My Time of Morning
This month I want to return to the RARE SENSE methodology I outlined in the Manifesto and dive into the Orientation Module a bit. Specifically, I’d like to discuss some ideas about how to begin your day mentally. The reality is that most people are utterly oblivious to the nature of their minds first thing in the morning. And in my opinion, this is the most critical time to orient it. To take a few moments to breathe, focus, and notice.
Note that if you haven’t read the RARE SENSE Manifesto, I highly encourage you to do so before proceeding. It covers the background for everything I speak about here, specifically my paradigm of human performance via mind fitness which looks like this:
So how do you orient yourself first thing in the morning? If you are anything like the way I was, you probably don’t. Instead, you wake up and simply start going. You grab some coffee and hit the gym, or get the kids off to school, or hop in the shower and head to work. But you aren’t paying attention to your thoughts during any of this. Of course, you are thinking. You just aren’t noticing what you’re thinking. This means you could be sabotaging your day without even knowing it, especially if you are prone to defaulting towards unhelpful and harmful patterns of thought.
Our first challenge is to notice this process. Before you even get out of bed, take a few moments and ask yourself, “what am I thinking right now?” Don’t try to conjure up something specifically. Just become aware of whatever pops into your head. Do this for a few days and if possible, write down what you find. Journaling is something that I’ve never been good at, but it can be extremely valuable for analyzing habitual behaviors and establishing new ones (which for me includes journaling itself.)1
Once you have enough data, examine it. Now maybe you are one of those people that jump out of the rack as soon as the alarm clock goes off and invariably thinks, “I can’t wait to get this day started!” But I’m willing to bet that’s not true for most of you. It certainly isn’t for me. Chances are your internal dialogue sounds more like this, “Ugh, it’s early. I’ve got so much work to get done today!” or, “Why didn’t I go to bed earlier last night!?”
A few key characteristics of this type of thinking are essential to discuss. First, it demonstrates a lack of presence. You are either anticipating the future or ruminating on the past. Which means you aren’t even starting your day there and then. In addition, such thoughts are often laced with anxiety, regret, guilt, shame, etc. So not only are you essentially absent from that moment, but you are also veiling it with negativity. None of this is helpful.2 On the contrary, it’s completely counterproductive.
Let’s change this. To start, update some of the verbiage you use with those initial thoughts. If you find yourself thinking of all the things you have to do, start using the word get instead. I’ve heard Sam Harris correctly point out that there are probably a billion people on the planet on your worst day that would trade places with you immediately. At the exact moment you open your eyes tomorrow, someone else will be dying in excruciating agony. Whatever petty inconvenience you find yourself internally complaining about is a trifle in comparison. Be grateful for the items on your calendar. Even if they include jury duty… These are things you get to do, not things you have to do.
Next, we want to establish a mind fitness morning routine to frame the day properly. One that grounds us in the present moment and helps us deal with thoughts about the past or future that have no value. None of this needs to take up an excessive amount of time. All that’s required is five to ten minutes. And it can be done concurrently with having your first sips of coffee.
Start by writing down two statements for the day:
A statement of gratitude.
A statement of intent.
These should begin with “I am grateful for…” and “Today, I intend to….” They don’t need to be profound, complex, or audacious, just relevant to your current situation. Your statement of gratitude is backward-facing. It’s about where you’ve been. And your statement of intent is forward-facing. It’s about where you’re going. The goal here is to formulate some simple mantras to replace any useless mental energy pointed in either direction that arises during the day. You can jot these down wherever you like - a journal, yellow stickies, the notes section of your phone, or some other place. But make it a location that you can refer back to easily.
Now we will cement these statements in our psyche by using a basic breathing exercise. There are tons of these out there with varying purposes, and that’s a subject I’ll discuss more in future articles.3 But for this drill, we will use what’s called “alternate nostril breathing.” It’s a simple practice whereby you place your index and middle fingers on your forehead and use your thumb and ring fingers to go back and forth, blocking off one nostril while you breathe in and the other while you breathe out. There are numerous reasons why this is beneficial, but I especially like that it forces you to concentrate. The tactile manipulation of your nasal passages is something that requires focused attention. Your mind is less likely to go wandering off while you do this.
Now sit comfortably, start a timer for five minutes, and commence this breathing technique. With each round, say your statements of gratitude and intent silently in your mind.
Inhale (“I am grateful for…”)
Exhale (“I am grateful for…”)
Inhale (“Today, I intend to…”)
Exhale (“Today, I intend to…”)
When the timer goes off, you’re done. This entire practice from start to finish shouldn’t take you any longer than ten minutes. And you’ve now given yourself a mental anchor for the day. A way to start again when necessary. If you get depressed about the past or stressed about the future, repeat this exercise, even if it’s only for a few rounds.
The most precious commodity we have is time. But not all time is created equal. And the quality of a future moment often depends on how we spend the present one. Setting aside a few minutes every morning to properly orient your mind with gratitude and intent are moments exceptionally well spent. You can set yourself up for success right then and there. Make an effort to start smarter. Your time to come will thank you for it.
Disclaimer: None of the ideas expressed here are intended to diagnose or treat any condition or disease. Nor do they represent the opinions or official position of an organization or individual other than me personally. If you are suffering from a mental or physical disorder or illness, please seek medical attention from a licensed professional.
To learn more about the importance of habits, I highly recommend Atomic Habits by James Clear.
Instead of categorizing thoughts as “positive” or “negative,” try thinking of them as either “helpful” or “unhelpful.” You can read more about this concept in The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, which is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).