Sleep

11 easy ways to improve your morning routine while you’re stuck at home

Getting yourself on a morning schedule is essential for making your "new normal" feel, well, normal.

A woman stretches in bed after waking up Credit: Getty Images / nesharm

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Quarantines and social distancing have upended most people’s day-to-day routines. Nonetheless, having a daily schedule can give your mental health and overall well-being a huge boost. Routines are especially important for regulating our lives “when [we’re] spending a lot of time separated from family and friends, or with a limited number of other people for an extended period of time,” says Lawrence Palinkas, a professor at the University of Southern California whose specialties include medical anthropology and global health. “Having a regular schedule helps to regulate body rhythms in much the same way that exposure to light regulates rhythm,” Palinkas says. (Exposure to light refers to the human circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle that governs our sleep patterns, among other things.)

One upside to this sudden change: It offers a great opportunity to form new habits, and also the potential to break pre-existing bad ones, says BJ Fogg, a researcher at Stanford University who specializes in behavioral design, and also teaches people in industry solutions to influence behavior. Starting the morning right sets the tone for the rest of your day, and can completely change your outlook. These pro tips can help you create a meaningful and uplifting morning routine.

1. Use your alarm, every day

phone alarm on table
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Move your alarm away from your bed so you have to get up to turn it off.

There’s one tool that beats out all others when it comes to helping you maintain a consistent sleep schedule: a morning alarm. It’s easy to go free flow while working from home, social distancing, and not going out. You don’t have to get up at a certain time to commute to work, you can just roll out of bed anytime between 8 and 9 and still be punctual. One day you might get up at 8, but the next you could snooze until 8:59 (yes, even a one-hour difference to your sleep pattern can affect your health) and takes a toll on the quality of your nightly snooze, making the next day harder. It’s difficult to rely on willpower alone right now, so it’s important to be intentional about when you wake up, according to C. Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association.

Placing your alarm (or phone) somewhere that isn’t accessible from your bed is a good idea, Wright says. This forces you to actually get up in the morning, rather than hitting snooze, and can ingrain the pattern of waking up at a certain time, she says. Plus, not having your phone by your bed is good practice in general. Researchers found that people whose sleep was interrupted by their smartphone reported sleeping nearly an hour less than those who went uninterrupted in the night.

2. Adopt the “Maui Habit”

15Maui Habit routine
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Start the day with a positive outlook.

The second your feet hit the floor after you wake up, whisper to yourself—or say out loud—that it’s going to be a great day, Fogg says. (He self-dubbed it the “Maui Habit,” in part because he lives on the island.) Self-talk, or what you say to yourself, can boost your perspective and outlook. Ninety percent of your happiness relates to your general outlook on life, so starting the day with a positive affirmation can change a lot.

“That’s the best way to start the morning,” Fogg says.

3. Don’t skip breakfast

Eat a good breakfast
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Eat a healthy breakfast to start off your day right.

Breakfast jump-starts your metabolism, and skipping it can throw off your daily rhythms. Your first meal of the day is important because “you’re consuming energy that will propel you for the rest of the day and provide you with the requirements you need to perform whatever tasks you engage in, whether they’re physical or mental,” Palinkas says.

Fill your morning plate with the usual suspects: Whole grains, healthy fats, and protein, make for good breakfast foods. Good options to try include oatmeal topped with fruit and nut butter, Greek yogurt with berries, or breakfast tacos with vegetables and eggs. Even "carb-y" buckwheat pancakes and whole-grain French toast can be part of a healthy diet, according to a sample menu by USDA's Choose My Plate.

4. Resist the temptation to stay in your PJs all day

14Morning get dressed routine
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Getting dressed helps your days feel more normal, and what you wear can even change your behavior.

For comfort or flat-out laziness, sitting around in the clothes you slept in is appealing when you don’t have to go outside the house. But getting dressed is an important step in keeping your life feeling normal, especially when it’s not. “I don’t think people need to be putting on a three-piece suit or anything, but… wearing the same sweatpants three days in a row does actually start to have a kind of depressing effect on people,” Wright says.

What’s more, there’s even a term for the effects of clothes have on our psychology, “enclothed cognition.” Researchers found that different types of clothes can change the feelings and behaviors of those wearing them. But for today, and tomorrow, and the rest of quarantine, it’s enough to change out of your loungewear and into “real” clothes.

5. Tidy your space to clear your mind

17Morning cleaning routine
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Tidy a certain number of objects each morning to give yourself momentum for the day.

Easy tasks (ones that provide the satisfaction of success quickly) completed first thing in the morning give you momentum and confidence for the rest of the day, Fogg says. Aim to “tidy” (put away, in the right place) a reasonable number of things each morning, he says.

Sometimes experts suggest putting away a whole group of objects, like the clothes you left out from the past week, or clearing a single surface, like your desk. But Fogg says to keep it simpler: If you choose to tidy 10 things, that’s just 10 individual objects, whatever they may be. If you feel like doing more after you reach your initial target, keep going, he says. “The great thing about tidiness is that you see the results quickly, and throughout the day you aren’t dragged down. Over time, that has a huge effect on you; getting all the clutter put away.”

6. Meditate or journal before the day is in full-swing

19Morning journaling routine
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Journaling or meditating in the morning can ground you for the rest of the day.

Both journaling and meditation can help “ground you for the day, and give you a little space to yourself,” Wright says. Journaling provides another opportunity for positive self-talk, and also helps reduce stress. Meditation doesn’t require any tools, though you can use apps like Headspace or Relax Melodies to guide you. Meditation usually involves focusing on your breathing and the present moment, rather than future or past concerns.

7. Replace your morning commute with a walk

11Replace commute routine
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Replace your morning commute with a quick walk to mark the start of the workday.

Rather than just rolling out of bed and into the chair in front of your computer, get up and take a quick walk before work, even if it’s just around the block. The walk can help create a “mental sense of distance” between work and home life, and almost mimics a daily commute, Wright says.

In addition, morning walks offer the opportunity to connect with nature. Go out and take a breath of fresh air, Fogg suggests. If that’s not an option, just open your window to ventilate your space. For those living in areas where green space isn’t readily available, even looking at pictures of nature can improve "executive functioning," which includes your ability to stay focused and mentally play with ideas.

You can also splurge on a mailed houseplant for your home office, which researchers found can increase productivity in offices by up to 15 percent.

8. Consider fitting in fitness

Exercise in AM
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Exercise gives your mood a boost, and getting some movement into your mornings can even improve cognitive performance.

Exercise has benefits across the board, from reducing your risk of heart disease to improving your mood. But morning exercise comes with unique advantages. In a study of older adults in Australia, moderate morning exercise improved cognitive performance and decision-making throughout the day. Researchers also found that mid-morning exercise may up teens' cognitive function. Another study found that exercise improves task performance and cognitive responses to challenges.

Building workouts into your morning routine will help you be consistent. If you find yourself wanting to skip exercise, give yourself cues that are hard to ignore. When Wright wants to work out, for example, she puts her exercise equipment out in plain sight, so it's hard to disregard. Creative solutions and cues like this can help prevent you from talking yourself out of things like exercising, she says.

9. Make it a goal to be social (with appropriate distance)

13Morning Video Conference routine
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Scheduling a virtual coffee hour with your co-workers builds in social time, and can help replicate the office environment.

People have less opportunities for “incidental interactions” in this time of quarantine, Wright says. These interactions normally happen when you just bump into someone (not literally) and strike up a conversation on your commute, at the coffee shop, or on the way to the gym. The circumstances are hard to recreate in current conditions, because they often happen with people you don’t know, she says. Yet, people remain inherently social animals. Replicating, through video chat, your workplace habit of drinking coffee with coworkers or having a weekend “brunch” with friends can keep you connected, she says.

10. Be a realistic about ambitions

16Sewing morning routine
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Pick obtainable ambitions, don't try to master the art of sewing or French language in one afternoon.

It’s important to have realistic ambitions and attainable goals, Palinkas says. Otherwise, you may throw up your hands within an hour or so of trying to master sewing or French after becoming exhausted or overwhelmed and feel guilty about quitting, he says. Failing to meet ambitions can cause you can slip into a cycle of feeling bad about yourself for not meeting your goals, he says. So choose to implement things that you enjoy, and are reasonable—and don't confine yourself to having to do them for a certain amount of time.

Some people may find, say, bread-making appealing, while others might prefer learning a new language or working on jigsaw puzzles (which have become increasingly difficult to track down). Just do yourself a favor and tackle one new project or skill at a time, and cut yourself some slack if it doesn't go as quickly or smoothly as you'd hoped.

11. Be flexible with your routine

12cook something new routine
Credit: Getty Images / urbazon

Try cooking something new to spice up your routine.

While humans thrive on routines, we also need some variation in our lives, Palinkas says. This can be difficult to capture while quarantined, as little changes on a daily basis. Work to identify a “variety of things you enjoy doing, rather than trying to be rigid about how much and for how long you should be doing each activity,” he suggests.

Even small shifts—like putting together a new outfit with clothes you wouldn’t normally pair or making a new recipe you haven’t tried before—can spice up your normal routine in a quarantine-friendly way, Wright says.

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