Four Brain Hacks for Making Your Morning Routine Stick
This week, I launched The Deep Change Project — a year-long journey to reinvent myself through brainhacking, braintech, and big data. But no amount of tech can save me without daily practice. Which is why I’m spending my first week of the project focusing on the foundation. For me, that foundation begins in the morning. If my morning goes well, my day goes well. The first two months of the project are about reducing stress, and I can’t think of a better way to steady my start than the proven tools of reading, exercise, and meditation (REM). But while I’ve been good about my reading in the past, my exercise and meditation have suffered. I believe this time will be different. Why? Well besides possible delusional optimism, I’ve had enough fumbles to know there are four tools I need to stay on track.
The Rule of 3
While scientists used to believe that we could hold roughly seven things in working memory, they’ve recently reduced that number to four. If science is based on averages, then my working memory must be below average because the number my brain loves — like a kid loves candy — is three. Any time I’m trying to do something that is more complicated than three steps, my brain throws up its hands in protest and cognitively walks out of the room. So I’m sticking with it. Three it is. Reading, exercise, and meditation — REM.
In the past, I used to spend my delicious morning hour just reading (always punctuated by the thud of my five-year-old daughter waking up and jumping in my lap). I’d then move on to breakfast, try to squeeze in a quick 5–10-minute exercise routine before I showered, and would listen to a commuting meditation on my Headspace app while driving to the office. Needless to say, squishing my exercise and meditation into the cracks of my day has left me feeling like they’re getting short shrift. And my thirty-eight-year-old muffin top feels so, too. So it’s time to give my exercise and meditation their proper morning due.
Order of Operations
While REM might be a handy acronym to help me remember the steps, I don’t plan to do them in that order. When I used to only read for my morning hour, the first half of my reading time felt like my neurotransmitters were made of molasses. My brain would only move at half-speed. Since beginning The Deep Change Project this week, I’m starting with twenty minutes of exercise. So far, SO good. Moving your body helps move your mind. Especially when, like me, you’re not a morning person.
I then move on to ten minutes of meditation. The reason I put meditation after exercise and before reading is two-fold. First is something I learned from Tom Bilyeau, founder of Impact Theory. He said he likes to meditate immediately after exercising because it trains his brain to recover quickly from stress. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson has found the same thing in the brain scans of meditators — that one of their superpowers is a rapid back-to-normal-return from stress. I want to train my brain to do the same thing — to go from the elevation of exercise to the calm of meditation. The second thing I know meditation will do is increase my ability to focus, which of course, is perfect for the thirty minutes of reading that follow. For me, my one hour of REM has to happen between 6:00 AM — 7:00 AM. Otherwise, I’m in 5-year-old land.
Another reason I’m adding exercise and meditation to my morning routine is that I’m already doing something in the morning — reading. When there’s an existing habit already in place, it’s much easier to “stack” another habit on top. Stanford professor B.J. Fogg uses the term “anchoring,” since the first habit anchors the second. It helps your brain go into autopilot since it knows what to do and doesn’t have to wait for instructions. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says, “It’s like you always have a game plan for which action should come next.” Your brain loves game plans. And the habits don’t need to be big — brushing your teeth, taking a shower, sitting down at your desk are all behaviors on which you can stack a new habit.
Last but not least, I’ve come to finally admit that I need to be accountable to someone. I hate to admit this, but I know I’m a pleaser. I don’t like to let others down. So this particular strategy of knowing there is someone else out there waiting for my text “REM = Done!” puts teeth into my commitment. Above all else — do what works, right? The other reason that a plasticity partner might be an innovative brain hack is that neuroplasticity — the fact that the brain changes like a muscle — can be a paradox. Yes, the brain is highly malleable. But just because the brain is malleable doesn’t mean it’s easy to change. There is a constant gravity pulling you into your old grooves and pathways. Your brain likes to travel on its well-worn neural superhighways (strong old habits), not it’s neural dirt roads (fragile new habits). Norman Doidge in his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, suggests that one of the best ways to rewire your brain is by “blocking” yourself from taking the easier option. It would be the equivalent of forcing your brain off the exit and onto a dirt road. In some sense, you simply want to not make the superhighway an option. The kindest, gentlest, most benign way to “force” yourself to do something that isn’t yet a habit is by tapping into your innate social sensitivity. Knowing that someone is waiting for you to come through (even if it’s just to tell them that you did what you said you were going to do) helps nudge you onto the neural dirt road. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to actually use the fear of what others think of me to help me build new habits.
I’ve come to learn that nightly REM sleep is essential if you want to show up as your best self. It may be that morning REM is just as important.