Meet George, a man who was struggling through the newest human developmental stage – failure to launch.
When I met him he was overwhelmed by not having found his way. He had many of the markers of success. He lived in San Francisco and finally didn’t have to rely on roommates to make housing affordable. He worked for a tech company that was focused on doing good rather than making money. However when George compared himself to his peers he didn’t see value in any of it.
Rather his focus was on the perceived negatives in his life. His free income seemed to go directly to supporting Amazon’s newest service, “daily unnecessary box delivery”. Nothing brought value. Not his new cutting-edge drone- “great now I can take majestic panoramic videos of me drinking a beer alone at Crissy Field at 11am on a Friday”. Not the TRX straps hanging from his door- “they should add ‘towel rack’ to the brochure of available exercises”. He even had a membership to the hot, new pop-up, outdoor, functional fitness club – “I went once and threw-up during the warm-up”.
George’s feeling of being stuck was as much a reflection of his environment and culture as it was self-perception. The accomplishments he had achieved felt simple in retrospect. He hadn’t endured hardship to access those achievements. He hadn’t surprised himself. That was where his mind resided, “I wish I could…”.
His disappointment with himself and his state of being accrued compounding interest. As each day piled on top of each other he became more aware of his lack of a postive trajectory. He was losing hope fast. This lack of hope was turning inward to create a ruminative self-loathing that was most apparent at night.
Every time he lay down to sleep he was flooded with the data of the day. Another day of unmet expectations. A movie of regret and he had a front row seat. As time ticked by each night his frustration mounted as the reality set in “I’m not going to get good night sleep”. Eventually exhaustion would take him out of his head and into sleep. The next morning he would pay for it. And the next day. So the cycle continued.
George needed a win. A belief that we was capable of being effective. He needed to prove to himself that he was capable of something. We could have used medication to knock him out, get 8-10 hours of sleep, totally disrupt his circadian rhythm and further starve him of restorative delta sleep. We could have given him an anti-depressant to hope to manage his anxiety or sadness. However he didn’t meet the criteria for severity that is associated with medication efficacy. Furthermore, none of those external mechanisms would have proven to George that HE could do it.
Our focus turned to behavior modification. Informed by the methodology of Cogntive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure Response Prevention we developed a plan to get the deck stacked in his favor.
Our first target- his morning and evening routine.
A great day starts the night before. It is something you can plan for and decide to bring to your life. Most people engage good days as either windfall of chance or because bad things didn’t happen. Wouldn’t it be great to expect to have good days even 51% of the time?
Tim Ferriss focuses on morning rituals with almost every guest. It proves one of the highest yield resources in Tools of Titans. Almost every Titan has a ritual and many have a lot of similarities. He dedicates a section in the book to “5 Morning Rituals That Help Me Win the Day”.
The plan we put in place for George adapted many of the structures Tim advances in this section and his evening routine which we will get to another time.
First let’s talk a little about the morning. This is one of the two most significant times of the day. The other being right before bed. The place humans should direct their self-improvement attention are the two consecutive hours divided by the prolonged stasis we call sleep. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these also tend to be the most socially isolated hours of our day.
It is very telling that the place we all could use some help is the time we spend alone. In the evening our inability to dictate when we fall asleep may be the biggest contributor to the epidemic of sleep deprivation in the developed world. That effect snowballs into most people starting the day at a deficit both in terms of sleep and morale.
Whatever your prime state upon awakening, you are now at the zenith of your efficacy potential for the day. Kelly McGonigal talks about this as your Willpower Reserve in her book The Willpower Instinct. She speaks of willpower as a finite resource both as a psychological and physical entity. Throughout the day you sap this resource and unless you replenish it you will struggle to be effective. This leaves the morning as one of the most important times to top-up your internal reserves. How unfortunate then that so many people would describe themselves as not being morning people.
This plays out in mental illness as well. Depressive and Anxiety Disorders both list impaired sleep as a consequence. Both can affect your sleep-wake cycle AKA Circadian Rhythm, leaving you deprived of restorative delta sleep. Anxiety tends to keep people awake at night, plagued by their thoughts. Depressed people, while also having trouble falling asleep, may deal with early-morning wakefulness. Another full day of hopelessness ahead of them and the rest of the house sleeping. This can be a high-risk time for suicide.
Wait! So you are saying we can significantly improve depression, anxiety, sleep, quality of life, productivity, and health by addressing just two hours of our day? Yes, and that’s the maximum investment of time. With practice 30-60 minutes TOTAL should suffice.
You’d think our healthcare system would be mobilizing all resources to improve this. Right? Well they aren’t. Enter Tim Ferriss and the Titans. It seems preventative healthcare is best addressed in a peer-to-peer model. Here are the 5 steps he recommends and how we adapted that to George’s plan.
1. Make Your Bed
This is usually my first step intervention when trying to improve someone’s morning effectiveness. It’s so simple and yet so complex. For most people it hearkens back to some childhood experience. This can be valuable as it activates a paternalistic transference (a patient’s subconscious association of their therapist to a past experience). In some cases that activates action, particularly if the person relies on being told what to do. For others it is evocative of disdain- “how dare you give me chores!” This usually manifests as passive resistance as we usually aren’t actively aggressive to people trying to help us. “Oh I forgot” or thoughts on the way home “I’m paying this guy to tell me to make the bed?!”
As we say in the industry, there are no right or wrong answers. Just grist for the mill.
I also like the task of making your bed because the symbolism behind it is so rich. Doing so represents a guarantee that your first action of the day is productive. A win. Assuming you haven’t already lost a battle with snooze button. It also represents a rejection of temptation as you almost always have to tear yourself out of this EXTREMELY cozy, comfortable place to enter not cozy. Making your bed then is like closing the door. You can’t go back in there. There’s a finality to it.
There was a commercial some years back where a woman is getting out of bed to go running but her bed and its French accent are trying to get her to stay. As she finally tears away, it closes with “but you had a salad last night!” I think it is one of the most beautiful pieces of film for the work I do.
The final aspect of value is that it is dead easy. There are no further instructions than make the bed. You don’t have to tuck or untuck. No expectation to put pillows on top or beneath. Literally just do SOMETHING.
Tim also talks about the value of making your bed as a piece of reliable control. No matter where you are, how you are, who you are, today you will wake up. You can predict that and so you can also predict that you can control the state of your bed. That promise can be extremely powerful even if it’s only subconscious.
This is a big step, though I don’t always agree with putting it in this sequence. It works well if you have a strong meditative muscle. However someone new to mediation may struggle to pick this up first thing in the morning. I prefer to sandwich it later after you have added some movement. I don’t want to go into the whole of meditation yet. Instead I will again reference Chade-Meng Tan’s chapter on taking one breath which I discussed before. If you aren’t a strong meditator, use the morning to practice one breath. Make that breath an effort of intentional focus and a movement of your thoughts from where they are to where you want them to be. Even more basic than that, take the opportunity to use a breath to experience concentrated inward observation. Take a breath and note any physical or emotional characteristics that occur. Just one.
3. Do 5 – 10 reps of something.
This is another great one. Tim discusses the role of establishing a “prime state” and getting your autonomic nervous system up and running. This makes a lot of sense. Similar to the power of making your bed, doing reps of the same action will create a reliable comfort zone you can know will be there every day. So many Titans have different versions of this. Rick Rubin stands in the sun. Justin Boreta does kettlebell swings. Tony Robbins will hit a cold water plunge, do a breath walk, or bounce on a trampoline. Jamie Foxx, Naval Ravikant and Matt Mullenweg, Stanley McChrystal have some degree of calisthenics. Peter Diamandes and Wim Hoff utilize breathing. Jocko Willink goes right into strength training. Laird Hamilton uses water (of course). A few others talk about the value of inversion in the morning. note: some of this I’m pulling from the podcast as it is not in the book.
Let’s just leave it at this – you need to have some action you can quickly do every morning.
4. Prepare Titanium Tea
Lots of people drinking caffeine in their morning. I’m going to stretch this for more psychological meaning. It’s easy to just say “stimulant equals focus, energy and elevated mood so do it”. Instead I will point out that between the book and the podcast I don’t think I heard one person say “I drive over to Starbucks and get my coffee”. Okay just found it, BJ Novak does. Still I think there’s something there. You are creating, brewing, waiting, smelling. You are building delay into the morning. Slowing yourself down.
If you want to dive into this a bit more try this: set a goal to not drink any hot beverages with a lid for one month (okay, at least 2 weeks). Take note of how it changes your behavior. You likely aren’t drinking while walking or driving. You may even drink more slowly as a full cup can’t be easily upended and guzzled. All these experiences may help make a morning a calm before storm. A calm you control.
5. Morning Pages or 5-Minute Journal
This is a really high yield activity as well. I’m going to steal a little from Josh Waitzkin and Reid Hoffman here and expand this activity to Engage Creativity. That value of creativity is worth its own post eventually. The Titans mention it frequently. Chase Jarvis via Maya Angelou, James Altucher, Ryan Holiday in the Canavas Strategy, and Robert Rodriguez all talk about the value and strategy they put into creativity.
By creativity is not meant art or any other direction of expectation. Rather the simple act of generating something from your mind. Any medium. Any method.
Tim’s Morning Pages and 5-minute Journal are great ways to direct your creativity. Journaling and writing are natural habits for him. Yours may be different. Playing music, quietly, particularly if you are improvising. Answering verbally, mentally or in writing a number of questions you set forth for yourself. Reading something you use as a launchpad for imagination. Even taking a meditative mind-vacation to a place you want to go or have been.
Think of creativity and imagination as a muscle. We already have you moving your body above. Why shouldn’t we also move our mind?
Other Morning Ritual Ideas
There are a few other key points I recall from the podcast that I can’t find in the book.
One is Tim’s clarification that he does not do all of these every day. If he’s done one he is content. If he does 75% it’s a great day. To Chade-Meng Tan’s point about meditation, if this can become a skill you employ daily in some form it is much easier to employ more of it when life gives you reason.
I also like to recommend cold showers in the morning. Wim Hoff will extol the health benefits to the end of the day. Tony Robbins emphasizes the role of shocking the system and priming. I think it also helps to do something in the morning that you never thought possible and that you might even hesitate to do. Cold water is in your control so much that I find it easier to engage than most other challenges. Especially if you have a handheld shower head, you can hit a small part of your body with the cold on days you aren’t feeling polar bearish. There is something valuable about being able to know you can tolerate cold. Especially as a departure from the comfort of warmth.
Another big step is to make your morning 100% output until you decide you are ready for input. This is another Josh Waitzkin pearl from the book and even more in the podcast. This time is your sanctuary. You are giving your day a gift of guaranteed time of happiness. First thing. The only thing that will compromise it is sleeping too late.
If you have a habit of waking up and checking email, text messages or the news you likely don’t realize how powerful this step can be. Just picking up an input device exposes you to a risk of stress. You may say “I read funny stories and pictures of cats on Facebook first thing, I skip the stressful stuff.” How is it you can guarantee the negative stuff you scroll past doesn’t invade your consciousness at all? You’ve never had a day where someone texts in the morning and brings stressful news? The risk is there so have a go at eliminating the risk. You may find that your assumptions around needing electronics is WAY overstated.
By making a pact that you will not engage any input devices you guarantee that your state of being is entirely in your control until you choose to release control.
Another part that is missing is fun. I think it’s important for this process to have some part that you define as fun. Whatever it may be. Jane McGonigal, twin-sister of Kelly McGonigal referenced above, is a big supporter of planned fun. Even playing video games or watching a fun show. Remember how kids love morning cartoons? We aren’t uniquely different beings now that we can watch R-rated movies. You may find that the promise of fun opens a door to so many other options by drawing you out of bed a few minutes earlier than usual.
Let’s go back to George.
George was most comfortable with the journaling idea and having a caffeinated beverage. For him English tea had some nostalgia that made the morning a very positive place. It took him back to his childhood living in England when his family would have a long, slow, Sunday breakfast together. The kids were allowed one cup of half-milk, half-tea with sugar. Utilizing this in our work added a fun component to the morning. Where he had been worried that his lack of being a morning person would hold him back, the fun and expectation of a “cuppa” pulled him out from under the covers quickly.
He had journaled in the past while traveling so it was a natural extension. He started by writing about past travels. Just stories from his memory. That gave way to writing about goals and things he wanted to do. He didn’t generally need prompts as he was getting the rhythm down of being a journaler. Eventually he would bring more structure to his journaling. As he became happier there was less need to have as much consolidated “remember happiness” time. We found that his minimum need was actually to plan that every Wednesday he would pick up his old travel journal and read for 1 minute. This repetitive action held him over the way 5 days of writing about those events for 10 minutes did initially. With that extra time he could engage more problem-solving with his journaling. This led to an exploration of goals and bucket-list ideas he soon started knocking off systematically.
He was not initially motivated by meditation, “I’ve tried it, I get too bored”. We went over the idea that successful meditation is one moment of having your thoughts going from where they are to where you want them to be on purpose. We agreed to build around the cup of tea. Every morning he would sit down in the same chair, hold his cup with two hands (how he did as a child), and before taking his first sip he would take a deep breath, hold it while surveying his inner state, then open his eyes and use the breath to blow on his tea.
It was totally cathartic. He noticed that he felt better after the breath. One day he had a tough meeting coming up at work that he was dreading. He stopped his thoughts from focusing on the meeting for his one breath. In a moment the dread was gone. Then for the entirety of his cup of tea he was caught up in his imagination. He spent his time remembering his youth in England. We discussed how that too was meditative. That gave him a lot of pride and left him to think about those times often throughout his day.
George also liked the idea of adding mindless reps of something physical. Starting small he would do large arm swings. This progressed to jumping jacks. Then push ups. Eventually he was doing inversions against the wall. It certainly didn’t make large contributions to his fitness. It did however have him feeling like a person that paid attention to his health. That was a big step for him.
Having now demonstrated some value to George, I had earned permission to challenge him more. Making his bed was initially too silly an idea. Even my insistence that the silliness was our friend didn’t work. However once he had decided I wasn’t full of it he relented.
Initially making his bed was a quick throw of the covers instead of leaving them agape and beckoning him back. He did notice the days he did that he was more likely to do his whole morning routine. It definitely got the ball rolling. Eventually it was so second nature that we decided to step it up. He began making his bed perfectly the way his mom had insisted when he was a kid.
This was a breakthrough moment. On one level it was a show of progress. He had shown himself he could overcome a challenge he had initially rejected and taken another step past even that accomplishment. It gave him hope that this whole process was a repeatable and predictable pattern. He saw the machine under the hood and knew he could apply it to any task.
The extra layer was one we couldn’t have predicted when setting him to the task of making his bed. It connected him with his mom and provided an indirect resolution to a long-standing conflict. His initial hesitation to my proposal to make his bed activated a subconscious resistance to anything that reminded him of his authoritarian mother. As we eventually learned, his marriage to a slow, ineffective lifestyle had some origin in defying his mom. To do any different would have let her win.
When he came to me it was an attempt to create a surrogate mom for his subconscious. Where our parents are given to us, we choose our therapists. In our process of relationship building I had earned the ability to offer him tasks he would accept. In overcoming them, he had to exorcise whatever conflict he had in his way. Once he did that he loosened his subconscious’ hold on the protective structures designed to guard him from the pain his mom had caused him through conditional love. Previously an unmade bed was a way to disappoint his mom and later to defy her. Now he no longer carried those omens. An unmade bed was an opportunity to make himself proud.
In this way George would forgive his mother. Over time he would begin to enjoy her idiosyncrasies as “that’s just mom” where previously they were grinding reminders of the past. He brought this momentum to other relationships as he was able to date people with more acceptance for their quirks. His work became more fulfilling as he moved to find ways to direct self-driven development. This brought him more value than any external markers. It did require a change in departments, which his company was happy to oblige as they saw him stepping into a higher level of fulfilled potential.
Through the medium of his morning routine we were able to access knowledge about George we may have never found. Incremental goals and achievement gave him the momentum to step into the lifestyle he knew he was capable of having. He learned the process of making his good days predictable.
Disclaimer: Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.