A Simple Morning Routine Can Teach You to Stop Wasting Time

Ask yourself: “Of all the things on my list, what is most meaningful and enjoyable to me and the people I care about?”

James Clear is a productivity expert who uses behavioral science to help over a quarter of a million newsletter subscribers optimize their habits. He recently sat down with Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think to discuss how they combat hectic schedules and make the most of daily routines.

James: Why don’t we talk about morning routines to start? Certainly it’s something that most of us could optimize, myself included. When you think about your own morning routine and attacking this topic, where do you usually start?

Laura: Well, first thing I want to say is that I don’t have it 100 percent figured out. Part of that is just a stage of life — when you have little children, it is often harder to create a morning routine that you can do every day due to the fluctuating nature of what time they get up, and there are things that they have to do in the morning. A couple years ago, I noticed that a lot of people who have big jobs but were also making serious progress towards personal goals used that slot before work for something other than just getting ready. In some cases it was professional, people were starting a side business, they were writing a book, and in some cases it was more relationship-oriented, spending time with family or friends. For others it was exercise or spiritual practices, meditation, that sort of thing. The people who did that every morning as a ritual seemed to stick with it better than people who did it at other times of the day.

I looked into this more and it turns out that there is some evidence to support this, especially now that we have all these wearables tracking our lives. We do know that people who exercise in the morning are more consistent about it, for instance, and it turns out people’s mornings tend to be very regimented. Most people go to work at the same time every day, and they get off at roughly the same time, so it is very easy to build something into your morning routine and have it actually happen in a way that it just doesn’t at any other point.

James: There are a variety of times throughout the day when a period of space slips away from us easily. Often the friction is around getting started on a task. Once you get started on something, it doesn’t actually take that long to do it. A lot of the hemming and hawing and thinking about it beforehand takes as much time as executing the task itself.

Laura: And that’s the thing about morning routines. They are routines; it is a habit. There is a certain cue, whatever that is, and you know what you are going to do and that is what makes it really powerful.

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For instance, if you know that every day, when you start feeling less productive mid-morning, you get up and go for a quick walk. That is your cue, you need to do it. It’s great, you can seize that time to get some activity in, take a real break that is going to clear your mind. A lot of people don’t pay attention to that “oh I am taking a break” practice. They aren’t thinking about it actively, they’re just surfing the web and not using it in the best way possible.

James: Do you have a particular task? For example, is it better to focus on health routines in the morning? Or on creativity routines? Is there something that carries more weight or is a higher leverage use to start your day?

Laura: I don’t think so. It’s what you personally want to have in your life. Think about what is important to you but what life is crowding out. For some people, that turns out to be exercise, just because it is very difficult to fit it into other times of the day. And you only have to shower once. Lots of logistical reasons to make it work.

James: How do you generally think about morning routines? “What is the thing that I need to get done, that I know will not get done if I let the rest of my day run away?” Or is it more like, “This is the thing that sets me up for success throughout the day so I will go do that”.

Laura: I think the two are related. Those things that are important to us are often the things that do go away from us, because they’re what we have to personally choose to do and hold ourselves accountable for. The rest of the world doesn’t care if you exercise or if you write that novel. You are doing it for you. Ideally, the morning routine is going to have both of those aspects, something you really, really want to do—something that will get you out of bed, keep you from hitting snooze, so you are excited to get up and do it. Those are all great criteria for morning routines.

James: For me, I still have pretty good control over my morning, but I would imagine for a lot of people, especially parents with young children, they would say things like “I don’t have time” or, “You don’t understand how crazy the day is once it starts.”

Laura: I totally sympathize. Especially if you have children that are under two and a half. It is very difficult to time your mornings because often their wake-up is random. The thing is, you can do some morning routine stuff even with young children. Maybe you can have family breakfast instead of family dinner if you don’t get to see a lot of your children after work because you get home late. Anything that you would have done in the evening, you can do in the morning. There is no reason that you cannot go to the playground at 6 am, just like you can go at 6 pm. You can go for a walk or play games together, read stories, do projects, whatever it is.

People are generally more disciplined in the morning, more in control of our emotions and things like that. You will probably be in a better mood to do all of this in the morning than you would be after a hard day of work.

James: One thing you mentioned last time we spoke was this idea of setting realistic plans. We need to make ruthless decisions and cut out things that we often justify fitting in. How do you go about those decisions to cut things out that are maybe hard to cut out?

Laura: Ask yourself: “Of all the things on my list, what is most meaningful and enjoyable to me and the people I care about?” Choose maybe two of those things, and then look where you can fit them in. I do believe that there is time for that, especially if you have other people in your life that can help out. If you are co-parenting with someone, for instance, maybe trade off. Each of you gets two mornings a week where you aren’t responsible for early shift with the kids, and you could do your exercise. Each of you isn’t going to do it daily, but you are both getting some amount of time.

James: That makes sense. It reminds me of a theory I read about recently called the Four Burners Theory. The idea is that you have four major burners in your life. One is health, one is family, one is friends, and one is work. The theory says that in order to be successful you have to turn one of the burners off, and in order to be really successful you have to turn two of the burners off. It comes back to this work-life balance, and would you rather be giving an average effort to all four things or doubling down on one or two burners?

I also had this thought that perhaps we should look at it more from a seasons-of-life perspective. Priorities change throughout life, so in your 20’s for example, maybe you are more career-focused and health-focused. You aren’t married yet, you don’t have kids. Then later in life you find that you are focused on building a family and so the focus shifts, maybe your focus becomes family and career but your health suffers a little bit or you don’t spend as much time with friends. What do you think about the theory in general, or do you think there is a better approach?

Laura: Well, I do think there are seasons in life, and I do think that yes you are not going to join a softball league, and a bowling league, and a soccer league and participate in all of them if you also have younger kids and a job. That is probably not going to happen. However, I don’t like the mindset that these are the burners and I have to turn one of them off in order to succeed. There are ways to still maintain your friendships, especially the ones that are really important to you, without them consuming a huge amount of time. If you mindfully said that you were going to commit two hours a week to maintain friendships, that would put you in a much better position than a lot of people who just don’t think about it, and are like “Oh, well it’s not like I’m college in anymore, I’m not living with my roommate.” No, you aren’t going to have that constant, mindless interaction that you would at that stage of your life, but if you honestly block off two hours a week, you could have four half-hour phone calls in that time, or meet one friend for coffee.

The same thing goes for health. Exercising does not take that long. Even people who are professional athletes, you look at how much time they’re physically working out, it’s 20 hours a week or less. They do other things with their time, but they are probably not exercising more than four hours a day.

If you set two hours for friends, three to four hours for exercise, that’s still just six hours. There are 168 hours in a week. I am pretty sure that you can find time in the other 162 hours for a job, your family, and getting enough sleep.

We can adjust our environments in order to have these things happen that we want.

James: It brings another interesting thought which is that often our productivity, our effectiveness, our habits, are a product of the environment that we find ourselves in. In college, when you are surrounded by all your friends, you’re like, “Yeah I am really good at spending time with my friends,” but it’s mostly because of the system and the environment that you find yourself in which fosters that type of behavior and interactions.

As we get older and grow into new routines, or take on different jobs and build families, the systems that we live in—the environment that we are dictated by, changes. So, we often need to adopt these morning routines that you are talking about, or routines throughout the day to fight back against the natural flow of whatever this new system is so that we can carve out some time and space for the things that are important to us.

Laura: Exactly. We can adjust our environments in order to have these things happen that we want. For instance, meeting people. If there is a group of people that I don’t see as much as I would like to, what if we set a recurring time for something that we know we are going to do, like we have breakfast on the first Friday of the month? You don’t have to think about it—we are always going to be at this restaurant at 7:30 on the first Friday of the month. It just involves a little bit of planning.

James: Pre-commitment has been shown to increase our likelihood of following through on something. As much as you can automate your decision making for a future event, the more likely you are to follow through. If you just leave it up to, “We should call each other whenever we are free and get lunch,” it’s never going to happen.

Laura: It’s an interesting point because a lot of the time when people are busy, they’re like, “I don’t want to commit to things.” In fact, the act of making a commitment means that it will fit into your busy life. Whereas if you don’t, then it won’t.

James: Let’s talk about time tracking. What prompted your interest in it?

Laura: I have always been interested in how people spend their time. There is a fascinating gap between how people really spend their time as opposed to how they think they do. That’s what I have written about in all my books. I’ve had tons of people keep track of their time. I have 1001 days of time tracking data. I have done a few weeks here and there, of course, in solidarity with everyone else who is keeping track of their time.

James: I think anyone would be interested in seeing how they actually spend their time, but what is the practical application of time tracking?

Laura: Seeing where the time really goes is the first step to spending your time better. We have all kinds of ideas of where the time goes that are not accurate. We tend to overestimate how many hours we work. I thought I worked 50 hours a week, but I realized over the course of a full year that I work 40. There is a big difference between 40 and 50 hours a week. That is a lot of space for doing other things — or deciding that I need to be working harder. I can’t make that decision if I don’t know that number.

Other studies find this too. One study comparing people’s estimated work weeks and times found that people claiming 75 plus hour work weeks are off by 25 hours. Keep that in mind next time somebody is telling you about their 80 hour work weeks.

James: I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head, but there is another study about people tracking the calories that they eat throughout the week, and there is a significant margin of error there as well. Basically, humans are really bad at measuring what we are actually doing in our lives. Whether it is how much food you eat or how many hours you think you work, the numbers are usually very different in reality. The closer that you can get to that truth, whether it is through more accurate time tracking or through weighing your food or some kind of measured meals or whatever it happens to be, the better the decisions that you make, because you are actually dealing with truth rather than just how you feel.

Laura: We like to tell ourselves the story “I am so busy”, but the problem is that this keeps you from being able to use time well, because if you are too busy then you don’t have any time for fun stuff, and so you don’t ask yourself what that fun stuff would be. People spend the bulk of their leisure time watching TV and surfing the web. Those are really easy things to do, but probably not what we would actively choose to spend all of our leisure time doing if we thought about it. But because we tell ourselves we have no leisure time, that is what we wind up doing.

James: A common criticism I hear is that what we have been talking about seems very robotic. Just the act of building routines, or tracking your time or having every minute on a spreadsheet feels wrong to certain personalities. “What about space for serendipity? What about space for creativity, what about letting life come to me?”

Laura: I am all for serendipity. That is also another phase of life thing too, because if I want to go out to a great restaurant on Saturday night, well I have four small kids. Who is watching them? I have to book a babysitter. I cannot be 100 percent serendipitous about it because the babysitter is not going to randomly show up to my house and say “I am here to take care of your children.” So those of us who are in that stage have to plan ahead and I think this is one of the things that drives new parents crazy, especially if they haven’t been planners beforehand.

Then they‘re like, “You can’t have a life as a parent, you can’t do anything as a parent.” You can, you just have to plan. I think serendipity is awesome, and one of the great things about being mindful of your time is that you can leave space for serendipity. I am actually generally not that busy during the day. I thought about what my long term projects are—do I have enough time blocked out for them? Doing this ahead of time, making sure I am taking care of it, means when fun stuff comes up there is space on my calendar to do it and that is wonderful. But if I have every minute booked, then I can’t.

James: My response to that kind of criticism is, first, that you could somehow become robotic and plan every minute of your day assumes that everything goes according to plan, which has never happened in the history of mankind. The idea that you can somehow come up with these habits and routines and then put your life on autopilot—it just doesn’t work that way. I find that habits and routines are useful even if you want to live a very serendipitous life. The plans free up the space for you to have a blank slate. Often, like you said, we mindlessly spend time browsing things on Netflix or on the web. We don’t really know where our time goes throughout the day, we get an email from our boss and then suddenly three hours are gone because we went chasing whatever that fire was. Habits and routines allow you to get that core stuff done so that you have that free canvas to paint on whenever you feel like doing it.

Laura: I do think that some people are more planners than others. If you aren’t a planner, then it’s the question, how can you know you’re making progress towards the things you want to do even if you aren’t interested in planning every minute? Some people, for instance, who don’t like to block stuff in particular times say, “I know I am always going to be reaching out to new clients from 3 to 5 pm, I don’t know who I am going to feel like calling, I don’t know what the world will bring to me on that day, but that is generally the time that I am going to do that,” — then you are making those connections and that’s just as good.

James: If people were going to execute on one thing as a takeaway from this conversation, what do you feel is the highest value area to focus on?

Laura: I would recommend time tracking, just because so many of us do not have a good sense of where our time in its entirety goes. You don’t have to do it for the rest of your life, you don’t have to do it for a year like I did. But if you do it for 168 hours a week, you will be fascinated to see where the time really goes. I promise you will learn some new things about yourself and your life and those will be useful for making changes in how you spend your time. Start with that.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.