Life is a beautiful thing. We are so lucky to be experiencing it, with all its happiness, joy, satisfactions and pain. All of it is beautiful in its own way.
The most beautiful, and yet the most terrible part, is that we have to die. It is beautiful because it forces us to take notice of life. We have to be a part of life, whether we want to or not, and when we find death, we start to take notice. Weirdly, I didn’t find death until I was blessed with new life: you boys.
Before Tay was born I was a couch-sitter. I had my adventures, but most of my time was taken up with simply dreaming and wishing while I was sitting and blobbing. When you were born, something changed.
Firstly, I had far, far, far less time for myself. With so little time, I made the most of what I had. I had no more time for doing nothing, only for creating something.
Secondly, I wanted to be a dad to be proud of. I wanted to be a man you two could emulate. This meant I had to recreate myself as a man worth emulating. It’s a work in progress, one that will continue until my last day.
Being a parent brings into stark relief one of the silliest results of evolution – my kids have to learn all my lessons over again. All the hard work I’ve put into learning about myself and the world, all that knowledge, it will disappear when I die, as it did when my ancestors passed away. There is no download button as yet directly into your brain from mine.
Thus I’ve made this blog. I want you to know what I know. Of course you won’t know it until you’ve experienced it… but there is a time and a place for all knowledge, and I hope that occasionally the right phrase will be there for you at the right time and the right place.
I love you both of you boys, more than anything on the planet. Let’s get this party started!
Within a minute or two it became incredibly clear: My entire life was but a precursor to one small decision.
To decide what sort of man I would be.
The voice was back. So silky smooth and convincing. It paraded excuses dressed as reasons as to why I didn’t have to get up at 5am and do my routine.
I had got into bed at 11, thus giving me only 6 hours sleep (WAAAH).
I didn’t have my phone (deliberate? Perhaps).
I hadn’t set an alarm.
I was tired and needed sleep, otherwise I would get run down (see point 1).
And so on and so forth.
My goal to this point had been to maintain the morning routine for three weeks. This was the final day of an otherwise successful twenty-one.
And I was about to throw it all away.
I tried convincing myself to go back to sleep. I “needed” sleep. My self-sabotaging intention was to sleep in regardless of the goals I had set myself.
Fuck the goals, the little voice said. Sleep instead. You need it. What is this routine anyhow? Just a bunch of pushups and sit-ups. They don’t get you nowhere.
But I remained awake. Torn. Listening to the war raging in my skull, and in my body. I felt the familiar weight in my solar plexus that signalled I was about to do a thing I didn’t want to do.
And I really didn’t want to do it.
I got up.
Discipline Equals Freedom
The morning routine is an exercise in personal discipline. As Jocko Willink says, discipline equals freedom. The more discipline you can create in your life the more freedom you will have to create of your life what you want. Your deepest desires become that much closer and more achievable as you become more disciplined.
The hardest part is finding the balance between Superego (the internal policeman) guilt and the personal satisfaction of discipline, and this balance is different for each person. The mental and spiritual practices in this post will go some way towards uncovering your personal attitude towards discipline.
Mental and Spiritual – Not just for Geniuses and Hippies
The last two parts of the The Best Morning Routine Breakdown Ever focussed on the physical aspect of the morning routine, and the reasons for starting a morning routine. This time round we are going to look at the mental and spiritual practices I use in my protocol.
I define the Mental as the talents and skills of my mind that I can actively improve. Things like memory and intelligence, and aspects of creativity like the technical skills in drawing or writing.
The Spiritual I define as my connection to the subconscious. Within the subconscious lies the definition of our gods, whether they be Religious (like Jehovah), Practical (like Efficiency) or Emotional (like Guilt). The goal here is to improve this connection so we can uncover our own obstacles to success, and find out who we are.
In other words, through spiritual practice we can find our personal definition of success, and find the quickest route to it. Your capabilities, talents, likes, dislikes, and emotional temperament are just some of the diamonds waiting to be mined, and finding these treasures puts you on the fast-track to whatever the fuck you want.
Yet another list
When making my routines I think about what I need to improve in my mental and spiritual life. I ask questions of myself.
Do I want to be more present in my day to day?
A better memory?
Do I need to improve my resolve and persistence?
I then list practices that I know (or suspect) will get me big wins in these areas. This list tends to get pretty big:
I then select from this list based on my goals for that month. Doing the same thing for a minimum of three weeks will give you a healthy dose of it’s effectiveness. It’s short enough a time that if it really is a bag of horseshit you won’t have to do it for too long. But it’s long enough to get past the initial “oh crap this is horseshit” stage that most mental and spiritual practices have lurking beneath their patchouli scented exteriors, and into the good stuff they are renowned for.
Again, this is the value of the morning routine: habitual behaviour can make desperate practices viable if done consistently.
Freezing My Noodle Off
To this list I add a cold shower, because that is undoubtedly the best goddam way to start the day ever. The cold shower sets the tone for the entire day. It s a combination of physical, mental and spiritual, in that it gets frighteningly cold, I need incredible resolve and fortitude to get in and stay in, and it creates a sense of easy calm afterwards. I thoroughly recommend it.
So how does my list currently look?
Immediate cold shower
50 Pushups supersetted with 10 sec hollow body holds
Reverse shoulder walk
Couch hip flexor
Autogenic Tape 5min
Double N-back 10min
Writing until 6:15 (Usually 20 – 30min or 300-500 words)
This routine is undoubtedly the best thing I’ve ever decided to do for myself. Every, Single, Day is awesome. I have a huge win each morning, and the rest of the day I spend with an inner smile, knowing that I’ve kicked serious ass.
Final Notes on the Morning Routine
Your should feel amazing after your morning routine. This means vibrantly alive, healthy and alert. If it’s not like that at the moment, tweak it until it is.
The first day will probably be great! You’ll run and tell your friends how awesome your new routine is… and then sleep in the next day. The challenge lies in maintaining the routine for at least a week or two to get over the hurdle of consistency. Keep at it!
Start small, and work to big. It took me a long time (at least a year or two) to get to the above. Just getting into a routine of getting up early was a big challenge for me, with lot’s of backsliding. But persistence pays off.
If the above seems too comprehensive, then including at least one thing from each of the categories Physical, Mental and Spiritual is great way to think about starting a routine.
The battle is fought anew EVERY SINGLE DAY.
It doesn’t get any easier to do these things, it just becomes more habitual.
If you lose one day, that’s fine. Fight again the next day.
This battle will last your whole life. Focus on winning it more, and don’t sweat the occasional loss.
Back to 4:38am
In bed that morning I realised that this was the most important decision in my life. One question ran through my head over and over:
When life gets difficult, what sort of person would I be?
The man who does what he says? Or the guy who just mumbles along like everyone else?
I had only one task to do, and for years, decades, it had eluded me. The pain of failure was hanging on me like an irremovable overcoat that buttoned in my desire to shine.
I felt the ache of continually butting up against an immovable object.
And that immovable object? My inability to do what I said I would do.
I was seated as an obstacle in my own metaphorical driveway, like a lump of rock that despite all efforts to move, shift, and even blast away via the use of drugs and alcohol, remained firmly fixed in place.
However as time progressed I found some things made me more energetic. Some things made me more tired. Over time I added more of the former and removed more of the latter. I started getting up earlier. I started having cold showers. I started writing.
I stopped and I started and I stopped again. Tens of times I stopped and started again. Some weeks I would be motivated as I listened to podcasts about silicon valley greats and boxing coaches, others I would hide my head under the rock of work and sleep and try to ignore how ruined I was as a man. How useless I was.
“A donkey” as my father would have said. “A bloody useless donkey.”
I found something funny after a couple of years. It was easier to get up earlier. It was easier to jump into a cold shower each morning.
Whether I was motivated was no longer a concern, the habitual nature of this practice made it “just happen”.
The seconds, minutes and hours over the preceding years had built slowly up into a critical mass, a mass that was cascading over my head and pushing me towards a goal that I had given up on. I was surfing on a great wave of habit that washed me onward despite myself.
And then, this year, it all came to a head. I spent seven consecutive weeks ticking ALL the boxes on my weekly goal lists. The longest I’d had previously was one week.
Seven weeks! This effect and the momentum that it generated in my life was nothing short of amazing. I realised that all the stories I’d heard of the greats and coaches were only the 10% of the iceberg that we could see. They didn’t show the pain, the uselessness, the utter redundancy of existence while trying to put together a life worth living. They didn’t tell of the internal quicksand that sucked you down as you failed again and again.
I feel stronger, more self aware. I bounce out of bed, both on the days I do it, and the days I have off. When I finish and head off to work, I am looking life in the eye and am ready to take it on with a large shoulder-mounted rail-gun and optional IR scope. The habitual nature of doing it has actually made it harder for me to NOT do it than do it.
My morning routine takes between one and one-and-a-half hours five days a week. For me this is the best time of day, when the family is still asleep, and I can be alone with my body and mind with no interruptions. I do about 25 minutes of physical, 15 min of spiritual, and the remainder mental practices.
Creating the routine has evolved over the months I’ve been doing it. I started with some things that I’ve been doing for years, such as getting up at five am, starting the day with a cold shower, and writing. These were good foundations to build the rest of the routine around. Why build from the ground up, when the bricks are already laid?
When I build my routines, I take elements from the Physical, Mental and Spiritual realms. I work on my body (physical), my skills, intelligence and memory (mental), and I try to establish a deeper connection between my conscious and subconscious to enhance my poise and creativity (spiritual).
5/3/1 Protocol for Morning Routines
Each month I program three weeks on, and one week off. This is from using the 5/3/1 weightlifting template from Jim Wendler. For three weeks I use the protocol, following as closely as possible to the routine and going hard. Three weeks is generally enough time to try an activity and see whether it has any benefit.
I then take a week to relax, regenerate, and ponder what improvements and additions I can make to the next months protocol. This is a time of honest self assessment. Where did I improve? Where did I go wrong? How can I get more bang for my buck? Where can I fit more in to the time I have? Where do I need to relax a little more?
It’s also a time to chill out and take the pressure off. I’ve found that I can focus more during the routine if I know there is an end-date. I know I won’t have to get up and do pushups forever. And I’ve found that due to the habitual nature of the routine, I often get up at 5am during my week off anyway.
Important Questions to Ask
To create this routine I used a common thought pattern and turned it into a question: What are the things I want to improve at but never have the time or inclination to do?
This question pulls out those items from my brain that I ponder under the surface, and only occasionally pop up into conscious thought. Like when I’m squatting and realise my ankle dorsiflexion is letting me down.
“I should really do something about that.”
I then use these items in conjunction with the overall goals I have for the year.
Here’s my broad physical goal list for this year:
Run Spartan Race
Better movement – more flexible, poised and nimble, lighter on my feet
more comfortable moving quickly and fluidly at 85-90kg
run 5k with ease
Improve fighting power, speed and technique
To hit these goals I need to:
Run each week
Squat each week
Deadlift each week
Do abs each week
Stretch each day
I go to the gym in the afternoons, and run on Sundays. So that leaves stretching to be done in the morning routine.
To further aid inquiry, I then ask the question: “What are the things I want to improve at but never have the time or inclination to do?” It could be more easily summed up as: “What am I really bad at that makes my life miserable?”
Stretching in general
Calf flexibility and ankle dorsiflexion
Shoulder rotation internal and external
I then brainstorm ways to improve these items, trying to hit multiple items with each solution. The objective is to both improve my weak points AND work towards my goals. I then have a range of options to select from, for example:
Pushups (pecs and shoulders)
Ab roller (abs and shoulders)
Reverse shoulder walk (shoulders and abs)
Calf stretches and rolling (calves)
Cossack squat (calves and conditioning)
Agile 8 (overall flexibility)
Couch hip flexor (hip flexibility)
Hollow body holds (abs)
Breath-in side bend Rudy (abs and ribcage)
I then pick and choose what will tick most of the boxes I require while fitting into the timeframe I have, which for physical work is about 20-25 minutes max. So into my morning routine I might select:
50 pushups with vest + superset abs – minimum 2 sets of 5x10sec max hold
reverse shoulder walk
couch hip flexor
(Side Note: For me the morning routine isn’t a punishing morale-killing half hour. It’s mildly tough but still a walk in the park. Some mornings I just don’t feel like doing it, but I do anyway. These are the mornings I break things down to their easiest. Take the pushups for example. I never specify set and rep breakdown. Some mornings I’ll do the entire 50 in one go. Some mornings when I’m feeling blah, I’ll do five sets of 10, with two minutes between each set. The tradeoff is that I need to superset abs for each set of pushups.)
In the Part 2 I’ll cover adding mental and spiritual exercises to your routine to round it out and form a super-positive start to your day. Stay tuned amigo, you’ll wanna read this one.
My children have become my lifeblood. Small and new humans that intrigue, amaze and frustrate me.
Yet I still struggle to stay present with them. This is not surprising really, when a 36 year old man is trying to converse with a four year old who is still making sense of the world. But I crave those moments of presence. When I see their sunny faces, and feel their warm, vibrant bodies against mine, I understand that it doesn’t get much better than this.
My mind tries to take me away from that presence. It wants to delve into the Meta, what’s happening behind the walls of my mind. I want to think, to analyse, to do anything but simply be in this moment. But that is an escape from life. There is nothing I could think that is more important than sharing these seconds of connection and bliss right now.
For they will be gone all too soon.
To have my boys still sharing with me, showing me, proud to tell their dad what they’ve seen, things they’ve done, how they felt… it’s thoroughly unremarkable and yet irreplaceable. These moments are only for me. Only I can understand and appreciate these sublime interactions with these new humans, created of my blood, sweat and tears.
I am so proud of my boys. And part of that pride is for myself and my wife. We have helped create them, and not just their little perfect bodies. We are helping to craft their minds, their motivations, their reactions to the world. Their emotions. When I see my seven year old reacting calmly to a stressful situation, and know that part of that reaction is because of our teaching, that is a moment worth savouring.
And it’s all the more satisfying when others looked down on us for our methods. Others thought that we were too lenient, that we should discipline more. That we should bring them into line.
But we saw the future. We saw that training at two years old informs the three year old, and then the four year old, and so on. We saw that creating thunderstorms in a toddler does not beget sunshine in an adult. We had only to look around at the men and women around us to see that the world did not need more robots at the mercy of their childhood training.
So we started at the end. What did we want our children to become? Thinking, analysing, emotionally fulfilled and alive adults? Or automatons, robotically re-enacting the traumas of early life with no self-awareness, androids programmed by the fears of their parents?
We have never allowed our kids to do whatever the hell they wanted. We have worked together with them from their earliest moments to help their understanding of what is appropriate behaviour. What is tolerable, and what is intolerable.
It’s a work in progress. And it’s progressing well.