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Kissing the Frog: How to Set Up a Morning Routine That Sticks

Small daily habits are the building blocks to creating the life you want.

Have you heard the expression, “Eat the frog first?”

Mark Twain is quoted as saying: “If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing it’s probably the worst thing that will happen to you all day long.” In his time-management book Eat That Frog, Brian Tracy talks about doing what’s difficult first thing in the morning, to set up your day for success. But I think instead of eating the frog, we should kiss the frog first. Kissing the frog is putting your energy toward what you care about most about first thing.

Small daily habits are the building blocks of your life, and by taking daily committed action toward what matters most, you build the life you want, step by step. Here are some tips from behavioral psychology and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) that I have used to build a sustainable morning routine that you can put into action first thing tomorrow,

1. Take a Closer Look at Your Morning Habits

If we think about how many mornings we have in an average lifespan (say 80 years), it’s almost 30,000. Your habits are probably pretty similar across those mornings. Take a closer look at what you are doing, and ask, “If I did this another 10,000 more times, what could be the long-term consequences?”

Consider these questions:

  • What are the frequent morning tasks you engage in first?
  • If you were to continue these every day for the next 20 years, which ones support the life you want to grow, and which ones don’t?
  • If you were to front load what matters most to you in the morning, what would you want to add?

2. Start Small, Then Make It Smaller

In his book, 5 Intentions: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, Frank Ostasenski writes about lessons he wants to impart to the living based on his many years working with the dying. The first lesson is, Don't wait. Being the person you want to be is about daily processes, not end goals or some miracle time in the future. But it can feel overwhelming to get going. That is where starting small helps.

I once attended a workshop by Steven Hayes in which he demonstrated how to get started. He pulled out a phone book, stepped on it, and then jumped off. “That’s how small to make it!” he said. Taking committed action toward a different morning routine will require you to make some changes, but they will be better sustained if you keep them small.

If you replace a morning task with one small behavior linked to your values, what would that small act be? For example, when I added journaling to my morning routine, I started by just writing down three values I wanted to focus on each day. Three words. That’s all.

Take a moment to clarify what you want to add or subtract from your morning routine. Choose a behavior you will be 90% successful at achieving, advises Dayna Lee Baggley, author of Healthy Habits Suck. Once it becomes 100%, add another.

3. Cue Your New Behavior

I have had a number of conversations with psychiatrist Jud Brewer, and every one circles back to the behavior habit loop cycle. Every behavior has a cue that triggers it and a reward that keeps it in motion. When designing your morning routine, you will need a cue to remind you to do it. For example, I started journaling a number of years back after many starts and stops. I paired my journaling with a cup of morning coffee (a reliable cue!) and it stuck. Choose a cue to pair your desired morning behavior with and make sure it is reliable, then write it out: When _____, I will _____.

Example: When I drink coffee in the morning, I will journal.

4. Reward Your New Routine

Positive reinforcement is what helps behaviors stick. Many of us grew up on gold stars and good grades. These types of extrinsic rewards can keep us going short term, but don’t hold up when our motivation is low, or no one is looking. Instead of using external rewards (e.g., numbers on a scale) to reward your new values-rich morning, reward yourself by taking in the good of what it feels like to do something that lines up with the type of person you want to be.

Rick Hanson suggests a practice to help us savor this good that he calls HEAL:

H: Have a positive experience.

E: Enrich it by paying attention to it.

A: Absorb the experience into your body and being.

L: Link it to times that aren’t so positive.

When you add a new practice to your morning routine, take time to really let it land in your body. Paying attention in this way helps transfer it into your memory. The next morning, when you wake up and your mind gives you all sorts of reasons why you can’t do your morning routine, remember the positive feeling you created by doing it.

5. Don’t Mind Your Mind

Your “motivation wave,” as Stanford habit guru BJ Fogg calls it, might be high now, but it’s guaranteed that your mind will give you a hard time at some point. What are some of the common excuses or resistances your mind gives you? It helps to write them down so you can learn to expect them and get a little space from them when they do arise. Expect your mind to have a thing or two to say about your new morning commitment.

Classic morning mind thoughts:

  • I don't want to
  • I am too tired
  • Can’t I just start tomorrow?

What if you were to listen to your values and your wise self instead?

6. Help Your Future Self Out

Your morning routine starts the night before. You are more likely to be successful at completing your morning routine if you prepare yourself. Do your future self a favor and get to bed earlier, prep your exercise clothes, clean up your meditation space, or make your morning smoothie the night before. Do what you can ahead of time, to lower the friction of carrying out what you care about first.

7. Dialectically Commit

Dialectics is the philosophy of both...and. You can 100% commit to your morning routine, while also being flexible with yourself when it doesn’t work out. My success at a long-time meditation and journal practice is built on my flexibility with it. Some mornings I can only fit in 3 minutes, and that's OK; I get back to my baseline when I have the space and bandwidth to do so.

Committed action is getting off track and returning over and over again. It is the return that strengthens your commitment: Every time you return to your commitment to your values, you strengthen that muscle.

Putting It All Together

Kissing the frog today builds the life you want tomorrow. Set up your morning routine to focus on your values, and point yourself in that direction first thing. As Tara Brach shared in a workshop I attended many years ago, our daily practice can shift us from skimming the surface of our lives to living in our lives.