We’ve all seen the Peloton ad by now, and probably also read several takes on the backlash, and the backlash to the backlash. But with as much ink that’s been spilled, or pixelated, on the ad, we’re still not making the most of Peloton-gate. The questions of whether the ad has sexist undertones, or what it says about body image, aren’t unimportant. But the ad is also a symbol of how we’ve gone off course in how we think about our mornings.
I have built a morning routine that works for me, and many others have built healthy habits that bring them energy and joy at the start of their day. But at some point, the Morning Routine became more than just a way to start the day. It became a craze — a fetish, even. The Morning Routine has become ground zero for FOMO and self-judgment. Maybe some up-and-coming director will make a horror movie about it: The Morning Routines of Others. Because when Instagram is feeding you self-satisfied stories of people’s amazing feats of productivity and self-care before you’ve dragged yourself out of bed, the message is bleak: Everyone else is happier, healthier and more productive than you. What exactly are you doing with your life?
You know the type: “I’m up at 4:30 a.m., do an hour on the elliptical, cook a delicious vegan breakfast for my perfect family and fire off a dozen emails before watching the sunrise as I paddleboard to work.”
In an Atlantic piece, “The False Promise of Morning Routines,” Marina Koren writes that there is a “sinister” side to all this predawn perfection. “The through line is the same: A carefully choreographed morning routine is the key to a productive day,” she writes. “These people have it together, the stories seem to imply, and so can you, if you just wake up at 5:30 a.m.”
Koren rightly notes that our morning routine mania is fueled by a culture obsessed with early-rising self-optimization. In this definition of success, productivity is king. Our culture celebrates people who start their day very early —“rising with the sun,” as the Peloton ad instructor puts it. We define ourselves by how early we wake up, celebrate how little sleep we get and equate our value with how much we can accomplish.
That’s an incredibly narrow definition of success. It leaves no room for who we are, the actual impact of what we’re doing, connecting with ourselves and others, our ability to recharge ourselves throughout the day or the reality that the optimal time to get up depends on what time we went to sleep. Otherwise getting up at 4:30 or 5:30 or 6:30 a.m., without getting enough sleep, simply means that your body will automatically crave carbs and sugars during the day — and that you’ll be less productive and experience less joy throughout your day.
As Gordon Flett, a personality researcher at York University in Canada, tells Koren, all this morning routine obsessiveness can also have mental health consequences. “I’m concerned about people seeing the way things are for other people and thinking they really have to do the same thing, and they don’t take into account necessarily some of the constraints and realities that they have to deal with,” he says. “People are sitting there going, ‘I need to be perfect. Other people are doing it; I’m not. It’s attainable, but I’m not that way.’ And they get locked into a very self-critical pattern.”
This self-critical pattern is the voice I call the obnoxious roommate living in our head. It’s the voice that feeds on putting us down and strengthening our insecurities and doubts. “Why aren’t you waking up earlier? The sun’s nearly up, what have you accomplished today?”
Rather than succumb to our self-judgments, we have an opportunity to evict our obnoxious roommate and create a morning routine that works for us — whether or not we tell the rest of the world about it on social media.
It starts with acknowledging the necessary role sleep plays in an effective morning routine. A good morning starts the night before. As Thrive’s Sleep Editor-at-Large, Shelly Ibach, says, “sleep well at night to dream big during the day. Sleep well to be your best self.” And the research is clear: Unless we have a genetic mutation that means we don’t require a lot of sleep, the vast majority of us need seven to nine hours to wake up fully recharged.
A good night’s sleep sets our bodies and minds up for peak performance. As Baba Shiv, a professor at the Stanford School of Business and an expert on how sleep impacts decision-making, wrote for Thrive Global, “If you want to make better decisions, rise to a higher level of performance, and take care of your brain, commit to getting the sleep you need, every night. Your morning self — recharged, refreshed and ready to take on the biggest challenges and most important decisions — will thank you.”
Truly making the best of each morning means seeing it as more than just a time slot where we knock items off our to-do list. It’s that special time, before the demands of the day take over, when we can tap into our center — that place of calm, strength and wisdom we all have in us.
I’m not sure what Marcus Aurelius’s morning routine was, but it probably didn’t look like the Roman equivalent of the Peloton ad (not sure what that would be — maybe being chased by lions?). It would more likely reflect this quote, which I have laminated in my wallet, on my desk and on my nightstand: “People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.”
However we choose to use our mornings, we have an opportunity to take a page from the Marcus Aurelius playbook. When we do, we’ll set ourselves up for a day of less stress, more productivity and more joy.
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