This may seem like a bold claim, but allow me to show you how one simple task – making my bed – helped me to become more productive, and ultimately, happier with my life.
I used to wake up and automatically hit snooze. It was a terrible habit. I had to set several back up alarms to make sure I didn’t fall back to sleep and wake up late for work. On top of that, once my third and final alarm rang, I would lay in bed, lights still off, and scroll through my Facebook feed before grudgingly getting out of bed and literally running out the door.
This was not a great way to start the day. I was frazzled and rushed from the get-go, feeling like I was somehow “behind” even though I hadn’t started my work day yet.
I had to make a change to take control of my day… but how?
There’s a field of psychology that researches the power of habit – whether that’s good habits that make people successful, or bad habits that lead to addiction and depression. Psychologists have come up with a concept called “keystone habits” to explain how one habit creates a cascade leading to either success or failure. Making my bed was my keystone habit.
Again, this seems like a bold claim. How did that one, simple task improve my life?
You see, in order to make your bed in the morning, you have to wake up earlier. That gives you the time to get out of bed, turn up the sheets, fluff the pillows, and all that other stuff that goes into making the bed. And I couldn’t make my bed in the dark, so I had to turn on my bedside lamp.
Between getting up a little earlier, turning on a lamp, and moving around first thing, waking up became a little easier. Not to mention, having my bed made up felt productive. It only took a few minutes, but all of a sudden, my day started with a productive accomplishment instead of a chaotic sprint out the door.
I could go about the rest of my morning as though I was in control of the day.
This translated into a better morning. I was more relaxed, more enthusiastic with my training clients. After sessions, I had a clear head to tackle projects. I got more of my to-do’s done. And that made me feel a heck of a lot more productive, and a heck of a lot less stressed.
Being productive throughout the day and eliminating that rushed, reactive, and stressful response made it easier to relax in the evening, allowing me to wind down for the night. This led to falling asleep faster, easier, and earlier, meaning I got more quality sleep. More sleep meant an easier time waking up in the morning – go figure.
Making the bed created this positive feedback loop that improved nearly every aspect of my day. Actually getting shit done is a wonderful feeling, and it all started with the simple habit of making my bed. Seriously, it was so simple, I almost couldn’t believe it worked.
I wanted to test this habit-based technique on someone else, to make sure it really worked.
I started with a client who was always late for their morning training session. Let’s call him Zach. I asked Zach to set his alarm five minutes earlier and run through a series of stretches we usually used in our warm up – but to do so every day, even when we weren’t meeting for a session. I asked him to text me immediately after he stretched to make sure he was sticking to the habit.
The next week, Zach was on time for our training session. It was the first time in weeks we had the full session to use for a workout, and Zach crushed it.
He told me he was really enjoying his morning stretching routine, and had recruited his fiancee to join him. It was a relaxing way to start their day. Not only did Zach feel more limber from stretching, he found it easier to wake up and get to the gym in the morning, which led to making healthier choices throughout the day.
Just like making my bed had helped me, the morning ritual of stretching proved to be an effective first step to improving everything else about Zach’s day.
So. How can you develop a keystone habit that will change your life?
It all starts with your morning routine. Look for an opportunity to create one small habit first thing when you wake up.
My favorite morning routines that I’ve used with myself and my clients are:
- Making the bed. This is the one that started it all for me, and I swear by it.
- Drinking a glass of water first thing. You can fill it at night and keep it on your nightstand.
- Five minutes of stretching. Just set a timer and move until it beeps.
- Meditating and focusing on your breathing. I highly recommend downloading the free Headspace app – it includes 10 free 10-minute meditations that help you focus and start your day with mental energy.
- Drinking a breakfast super shake. This is a great strategy if you “don’t have time” to cook breakfast, but want to start the day with good nutrition and energy to carry you through your workday.
- Saying something positive and complimentary to yourself in the mirror. This may feel awkward at first, but imagine how nice it would be to start your day saying “I’m awesome!” instead of your first words being the four-letter ones you scream at the schmuck who cut you off in traffic.
There are a ton of other ways to insert positive, life-changing habits into your daily routine.
Think about the biggest struggles and stressors in your day.
Do you find yourself stuck at work later than you want because your boss dumps a project on your desk on his way out the door? You could stop by boss-man’s office about an hour before end-of-day and ask if there’s any work you can take care of before you leave at X time (be specific about that time, and stick to it). Your boss will appreciate the offer, and it will signal that your work day is almost done.
If you struggle to get into an exercise routine, plug “gym time” into your phone as a calendar event that recurs at the same time each day, and set a reminder for an hour beforehand. That will put gym time at the top of your mind, and you’ll begin to go to the gym more often. Pack your gym bag the night before so you eliminate excuses to skip your workout.
Sticking to your new habits can be difficult. Here’s how to help yourself succeed.
Leave yourself visual cues to do your new routine until it becomes a habit. When I was trying to make my bed every morning, I put a sticky note on my bedside table that said “make your bed!” I would see it first thing when I woke up and follow through. The note is actually still there, even though I’ve gone months with successfully making my bed in the morning. I could probably throw it away, but the bright pink note keeps me in line.
Build in accountability in the beginning. I asked my client Zach to text me after he stretched to make sure he stayed consistent. The text message was a kind of small reward for completing the habit, and the “thumbs up” I sent him back affirmed that positivity he felt from stretching.
Alternately, build in a negative consequence for forgetting your habit. If you live with a significant other or roommate, tell them about your new habit. Offer to do the dishes every time you skip your habit so there’s something on the line.
Creating new habits is hard.
Don’t expect to start these positive habits overnight. It takes weeks for a new habit to stick, especially if there’s an old habit you’re trying to replace. Remember that every time you do the new habit, you reinforce it in your subconscious, and help to override your old patterns.
Breaking old habits and making new ones is challenging. But you’re up for the challenge!
Be patient and forgiving during the habit formation process. Catch slip ups when they happen and get back on track as quickly as possible, but don’t beat yourself up about it. We all slip up from time to time. Leaving yourself notes and reminders will help ingrain your new habits until you don’t have to think about them anymore. And you’d be surprised the positive effect just one good habit can have on the rest of your day.
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