as expected I was overreaching in the beginning. Doing too much, trying to many things at the same time and working from one addictive deadline to another. I knew, however, that the base for a centered and effective live is discipline. In order to have discipline, you must know your “why” and determine what your standards/principles are. It took me a while to get there but it was not thanks to contemplation only. I intuitively knew that the gateway to a controlled mind is working through the body.

The gateway to a controlled mind is your body.

Just like my father I was drawn to sports and I am fairly good at it. At 68 years of age my father was extremely strong and fit because it was a part of his identity to maintain his physical performance. This identity trait is ingrained in me but I always felt I was lacking consistency and perseverance to get to the next level. Doing something 90% was good enough for people around me who saw me work crazy hours and work-out 3 times a week, but not for me. While I was tiring my body and going through the motions, the intent was missing and therefore output was not significant. So, how did it all change? With a book!

I have read quite some business books, personal development books, philosophy, sociology and on neuroscience. The book that got the ball rolling was not the best one I ever read, but it landed before my eyes the right time. With the right time I mean that I was perceptive to the narrative and I was fed-up with past attempts. The book built upon the other books I had read and it aligned with my beliefs and my accumulated knowledge. I had received the book “The Morning Miracle” from a dear friend Jean-Pierre Cheuk Alam, who sent it to me unannounced. The book rightly says that you should block an hour in the morning for yourself and divide it into 6 segments. Each segment feeds a part of your well being. The segments are: Meditation, Affirmations, Visualization, Exercise, Reading and Journaling.

Becoming a morning person has become a powerful antidote to feeling the rush of a busy day.

True to my nature, I tried doing all six and ended up feeling less and less motivated because it’s too much to try and insert six new habits simultaneously. Habits are hardwired and need some initial effort to become embedded into your system. A great book that I recently read that have me insight in how habits form is the book “The Power of Habit”. The best way to start, is to start small and get the reward-loop going. Therefore I choose to start with one habit that was the closest to my nature and easiest for me to maintain. I started doing a 10 minute workout in the morning. The hypothesis I was eager to prove is that I could do something 100%. This means doing this exercise, not 5 times, not 6 times, but 7 times a week, regardless of the circumstances. In the past year and a half, I am proud to say, despite the hurdles I have managed to miss only 5 days. Out of 567 days, I have exercised 562 times in the morning. To this day it is still a wonderful feeling to complete my morning workout because I know I have started my day with a small win. Winning begets winning.

Determine which principles/habits are non-negotiable because they are an integral part of your (future) identity

While starting with just 30 push-ups and 50 sit-ups, currently my workout consists of 100 push-ups, 150 sit-ups, some yoga exercises and it takes up to 20 minutes each day. Gradually, I started to value the effect of a strong morning ritual and added elements to it while waking up earlier and earlier. I used to be an evening person, like so many of us are, waking up 8ish and starting with work between 9 and 9:30. Currently, I wake up between 05:00 and 06:00 without alarm. My best days are those that start at 05:00 but I like to give my body the option to decide when it’s just enough. Aside from the morning exercise I also workout 5 to 6 times a week, which I strategically plan in my lunch break.

Use your lunch-break to recharge your brain by exercising or taking a walk.

By cutting my workday in half and solely focusing on my body, I am able to be just as effective in the second half of the day. In the past, I had a big energy drop around 14:00 and had the feeling half of my brain was asleep. In the meantime, I have added intermittent fasting, breathing exercises, reading, journaling, week planning, writing, deep work blocks, affirmations and evening exercise. Below I have set out my typical day schedule

The above list is the ideal setup and often I do not manage to go to bed at 21:00. But most of the items in the list are non-negotiable, especially my morning and evening rituals. Saturday is the day I try to catch-up sleep (if my body needs it) and on Sunday i reserve the second half of the day for planning the upcoming week. Even though meditation is still not on the list, it’s not because of lack of trying. I have tried different kinds of meditation but I have not found a match yet. Meanwhile, I continue to expand my routines and keep adding “hacks” I read in books or hear from others. It’s paradoxical that the more structured my days are the freer I feel. Jocko Willink is right when he said “Discipline Equals Freedom.”

Win the mornings, win the day!

I am happy to have found a way to be more effective, to enrich my life with healthy habits and to be able to work towards my goal of making my business and identity stand for excellence. I hope that all those who read this article can find their will to also start adding an important habits into their morning ritual. Most importantly you should start small, but stick to it 100% (not 99%). As soon as you get the confidence you actually can enforce one good habit (a keystone habit), you will start adding adjacent habits and get the reward loop going.

Article summary:

  • Wake up earlier, start with 20 minutes earlier and work towards an hour (take your time to built up, It could take up to a year)
  • Reserve a short time in the morning to engage in an activity that is dear to you: Journaling, Reading, Exercising, Meditating, and so forth.
  • Make this activity a habit by doing it 100% of the time and always in the same order
  • Reward yourself after completing the activity with a drink, snack, by fist bumping yourself
  • Make sure to avoid reading email, using social media or digesting any other kind of media for at least a couple of hours.
  • Setup your daily schedule with 2 or 3 important tasks in the morning during your media free hours. Write down the amount of minutes you want to spend on each task ( not longer then 60 minutes per task).
  • Use your afternoon break to decompress by either working out or taking a long walk (30min).
  • Make sure you do not negotiate with yourself about your morning habit. There is no “later” and no “other time”.
  • Forgive yourself when you don’t get to 100% the first 3 months. If after 3 months you have not managed to get to 100% then re-evaluate whether this activity should be a part of your identity and possibly choose another one, or start even smaller.

Books mentioned in this Article: The Art of the Good LifeMeditations21 lessons for the 21st century.

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