Why bother with a morning ritual?

Published by Nela Dunato on in Productivity, Tips for creatives

This is a question I’ve asked myself many times.

You may be wondering what having a morning ritual has to do with fostering creative productivity. There is a connection, and I’ve found out through practice that a fulfilling morning ritual makes your whole day infinitely better.

From a person who used to sleep in ‘till the very last minute before getting up for work, I became the person that relishes in a slow, mindful process that prepares me for my day in a gentle manner.

Routines don’t come naturally to me, and I twitch every time I hear words like “routine”, “predictable”, “schedule” or “plan” (which is why I prefer the term “ritual” – it has a magic quality to it).

Why bother with a morning ritual?

Why I designed my morning ritual

The purpose of a morning ritual is to give yourself what you need in order to fill your own creative well, so you can give value to others without feeling stressed and resentful.

Doing creative work for a living takes a lot of energy, and if we just give, give and give, without caring for ourselves, our train is bound to end up at the Burnout station. It’s not enough just to take a vacation every once in awhile, or have a weekend off.

Replenishing your creative energy is a daily practice. [Tweet this!]

I don’t care what other people do and what scientists recommend – the only thing that matters is that your ritual works for you, and that it leaves you relaxed and energized – in other words, ready and eager to confront any challenge the day throws at you. It can take as short or as long as you want. If sipping coffee on your porch for 10 minutes is all you need, that’s great.

Give yourself whatever you need.

Setting up a morning ritual

The first step toward creating your ritual is to identify how much time you can assign to it in the morning. If you have a fixed work schedule, this might mean getting up half an hour earlier to fit in some self-care practices before you head to office. If you work from home and don’t like getting up early (like me), you can push your workday to start an hour later.

Pick one habit

Many of us will try to start our ritual with a ton of new habits we want to do, but this tends to backfire (as I’ve learned through experience). A better approach is to build up your ritual one habit at a time, and add new ones only when your older habits have taken root.

Your first habit can be anything, but the simpler and easier it is, the better. If you’ve never exercised in the morning, starting with a 2 kilometer run is too huge a step. Taking a brisk walk around your block might be a better idea.

The first habit you build is your anchor. All other habits will be added in relation to this anchor – usually right after it.

Gradually add new habits

When is the right time to add a new component to your morning ritual? This is pretty individual. Some people recommend sticking with one habit at least for a week before adding another one. Experiment and see for yourself.

Try to do the habits in the exact same order every day. If you do this, your brain comes to expect that certain things follow one another, and won’t put up a fight anymore, whereas if you switch the order of your habits, every single one will be much harder to do. An app like Google Keep, Todoist or Fabulous where you can create a checklist of your habits in order can help track what’s next.

Don’t make the ritual too elaborate and too long

One of my first experiments in habits took me 2 hours every single morning. It consisted of more than 10 habits, and I didn’t want to shorten it because I wasn’t willing to ask myself which of the habits were essential for me, and which ones I could let go of. I started missing days, and eventually it broke down. It took me 6 months before I would try to make a new ritual.

The qualities of an effective morning ritual

Your morning ritual is not yet another thing to achieve to prove that you’re an awesome person. Your ritual is built for you. It’s not a contest in who has the most elaborate routine. It’s not a race to Get Shit Done before 6 AM. The point is to be kind to your body and mind, in whichever way you find is most comfortable for you.

Here’s what I’ve found very helpful in building a ritual that sticks:

  1. It’s enjoyable in itself
  2. It brings a sense of accomplishment
  3. It’s easy to do no matter where you are (on weekends, travel etc.)
  4. Bonus: it includes a creative activity

If it’s not enjoyable, you’ll hate your life before the day’s even started. That’s no good.

Make it ridiculously easy. And then make it easier. And even easier than that. Go with the easiest possible thing you can imagine.

What it takes to make an effective morning ritual

Artists: engage your creativity first thing in the morning

I wrote about how it’s important to have your personal art practice even if you have a creative career. Having it be a part of your morning routine is a great way to make sure you do it every day, no matter how busy you are.

I’ve been living the lie that “I don’t have time for personal work” for years. I would work until the evening, and then collapse on the couch with a book, not able to muster the strength to create any more. Then I challenged myself to draw and paint first thing in the morning, to make sure it happens (in line with my productivity rule create first, consume later).

The most urgent and important things you have to do will happen no matter what. It’s the non-urgent things that suffer the most, so be sure to do them first.

What to do if you fall off the wagon

It’s important to plan for disruptions and situations when things don’t go smooth in advance. If you haven’t thought of what you’ll do when you unintentionally break your good habits, you risk losing them altogether.

You’ll miss your ritual occasionally. You’ll sleep in, get sick, need to address an urgent problem, or go on a vacation and say “screw everything!”. It’s not a case of if, but when it happens.

Remember that it’s not a big deal. You can get back on track, just don’t make it into a huge symbolic thing. Take it one day at a time – every day is a new beginning. Remember how you’ve built the ritual in the first place? Go back to that.

If on occasion you don’t have time for your entire ritual, shorten it. Instead of a 20 minute meditation, do a 5 minute one, or one minute. The shortened ritual still reinforces a habit, where skipping it altogether breaks it.

What my morning ritual is like

You may be wondering by now what my morning habits are, and I’ll tell you so you can get inspired if you wish – but please don’t pressure yourself into doing things just because others are doing them. Your ritual will only be effective if the motivation for those habits comes from you.

My morning ritual looks like this:

  1. Drink a big glass of water (sometimes lemon water, sometimes plain tap water)
  2. Shortest yoga session ever (a few Sun salutes and some gentle stretches)
  3. Meditation (10-20 min)
  4. Breakfast (usually fruit or a green smoothie)
  5. Journaling
  6. Setting intentions for the day
  7. Personal creative practice (30-60 minutes)

I don’t have a regular wake up time (that’s something I’m still working on), so whenever I wake up is my starting point for the ritual. After that, I get on with my regular work activities.

If I wake up early (around 6.30) I can spend more time doing art, and I complete my workday before lunch. If I wake up at 8, I make it a bit shorter, and only sketch for half an hour.

At no point during my morning ritual do I check email or social media (it’s a time-sucking black hole, and ruins my “zone”).

By completing my daily ritual, I know that I’ve done something good for my body, my mind and my creativity. I know that no matter what happens in the day (and stressful things will happen), I’ll be better equipped to handle it.

Do you have a morning ritual?

Care to share what it is? Feel free to write in the comments, and let others be inspired as well.


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon or Jackson's Art Supplies. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

5 responses to “Why bother with a morning ritual?”

  1. Hooray for morning rituals! :) Ha. I really love the idea of adding something creative in the morning. I’ve never thought about this. I’m always saying that I never have time to watercolor. So, I think I’ll try adding that to my morning routine next week! Even if it’s a very small painting. Thanks for that idea.

    I’m always tweaking what I do – so I love your comments about doing what works for you! Woohoo.

    Thanks for sharing your routine with us!!

  2. I followed you from Jennifer’s blog :)
    I think you make some excellent points. A lot of that is true for any routines. One routine that I’m proud of is sticking to exercising 6 times a week, no matter where, no matter when.

  3. @Jennifer thanks for your comment, and I’m totally cheering for the watercolor practice! :D It can be a small painting, or just a quick sketch, or a work in progress that you’ll finish over a couple of days… There are many possibilities to fit it in :)
    Tweaking is huge, how likely is it that we’re going to stumble on the exact perfect thing the first time around? :) (I rarely do.)

    @Anne welcome! :) Any friend of Jennifer’s is a friend of mine.
    I admire that you’re sticking to such an ambitious exercise routine, that’s fantastic! If you can do that, you can do anything :)

  4. I love your work, your honesty, and your playful and earnest work, Nela! Thank you. I have been writing “Morning pages” (as in Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” and/or sketching a personal mandala for many years now. A3 paper, felt pens: kids’ stuff and proud of that.
    Maybe just maybe I can include some of the outcomes on my new website (which is in gestation just now…) Thank you for encouraging me, and for being you! xx

  5. Thank you so much for your kind words, Kathy!
    Oooh, I LOVE the personal mandala practice idea. I would be happy to see those on your website, please let me know when you get it up! :)

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