Nearly every article on improving productivity focuses, to some degree, on the morning routine. Studies have shown that people perform better throughout the day if they:
Wake up immediately, without hitting snooze — some studies suggest you can lose up to four hours of productivity by hitting the snooze button just once.
Don’t look at your phone right away — the more we check our phones the higher our levels of stress and anxiety, in large part because of the way phone alerts trigger our sympathetic nervous system. Not checking your phone immediately leads to less stress throughout the day.
But while the recommendations for a morning routine are fairly clear and consistent, figuring out how to incorporate them into daily life is not. That’s where the science behind building new routines can be helpful. The idea is to create a routine that is built on habit, so you don’t burn willpower or decision-making energy in the process of making good choices. Habits are essentially automated actions triggered in response to a contextual clue — your alarm goes off and you hit the snooze button, that’s a habit. To rebuild your morning routine you need to fold in new habits.
So how do you do it?
A small study out of University College London explored how long it took people to form a new habit. The results showed that it took participants anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to create a habit that was performed almost entirely automatically (95% automaticity). On average, it took participants about 66 days, or around two months. So the first step in creating a new routine is to set your expectations — it isn’t going to happen overnight.
A follow up study conducted by some of the same researchers lays out the next steps to form a new habit and create your new routine. Once you’ve decided on the goal — for example, meditating first thing in the morning — you need to choose a simple action that will get you closer to it, something small and achievable on a daily basis. It could be as simple as putting on relaxing music, to help you get into a meditative state. Or choosing to sit on the couch and count out 12 deep breaths. The goal is not to go so big that you sabotage your success — if you’ve never meditated before, committing to 15 minutes sitting in stillness may prove unsustainable in the beginning.
And the beginning of the process matters. The study authors call this the learning phase, and they say that consistency and sticking with the action is crucial to success. Failure can be discouraging so make sure you’re picking small, manageable actions that you can repeat every day at the same time and place. Once you lock one improvement in, it’ll make it easier to lock in the next.
The good news is that the whole process will get easier and easier with time, and you should find yourself incorporating the habit automatically within two to three months. The study also includes a toolbox that can help people add new habits into their daily routines.
There is one caveat that’s worth mentioning, the above steps work well for people who are interested in adding a new habit into their morning routine. If you need to break a bad habit, like hitting snooze, you’ll need to add in an extra step or two. Habits are actions that happen automatically in response to cues, so breaking a bad habit means you need to disrupt the link between the cue and the action. If your habit is to hit snooze when your alarm goes off, try changing the sound of your alarm each day or moving the alarm clock to a different part of the room. Anything that will jolt you into conscious behavior, so you can stop the automatic action from happening.