Why you need a morning ritual and how to use one to be calm, clear, and connected to your higher purpose all day long
I used to hate mornings. And I mean hate mornings. I never wanted to leave my cozy bed. I was irritable to my husband and kids. I found the morning version of myself so disturbing that I privately adopted a policy of pressing my lips together until I exited the house, lest the morning monster escape.
But in the past two months, all that has changed. I look forward to getting out of bed. I surprise myself with my calm and grounded responses to the chaos of getting my four- and two-year-old out the door and on our way. Best of all, this calm and clarity follows me throughout the whole day and has become my new baseline.
How did I do it? Well, I haven’t started microdosing psychedelics, and I didn’t eliminate any food groups. But I did add something to my life.
I used my experience conducting scientific research to make mental health therapy better to create a science-backed strategy to make my mornings better. I call this strategy a morning ritual. Think of it like a deeply intentional part of your morning routine.
Keep reading to learn why morning rituals matter, how to create a good one, and the simple steps you can take right now to infuse your life with more calm, clarity, and connection to your higher purpose.
Benefits of a Morning Ritual
The morning is a difficult time. It can feel like not all of your brain is working. It turns out, it really isn’t.
Don’t worry, it’s not just you: Sleep inertia is real, and it persists for about 30 minutes after human beings first awaken in the morning. This means that decision-making and other higher cognitive functions will be much more difficult for you in the morning than during other times of day. This is true even if you’re among the 15% of the population that are early birds. In the morning it’s easier to make mistakes, drop things, and generally get things going on the wrong foot.
And getting things going on the wrong foot matters. Your morning sets the tone of your day. Think of your morning like a butterfly that can change the weather system of your day. Most people want their days to be more calm and clear than they currently are, and a morning ritual can give you both.
That’s why you need to intentionally design this tender time of day and steer it in a direction that reflects who and how you want to be. Read on for exactly how to do it.
How to Create a Morning Ritual
To avoid the pitfalls of sleep inertia, it’s best to employ one of your biology’s compensatory assets: The prefrontal cortex. This is the part of your brain that performs a variety of complex behaviors, including planning. You can use your prefrontal cortex to develop a plan to design the early moments of your day and set it going in a direction of your choosing.
I’ve discovered that a three-part morning ritual is the perfect sequence to optimize these early moments. These three parts are based on mind-body science and designed to give you calm, clarity, and connection to your higher purpose. Together, they will shift not just your morning, but your entire day.
Calm may seem like an emotion, but it is more correct to call calm a physical sensation. When you remember this, you realize that the most efficient way to create calm is not with the right thoughts but with the right actions. Certain actions can actually trigger a calming response in the body, which psychologists call activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Read on to learn how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and begin every day with calm.
Set a timer. First things first, give your brain permission to let go of monitoring activities and delegate them to a timer. This lets you focus on the ritual, not the clock. Because your cognition can only focus on one thought at a time (yes, multitasking is a myth), it is important to make sure your focus is where you want it to be. This time is for your morning ritual and nothing else. Set your phone to do not disturb, set a timer, and give yourself permission to focus entirely on your morning ritual. Your ritual may take anywhere from 3 to 30 minutes. It’s likely that you’ll find that 10-15 minutes is both sufficient and practical to do each and every day. I have learned that 10 minutes is my personal sweet spot.
Use all of your senses. Once you’ve created temporal space for your morning ritual so that your brain can be present, you have to invite your body to be present as well. The fastest way to do this is with your five senses. In fact, a lot of anxiety therapies leverage this fact, including the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. One simple way to do this is to notice what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste before you continue to the next phase of your morning ritual. I recommend taking it one step further and curating a distinct experience for each of your senses that is unique to your morning ritual. Here’s why.
The senses you have available to you are always working. This is how it should be, but it lends itself to a problem. There is a tendency for things we experience all the time to fade into the background. Psychologists call it sensory adaptation. Sensory adaptation can make it hard to notice what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste, which in turn can make it hard to get your body present for your morning ritual. But, by offering your senses something a little different, you can jolt each of them to the forefront of your attention.
I recommend curating distinct sensory experiences for another reason: The alchemy of associating these sensations with each other and with the ritual of beginning your day with intention means that each one of them is linked in your physiology with the experience of being calm and focused. This is classical conditioning 101. With enough repetitions, like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of the bell, your parasympathetic nervous system will engage when prompted with any one of these sensations, whether or not you are able to perform the entire ritual.
Think of it like you are making lots of extra sets of keys for your front door. It’s easy to lose one set of keys or even two. This is a problem because everyone knows that being locked out of your house is no fun. But with five sets of keys, you significantly reduce your risk of being locked out. By associating all of your available senses with your morning ritual, you’re giving yourself a lot of ways to come home to yourself — anytime. Read on for ideas on special sensations to use in your morning ritual.
See. Pick the same spot each morning so you will see the same thing each time. You’ll want somewhere comfortable where you can also write, like a desk or an armchair. Designate a specific object that you gaze at to begin. It could be anything, but objects from nature work especially well. This is because nature seems to activate our parasympathetic nervous system. A landmark study in 1984 showed striking improvements in recovery after surgery for patients whose room had a view of a natural setting rather than a view of a brick wall. Hospitals have run with these findings and increased not just natural greenery, but also pictures and other design elements inspired by nature. To get a little of this effect for myself, I engage my sense of sight by looking at a little succulent I am growing.
Hear. You could continue to reap the benefits of nature by listening to natural sounds like a babbling brook or falling rain. These kinds of sounds have been shown to boost mood and cognitive performance. Alternatively, you may prefer an instrumental playlist. It can be classical, contemporary classical, or EDM. My own morning ritual playlist begins with Goldmund by Threnody.
Touch. We implicitly understand the connection between touch and emotion. A hot cup of tea can make you feel loved. A fuzzy blanket makes you feel safe. Research is just beginning to explore the relationship between hepatic sensations, behavior, and emotion more formally. Initial findings suggest that if you want to take your ritual seriously you should hold something a bit heavy, like a stone. On the other hand, if you’re looking to cultivate flexibility and positive feelings toward others, you’d do well to touch something soft. I like to take a moment to enjoy the sensation of a sheepskin rug on my feet.
Taste. Take a small bite of something. Pick something pleasant that you can eat on an empty stomach, like a mint or piece of dark chocolate. My favorite is candied ginger. It’s light, energizing, and tastes fine after my minty toothpaste.
Smell. Scent could come from a candle, essential oils, or even a favorite cooking spice. It’s fine to just pick a scent that has a positive association for you, but if you’re looking for a science-backed scent, consider pine, citrus, or saffron. Research out of Japan has indicated that smelling pine (Alpha-pinene) and citrus (D-limonene) essential oils show promise in suppressing sympathetic nervous activity and increasing parasympathetic nervous activity.
Across the ocean, research in the United States has linked saffron to the easing of depression symptoms.
The second part of your morning ritual is to gain clarity by sorting out your thoughts.
Free write. Free writing is a kind of journaling, which is one of the oldest and most trusted tools for self improvement. Journaling is so powerful that it continues to be incorporated into modern, evidenced-based mental health therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and expressive writing. But you don’t have to have a mental illness to benefit from free writing. All kinds of people benefit from a free writing practice. Thanks to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, free writing is also a popular practice among creatives of all kinds.
The idea goes something like this: By writing your thoughts, just as they are, you are able to get some literal and emotional distance from them and come to insights and solutions that are impossible without that perspective.
The practice is as simple as putting pen to paper and writing whatever comes out. That’s it. This is not a log or record. You are not generating content. You are not concerned with grammar or spelling. It is just your thoughts, and it is only for you.
The only rule: Keep your pen moving, no matter what. If you’re thinking “I don’t know what to write,” write “I don’t know what to write.” If you’re thinking, “This is dumb,” write “This is dumb.”
Connect To Your Higher Purpose
Once your brain’s content is untangled and on the page, it is helpful to close your morning ritual by connecting to your values. Values are the guiding ideas that are important to you, like “authenticity,” “curiosity,” “stability,” and “wisdom.” If you haven’t already done so, spend some time clarifying for yourself what they are using one of the many lists online.
Values give you the “why” part of your life and connecting with them can help with the nitty gritty “how” of how you move through your day. As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observed in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
In the 73 years since Frankl’s book was published, research has supported the connection between values and well being. Inspired by this research, evidence-based mental health therapies like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy make values work an integral part of treatment.
Close with intention. You can prepare a meaningful word, curious question, or nugget of wisdom to focus on for your final one to two minutes. The important thing is that whatever it is resonates with your deeply held values. You may just want to repeat the words out loud to yourself, close your eyes, and notice what arises. You can also write about what is coming up for you around the words. You may prefer to do a bit of strategizing on how you can enact your values during your upcoming day.
If you are having trouble knowing where to begin your ending, you can borrow someone else’s idea. For instance, every morning Ben Franklin asked himself, “What good shall I do this day?”
This is where published materials can also be helpful. A book of quotes can offer something new and meaningful to consider each day, like The Little Zen Companion by David Schiller. Other people find the kismet that is possible with a more open format like an oracle deck to be more useful. I’ve been enjoying Rebecca Campbell’s Work Your Light Oracle Cards deck for this reason.
A final tip? Start your morning ritual tomorrow morning and keep doing it every day after that. Do your morning ritual on days you only have three minutes. Do it when you’re in a rush. Do it before your space is perfect. Make your morning ritual a promise to yourself and then keep it. Consistency is the important part; the parameters should be flexible so that you can keep your promise.
The act of keeping a promise to yourself each and every day will have benefits apart from the morning ritual itself. A promise kept is evidence. It is evidence that you can trust yourself. Writer and habits expert James Clear says that it can be helpful to think of this kind of evidence like a vote for an identity. Doing your morning ritual every day is evidence that you are the kind of person who is intentional with your time and your life. This kind of evidence feels good.
Another benefit is the one behind writer and happiness expert Gretchen Rubin’s advice to make your bed every day. She says that “sticking to any resolution — no matter what it is — brings satisfaction.” We get a little dopamine hit when we accomplish something, which is an excellent way to start the day — and keep the morning monster away.
This essay was syndicated in The Startup.