Margaret Thatcher woke every morning at 5 a.m. and listened to a BBC radio program called Farming Today. Benjamin Franklin would rise each morning and ask himself, “What good shall I do today?” Disney CEO Bob Iger allegedly gets going at 4 a.m.
The world’s most successful people — we are often told — subject themselves to exacting morning routines that prepare them for their busy days. “Your morning routine determines whether or not your day will be a successful one” is a speculative statement made, in some variation, no less than a thousand times throughout lifestyle blogs, popular media, and even newspapers of record.
Is it true, though?
Do I need to meditate, dine heartily, sip ginger tea, avoid phone use, journal about gratitude, and take a jog before 8 a.m. to be successful? Or could I accomplish the same success if I hit the snooze button twice and scroll through Twitter before leaving my unmade bed and chugging a Red Bull on the way to work?
I like to think of myself as a morning person (although 4 a.m. is nighttime in my book), but I’ve never put much stock in following a rote agenda each day. And I’m not the only one.
Do I need to meditate, dine heartily, sip ginger tea, avoid phone use, journal about gratitude, and take a jog before 8 a.m. to be successful?
“I have not seen that strict adherence to morning routines leads to measurable results in many people over the long term,” says Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Patrick Tully. What’s most important, he argues, is focusing on an awareness of “how we feel in the moment — rather than a strict action we take.”
Plenty of research backs him up and validates my reluctance to treat each morning like basic training. A 2011 study in Thinking and Reasoning concluded that “weakened inhibitory control during a non-optimal time of day may lead to serendipitous discoveries of new ideas for insight problems that may lead to a solution.” Translation: You can solve creative problems at any time of day, not just in the mornings, and test subjects even came up with good ideas when they were tired and foggy.
That’s not to say you should keep yourself groggy in an attempt to achieve continual strokes of genius, but rather that mornings could be a time for serendipity and discovery instead of routine.
Neuroscientists have recently been paying more attention to cognitive flexibility, the human capability to change gears between different tasks and processes. Cognitive flexibility was previously thought to be determined in childhood, but a study in Current Directions in Psychological Science last year suggests this trait could be tempered by avoiding strict habits, and the result could be more effective and resilient thinking patterns that change your life.
Perhaps the most difficult habit to break is the compulsion of every motivational speaker and their nephew to resound the virtues of following a morning routine.
Go ahead and ditch the pressure to check off a to-do list, and embrace the unexpected upon arising for a creative boost. On Monday, look in the mirror and give Benjamin Franklin’s morning reflection a try. On Tuesday, take your cat for a walk. Wednesday, write a sonnet. If you must, go ahead and wake up at 4:00 in the morning, but I shall continue to do nothing, good or otherwise, before 7.
*“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.” —Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
This article is featured in the March/April 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.