My alarm goes off at 4.30am. Rise and grind!
I start the day by performing an ancient Pranayama breathing exercise given to me by my guru, Kevin. Then it’s time to head to the tennis courts to practice my forehands. I can do 1000 now. Afterwards I hit the showers for three minutes, switching to cold water for the final 30 seconds to tighten my pores, then apply a volcanic clay face mask (made with real ash from Pompeii) and repeat my affirmations in the mirror. When I get home, I hang upside down in my gravity boots to increase blood flow to the brain while I write my morning pages. At 7am, it’s breakfast time. I make a smoothie out of four organic blueberries, wheat milk, and sunlight. Now I’ve won the morning, and I’m ready to #crush the day.
An immutable law of the Internet: it’s impossible to write a LinkedIn morning routine parody so ridiculous that it couldn’t be mistaken for the real thing.
This genre of hustle-porn sucks, but not because the hustlers are wrong. I’m annoyed because they’re right—at least, in theory—but they spray so much fluorescent orange Cheez over everything that any sensible person is immediately repulsed. This is a problem. If we dismiss the ‘morning routine’ trope as the performative humblebragging of grifters and Silicon Valley narcissists, we’re throwing the baby out with the essential oil-infused bathwater.
Lately I’ve been learning about circadian rhythms. My vague memory from high school biology is that this has something to do with the ‘body clock’, but as it turns out, we have 37 trillion clocks; one in each and every cell. These mechanisms trigger growth, enzyme production, DNA repair, cell death, and other things that sound important. When your body’s internal clockwork is all junked up, bad things happen.
Most people know that sleep habits are important: working night shifts was classified as “probably carcinogenic” back in 2007. But it’s true of all sorts of other things, too. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of stimuli and behaviours which have an important timing component:
- Light (UV radiation)
- Light (narrow wavelength)
- Fasting (circadian)
- Fasting (fat loss)
- Fasting (autophagy)
- Stimulant use
- Alcohol use
- Movement (intense exercise)
- Movement (gentle)
- Cognition (analytical)
- Cognition (memory)
- Cognition (creativity)
That’s 15 variables, each of which has some optimal rhythm throughout the day, or an optimal timing in relation to the other variables, or both. As you might imagine, this makes it really frickin’ hard to get them all lined up without clashes.
Take the simple act of drinking a cup of black coffee. If you do it too early, it interferes with cortisol production. If you do it too late, it messes up your sleep. If you’re interested in fasting, well—which kind? The metabolites from coffee alone will kick you out of a circadian fast, but won’t make any difference to a fast for fat loss purposes, and might even help with an autophagy-focused fast.
This is my attempt to reconcile the recommended timing for all of these factors and lay them out with as few conflicts as possible, while ignoring the woo: no almonds were activated in the making of this post.
What would the perfect daily routine look like, as determined by ScienceTM?
ScienceTM is kind of a hot mess. It has let me down before; it will no doubt do so again. I’m drawing mostly from Satchidananda Panda, Rhonda Patrick, and Stephan Guyenet, all of whom have PhDs in their respective fields, and the pop-science writer Daniel Pink. I haven’t read any original research from these folks or anyone else; only their popular books, podcasts, interviews, etc. And I’m not 100 per cent confident I’ve applied their findings perfectly. So take this with a big old pinch of salt.
Chronobiology changes as we age, and this cookie-cutter template doesn’t take into account other individual differences and preferences. That means it’s guaranteed to be less-than-optimal for you, but hopefully the broad strokes are pretty much right.
There are supposedly two main chronotypes (early birds, and night owl).1 I’ve designed this template for early birds, because that’s what I aspirationally identify as. I’m not sure how it would all fit together for the night owls; if anyone wants to try, please post it in the comments.
This template is designed to give you 8 hours of quality sleep, a 12 hour circadian feeding window, and a 16 hour fast, among other things. I’m pretty sure that these factors are important, but I’m not going to even try to justify them here. I am working on a gigantic FAQ on fasting, but it’s not ready yet so feel free to ignore this stuff for now.
The Perfect Daily Routine
- Wake up naturally with no alarm clock, around dawn. Get lots of bright, natural light as soon as possible—don’t wear sunglasses or draw the blinds for the first hour or so, and maybe go outside if you’re going to do yoga or meditate or whatever.
- If possible, walk or cycle to work. This raises your body temperature and brings your brain up to speed faster, and starts racking up some of the gentle movement we want to accumulate.
- Have your first cup of black coffee/tea/anything else that creates metabolites. This triggers the circadian rhythm of your gut, without breaking your caloric fast. The rationale for waiting ~90 minutes after waking is to avoid disrupting cortisol production.
- Working memory, alertness, and concentration continue to improve, peaking in late morning. This is the optimal time for the kind of deep work that requires uninterrupted blocks of focus. Switching attention between tasks is the enemy, so avoid meetings, calls, email, social media, etc.
- Assuming you work inside, try to sit perpendicular to a source of natural light (e.g. side-on to a window or doorway). You’re meant to get six hours of the stuff throughout the day, so if you can’t get enough, use a shitload of artificial light instead.
- Break your fast around midday. Eat mostly protein, fat, and non-starchy vegetables if you want to avoid spiking insulin and the postprandial crash (that feeling of dopiness in the afternoon).
- Midday is the best time for your body to produce Vitamin D, so get outside. You want 10-30 minutes of sun exposure, depending on your skin colour, season, latitude, etc (timing guide). Don’t wear sunblock except on your face, and wear as few clothes as you can get away with without causing a scandal.
- Going for a post-lunch stroll is even better, because it also helps digestion and improves blood sugar levels.
- The dreaded afternoon slump. Around seven hours after you wake up, the ability to focus and do careful work falls into a trough. One solution to this problem is to stop viewing it as a problem: this is the perfect time to take a break, snooze off the midday meal, and avoid the heat of the day (siesta comes from the Latin hora sexta, or ‘sixth hour’ after daybreak.)
- You might also use the early afternoon for shallow work: admin tasks, chores and errands. Just be aware that you’re more easily distracted and more likely to make mistakes, so don’t do analytical stuff or make any big decisions.
- The flipside of this lack of vigilance is that it also makes you more creative. This is a great time for brainstorming, lateral thinking, and diving down exploratory rabbit holes.
- Eat the second meal of the day, if you need one. Composition doesn’t matter much, but maybe put some carbs in there for workout fuel.
- Don’t drink any coffee after this point, because half of it will still be pinging around your brain by the time you’re trying to sleep (ideally, stop taking caffeine at midday).
- The perfect time for exercise. Strength, endurance, lung function and body temperature peak between 3pm and 6pm, which means you’re naturally ‘warmed up’. Exercising before dinner also means you don’t have to workout on a full stomach, and aren’t overstimulated when you go to bed.
- Take a sauna or hot shower/bath afterwards.2 Counterintuitively, this helps to bring your body temperature down, which is important to start cuing your body for sleep.
- You also want to start blocking blue light around this time. Blue wavelengths are important during daylight hours, but seriously mess with circadian rhythms at night.
- A few options: wear sunglasses, especially dorky Blublockers, use Night Shift and f.lux on your phone and computer, or go full Rhonda Patrick and install fancy light bulbs that change to warmer wavelengths on a timer.
- Eat your last meal for the day. Make it a big one so you’re not tempted to snack into the night (this seems to be really bad). Have a drink if you want, but ideally don’t consume any alcohol three hours before bed.
- Stop looking at screens if at all possible: Night Shift and f.lux help a little but are far from perfect, and an unlit Kindle or paperback is much less bad than a computer or phone.
- Take 0.3mg of melatonin to lock in a regular circadian rhythm and improve sleep quality: gwern estimates it saves about an hour, e.g. he sleeps 7 hours but wakes up as refreshed as if he got 8. This seems about right to me.
- Why 0.3mg? Scott Alexander has reasons. If you think taking melatonin is ‘unnatural’, consider that your house is strung up with artificial suns that have literally blotted out the stars in the sky. Might be good to address that.
- This is also as good a time as any to have sex or rub one out, which aids the onset of sleep.
- In bed, ready to sleep. It’s important that your bedroom is pitch-black: heavy curtains, pinprick LEDs switched off or covered with tape. Wearing a sleep mask can make a huge difference. It should also be cool: 16-18 degrees is perfect.
- It takes ~15 minutes to fall asleep, so leave a little slack to reach your target (7-9 hours for most adults).
Throughout the day
- Move every hour or so: switch between standing and sitting, go for a walk, stretch, fiddle, always take the stairs. We need lots of movement spaced throughout the day, and there’s no way to ‘catch up’ on it with one big dose: pounding the treadmill does not compensate for 10 hours slouched over a computer.
- Drink plenty of water, but don’t worry about the 8 glasses thing. Best rule of thumb: if your pee is pale yellow, you’re good.
- Take proper breaks for meals, as well throughout the lull/trough period. One of the common attributes of top performers is that when they’re on break, they’re on break.
- The characteristics of a perfect break: outside, single-tasking, with friends, non-work related.
As regular readers will know, I think perfectionism is a mental illness. There’s no escape from the cycle of endlessly ratcheting ambition, except to settle for good enough at the earliest opportunity. So why write this post?
First, it was an interesting puzzle and I couldn’t find any serious attempt to solve it. Second, while the bar for ‘good enough’ is set good and low, radical self-acceptance is also stupid: after four months of lockdown, my habits and routines are all over the map, and I want to return some semblance of order.
I have no intention of following this exact template like clockwork; not only because I would bomb out on day one, but because it would be weird: ‘It’s 9pm honey, the calendar says it’s time to get freaky!’ Life’s high points are not scheduled. There’s a lot to be said for all-nighters and serendipity and throwing caution to the winds. But the reliably dull-but-worthy middle points are scheduled, which is why I want to approximate something like this.
One thing I’m sure of is that modernity is totally out of whack with our biology. Meetings are scheduled in the morning, when they’re most devastating to productivity. Teenagers have later circadian cycles, but they’re forced to get up early for school, crippling their ability to actually concentrate. Most people don’t get anywhere near enough natural light in the mornings, and then far too much artificial light in the evenings. Hyper-palatable food is available around the clock. Sleep deprivation is endemic. Half the developed world is Vitamin D deficient.
This fucks us up in all sorts of fantastic ways that only seem ‘normal’ because everyone else is in the same position. Sure, the CEO-supermom-fitness-model types are overcompensating, but at least they understand this fundamental point: the status quo sucks, and anyone who doesn’t realise this might accurately be described as a sucker.
To the extent that you can actually do something about this, it seems like a useful exercise. What would your ‘perfect daily routine’ look like? It’s not like it has to be worthy of a LinkedIn brag. As is so often the case, merely moving in the direction of not-sucking is a success unexpected in common hours.
- I say ‘supposedly’ because chronotypes actually fall on a spectrum, and the normal variation only spans a few hours: people who are wired to stay up until 4am and sleep until noon should be extreme outliers. Even if we buy the cute just-so stories (the ‘night shift’ protects the rest of us from wolves) the simpler explanation is that modernity constantly nudges us towards sleep disorders and messed-up habits: when experimenters took ‘night owls’ into the woods with no cellphones or flashlights, their sleep cycles shifted 2-3 hours earlier within a week.
- The research on sauna bathing looks great—it’s like doing cardio, except you’re sitting on your ass. Rhonda Patrick has a thorough review here.