Engineering the perfect morning
For years now, I’ve been seeking the perfect morning routine. Before you dismiss this whole thing because you’re not a morning person, let me disclose, neither am I. That’s mostly why I’ve become obsessed with it. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I must plan to win.
“If you win the morning, you win the day.” — Tim Ferriss
Morning routines have become something of a trend, or even a cult of sorts in the past few years. Usually in the sense of who has the most extreme and wakes up earliest. The Rock? Mark Walberg? Jocko Willink? That’s neither my goal nor interest here. Good for those guys, but I’m not waking up at 4 am, sorry not sorry. You win that game.
My interest is to set up the day to maximize my own personal criteria. This is important because everything else should flow from there. These are things I want in each day.
Sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Good energy, without feeling tired.
Not in a hurry to do the next thing.
Limiting stress where possible.
So. Without further ado, let’s have it.
#1: 6:45 am — Regain consciousness
I’ve set my silent vibration alarm on my Garmin Vivosmart 4, which I’ve found to be a very gentle way to exit sleep. This is important because you don’t want to wake up with your heart pounding in alarm, putting you in an immediate fight or flight state of stress. I’ll be aiming at 8+ hours of good quality sleep. I track both using the same device.
Positivity: The first thing I try to do is think of something positive. Usually, the most obvious things that come to mind are that it’s sunny outside (positive feature of living in the tropics), my family is healthy, and anything similar that gives me a positive outlook on my life right now. This is especially important when bad things do happen. You don’t want to prime your mind into immediately diving into the deep end of your sorrows big or small. #FML
Measure: The next thing I do, before even getting out of bed, is to measure my stress levels. I happen to use my own app Healthzilla, which reads my heart rate variability (“HRV”) and resting heart rate (“RHR”) using my camera phone. Many wearables like Apple Watch and Oura have similar features. The reason you want to do this is to track recovery during the week, and it serves as an indicator of what kind of day this is going to be. In case your data is way off, you should adjust everything below to take things easy or even considering staying home for the day.
#2: 6:50 am — Cleanse
Okay I know, this sounds unnecessary and like I’m about to sell you organic coconut oil or something, but once you get the habit you can’t imagine not doing it daily. It feels like when you forget to brush your teeth. Icky.
Oil pulling: I swig a cork-full of organic coconut oil, which again I’m not selling, and swish it in my mouth for around 5 minutes. This is also a good time to multitask, take a leak, and take the phone out of airplane mode. I’m not getting into emails or anything, but want to see if anything has exploded overnight in my world. I filter out most notifications, so the ones I do get are usually meaningful.
What does the oil pulling actually do? Well, it literally pulls out gunk off the surface of your teeth, gums, and tongue. Which may also include trace amounts of toxins and/or bacteria that have accumulated there. There’s some research that suggests it may help prevent plaque and gingivitis, but these are bonuses if anything.
NOTE: Keeping your phone in airplane mode has two important benefits. Firstly, you know you won’t be distracted overnight and nothing is waiting for you until you allow it. Secondly, you limit the EMF radiation which, if nothing else, will avoid any negative impact on sleep quality.
Tongue scrape: Once you spit out said oil, what you want to do is get rid of the oil residue on your tongue. You’ll find this plastic utensil thing in most supermarkets for super cheap. It kind of looks like a plastic razor, and you literally scrape your tongue with it. When you see what comes off, you’ll be pretty convinced oil pulling is a good move each morning!
#3: 7:00 am — Exercise
Start the day with a karate kick vibe, not a snuggle up on the couch vibe. Yes, every day. You can take off Sunday or the whole weekend, but it isn’t too much to do something each day. Once you get into the habit, I’ve noticed I actually feel bad if I miss out for any reason. Like I’ve started the day with the wrong energy, and I’ll be motivated to correct that mistake tomorrow!
Just 30 minutes is enough. Rotate between resistance and cardio training. Hard days and light days. I use my own app Healthzilla again, but you’ll find unlimited options for whatever you’re looking for. If you’re measuring your HRV and RHR, those are great indicators to help you choose an activity for the day from a recovery walk up to hard interval running.
NOTE: I haven’t eaten yet. That is on purpose. Not only will you find that for a 30 minute workout your body already has all the energy it needs, but it’s likely your performance will actually improve not being stuffed to the gills with pancakes. You’re not going to lose more weight this way, but as a side benefit it helps you prolong your overnight intermittent fast. That will contribute to health and longevity.
Intensity: You want to break a sweat. No magazine reading, or browsing Instagram on the indoor bike. Go in there and go full Joe Rogan on whatever equipment you can get your hands on. Ape mode. I’m lucky to have a gym downstairs, but you can do this at home, too.
Breathing: The first thing I do after a workout, either at the gym or immediately at home, is a two-minute breathing exercise. Why? To switch from the kill-or-be-killed mode I’ve just been in, to rest and digest. Basically trying to calm the mind and body. I use the Oak app which has a Deep Calm guided breathing session that does the job.
Someone more famous and smarter has said that if you get a good workout in the morning, and the rest of the day is totally wasted, at least you accomplished something. Putting a point on the scoreboard first thing does good things for my mind. I feel like that puts me ahead of the game.
#4: 7:30 am — Cold shower
Next thing is a shower. Preferably as cold as possible. Now, this may seem pretty extreme to most, if you’re used to steaming yourself like a dumpling. The main idea here is hormesis, or introducing short term stress to your body, to grow long-term resilience to stress. It’s like working out but using different muscles. In this case, it’s your nervous system doing the work. If you can waltz into a freezing cold shower for 2 minutes, like its no big deal, you’ve built a mental and physical shield to ward off stresses of many other kinds, including invading bacteria or a horrible boss.
Wim Hof is my inspiration for doing this, so be sure to check out his app and material for more context and method to the madness.
#5: 7:45 am — Breakfast
Now, we break the fast, and feast. I like to delay this after strength workouts for an additional 30 minutes while helping the kids get ready for school. That allows the spike in growth hormone to do its work on my body. As soon as you stuff face, it bottoms out and insulin takes control again.
Fasting: On most days, I’ve fasted around 13 hours up to this point. That implies finishing dinner before 7 pm, and strictly no snacks before bed! That’s when you’d be hitting all the bad stuff anyway. To satisfy the sweet tooth, I’ll opt for a square or two of 70% Lindt dark chocolate and a dram of single malt whiskey. I’m fancy like that.
The research into intermittent fasting is quite new, but the early work indicates potential longevity effects. The mechanisms involved are giving your body a break from digestion, which in turn activates various repair pathways.
Pre-cooked options: In terms of what to actually eat, I try to minimize prep time here. One good way to do that is overnight oats. You can slap all kinds of good stuff into a container in the fridge, and then sprinkle some berries and nuts on top when served. I’m a big fan of Swiss-style Bircher muesli, so you’ll want a combo of yogurt, milk, and oats or granola. I often add chia seeds for extra nutrients and some crunch.
Quick options: My wife is big on smoothies and loves to do it fresh. While it requires some more prep time, if you’ve done your shopping well, it’ll take 5–10 minutes to put it all together. If you’re into your superfoods, this is the way to go. Chia seeds, avocado, matcha, turmeric, kale, chlorella, mushroom extract, and all that good stuff.
I’ve oddly become a big fan of warm oatmeal. Just very satisfying to start the day with a hot meal. I try to cook it for at least 4–5 minutes in the microwave to get it nice and gooey. Then I’ll toss in some protein powder, Ceylon cinnamon, a banana, and a bunch of other supplements listed below. Because it’s warm, you’ll find all those powders mix in nicely and don’t stick out flavor or texture-wise as much as in drinks or smoothies.
Supplements: I have a strong aversion to pills I have to take. I hope to sustain that policy deep into old age. But I’m happy to take many voluntary things that help me sustain this routine and my goals. I also consider bang for the buck, I don’t want to be taking expensive things daily for negligible benefits. I’ve done blood and DNA testing to know what I need, what works for me, and what doses are right. It’s worth going through the effort yourself, rather than just take what others take. So take this list with a pinch of pink Himalayan salt. Not literally! I order mine from iHerb which has full labels and tons of product reviews on all items to guide you. Do your own research.
Things I take daily: pea protein powder (to complement meals), bone broth powder (gut bacteria), creatine powder (mental and muscle benefits), Ceylon cinnamon (immune boost), greens powder (micronutrients), mushroom powder (immune boost), vitamin D (low absorption from my DNA), vitamin B12 (low absorption from my DNA), magnesium (metabolic support, anti-inflammation), zinc (testosterone support), omega-3 (brain and joint support), glycine (to offset high meat intake), phosphatidylcholine (low absorption from my DNA), and last but not least NMN (longevity). Okay, it’s a lot.
#6: 8:30 am — Grooming
To be honest, I don’t do a lot in this department currently. Just the logistical minimum needed to get out the door and be somewhat presentable to the public eye.
Get dressed: As stated. Nothing to see here. Well, I do usually put a little bit of thought into wearing a mechanical watch. It’s pretty much the only form of jewelry acceptable for men in any culture. I find it a nice counterbalance to the digital and online culture we live in, to wear something that was effectively invented and almost unchanged in function or technology for several centuries.
Brush teeth: I brush my teeth. Nothing much going on here out of the ordinary. I’m somewhat torn between the fluoride and natural toothpaste camps, so I do both. I use a fluoride paste in the evening and my natural hippie paste in the morning. Yes, it looks like mud, and kind of tastes like it too.
#7: 8:45 am — Out the door
In the past, I always dismissed walking as a form of exercise. It just felt like a waste of time compared to real workouts. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate the tangible effect you can feel in terms of recovery, especially from gym workouts. Walking a gentle 10K steps a day ensures a steady level of activity and blood flow, and you may find you’re less sore than usual the day after those hard workouts!
NOTE: Most mornings, I’m actually not out the door at this time. Sometimes, I’ll spend up to an extra hour at home before taking off. Stretching. Cooling down. Reading. Thinking. Basically just giving myself time to feel unhurried.
#8: 10:00am Meditate
One of the biggest changes in recent years to my routine is the addition of daily meditation. For many, you might choose to add this 10 minutes right after waking up. That’s a great strategy. I have the luxury of being my own boss, so I can actually meditate at the office. Even better, I can gently force it on my team to help them cope with the stress that I induce.
The additional bonus of meditation is that it creates a distinct barrier between each new working day. A before and after. Reset between sets. You may not feel this right away, but once the habit kicks in it will be hard to not do. Starting the day without meditation will feel off.
#9: Rest of the day: Do something meaningful.
From waking up to your first email is ideally 2 hours for me. The reasons for not doing that earlier relate to my goals. Not starting in a hurry. Not building stress into the day by design. Opening emails first thing is a guaranteed way to feel you’re already behind. Impatiently ruminating on the morning commute about how to reply to that nasty email is not a good look. Aim to start each day fresh, and enter work with a sense of resilience to take on whatever challenges lay ahead. You’ve prepared yourself as best you can.
First meeting: People that have customer-facing jobs will often have the issue of meetings coming in to disrupt their best-laid plans. I’ve just set a policy not to voluntarily take meetings before 10 am. That seems to be pretty standard for Singapore, but quite late for the US or Europe. Do I make exceptions? All the time. Life happens, but then you go back to the routine.
Start your morning right?
Try the app to measure your stress levels before getting out of bed each morning, just like I do. You can use that to guide your choices for the day, whether to hit the gym or not, whether to try to finish work early and tuck in.
Oil pulling: a meta-analysis on benefits found in research.
Breathing: Wim Hof Method and app.
Supplements: my typical order from iHerb, research on brain and muscle benefits of creatine, research on insulin sensitivity from magnesium, research on glycine to balance methionine from meat, research on developmental and prevention benefits of Omega-3.