These are simply a series of daily habits, each for a short period, that stacked together become even more effective and robust than any one of them individually.
We can gradually train ourselves to instinctively go through our habit stack each morning, without all the usual deliberation and anguish – should I do this or shouldn’t I, how much, how long, how often, etc – that can take up far more time than the actual creative habits themselves.
Recently I’ve stripped back my own morning stack and I’m rebuilding it in a slightly different way.
I feel this is necessary every once in a while, so we keep ourselves fresh, focused, and we keep our stacks purposeful, and meaningful for us as we evolve, rather than just going through them for the sake of it.
A brief outline of what’s changed with mine –
Up until about two weeks ago, my morning stack was like this:
4.45 Wake. Visit bathroom. Drink glass of water.
4.55 Yoga, 30 mins.
5.25 Meditation, 15 mins.
5.40 Five Daily Gratitudes (simply naming five people or things I’m grateful for in my life, and why).
5.45 Writing, 60 – 75 mins.
I went away to the hills for a break, and knew in advance I wouldn’t have internet access. This being a break from many things, including spending so much time in front of a screen each day, I decided not to even take my laptop. I would be unplugged for eight days.
Also, I wasn’t concerned about maintaining the early morning start.
Again, being a break from many things, I didn’t set any alarms, and simply woke when I woke, and we got up when we felt like getting up. Which wasn’t 4.45am.
What I kept of my morning stack whilst away were two core elements – a minimum 20 minutes of yoga each morning, and my five Daily Gratitudes.
And I did these without fail each morning, pretty soon after I got up.
Though the specific time varied, the principle was the same. Plus there was none of the indecision and should I / shouldn’t I that I mentioned before. I had already decided before I went that I would be maintaining the morning stack with these two core parts, and letting go of the rest.
Another thing that happened while I was away was that I fell off a Welsh mountain.
To be a little less (melo)dramatic about it, I lost my footing while descending a rather big hill, carrying a three year old, and a couple of my ribs took the impact of the two of us landing. They’ve been somewhat uncomfortable since, and have compromised some of the yoga I’ve been able to do.
The reason I’m sharing this little escapade with you (landing on grassland well manured by the resident sheep added comedy value to the spill) is that it could’ve been an easy excuse to ditch the morning stack altogether, and claim I wasn’t physically capable. But I just switched around the moves I could do and took it more gently.
The momentum of 500+ previous days of yoga carried me through without questioning from a moment whether I should stop.
The same momentum that at Christmas time saw me carry out the most limited yoga sessions so far, due to the worst sickness and diarrhoea I’ve experienced in living memory.
But I still showed up to the mat each day, because that’s the point of a morning stack – to do it every day, and gain the momentum and energy that comes with such discipline.
Since I’ve got back, my morning stack is still settling.
I’m doing the yoga, daily gratitudes and writing, but not the meditation, and not getting up so early (currently an hour later at 5.45am).
It’s working so far, and I don’t miss the meditation session I removed, in all honesty.
Just before I went away, I was experiencing a fair bit of anxiety, more than I’d done in years. For me, the fuel for this is giving it too much weight and analysis, rather than just accepting we all feel anxious from time to time, and we all need to take a break and switch things around now and then.
An excellent post by Steven Pressfield helped me figure out further how I wasn’t helping myself with the anxiety by continuing to do some 45 mins or more of yoga and meditation each morning before getting down to the work of writing.
Give yourself too much space and the demons and the inner critic voices creep in and do their damage. The best way to keep them at bay is to keep showing up, keep doing the work.
For now, the yoga gives me exercise and a way to bring myself slowly alive each morning, as well as just enough space mentally to ponder and prepare the latest writing I’m doing. So I’m at the page and typing within 30 minutes of waking, doing the work that’s important, in a great state of mind.
Another factor that changed whilst I was away was my reading habits.
I read a lot online each day, whether it’s discussion threads in online communities I belong to, or new blog posts, ezines or ebooks.
Whilst I was away for a week I didn’t have this online option, and my reading hunger to a large extent was replaced by an evening habit. Virtually every night away, in front of the wood burner, and then in bed after, I read books. I probably averaged an hour or even 90 mins a night, far more than I read each night back home.
But since I have returned home this has greatly increased. I do read a book virtually every night still, and not just for five minutes before falling alseep, but for 30, 45, 60+ minutes.
In a way, by reducing my morning habit, and shifting it forward about an hour each morning, I’ve realised I’ve created a new habit at the other end of the night.
I’m not sleeping significantly more, but instead using the time before going to bed to stay up a little later and read.
So if you include around six and a half hours’ sleep each night, you could said my stack begins with reading the night before, then sleeping, then yoga, daily gratitudes, then writing. My day after that, and before the next reading session, being devoted to dayjob and family.
The details of my particular habits are not so important.
The main point of this post is to share that though my belief in the power and effectiveness of morning stacks as a daily practice is as strong as ever, I feel it’s important to keep in mind why we’re doing the various elements of the stack, and asking whether they are the best use of this precious time.
When they’re not, we need to let go of one part or other – whilst maintining the concept and integrity and powerful habit of the stack overall, and if need be then introduce new elements in gradually.
Morning stacks have an optimum size and length for each of us, which we must each find.
For me, I can’t imagine more than maybe four elements in a stack. Beyond this it would topple, it’s too long a sequence, for me.
For others – maybe for you – a stack of two is the optimum, say some physical exercise followed by creating your art for example, or writing followed by reading.
These can be incredible powerful double acts.
Plus you may find, like I have, that having part of your stack last thing at night the previous night (and maybe giving your mind the right kind of material to dwell on and germinate new ideas for whilst you sleep?), then another two or three habits the next morning might work best for you.
Tell me more about how daily habits and morning (and indeed evening) stacks are working for you, I’d love to know.
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