Anna Borges is a writer and a former senior health editor at SELF. She’s the author of the book The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care and can be found writing around the internet about mental, emotional, and sexual health. (Most importantly, she’s also a Virgo sun, Aquarius moon, Libra rising, INFJ, Enneagram Personality Type 4, and all-around Disaster Bi.)
- A solid morning routine has long been the backbone of my self-care practice. As someone who deals with depression and anxiety, it makes a noticeable difference in my mental health (and I definitely feel an even bigger difference when I skip it). You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Therapists will be quick to tell you the mental health benefits of starting your day this way. “A healthy, low-stress, [and] focused morning routine sets the tone for the whole day,” clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., tells SELF.
It’s not just about being able to pat yourself on the back for following your routine like a Real Adult. Cementing some morning habits can make it easier to prioritize your mental and physical health throughout the rest of the day too. As soon as you wake up, every decision you make dips into your brain’s willpower reserves. The brain is an incredible organ, but even it has its limits, and there’s a lot of research out there that points toward our willpower being a limited resource. At some point, those reserves run dry, and it becomes a lot harder to turn down instant gratification, which may be why you find yourself skipping a cycling class you normally love after a long shitty day in favor of downing some wine at home.
Of course, these willpower-depleting decisions are unavoidable; our lives are full of them. That’s where a good morning routine comes in. When we automate our mornings, we develop habits that soon feel second nature, says Howes, which may wind up cutting out some depleting activities like deciding what to eat or arguing with yourself about hitting the snooze button again. Personally, I’ve found I’m much more likely to make decisions that support my self-care and well-being when I haven’t spent the morning scrambling and stressed. Plus, a lot of activities you can include in your morning routine may be self-care all on their own.
So let’s talk about some of the things you might want to add to your morning routine. Everyone’s ideal morning routine will be different, so the suggestions on this list are meant to be starting points, not a step-by-step guide (especially because who would have time for this all???). A morning routine might also involve some creative maneuvering to implement (like waking up a little earlier to fit in some solo time before your kids wake up, or involving them in your routine somehow). Experiment with what works for you, and remember that the key is consistency.
1. Make your bed.
Yes, making your bed is technically a chore, but it can also be a deceptively simple and tiny way to make yourself feel good. The reasons are manifold: It goes a long way in making your space (and mind) less cluttered, it encourages good sleep hygiene (who doesn’t want to crawl into a freshly made bed at the end of the day?), and it might also do some surprising psychological work behind the scenes too.
In an oft-repeated quote, retired Navy admiral William H. McRaven once said, “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. And by the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.”
I never used to be the type of person who made her bed every day, but after stumbling across this tip in my mental health reporting, I decided to give it a try. At first, it was simply…nice. With a made bed, I found it easier to keep the rest of my room clean, which is always good for my mental health. I didn’t realize just how much the practice grounded me and served as a guidepost for other good habits until I stopped. After a few weeks of feeling more scattered and depressed than usual, I realized, Shit, I haven’t been making my bed. Turns out, it made all the difference.
2. Nail a “getting ready” order.
Remember that decision fatigue we just talked about? It’s extremely applicable to getting ready in the morning. Most of us have that bucket of things we do every morning to prepare for the day (you know, getting dressed, brushing our teeth, etc.), but you might not have it down to an exact order yet. Maybe sometimes you jump straight from the shower to doing your hair while other days you lounge around in your towel scrolling through the morning news.
You can save yourself from constantly having to ask yourself, “Okay, what next?” by solidifying a step-by-step process. Those micro-decisions add up. The more you can have on autopilot the better.
3. Put off checking your phone.
Every time we check our phones—especially after a long stretch of time away, like when we’re sleeping—we invite a flood of stimulation and bullshit into our brain space. For such a tiny device, your phone holds a lot of potential stressors, like news notifications, your bank-account balance, and texts that demand your attention right now. And for many of us, once we check our phones, we’re pretty much plugged in for the rest of the day. Why not delay that just a little bit?
“When you wake up, you’ve been sleeping and you’re in a comparatively relaxed state,” says Howes. “Wouldn’t it be great to maintain that general level of calm as long as you can? It’s better for our bodies and our reactive emotional systems to reduce how long we’re feeling stress in a day.”
Plus, reaching for your phone first thing is a quick way to derail your whole morning routine. Who hasn’t lost themselves down a Twitter hole before even getting out of bed?
4. Stretch your body.
I didn’t want to put exercise on this list because I’m a firm believer that you’re either a morning workout person or you’re not, and no listicle on SELF is going to convince you to add exercise to your morning routine if you don’t want to.
But—but—anyone can enjoy a good stretch in the morning. It doesn’t have to be a full-on yoga routine or even have the purpose of supplementing your regular workout. It can just be a way to get your blood flowing and, TBH, to tap into the nice feeling of a good streeetch. Of course, stretching properly to avoid injury is extra important, especially in the a.m., when you might be stiff and not properly warmed up. This full-body stretch is a good place to start.
5. Drink some water.
The benefits of drinking water are well documented. You know you should be hydrating throughout the day, but a glass of water in the morning kind of gets the whole process going. Not just physiologically (because, hey, you’re getting some water in your body after eight-ish hours of not drinking), but also mentally. Anyone else sometimes make it to noon or later only to realize they haven’t, uh, had a drop of the stuff? Making a habit of knocking back your first glass in the morning can help a lot. Some people even go as far as setting out a glass of water on their bedside table the night before. I have a friend who swears by this, but since I’m team #coldwater all the way, I make sure to pop a fresh jug in the fridge before bed so it’s just how I like it in the morning. Whatever works for you!
6. Write morning pages.
You might brush off writing in the morning as something just for, well, writers, but it can be a really good practice for anyone who wants to live more creatively or engage in more self-reflection. Officially, morning pages are the brainchild of Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. She encourages people to start the day with three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing—“whatever crosses your mind”—and claims doing so will improve your life across the board, including by getting you more in touch with your emotions. She writes, “Working with the morning pages, we begin to sort through the differences between our real feelings, which are often secret, and our official feelings, those on the record for public display.
If morning pages aren’t for you, you might still benefit from developing some sort of journal practice. This guide will get you started. (And if morning pages do sound extremely like your shit, I recommend checking out The Artist’s Way or, at the very least, this guide to morning pages by Rachel W. Miller, who read the book so you don’t have to.)
7. Wash your face.
Many people smarter than I am have explained exactly how skin care can be a self-care tool (Jia Tolentino described it as a “psychological safety blanket” in The New Yorker), but what I can say is that I’ve embraced this wholeheartedly. Not only is a regular skin-care routine necessary for healthy skin, but it also feels like a mini pampering session every time I do it. This can be a great way to start off a day that will be otherwise busy and stressful.
Truth be told, your skin-care routine doesn’t have to be complicated at all (it really only needs three things), so don’t worry if you’re wondering how the heck to fit some 11-step process into your already cramped mornings. That said, if you do want to fall down the rabbit hole of a more elaborate skin-care routine, SELF’s Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide to Skin Care has all the info you need.
8. Do something fun or creative.
The idea of a “routine” kind of has a no-nonsense connotation that you get shit done. But, honestly, one of the best things I added to my morning is playing video games as I drink my coffee. Seriously, I currently start my day with Pokémon Shield. Making time for something fun and silly helps me conceptualize the morning as its own unique segment of my day rather than just a prelude to work—which in turn makes it easier to wake up because my alarm clock no longer signifies the beginning of the daily grind but the start of a two-hour chunk that is peaceful and focused on me time.
You might not be a video game person, so here are some other ideas: streaming an episode of TV, crafting, dancing around to pump-up music, playing with your pets, reading, trying a new breakfast recipe, or whatever fun or creative activity you usually reserve for another time of day.
9. Write or review your daily to-do list.
For some people an ideal morning is a protected bubble wherein work isn’t allowed. Totally valid. But for others (like me!), it’s the perfect time to get some strategizing done before becoming distracted by the inevitable deluge of emails or slate of meetings. When you take the time to write out or review your game plan for the day, you’re once again getting ahead of making decisions based on your mood.
This is great for productivity, yes, but planning is important on a larger scale too. My favorite explanation for the importance of planning your tasks and schedule ahead of time comes from the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown. He writes, “When we don’t purposely and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people—our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families—will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.”