Updated: Jun 14, 2022
For years, I’ve been in pursuit of the perfect morning routine.
I’ve believed the hype that some magical order of morning activities would culminate in a day free from overwhelm or anxiety or time restraints.
I’ve asked colleagues I respect, read articles, heeded the advice of people on LinkedIn and Instagram, mining their tactics for aspects to apply to my own morning. Wake up at the same time every day—that’s usually the first thing people tell you. Jumping out of bed and into the gym is usually the second. Then there’s recommendations for meditation, morning pages, coffee recipes, smoothie secrets.
There’s some good stuff in there, but I’ve always found it rather limiting. The biggest problem is the fundamental definition of a daily routine: that you do the exact same thing every morning. I’m not waking up as the exact same person each day, which means I don't need the same thing as I did the day before. And forcing myself to take the same actions despite those subtle differences is another way of detaching from my own state, ignoring my nuanced and ever-changing needs.
Some days I wake up energized, creative inspiration already bursting. On those mornings, should I shut down that spontaneous spark of an idea in favor of some predetermined order? On days when I’m exhausted, do I still force myself to wake up at the same time, even if getting an additional hour of sleep would be in my best interest without making me late for meetings?
Yes, there’s something special about a quiet, measured morning. But I think we’re focusing on the wrong thing. It’s not so much about the exact time we wake up or the order in which we make our tea or spoon our breakfast. It’s not about doing today what we did yesterday and the day before that. It’s about the intention behind it.
The magic of a morning routine is that we’re taking time to be with ourselves, sit in the quiet, and take care of our bodies. That’s far more important than the specifics of how we do any of these things—and certainly more important than the fact that we do them the same way every single day.
This weekend I went back to the Midwest for my bridal shower. It was a full 3 days of traveling, socializing, and feeling loved on by people I’ve known for a long time. It was wonderful, and by the time Sunday rolled around, my little introvert brain was fried. I was tired, emotionally depleted, and ready for home.
I let myself sleep in this morning and woke up with my “normal” routine already out the window. In the past, I might’ve had a moment of panic, feeling that I was already behind. Maybe it was the emotional exhaustion calming my nervous system or maybe I’ve evolved—whatever the case, I didn’t feel that panic this morning. I thought about what I needed and in what order to feel calm and grounded for my day before I started working. At the same time, I felt an eagerness to get to work, energized about the projects on deck for the week.
There was a feeling of tension: I’m “supposed” to have my calm morning of self-care before I work, but I also really want to get to work. Do I make myself—and my writing—wait?
Then it dawned on me: why does there need to be a separation? Why can’t I be mindful, right here, right now, as I work?
No rigid routine, no prescribed “do this, then that.” Just breathing, in this moment, as I move through my day. Considering in real time what I need and, more importantly, how I can go about it in a way that feels calm, grounded, and mindful.
This is distinctly different from the compartmentalization that “work culture” has insisted upon. That separation comes from the expectation that we leave our personal lives at the door when we walk into the office. At work, we should be focused on work, we’re told—not on home, not on family, not on self. It’s led me to believe that my self-care has to start and end before I open my computer and wiggle the trackpad awake.
At the same time, there’s a perception that sitting down to your computer outside of “normal” business hours makes you a workaholic. If you start ticking off tasks first thing in the morning, or complete a project after dinner, you have no boundaries. You don’t make time for yourself.
That perception has handcuffed me. It’s made me judge myself for listening to my instincts to find a healthy work-life integration.
When I’ve been able to move past that judgment, I’ve found that I’d much rather break up my time working across the entirety of the day, making space between projects to take Moon for a walk, prepare a meal, move my body, talk to my partner, do laundry. For me, mindful work doesn’t look like sitting down for one long chunk of time, abiding by the exact hours the industrial revolution determined over 200 years ago. It looks like bending my working hours to be exactly what I need.
I think we can take the same integrated approach with self-care. Maybe our mindfulness practices don’t have to happen exclusively before work. Why not during? Why not inside of?
Yes, there are personal-professional boundaries, and yes, many self-care practices are best done when we’re focused fully on the task at hand (i.e., meditation). But what about honoring the personal inside of the professional? What would change if we all approached our work day today as if it was a self-care day?
This morning, after asking myself these questions, I decided to try it out. I carried my breakfast outside and cranked open the umbrella over the patio table. Moths fluttered out, their safe dark hideout suddenly exposed. I set down my computer, my mug, and my pot of tea. Behind my chair, Moon kicked back the top layer of wood chips in search of a cooler bed. I opened my computer, and I took a breath. When I lifted my gaze from the screen, I saw dandelion seeds being carried on the wind and chattering birds hopping in the branches of my neighbor’s elm. I watched dragonflies hover and saw bees sipping drops of water from the lettuce leaves of our garden bed.
This is self-care, and it’s my office. If I'm able to call it both, why should it matter which one I approach first?