Time — is there ever enough of it?
It sure doesn’t feel like it.
There are commutes to complete and appointments to keep and grocery store checkouts to navigate.
And those responsibilities only multiply when you introduce marriage, family and children into the equation.
So what time does that leave for you? When are you supposed to take care of yourself?
Attaining and Retaining a Sense of Balance
Because life moves so quickly, and because you’re constantly pulled in a million directions, it’s difficult to maintain your equilibrium.
Yet you know the most satisfied, most successful version of yourself is the version that’s in harmony physically, emotionally and spiritually.
And you’re desperate for that balance.
You’re desperate to block out the noise to achieve (a few moments of) peace of mind.
You’re desperate to raise your professional peaks while reducing the depth and duration of your valleys.
You’re desperate to avoid belly fat while enhancing your endurance, muscular tone and how confident you feel in a swimsuit.
And you’re desperate to carve out the space in your daily schedule to do all this — even though it seems there aren’t enough hours in the day.
But what if I told you there were?
What if I told you all you needed was 15 minutes?
Accepting and Addressing the Problem
I am not a morning person.
I’ve never been a good sleeper, and I’ve always loved staying up late; as the only conscious person in the house, I can watch “Varsity Blues” on cable for the 237th time without fear of being judged.
This combination creates a problem when my alarm clock sounds.
For much of my life, I slept as late as I could, until that last possible second that would still allow me to get where I needed to go on time.
But a few years ago, I decided to experiment with exercising first thing in the morning.
Life was getting busier, and I suspected the only way I’d get to work out as much as I wanted/needed to was to slot it when my schedule was almost certain to be free.
That suspicion has proved accurate. Though the adjustment period was rough, working out is now a staple of my pre-work routine.
Encouraged by that accomplishment, I’ve since integrated additional self-improvement initiatives into my morning mix, including meditation and journal writing, among others.
These initiatives nurture my mind, body and spirit while also preparing me to maximize my potential throughout the day.
And if you’re willing to sacrifice a quarter-hour of sleep, they will do the same for you.
Maximizing Your Mornings
Below is a step-by-step game plan that breaks down how to make the most of your day’s opening act.
But first, a couple things to note:
— This approach works for novices, as well as for those looking for long-term maintenance. It also can always be expanded. In the interest of full disclosure, I dedicate more than 15 minutes to these activities, but that’s because I have the time. If, say, my wife and I were ever lucky enough to have children, this would be my game plan.
— The order you complete each task is entirely up to you, based on what works best for you — and figuring that out might take some experimentation. I have listed the tasks in the order that works best for me.
Now, onto the routine…
Step 1: Exercise (7 minutes)
What you don’t want to do is often what you need to do the most.
Life has a strange sense of humor in that regard.
When you want to be alone, you need to be with others.
When you’re scared to write, writing is the only antidote to that fear.
And when you first wake up, forced from the stillness of sleep, the last thing you want to do is move — even though it’s guaranteed to make you feel better.
I’d always been dubious of that guarantee, but not anymore.
Don’t get me wrong — there are still days when my devil’s advocate dares me to stay in bed. But once I begin exercising, my muscles loosen, the sweat starts beading and that defiance steadily fades.
And by the time I finish working out, my body, from head to toe, is fully awake.
This block should be divided into three segments:
*Warm-up (1 minute): Jumping jacks; running/jogging in place; (miming) jumping rope — do one or two of these or a combination of all three. Dealer’s choice. All you’re trying to do is to get the blood flowing and limit your chances of injury.
*Workout (5 minutes): When you’ve got time to go to the gym, you’ve got time to target specific muscle groups.
But this is about getting the most bang for your suck, and few exercises provide more bang than the basics: push-ups, squats and lunges.
You don’t need any equipment, and you don’t even need that much space. So there are no excuses to not get it done.
Everyone is different, but in five minutes, I’m able to do 20 push-ups, 20 squats and 10 lunges (one rep consists of lunging with both your left and right leg) — twice.
Advanced tip: On your second round of squats and lunges, instead of going down and coming all the way up, go down and then pulse up and down 2 or 3 inches. Because you don’t get the relief of coming all the way up, your muscles stay fully engaged, taking your results to the next level.
Try it for, say, 15 seconds at a time and see how it feels. It’s harder than it sounds.
*Cool-down (1 minute): This is about injury prevention, as well as maintaining/improving your flexibility.
Think of the stretches you did for middle school gym class (click each description for a visual where necessary): bending over to touch your toes; pinning one arm across your chest with your other arm; pull each heel up to your glutes; these sorts of things. I also like this yoga squat.
Do these simple stretches today, and you’ll feel a little less resistance — in every way — tomorrow.
Step 2: Meditate (5 minutes)
As someone who’s obsessed with self-improvement, I’m a sucker for articles proclaiming the habits of the highly successful. Especially listicle articles.
And the more I’ve clicked on these stories, the more I’ve noticed one habit on list after list:
At various points in the past, I dabbled with meditation. But never with any direction, and never with any success.
I’d sit there, trying to focus on one thing specifically or nothing at all. I could do neither. And by the time my timer went off, I was more stressed and frustrated than when I’d started.
So about year and a half ago, I signed up for a class, figuring the structure and instruction would give me a chance to get out of my own way.
Thankfully, I was right. And I’ve been meditating ever since.
The results have been so positive that I now view meditation like any foundational health block, be it a nutritious diet or a quality night’s sleep. It impacts everything, making it a little easier for me to be me.
If you want to sign up for a class, go for it. But you don’t have to, because naturally, there are apps that show you the way. I’ve heard a number of people recommend Headspace, which not only teaches you how to meditate but offers guided sessions ranging from one to 10 minutes.
No matter what app/class/technique you choose, remember the following:
— Consistency matters. It’s probably the most important ingredient for your practice. Just like doing a few push-ups every other Tuesday won’t do anything for your pecs, meditating regularly is the only way to reap its benefits.
— Don’t judge your practice. Some of your sessions are going to be a blissful breeze; others are going to be wracked with endless thoughts and anxiety about what you should be doing instead of meditating. Both are normal, and both are inevitable; just let your mind process what it needs to process. And honestly, the more anxious you feel, the more you need to stick with it till the end of the session.
Step 3: Listen to Music (2 minutes)
I don’t listen to the radio anymore. Thanks to podcasts, I can hear my favorite comedians and commentators right on my phone.
The problem, though, is that in the morning, the inherently subdued energy level of these talk shows mirrors that of my own. And I need something more.
Which is why I’ve begun relying on the sound of music.
Like a boxer entering the ring or a baseball player striding to the plate, I now invoke varying songs to get me into a mindset of performance and productivity.
If I’m feeling down, I pick something uplifting. If I’m facing a challenge, I pick something motivational. (Hint: Anything off the “Rocky IV” soundtrack works.)
The old saying goes that music is the language of the soul, and I can attest to that each morning.
There’s something instinctive, almost visceral that happens when you hear your favorite beat or lyrics. It cuts to your core and alters your frame of mind, which can change your outlook and output for the day.
Truthfully, you can’t listen to too much music. But if you don’t know where to fit it in, do it during the dentist-recommended two minutes you’re brushing your teeth — it will cost you zero extra time (hence why this section doesn’t count toward the 15-minute total) and will ensure healthy oral hygiene.
That’s what’s known as a win-win.
Step 4: Make Your Bed (1 minute)
Like many, the first chore I was assigned as a kid was to make my bed.
And like many, I resisted.
Why should I do that? I was just going to mess it up again that night. What was the point?
As always, though, my parents won out.
And eventually, they won me over.
I now make my bed every morning, even though my allowance no longer depends on it.
There are plenty of reasons for this:
I like the way it looks; Messiness makes me uneasy; I want to realign the sheets; A made bed is the best bed to get back into; My wife and I paid for those throw pillows, so we’re damn sure going to use them.
But the reason that most compels me is this:
It’s a habit.
Admittedly, straightening out some sheets and pulling up a comforter doesn’t require much effort.
But that doesn’t matter.
What matters is that each morning I wake up committed to a task. And each morning, I follow through on that commitment.
This is a transferable skill I can apply to all facets of my life, whether it’s at work, at home, with my writing, with anything.
And the more productive habits I can build, the more productive I can be.
Step 5: Write in a Journal (2 minutes)
If you’re like I am in the morning, your brain resembles a teenager, simultaneously exhibiting dual, almost opposing personalities.
In one sense, it’s sluggish and uninterested, unable or unwilling to snap out of its half-state.
In another, it’s racing, scrambling to figure out how to handle my to-do list, and freaking out over the tasks that seem overwhelming or outright impossible.
While the former disappears, or at the very least diminishes, with increased consciousness (and a hit of caffeine), the latter can be a struggle to manage (especially with a hit of caffeine).
Yes, the four steps outlined above are designed to help, if only tangentially. But there’s nothing more effective than facing your issues directly.
Writing in a journal is the initial step in doing just that. Before you can conquer a challenge, you first must acknowledge it.
For the last couple years, I’ve journaled consistently. Every day, I spend a few minutes putting down on paper (or a running Google doc, as it may be) whatever’s bothering me or giving me trouble.
If I don’t unload what’s in my head first thing, it’ll give me a headache throughout the day.
While this brain dump is helpful — and I’d recommend everyone experimenting with that too — there are times when it feels too rambling, too aimless.
The Five Minute Journal, however, is the exact opposite.
This daily diary is much more targeted, more pointed, making you complete statements like, “I am grateful for…” and answer questions such as, “What can I do to make today great?”
(Each day’s entry has two parts: The first you do in the morning, the second you do at night — meaning your morning entry should take around two minutes.)
In my (relatively) brief experience with it, I’ve found it plants the seeds for a productive, positive day.
For instance, on the day I started it, I put down that I wanted to be better about appreciating the little things in life.
Not exactly soul-penetrating prose, and on the surface, a generic throwaway line.
But a half-hour after I wrote it, as I walked into my office building, I noticed the sound of a bird chirping.
I’ve (mindlessly) made that same walk for over three years now, and not once had I ever been tuned in enough to hear that peaceful sound.
As my mother-the-therapist explained to me, it’s good to be selfish.
Being selfish is putting yourself first. It’s doing what you need to do, so you can do what’s needed for others.
(Whereas being self-centered is putting yourself first with no regard for anyone else. That’s the bad one.)
There are endless excuses for why you can’t follow this 5-step plan. But until you stop making them, until you stop putting yourself second, the world around you is going to keep getting your second-best (or worse).
Now’s the time to prioritize YOU.
And you don’t need that much time to do it.
Call to Action
Eliminate your weaknesses and become a bolder risk-taker, decision-maker and communicator with help from my 5-step strategic video.
Originally published at medium.com