How to be a Better Human...
...before you've even had a coffee.
Here’s what my mornings used to look like: Stressing my way through it, barking orders at my kids, getting stuck in multi-tasking hell while fuming at stupid comments on social media.
Fed up of being a walking cliché – a writer who can’t deal with life until I have a good few slugs of coffee – not to mention my ever-increasing stress levels, a few months ago I decided to change my morning routine. I’d read many magazine articles and Medium essays by happy and successful people claiming they got that way by doing certain things to start each day off right. So I started applying some of the principles these fabulously successful (and occasionally preachy) people advocated to my own life.
I began setting down intentions for the day. I starting writing down three things I’m grateful for before I getting out of bed. I stopped checking Facebook or email before breakfast, and overall, tried to become more present as I moved through the morning routine.
The result? I am happier.
Now I find that I can better cope when things go awry in my day – like the time I got a flat tire, or when the dog pooped on the kitchen floor (again). Not to brag, but: These changes were easy, and you could make them too. Here’s how, and why, you should make the effort to better your life every morning.
STARTING EVERY DAY WITH GRATITUDE
Implementing changes in the first few hours of the day is super effective because the morning is a space before anything has ruined your day, says UJ Ramdas, co-founder of The Five Minute Journal (this is the tool I’ve been using every morning to record my gratitude and intention, and to reflect back on the day once I’m tucked into bed at night). “You wake up fresh and have the precious opportunity in the first few minutes to set the tone and intention for the rest of the day through gratitude journalling, so make it count.”
For me, this means grabbing a few precious seconds to write it down even if my toddler is climbing all over me. I’m not always grateful for big stuff, and often write the same thing daily (my kids, my husband, a job that I love), but it definitely frames my life more positively as opposed to dwelling on the unpaid bills and lack of sleep I get with a new baby.
Ramdas says that although the exact neuroscience of gratitude is still in its infancy, studies by the University of Southern California and the University of California Berkeley show a range of positive mental and physical effects that occur when you keep a gratitude journal. These include reduced physical pain, better sleep and increased willingness to accept change.
CHANGE THE WAY YOUR BRAIN WORKS
As with all this self-improvement stuff, different things work for different people. For my husband, making time for a daily meditation session before going downstairs every morning has had a huge impact on his day-to-day positivity. He uses the app Calm to guide him. He started by doing five minutes a day but has worked his way up to longer sessions.
Dr David Denis, faculty member at The Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto, teaches meditation and other mindfulness practices, and says these types of apps can be very useful for those just getting started with meditation. “They can guide you through the practice, as it can be challenging to do the practice without guidance,” he says. You might not immediately see huge changes though meditating. In fact, Denis says that’s a common misconception that one session will turn your day or life around (although it might make your day go better). “When you meditate regularly, science is showing that parts of the brain become more active through consistent practice, and that can benefit us for the rest of our lives,” he says.
TAKE PLEASURE IN THE ROUTINE
Being mindful of every part of our morning routine is going to help us have a better morning. This means that when possible, you only do one thing at a time and stay really focused on that one thing, Denis says.
“That can be anything from having a shower and feeling the temperature of the water, the sensation of the water on your skin, the motions of brushing your teeth,” Denis says. “Focus on the sensual experience of those different activities as best you can. Any time you notice that your thinking mind is taking you off towards worrying about what’s coming in the rest of the day, interrupt that and come back to your current task. That is mindfulness practice, and you can do it with almost anything.”
ACTUALLY, IT ALL STARTS THE NIGHT BEFORE
If you’re always hitting the snooze button and grumpy every morning, this is often because you’re not getting enough sleep, Denis says. “If you’re staying up too late watching Netflix or working into the night, you need to develop a consistent routine to wind down at night, and to fall asleep at a decent hour.”
If your mornings are always rushed, then maybe you need to go to bed and get up earlier (as horrific as that may sound). “In general there’s a lot that we have control over, and it can be as simple as making sure you get up at a certain time, having time to drink coffee and read the paper, eat a proper breakfast. Setting a good routine can really set the stage for the day,” says Denis.
SEEING THE CHANGES
The amount of time it takes to see results will vary from person to person. They might not take effect immediately, says Ramdas, “However they will sneak up on you; you’ll subtly notice yourself becoming happier and more content with your life over time.”
What’s important, says Denis, is that you are consistent with the changes that you have made. “That’s much more important than making a bigger change and not being consistent with it,” he says. “I’ve had people say after three months, ‘Things just seem really different to me.’ It can be pretty gradual.”
I haven’t exactly made extreme changes, but I am seeing results. I even threw a cup of tea on my five-month-old MacBook Air around the time of writing this piece, killed it, and didn’t cry.
Apparently I’m on the path to enlightenment, says Denis, as that happens once we realize that there is another way to live and we start pursuing that. I do love the idea of being an enlightened being over a grumpy beast every morning.