Most of us have heard and read the value of a morning routine – a set of repeated actions performed in the same sequence to assure optimal productivity, focus, and creativity.

In a survey of CEO morning routines, Steve Murphy, former CEO of publishing company Rodale and publishing legend, says,

“A line in a William Blake poem inspired me to think differently about my day: ‘Think in the morning, act in the noon, read in the evening, and sleep at night.’ This has made a huge difference in my life. 

If you’re a business owner or solo-preneur, you might yearn to rise each morning brimming with purpose of your own making.

For 45 minutes or two hours, you desire to hold yourself captive in creative flow and dive into your best work. If you’re a team leader, you might want your members to dive into that state of effortless and meaningful flow so your team can advance big objectives.

Yet, despite our best intentions, morning routines often go awry. What to do?

Why Bother?

Here are what four clients recently told me:

“I’ve made space three mornings a week to dive into my business’s big vision and marketing issues. I’m a little amazed by how far I get in just 45 minutes. Plus, when I start off the day playing with these problems rather than worrying about them in my head, I seem to get answers throughout the rest of the day.” – an entrepreneur

“Most mornings I get up and think, ‘You’re not going to have anything to create,’ but as soon as I get to the studio – before my kids are up – I’m in another world, a twilight place, where it’s just me and images on the canvas.” – an artist and designer

“The act of shaping time each day is my friend. It’s changed everything.” – a therapist and writer

“I write my essays every other morning for just 45 minutes a session.But that time is my time. And, I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I think for the first time in a long time I’m astonished by myself, by who I am, by what I can do. The rest of the day is brighter.” – a writer and entrepreneur

And to repeat Steve Murphy’s observation: “Now, I take out a yellow pad every morning and write my thoughts for the day, which allows me to be much more strategic and proactive than reactive.”

Proactive rather than reactive. That’s a notable pay-off. These examples hearten but don’t surprise me.

A recent study, Time of day effects on problem solving: when the optimal is not optimal in Thinking & Reasoning shows that our capacity for creative insight is primed when we’re groggy (especially if we’re not “morning people”). This might sound counter-productive. You might assume that if you’re not a morning person that you would delay your most important creative work for when you’re most alert. 

Not necessarily.

A review of the countless people with whom I’ve worked and talked show that first-thing rituals and rhythms can change outcomes for the rest of the day.

But what happens?

Enter The Lazy Controller

Milo McLaughlin, the Clear-Minded Creative, captures the failure of trying to establish a morning routine succinctly. Urges keep sabotaging him.

An elephant enters the room, that’s what happens. There’s an elephant-sized default part of our mind that is emotional, irrational, unconscious, and, well, lazy. Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman calls it in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, “the lazy controller.” One problem, Kahneman notes, is that “self-control requires attention and effort.” But if you’re “cognitively busy,” you’re already exerting lots of mental energy to oft-unconscious nominal thoughts.

“People who are cognitively busy,” he also notes, by the way, “are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.” And, I suspect, are more likely to check their emails first thing in the morning. That elephant-sized default mechanism in your embodied mind steers you away from the studio, away from your juicy problem-seeking and solving and right into high-mind-drain tasks like checking email, surfing news sites, reading someone else’s blog posts, cleaning the kitchen.

More specifically, here’s a transcript of the battle happening in your embodied mind and brain each morning:

Conscious Mind: “Let’s create and work on that big juicy project.” Score, conscious mind.

But brewing underneath the conscious mind’s radar are little gremlin stimuli vying to pull your body toward “comfort food” activities. Uh-oh.

You sit down at your desk, ready to write and problem-solve and design. You turn on your computer. Score, conscious mind.

Your email provider automatically pops up a note to tell you that you are soooo loved, so adored, that you have 36 messages in your in-box waiting just for you

The gremlins grin big and send signals through well-worn paths to the pleasure zone in your brain that tries to tell your conscious mind, “Oh, it will feel soooo good to spend just a few relaxing moments reading all of your love letters and fan mail.” (Gremlins are known spin-masters.)

Within .3 seconds of that message popping up, another zone in your brain automatically moves your mouse without your conscious mind’s awareness and directs the mouse toward your email program.

Quick! You only have .2 seconds to intervene and change the course of your morning. C’mon conscious intentional and attentional mind! You can do it!

In the nano-nick of time, your conscious mind says, “Nah. Emails can wait. I like the anticipation of wondering what’s in the in-box as much as satisfying the urge to know what’s there.” Your conscious mind re-directs the mouse to your design program or to MS Word or to your Mind Maps program. You’re about to enter The Creative Zone.

The time span of transformation is .2 seconds. The space for change is that .2 seconds from when your unconscious elephant-mind has a desire to react and your conscious mind can intervene and act with intention and purpose. Be creative instead of reactive.

But does every morning have to be a battle? Not exactly. But I also wouldn’t recommend self-medicating affirmations that all of your distractedness makes you fine just the way you are. So, how do you captivate that lazy controller first thing in the morning?

Enter Tracking Wonder

Captivating your attention in your best creative and productive work-and-create flows is in part what captivating creativity is all about.

You don’t control the lazy controller. You coax your conscious attention toward what matters. You want your attention and feeling state to be open to a greater range of cognitive options and possibilities, open to a slightly different outlook than your typical day-t0-day thinking.

The emotional state that opens up our cognition to the most possibility – with less bias and prejudgement – is wonder, but to consciously call upon a state of wonder is no easy feat.

One way to set the right conditions to open up your mind to a greater range of options is to create daily rhythms that feel pleasurable and purposeful. 

Pleasure is tricky. It helps to distinguish activities that give you immediate baseline pleasure and activities that give you a deeper, more abiding pleasure.

 For instance, checking emails or putting away updating our Facebook status sends signals to some of our brains’ pleasure zones like digital candy or digital donuts.

The next step, then, is to identify purpose in your morning activities. 

When we feel our morning activity is tied to a purpose that means something to us, we motivate ourselves to pay attention to this work rather than the candy-like pleasures of checking email 10 times in 10 minutes.

The entrepreneurs, teams, and creatives I work and talk with replace those pleasure zone-out signals with other more enduring pleasurable and purposeful activities.

One entrepreneur gets up every morning, makes herself a cup of green tea (pleasure points), savors a bit of dark chocolate (huge pleasure point), and writes in her analog notebook about the questions and ideas she wants to pursue that morning. Smart moves. She’s making conscious choices about how to feed her mind with longer-lasting pleasure. And she’s forming longer-lasting associations of pleasure to purposeful work. Plus, her choice to work analog keeps her away from the distraction zone – wifi.

Another entrepreneur each morning heads near-straight from bed to road. In between, he throws on his running shorts and shoes. The quick jaunt up and down the road where he lives clears his mind, puts his senses in touch with the outdoors instead of the screen, and optimizes his sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system – the optimal balance for that relaxed-but-alert state that captivates us in the creative zone.

A designer begins her first-thing rhythms the previous night. She stays away from screens and cocktails for the 90 minutes before bed and flips through photography magazines or reviews a book related to a project. This way she primes her imagination and creative unconscious optimally for overnight incubation. In other words, she’s creating optimal patterns for that elephant-sized lazy controller.

A therapist sits outside and checks in with the question of questions: “What question am I living in today?” She walks around the house with that question, takes note in her Moleskine, and establishes her day’s intention.

Team leaders, take note 

Do what you can to train and encourage your team members to find their first-thing rhythms. Discourage first-thing e-memos. Discourage first-thing meetings (high-mind killer). Train your team members to have creative autonomy first thing in the morning. And see what happens. If you don’t know how to train your team, hire someone who can.

Wonder reminds us that so much is possible. What’s astonishing is that we each can create optimal time and space in a day.

Tracking wonder reminds us that there is an art and science to captivating ourselves in our creative zones.

I’m curious about your stories with “first-thing” rhythms and rituals. What works and doesn’t work for you? Why and why not?