Benjamin Spall: Start Your Day Off Right – Transcript
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Welcome to Simplify! I’m Ben Schuman-Stoler…
Caitlin Schiller: And I’m Caitlin Schiller.
Ben: So I’ve been up since like 6 o’clock. I’m here. I’m awake. I’ve had coffee, and another coffee, and a banana, and another coffee. How was your morning?
Caitlin: Good. I also had coffee and a banana. I was also up at 6 a.m. But that’s because I went to the gym. Went to the gym, had a coffee, ate some food, here now –– all my boxes are ticked for a good morning.
Ben: That’s what you need for a good morning?
Caitlin: Yeah, pretty much. I wake up, I have coffee, I go to the gym, I eat and then I come here. And that’s my little like routine. I really like my morning schedule.
Ben: Right, morning routines –– that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Because you talked to Benjamin Spall, who wrote a relatively new book. It’s called… what’s the full title?
Ben: And it came out of a 5-year online-only project he did with Michael Xander, who’s actually based in Berlin, I think.
Caitlin: He is, yeah.
Ben: So, hi Michael!
Caitlin: Hi Michael!
Ben: And what they did was they asked people to submit what they did in the morning: from what they ate to how long they slept, to what they drank. And basically what they did when they first woke up.
Caitlin: So yeah, the book consists of five years of anecdotal research on what makes a good morning. And there are actually patterns––I mean, obviously there are just so many things you can do when you first wake up in the morning––but there are patterns. And I want to say formally up top, I was really skeptical about this book, which you’ll hear me admit to Benjamin Spall in the interview.
Ben: Why? Like the whole concept of the project or the just morning routines in general or what do you mean?
Caitlin: Yeah, honestly, the whole thing. I know that people are really fascinated by morning routines, and I have always sort of sniffed at it in the way that as a teenager I would in a very hipster way sniff it like pop music –– I would think, “Why do you like that?” like a jerk, and I felt kind of like that about this book. But then I opened it and I thought this is so cool. And I ended up reading it from cover to cover. And it was so interesting because people are so singular and strange. You should hear some of these wild routines. Some of them involve oatmeal, some of them involve coffee––pretty normal––but some of them involve fish.
Ben: I’m into that. I like fish.
Caitlin: I don’t want to know about the context. So yeah, fish in the morning personally, I think is kind of gross. But some people are into that and it’s what it takes to get them to have a good morning. And that is what Xander and Spall were after here. They wanted to figure out what exactly it was that helped people have a good morning and be their most effective.
Ben: Right. And I guess one thing that people can look for, why you might as well just be late to everything, if you’re going to hit the snooze button.
Caitlin: Absolutely. Yeah. So listen in for why the snooze button is basically the devil and I guess we can just get into it, yeah?
Ben: Yeah, let’s do it! And remember to stick around after the interview when Caitlin and I will make a book list to dive a little deeper into the things that Caitlin and Benjamin Spall talk about. So we’ll catch you right after.
Caitlin: Alright. See you soon.
Caitlin interviews Benjamin Spall
Caitlin: Could you please introduce yourself?
Benjamin Spall: Sure. My name is Benjamin Spall, and I’m the author of My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired, as well as the founding editor of mymorningroutine.com.
Caitlin: OK, cool. So, it seems like the central conceit of this book––or maybe it’s not the central conceit––but one of the things that I picked up on, when I was reading through it, is that mornings are really difficult but they’re important.
Benjamin: Yeah, exactly right. It’s kind of surprising: so many people think they’ll pick up the book or check out the website, and it will just be kind of laid out on a plate for them. But in reality, as you go through the interviews in the book, it’s surprising how different all of them are and also the different things people struggle with. And so many people like they struggle with actually getting up in the morning or they struggle with actually pushing themselves to go to bed. But the consistent theme is kind of that struggle, you know.
Caitlin: Yeah, and it seems to me that there are more people who are night owls than morning people. Because I myself am a morning person, and whenever I admit this, I get kind of like cynical angry looks from people. But it seems like a fair amount of the guests that you have in this book, or the people you interviewed are actually morning people or have convinced themselves into being morning people. Where does this book come from actually? Could you just take me back there?
Benjamin: Yeah, so we’ve had a website what I previously mentioned––mymorningroutine.com––for over five years now, and that kind of came out of the idea of this book that I read which I’ll mention later as well. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which is an excellent book. And I read it around six years ago now, and I was fascinated by the idea of kind of the habits that we do every single day can kind of, you know, over time build up and become something really important in your life.
So it was around this time, that I was introduced to Michael Xander, he’s also based in Germany. But he had this whole idea of doing something similar. So we came up with the idea of just interviewing people about their morning routines. And this was about five and a half years ago, and back then, morning routines really weren’t being talked about as much as they are now. Because you kind of hear about them from all angles nowadays, but it was kind of a relatively new idea back then. So we started by just interviewing our friends, and then we put a form on the website where people could suggest themselves, or suggest other friends. And over time it really, really grew.
Caitlin: And what was amazing to me, was that people are so obsessed with this topic. Why do you think that is?
Benjamin: I think, part of it is voyeurism and I think that it’s really interesting to hear what people are doing in this kind of minute detail. And I definitely find this myself, like I’ve had to re-read my own book many many times while preparing for interviews and writing articles. And sometimes I’ll be reading a certain part of an interview just to kind of get a quote or something that I need, and I actually find myself just reading, you know, continuing to read. And for something that I’ve personally read, and written, and edited so much, I think that’s kind of a good testament to how it kind of sucks you in reading about these things.
And this is especially true of the website as well. Because like I said, we’ve published a new routine every single week for five and a half years now, and we just keep getting more and more interest.
Caitlin: Yeah. I think, voyeurism is definitely true. It’s sort of like why people enjoy eavesdropping as well, and actually part of why, I think, people like podcasts, it’s like eavesdropping on a conversation.
I can’t think of any other subject… Maybe people’s sex lives would be that interesting to read about. But I wonder if there’s something to say about how morning tends to be sort of a private sacred time if that’s part of why it’s so appealing. I don’t know, I was trying to figure it out as I read this. Because I also found it really interesting.
I’m going to admit something that isn’t super nice, but I was a little bit skeptical of this book when I picked it up. I thought how original, how interesting can this possibly be? Because you know, we see a lot of nonfiction. And I thought, “All right, I’ll give it a breeze through. I don’t know if I want to talk to this guy. I’m going to give it the hoary eye, we’re going to figure it out.” And then I found myself, I read through the entire thing cover to cover.
Benjamin: Oh great!
Caitlin: Yeah, and I really enjoyed it and found it interesting. And I was wondering, what patterns did you see emerging as you were writing this?
Benjamin: So, the main pattern that we saw emerging is so many of the people we spoke to – both the kind of higher more famous end of the spectrum and the more unknown end – they found it really important to start really small. Because when you keep your routine short and easy to accomplish, especially in the beginning as you’re creating it, this greatly increases your chances of actually sticking to it. And I know, this is kind of common knowledge to many people, but so many people, they’ll think about starting a morning routine – and I did this back in the day – and you’re just kind of want to throw everything at it all at once.
So, you’ll be thinking about it on a Sunday evening, and you’re like, “OK, tomorrow Monday, I’ll get up and I’ll run for half an hour, then I’ll meditate for 15 minutes, and then I’ll do this, I’ll do that.” And it’s this big thing, you know, it’s a two-hour mess. And to be honest, you’re really not going to stick with that over the long term, you’re probably not going to stick with it for a couple of days.
So we recommend in the book just keeping everything short. Like, instead of deciding to do a half hour run––if you don’t normally do any exercise in the morning––it’s a good idea to just think, “OK, I’ll just stretch. You know, I’ll do some light stretching, and might do some jumping jacks.” Just keep it very, very simple.
The same with the meditation: if you’ve never really meditated before, or you tried years ago and haven’t really come back to it, we suggest doing kind of five minutes. You know, just sitting down five minutes––even two minutes, if you can’t find five minutes––just to kind of bring yourself into it, and then allow yourself to keep doing it every day for a week or two weeks. And then, after that point, if you’re really enjoying any of these things, you can increase the length of them. But don’t feel like you have to.
Caitlin: Yeah, it’s a good point. We have such grand ideas of what we can actually do in terms of new habit formation. But yeah, you’re totally right: if we don’t start small, it’s impossible. There’s this concept of the “habit stack.” Can you talk a little bit about what that is?
Benjamin: Yeah. So, I got this idea from Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit. And I can’t remember if he specifically called it that, or if we renamed it afterwards. I honestly don’t remember. So the idea is, a “habit stack” is basically one habit followed by another habit, followed by another habit. And in The Power of Habit, Duhigg talks about how a habit is basically just a cue, followed by a routine, followed by a reward.
So the cue––to give a negative example––the cue could be waking up, and then grabbing your phone, and kind of holding in an inch from your face, when you check email and Twitter. And then the reward could kind of be that feeling of “I’m connected.” And even though in that moment, it’s not particularly good for you, that’s kind of what the reward is. And the reason we talk about habit stacks in your morning routine is you have that very clear habit of waking up every single day, you know, hopefully. So you wake up, and then you go to the bathroom, and then after that you’ve just done two things, you can then tag on anything you want. So right now you may tag on going to the kitchen, you may tag on reading or opening the fridge. But you can just as easily tag on meditating for five minutes or doing a very light workout.
And these little habits – and this is especially important to keep things short and simple, because then it’s easier to kind of continue on – but these little habits can be stacked on top of each other. And in the beginning, you may want to write them down on a piece of paper or somewhere where you’ll see them, just to remind you what you’re doing, and also it’s kind of a way to stick to it. But yeah, generally they just kind of go on from another. So for example, often people floss and then they’ll brush their teeth. It’s kind of like that: you just know what comes next. You know that after meditating for five minutes you then stretch your back or something. So it’s kind of just an easy way to get through your morning routine, let’s say.
Caitlin: OK, so then it’s just like building blocks. It makes it seem not quite so daunting.
Benjamin: Yeah, it’s very simple. I think, we refer to them as Jenga stacks, you know. It’s a very simple concept, but it’s just a way of looking at it to just to kind of show how simple it can be.
Caitlin: Are there new habits that you’ve adopted since you’ve been doing all this research?
Benjamin: There are! I’d say the main one is quite boring compared to some of the people I interview. But the main one is kind of just keeping my mornings as calm as possible. And the way I do that is by keeping my phone outside of my bedroom. And it’s kind of funny, because I actually only started doing that last year after running the website for over four years. And it kind of shows how you need to be told the same thing over and over again, you know. Because you just don’t listen to it the first time.
So I’ve been hearing at that point for four years: keep your phone outside your bedroom, put it on airplane mode, generally just don’t interact with it in the morning if you don’t have to. And so I eventually did it last year, I brought an analog alarm clock into my bedroom. And so at night, approximately an hour before going to bed, I always put my phone on airplane mode, take into the kitchen. And then the next morning, unless I have a call or a meeting that I need to check the status of just beforehand, I don’t check it, I don’t take it off airplane mode.
And honestly, I find that it’s really been great for my mornings in that it means that I’m not kind of immediately checking email, immediately seeing Twitter. And it really brings that kind of calm groundedness into my morning that I previously didn’t have.
Caitlin: Yeah, I think that is actually really really great advice. I started doing the same thing since Ben actually did an interview with Arianna Huffington about two years ago, and I listened to it. And hearing her, I thought, “OK, I’ll give this a try”. It’s helped my mornings so much, but that single thing that I still find really vexing is that alarm clocks sound so awful. Have you found an analog alarm clock that is not incredibly jarring and objectionable?
Benjamin: No, I haven’t. Mine – it looks very nice, but it’s very, as you say, a very jarring. And it’s funny, yeah, Arianna told us that she personally doesn’t wake with an alarm. And we say in the book, “If you don’t need to wake up to an alarm and if you can pretty consistently, you know, guess the time you’ll wake up – that’s fine, don’t use an alarm.
But most of us, you know, if we have a job, or even if we generally wake up on time, most of us are going to need an alarm just to hedge against oversleeping.
Caitlin: Yeah. So, as you were talking to people, was there a routine that really stood out to you?
Benjamin: Yeah, there were several. And it’s kind of funny because it’s like a paradox basically. Because in the book, we talk about how simple you should keep things, but then to me, the ones that stick out the most are kind of the craziest ones, you know?
Caitlin: Of course.
Benjamin: So, we interview General Stanley McChrystal for the book, and he’s a retired four-star US Army General. So he gets up about 4 a.m.––and he’s been doing this for about 30 years––and then he’ll immediately go on a run to start his day. And the reason for that is, now he’s an entrepreneur, so he feels like he can’t get it in later in the day. So he’ll immediately run, he’ll then run back home, and then he’ll get ready for work.
And one of them is interesting things about him––and it clearly worked for him, but I definitely couldn’t do this––is he generally doesn’t eat until dinnertime. So he won’t have breakfast, he won’t have lunch. And when I questioned him further on this––because I was like, “that sounds terrible”––when I questioned him further about this, he said that if he’s starting to feel hungry around lunchtime, he won’t be that regimented about it, he will grab something to eat. But for the most part, he says, he doesn’t feel hungry till dinner. So that’s what he does.
Caitlin: I cannot even imagine that, especially waking up and running. Running makes me hungrier than anything else in the entire world.
Benjamin: Yeah. And we had some of the nice ones: we spoke with Biz Stone, who’s one of the co-founders of Twitter. His routine was… Yeah, he was super nice. Like I actually read a biography of Twitter a couple years before, and like he came across as clearly one of the nicest people there. And he was in person as well, and he was super nice. He was telling me about how he spends his morning basically just playing with his son, playing Legos, playing Minecraft on the iPad. And yeah, it was just nice. He doesn’t really do anything business-related until he actually drives over the Golden Gate Bridge, and gets to Twitter, after dropping his son off, of course. It was a really calming routine that I kind of wasn’t expecting from a business exec.
Caitlin: Especially someone who founded Twitter.
Benjamin: Right, right, right. Yeah, he doesn’t really mention… I think, he’s checks Twitter briefly. We may not have put that one in, for branding sake, you know, but yeah, he just kind of spends it for a calm and grounded, kind of like what I said I was going for.
Caitlin: It sounds also like Austin Kleon’s routine. I thought that was really nice too. He just wakes up slowly with his wife, they take a walk, they bring their kids to school or something like that. It was just so gentle, and that really struck me. I think, he said something lovely about how “do whatever is meaningful to you in the morning, because that’ll set the tone for your day.”
Benjamin: Yeah, something like that. Yeah, it was great. His was all about kind of yeah, instead of being very productive in the morning––and we do speak with people, who are very productive, who get work done first thing––his was very much just kind of like calmly bringing yourself into the day. And I think, he mentioned that that walk kind of like his day sucks if he doesn’t have that walk. So yeah, it was a very nice one.
Caitlin: Yeah. I kind of get the feeling from reading through all of these, that everybody in here has that one thing, or that one thing, or those two things, that if they don’t do it in the morning, then their whole day sucks. Do you have one of those things?
Benjamin: I guess, mine would be, generally, if I have to check my phone and then I see a bunch of other things. And that doesn’t always happen. But for example, you’re based in Germany, and my co-author is also based in Germany, and I’m on the West Coast of the US. So by the time I wake up, often there’ll be a lot of stuff from him, or there’ll be a lot of stuff that he’s replied to, because my publisher is on the East Coast. So there’s that. It’s not so much seeing the things that you’re checking, but it’s kind of seeing all the peripheral, everything around that. That can really kind of spin you off course.
But to your general point, we actually have a question that we ask every single person we interview, which is “What happens if you fail?” And that could mean fail the whole routine, you don’t do any of it, or you could fail kind of the main core components. And for the most part everybody says that it really does suck. You know, nobody’s like, “I like to fail.” But for the most part, people say that they kind of just get back on it the next day. And that was a point that I was recently speaking with some people about at a conference. And that was the point that a lot of people struggle with. They feel like they have to just consistently every day, you know, the whole Seinfeld: “put an ‘X’ on a calendar every single day that you do something”– in his case, it was writing jokes. And people feel like they fail, if they miss a day, or if they missed two days.
And the point that we try to make in this part of the book, is simply “you don’t fail if you do this. You’re not a failure. You have this morning routine in place. If you miss a day for whatever reasons, you know, don’t worry about it, don’t intend to miss these days, and don’t miss three, four, five in a row. But if you miss one, just don’t worry about it, and just get back to it the next day.”
Ben: Hey guys, it’s Ben. A quick shout-out to a podcast we like, which is called rocketship.fm. You can just type that into any browser and you’ll find them that way or just search “rocketship” on whatever podcatcher you use.
Anyway, they’re launching their fifth season. They’ve been around for a while. And what’s cool is in this season, they’re following three different companies: like a 300-person company, a solo entrepreneur––or solopreneur, as the cool kids say––and a Series C company. And they go behind the scenes, they go into the meetings, they go on company retreats.
And I think, you know, Caitlin and I, it’s important to us that we support people telling cool stories, that we support people who are trying to learn or trying to help other people learn, and so we thought it’d be cool to give Rocketship a little shout-out.
So go check them out. Tell them we say hi. And yeah, now let’s get back to the interview and we’ll see you right after.
Caitlin: What did you find was was the average sleep time for these people? Because all these people, I think, part of the title is “the habits of successful people” or “how successful people start their day.” So presumably, they’re busy. How long do people tend to sleep?
Benjamin: Yeah, we actually have a statistics page in the back of the book. And I believe, here we go. Yeah, the average sleep time was 7 hours and 29 minutes, which is pretty good. You know, there’s all these different stats of how much sleep you should be getting. Generally it’s between 7 to 9 hours. And we speak about it in the book, how if you feel like you’re a 7-hours person, you could be a 9-hours person, you know. Like I’m definitely an 8-hours person, and I think, last night I got six and half. And that’s really not great for me. Some people would be fine on 6 and a half generally. But yeah, it was surprising to me, because I assumed, that many of them would be getting less.
Even after doing the website all this time, I’m still assumed that many people will be getting less sleep. But 7 and a half hours – that’s a pretty good number. And because most of the people we spoke with are getting up generally quite early – they’re not all getting up at 4 like General McChrystal – but they’re getting up at, you know, 6/6:30 because of they’re kind of going to bed, you know, 10:30/11:00 – almost certainly before midnight.
Caitlin: Yeah. I wonder, did you get many people who were not North American?
Benjamin: It was moreso North American, for sure. I think, it’s something like ⅛ or ⅙ of all the people are not from North America. That’s something we tried to get more of, but it was tough, to be honest. And I’m from the UK, so I could reach out to contacts there, but even then there wasn’t a huge number coming forward.
Caitlin: I’d be so interested to hear about the habits of people in Mediterranean countries. I lived in Spain for a while, and people don’t even eat dinner until, I don’t know, 10 p.m. And then they have pretty much normal working hours. They’re up by at 6:30 or 7:00. And I would posit, that they get a lot less sleep.
Benjamin: Yeah, that’s a great point. No, I also lived in Spain for a while. And I remember thinking it was funny, how I was at a kind of language meetup one evening. And what was the time? It was maybe half past 11 at night. And this Greek person who I was practicing Spanish with, he said to me, he was like, “So what are you guys doing after this?” And I was like, “I’m going home, I’m going to bed.” And it’s during the week, you know! It’s a very different culture. But yeah, I love the siesta, I love the nap. And I think, I speak about naps in the book. If you don’t get enough sleep during the daytime, or even if you just simply want to, a nap is a great way to kind of reboot and bring in a little bit more productivity to your afternoon.
Caitlin: I think, this is the only thing about which I retained my skepticism, when I was reading your book. Because earlier this year, I talked to Daniel Levitin who was a neuroscientist. And he wrote this wonderful book called The Organized Mind, which I really recommend if you never read it, it’s just all about how your brain works basically. And there’s a pretty substantial section on sleep. And in it, he reveals through, you know, biological and psychological studies that we actually can’t catch up on sleep – it’s impossible, your body can’t do it. And naps may help you feel a bit more alert, but they do not help us undergo that cellular repair that we actually need. So a nap can be nice, but it’s not actually doing anything for your physiology or your mind. And I found that kind of alarming.
Benjamin: No, I agree with that. And a lot of people talk about how they kind of use the weekends to catch up on sleep. And I’m sure, they don’t really think they’re 100% catching up on sleep because it really doesn’t do, you know. It definitely helps, it definitely helps – you feel more rested. Same with a nap. Like, I would definitely say, if I have a good nap, like 20 minutes, I definitely feel more alert than beforehand. But to your point. I believe that’s almost certainly correct. It’s not the same substance as sleep that you’re getting at nighttime.
Caitlin: Yeah, I found it really depressing. Sorry to be a joykill there. I just keep mentioning it to everybody I talk to because, I think, it’s kind of like sharing grief or sharing a traumatic experience. I found this out and I was like, “Oh God. No, what have I been doing to my body for years?”
Benjamin: It’s funny actually, I was doing a workshop last week, where people could come to me, and kind of ask me how to improve their morning routines. And very quickly, it became clear that these people, that they were kind of just not getting enough sleep. So that was the first question I would ask. They would tell me about, you know, how bad their mornings are. And then I’d say, “how much sleep do you get?” And they would consistently say, “kind of 4.5 hours, 5 hours”. And I would just be like, “Well, there you go.” You know, I mean, it’s not that you can’t have a good morning routine without having enough sleep. But you know, it’s not going to be great. You know, you really kind of have to have that foundational base of not being tired, before you can really think about bringing stuff into your morning.
Caitlin: Right, 4.5 hours. That’s just inhumane.
Benjamin: I know. I was wondering if they were like trying to sound cool because I’m like, “that just seems very little.”
Caitlin: Yeah. Well, I think it probably ties into that idea of how, you know, you’re a better more moral person if you get less sleep and are always busy, which is actually… You know, it’s the thing that I wondered about too as I was reading this. It’s sort of like a badge of honor to say “you get up early and you exercise.” There’s this sort of like purity and morality attached to it, and some sort of admirable work ethic. Do you think that people lie when they talk about their morning routines?
Benjamin: I don’t think people lie, but I certainly do think, for the most part, there’s definitely some funny ones in there, when people say how often they fail. But I think, for the most part, people are kind of giving the idealized version that works 30-40% of the time, you know.
And even when I described mine just then, like not checking my phone. I’ve been checking it for the last few weeks since the book came out, I’ve really been checking a lot, because it’s been a lot more to check to make sure that things are going well. So, you know, sometimes I definitely feel like a hypocrite. I feel like I’m saying all these things, but actually in reality I’m not getting much sleep. I’m doing these interviews in my morning instead of kind of like calmly getting into it. Although this is fun.
But yeah, I definitely think, I don’t think people lie. Nah, I’m sure someone has lied. But I think people do kind of give the idealized version of what worked a few times and what they kind of want to push to work more often.
Caitlin: Yeah. I certainly do not think that this guy was lying, but a morning routine that really struck me – actually the whole voice of this guy’s routine. I think, it was Tyler Cowen.
Benjamin: Yeah, he’s an economics professor at Georgetown.
Caitlin: Right. Yeah. He listed out the very particular things he eats: green pepper, goat cheese, smoked trout and Gerolsteiner mineral water. It was so precise, and it was like, if not goat cheese, then smoked trout. It was a whole like, it’s almost seem like an equation. What did you find in terms of patterns in people’s breakfast habits?
Benjamin: We’ve been asked about this a lot. And I think, the main thing we found is that people generally do eat breakfast––like McChrystal is an outlier there––people generally do eat breakfast. But for the most part, it was kind of all over the place. The most interesting thing, in terms of the stats actually, was more the drinks. So, water was the main drink, and then coffee was a very, very close second.
But in terms of breakfast foods, it was kind of everything, you know. Some people would eat leftovers even, it was, you know, eggs, kind of the regular things you’d expect. But the most interesting data was just the fact that people do mostly eat it. And we’ve had that question where people say, “Should you eat breakfast?” and that. It’s not a question we’re answering, but certainly from the people we spoke with, most people do.
Caitlin: Another thing that was interesting to me is that a lot of people mentioned their nighttime routines. Did anything specific stick out to you?
Benjamin: Yeah. No, I’m glad you brought this up because yeah, we have a chapter on kind of evening routines and then we have another chapter on sleep, because we mentioned previously the importance of sleep. But in terms of nighttime routines, the main thing was just to kind of think about it kind of with intention the same way you should think about your morning routine. So instead of simply running up the hours, until you are finally bored enough to go to bed, you should kind of structure a nighttime routine that helps you wind down from the responsibilities of the day. And if possible, kind of get a headstart on your morning.
And we talk about decision fatigue a lot in the book, which is the general… It’s that feeling, when you either can’t make a decision or you just like to make a bad decision… Or you don’t even think it’s a bad decision, but you do make a bad decision because you’ve been making so many decisions all day, you’re kind of done, you know, with decisions. And we kind of think, a good way to do this is to do it in the evening.
And even though, like I just said, it’s kind of more difficult, it’s better than doing it in the morning, where you don’t want to kind of take up your daily decisions with what clothes you’ll wear, for example. So we talk a lot about laying your clothes out for the next day, which is pretty typical. So many people we spoke with, especially in the workout chapter, told us that they put their workout clothes out because they’re just so much more likely to actually go and work out, if they have the clothes already there. Not one hundred percent of the time, but you know, 80-90%.
And the several other things you can do, kind of just clean up around your home, around your kitchen. Many people said that, you know, waking up to dirty dishes is kind of the worst way to start their morning. And I can completely relate, especially when you don’t have many pans, so you kind of like scraping around your sink to try and actually get what you need.
And another thing is––and this is more for before you finish work of the day––is to make a to-do list for the next day. And even though you could make this in the morning, I generally prefer to do this the night before so that then I can kind of immediately get into it first thing.
Caitlin: Yeah, that’s super useful. Actually a lot of the productivity experts that we’ve spoken to on Simplify recommend that too, including David Allen, who’s, you know, the godfather of all the productivity routines. Yeah, makes a lot of sense.
So, you said that you were doing some workshops and advising people about what they could do to improve their morning routines. And I assume, they tell you about what they’re doing. What are people generally doing that you find as kind of useless? They think that it’s helping them, but it’s not really.
Benjamin: I mean, I think that definitely number one is not getting enough sleep. I would say, number two––what I found from speaking with people––is generally the idea, kind of what we touched upon earlier, of thinking that if they can’t stick with it for like, you know, a couple of days, then they should just not do it. And the reason that people were struggling with this is just because their idealized routine was just so long and so daunting. And they had this idea, kind of like they had to do a routine, like I mentioned earlier, half an hour running, half an hour meditation. And they just simply weren’t sticking to that, and the reason is because that’s kind of a lot to fit into your morning, especially when you want more sleep, and then you want to actually get to work on time.
So it really does just come back to the point of just keeping your routine short and easy to accomplish because that way you actually do it. And like I mentioned earlier, it may seem silly in the beginning to do a five or even a two minute meditation, I totally get that. But let’s say, you did a 2-minute meditation for five days one week. Next week just bring up to five minutes, then you can bring it up to 10 minutes. Slowly ease into it, you know, and feel out the things that you enjoy and the things that you don’t enjoy, instead of just throwing everything together at once and then hoping you’ll stick to it. Because honestly, for the most part, you almost certainly won’t.
Caitlin: Yeah. What something that you found in your time––you’ve basically been researching in this field––what’s one thing that you found is actually a lot simpler than you initially thought it would be?
Benjamin: One thing is kind of a mindset, and it would be all about starting your morning with intention. Because when you start your morning with intention, you can kind of bring your morning wins with you into the rest of the day. And that could be anything from… For example, if you decide one morning, or you decide the night before, you do want to do a 15-minute jog in the morning, that’s kind of your intention. And then if you’re able to do that, and if you’re able to keep that up over the next few weeks or whatever, you can bring this into your day. And you can think, “OK, I did that this morning, now I can kind of do this and I can kind of do that.” So yeah, it’s honestly, it’s all about starting a morning with intention.
Caitlin: It’s nice. It sounds so simple.
Benjamin: It does. It’s not as simple as it sounds always. But there’s a lot of ideas in the book for sure.
Caitlin: The siren call of the snooze button. Are you a snooze button person?
Benjamin: I’m not, and actually it’s surprising: not too many of the people we spoke with were. And we’re very much against it in the book. Like, we say “definitely use an alarm,” like Arianna (Huffington) doesn’t need to use an alarm. But if you do need to use an alarm, as many of us do, definitely have one, even if it is just to hedge against oversleeping. Because, let’s say, 90% of the time you wake up at 7:25 or 6:25, just set your alarm for five minutes later, you know, half past seven, half past six. Just in case, you know, it’ll help you out.
But in terms of the snooze button, we’re totally against that. If it truly truly works for you, then I guess, just keep it up. But if you don’t currently do that, don’t start doing it. Because it’s like starting your day by saying no. It’s like being like, “I don’t want to do this,” and it just feels like a very negative way to begin your morning.
Caitlin: I completely agree. I feel like I’m going to use this one clip and brandish it to a specific person in my life actually. But there’s nothing more infuriating to be than sleeping with someone who is a snooze button user.
Benjamin: Oh, yeah. For sure.
Caitlin: So, Benjamin, if there is one piece of morning routine wisdom or one idea that you would like to leave people with about how to improve their morning routines a little bit, what would it be?
Benjamin: It would be – I’m afraid I’ve already mentioned it – but it would be to just start small and just keep everything short and easy to accomplish, because that is that is how you build it. And if you just decide that you want to do everything all at once, it’s really not going to work. But if you slowly add items to a morning routine, maybe one a week for a very short amount of time, over time, you’ll learn what you enjoy and you’ll be able to build it up.
Caitlin: Awesome. So the way that I like to close at these interviews generally is, I like to ask people about what they’ve been reading lately and what they’ve enjoyed. Is there anything in particular that you’ve read lately that you’ve liked, that you’d like to recommend to people?
Benjamin: Yeah. So I’d recommend – this is a book from a former guest of yours actually — Off the Clock by Laura Vanderkam which came out very recently. It’s really really great. I read it because, you know, Laura is someone we know. But it really helps you think and understand that there are more hours in your day than you really think about. And I was expecting to skim through it, but I read it in full, I just read it on a flight. And it was fantastic! I did a lot of underlining. She really shows how you can take time and really make the most of it. And I think, many of these books are about how to have more productive time and have more time to work. But Laura’s book is more about how to have this time––that it is definitely work time as well––but more how you can enjoy that time.
The second book, for sure, will be The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which I’ve mentioned many times. So I’ll be quick. But that’s just a fascinating read, it really shows you how to kind of form and break habits – and breaking habits is much harder than forming them. I definitely recommend that.
And finally, I would like to recommend Deep Work by Cal Newport. And I’m not as diligent at following his practices and ideas as he is, but it’s really packed with ideas, and there’s many of them that I put into my own day. One of them, for example, is the “shutdown ritual,” which is at the end of his day – which usually finishes at 5 p.m. or something – at the end of his day, he does this kind of ritual where he goes for his computer, he checks everything is in place, and then he’ll physically kind of shut down his computer. And it’s such an easy trick, but so many people just close up their laptop at the end of the day. But I like to just kind of shut it down completely, and then it kind of really doing that kind of empties my mind as well, and feels like I’ve kind of closed off myself for the day.
Caitlin: Well, that is it, Benjamin. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. The book again is My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired, and if you are a skeptic about how much you will get out of this book, take it from me, I was too, and it was actually really interesting. So thank you for your work!
Benjamin: Thank you very much, Caitlin! This was great.
Ben: Welcome to The Bookend where we end… with books. Before we get into the booklist and talk about the interview, I wanted to share a story. Because I was talking to a friend of mine––Avi is name (Hi Avi, if you’re listening!)––and I was talking to him about the interview and a little bit about morning routines because he’s not really familiar with this concept at all.
I said “morning routines,” and he was like, “What is a morning routine? What are you talking about?” And I gave them a little bit of background and he said, “Yeah, duh. We all have morning routines.” And I was like, what are you talking about? I was like, I don’t think anyone has a morning routine because I kind of believe that you just get up and you do your thing. I mean, obviously I was proven wrong by this interview.
But Avi said something I think was really nice and he said, “humans are creatures of habit.” And you can’t help it: you do things over and over again once they make sense for you. And if it’s a morning routine or how you like to start up your laptop at work or something –– humans are creatures of habit.
Caitlin: How many ways are there to start up a laptop?
Ben: Yeah, OK.
Caitlin: It’s all good.
Ben: So let’s talk about the interview real quick. Like what’s the one thing that we should remember about this interview?
Caitlin: Maybe there are two things actually. It’s that, you know, there’s no wrong way to do a morning routine. Do what fits for you. But within that is the idea of keep everything simple. Do less than you think you should do. Because you really want to make it sustainable. Once you have that foundational habit in place, you can add fancy stuff, like superfood smoothies and handstand push-ups. But like, I think Spall’s recommendation was if you want to have a meditation habit in the morning, start with two minutes, like undershoot. As long as you can complete it and give yourself positive feedback and then keep on doing it, you’re doing it right. So start small!
Ben: OK, and why did you want to talk to Spall?
Caitlin: I really wanted to talk to Spall because I was so surprised that I enjoyed his book.
Ben: Oh, that’s nice.
Caitlin: I think it was because I felt like I wanted to apologize to him almost because I really enjoyed it, and I thought it was fun, and it was good learning, and I enjoyed it. Yeah. I don’t know. And morning routines are just interesting because people are interesting.
Ben: Yeah, so do less and also don’t judge a book by its cover. Seems like that’s going to be the two big takeaways today.
Caitlin: Those are lessons indeed.
Ben: So should we get into the books?
Caitlin: Yeah, let’s do it!
Ben: Do you wanna go first or should I?
Caitlin: Sure, I can do it. So I chose one that is actually kind of similar to my morning routine, but it has to do with creative people from history more than it does our contemporaries. It’s called Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. It deals with the creative––not just morning rituals, but the sort of creative habits and rituals of people like Jane Austen, and Benjamin Franklin, and Picasso.
Ben: Sorry, was there something in there about how like Beethoven would count the number of coffee beans?
Caitlin: Yes, he would count out exactly 60 coffee beans for his morning cup of coffee, which is so delightfully loony. The one that I really love though––there are two––Toni Morrison’s routine is just so pure and lovely. She likes to make sure that she gets up to see the sunrise. And she thinks it’s like very pure, and it helps her start the day. But the one that I like the most is Benjamin Franklin’s.
Ben: What was his?
Caitlin: He would get up every morning and spend 30 minutes or an hour naked in his room taking what he referred to as “an air bath” while he read or wrote.
Ben: Nice, I got two books.
Caitlin: Cool. Tell me. What are they?
Ben: So, in the interview, you and Spall sort of break down a little bit about why people are so interested in other people’s morning routines, which I thought was really interesting. You asked him something like, “why do you think people care?” And he said, “voyeurism.” And then I had to think about the latest Tim Ferriss book Tools of Titans.
Caitlin: Why did that make you think of Tools of Titans?
Ben: Because it’s just like a book of wise words from famous people, and like people who are high achievers, high-performance people. And I had to kind of similar response to that one in that I was like, “Why do I care with Jimmy Fallon thinks about XYZ.” But then you read it, and you’re like, “Jimmy Fallon has done so much actually,” and whatever I think about his singing abilities, it is interesting to hear about books that he would recommend to people or etc. And a quote from that that I wanted to share was from Jodie Foster. She says, “In the end, winning is sleeping better.” And I think I really like that quote.
Caitlin: I feel like there are levels to that that I haven’t totally inspected yet. Maybe on the next episode of Simplify we can talk about what that quote means to us.
Ben: Yeah, so Tim Ferriss, Tools of Titans. And then, do you remember the interview we did in the old Blinkist podcast with Vishen Lakhiani.
Caitlin: Oh, yeah, I do.
Ben: So, Lakhiani is the CEO of Mindvalley, which is like a learning organization in Malaysia. And he wrote a book a couple years ago called The Code of the Extraordinary Mind by Vishen Lakhiani. And we interviewed him for the Blinkist podcast––actually one of our co-founders Niklas Jansen interviewed him, because he’s a big Lakhiani fan. And he asked Lakhiani about his morning routine, because Lakhiani is like a famous optimizer, hacker,he would call himself.
And if it’s okay with you, I thought we could just play it because it’s an amazing routine. It’s also a little bit long––I mean the routine itself, he manages to squeeze it into like an hour––but the audio of him describing it is a little bit long. It’s also from a couple years ago, when we interviewed him, so it’s possible that it’s changed, and I don’t want to hold him to this. Also because it’s a couple years ago, the audio is a little different. But this to me is like the paragon of morning routines.
Caitlin: Awesome. Didn’t it involve moringa?
Ben: Oh, yeah.
Caitlin: OK. Let’s hear it.
Vishen Lakhiani: This is my morning routine: I start with a particular meditation process that I put together, called “a six phase meditation.” It’s very popular now––over a million people do it––and it’s something I designed. It’s based on six different principles of hacking mental abilities and our human mind.
First phase is compassion; so I do a compassion ritual. Then I do a gratitude ritual, then I do a forgiveness ritual. All three of these are designed to elevate my levels of happiness and bliss. Then I focus on my future: I visualize my life three years ahead, then I visualize my day unfolding perfectly, and then I pray. All three of these are designed to make me feel optimistic, powerful, and to look forward towards the coming day.
Next, I go and I exercise. Now that entire meditation takes about 20 minutes, sometimes I go on to half an hour because I want to just sit back and breathe, right? Then I go on to exercise. Now typically I use the Microsoft Band––which is a really cool device––and I do Tabata exercises. Tabata takes me four minutes; so I do a very high intensity 4-minute exercise. Studies have shown that four minutes of Tabata can be as beneficial to your body as 20 minutes of regular exercise.
Next, I go and I have my optimized breakfast. Now my optimized breakfast takes me four minutes to make. It is a shake: I use JJ Virgin or GNC as the base powder, and then I add moringa, wheatgrass, camu camu and chia seeds to it. And it’s basically a super fueled nutritional shake that elevates my brain processing––sometimes I add MCT oil to it––elevates my brain processing gives me energy and just makes me fully energized for my morning, from the time I start my morning to lunch. So that’s really what my morning ritual is. Now this is the most optimized ritual I know right now. In the future I may find something more optimized, but functioning like that keeps me fit, keeps me mentally alert, keeps me happy, keeps my body fueled, and allows me to just function really well on a day-to-day basis.
Ben: Yeah. So to me, that’s a morning routine. Like that is too much.
Caitlin: It’s too much for me personally.
Ben: I mean, we said that the takeaway from today is “do less.” That’s “do as much as possible.”
Caitlin: Yeah, but I also kind of wonder where he started. Like what were the building blocks that he started with for that morning routine? Maybe his was two minutes of meditation, and like half a teaspoon of moringa and water. And he scaled up, who knows?
Ben: Maybe he was just get up and go to work, and then he was like “I have to do my 4-minute Tabata routine.” Tabata is cool, by the way. You should YouTube “Tabata.”
Caitlin: I have. Done it. It’s grueling.
Ben: Can you just say––I know we’re pretty much done with this episode––but can you just say what it is?
Caitlin: Yeah. And I think a lot of people listening, they just don’t know that word. Its high intensity interval training. That’s it.
Ben: Low duration high intensity. That’s the thing that I always remember.
Caitlin: Just go all out for a very short period of time, have a tiny tiny rest and then do it again, like seven times or something.
Ben: I think, I would try that.
Ben: I’m serious. I used to do push-ups in the morning, when I cared…
Caitlin: But did you do handstand push-ups?
Ben: I can’t. I’m too bottom heavy, I can’t do it. I can’t do handstands.
Caitlin: Everybody who can’t see Ben right now, Ben is basically an upside-down light bulb. No, he’s not. He’s not at all.
Ben: Alright. This is too much.
Caitlin: This episode of Simplify was produced by me Caitlin Schiller, Ben Schuman-Stoler, Nat Darozhkina, Ben Jackson, Terence Mickey, and Ody Constantinou.
Ben: Yeah, Ody. This is a true story: when he was 14, once called the Paisley Park Studios to speak to Prince in order to get backstage.
Ben: Yeah, they sent them a brochure.
You can find us anywhere good podcasts are findable: Apple podcasts, etc. If you like this episode, please just share it with someone and just say hey, this was a cool interview, and I got some cool book recommendations, check out Simplify.
Caitlin: We appreciate that. We would also love to hear what you think of the season so far. Get in touch with us! You can write to us at [email protected] or on Twitter: I’m @CaitlinSchiller and Ben’s @bsto. As always this podcast was made by the good people––including me and Ben––at Blinkist.
Ben: Right. And if you want to try out Blinkist, you can go to blinkist.com/friends and type in the voucher code, which this week is “oatmeal.”
Caitlin: Yes, cool. All right. That’s it.
Ben: Nice. Then see you guys next week.
Caitlin: Remember to eat your oatmeal! Bye.