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For a long time, the first thing I felt in the morning was panic. 

Maybe you’ve been there before. It went something like this:

The alarm goes off. My eyes snap open. Crap, I think. I’m so exhausted. I’ve set the alarm for the last possible second, and I know I have 30 things to do before I even leave the house, though I’m not exactly sure what they are. I grab my phone, bring it to life, and scan through the insane amount of emails that have come in while I was sleeping, which wasn’t even for very long. (Business school students have no boundaries when it comes to email, y’all.) Crap. I force my feet onto the floor, stand up wearily.

What am I doing today? What should I wear? God, I’m hungry. What should I eat? Oh god I only have 40 minutes is there a finance quiz today I’m out of toothpaste where are my shoes I have to respond to Monica’s email and figure out how to magically be in three meetings at the same time I’m late already oh no it’s raining where is my umbrella?!

Clearly, this was not an ideal way to start the day.

A year and a great deal of effort later, I actually love mornings. (Seriously.) Because they now look like this:

The alarm goes off. I hit snooze once, either taking a bit of time to mentally prepare for the day or snuggling with my beau for a few minutes. The alarm goes off again; I’m ready this time. I stand up, immediately put on some strategically located slippers and a fleece to ward off the impulse to jump back into bed (because it’s winter, which is reason enough for me), and immediately light a candle or a stick of incense. I pull out a cushion from under the coffee table, sit on it, put the candle in front of me, and meditate. Five to ten minutes later, I’m up again, powering up my NPR app to check in on what’s up in the news while I boil some water for delicious coffee and serve up a sweet breakfast for myself. I religiously avoid email until after my food has been enjoyed, settling down in front of the computer with the aforementioned coffee to go over my schedule for the day and make sure I know what lies ahead.

I have no idea what your ideal morning looks like. Maybe it’s like mine, maybe not. Maybe you have some complicating factors (i.e. kids to care for, or an erratic work schedule that makes it hard to create routines). But whatever your situation, your mornings probably leave something to be desired if you haven’t really tried to make them awesome. And the beginning of the day can really set the tone for the rest of it. So, if you’re looking to transform your mornings, here are the most universal tips I can offer:

  • Take the time to think about it and write it down. If you don’t know what you want, you can’t create it. How do you want to feel in the morning? Relaxed? Energized? Happy? Centered? Informed? Create your plan around that. Actually go get a piece of paper and write down your ideal morning, step by step. How long is it going to take you? What’s involved? What do you need to change?
  • Give yourself enough time. Rushing in the morning makes any kind of intention fly out the window immediately. Get up with plenty of time to take care of yourself and start the day right. (Note: This may require going to bed earlier. That’s good for you, too!) This is why I have my “only snooze once” rule; it makes me sure to give myself time, because when I’m late, I panic. And if there’s no rule in place, I will snooze forever. Which is even less useful than just plain ol’ sleeping in.
  • Take a few minutes for yourself, preferably first thing. I know, I know, everyone has told you to meditate. I’m going to do it again. And I know that meditating can be scary, because what if you don’t consider yourself “spiritual” and what if you have no idea how and what if a million other things? I’d direct you to my main man Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, whose simple advice helped me a lot. Here’s what I do: 1) Sit down comfortably on the floor, with something to focus on (for me, a candle or some burning incense) in front of me 2) Look at the thing in front of me 3) Focus on my breath 4) Pay attention to each thought that comes into my head, and try to gently stop it and discard it 5) Get up several minutes later. Honestly, I don’t get up feeling magically different right after I meditate. But I do notice a difference later on; on days that I meditate, I generally handle unexpected challenges, disappointments, and confusion with far more grace and self-acceptance.    
  • Start small. You can’t turn everything around in a day if you want it to be sustainable. Start with one important change, get that down, and then go from there. (For more on that, check out Amy’s advice here).
  • Make decisions ahead of time. Remember how President Obama only wears black or grey suits? It’s because he has more important decisions to make. Make as many decisions in advance as you can: maybe you have two healthy breakfast choices in stock every morning, not nine; maybe you can put your clothes out the night before. (That last one is really helpful for working out in the morning – if my gym clothes are ready, I’m far more likely to put ‘em on and get to it.)
  • Plan to do things that make you happy. I look forward to most of what I do in the morning – the NPR, the coffee, the yummy breakfast, even the meditation (though that took me a while). That makes getting up much more fun.
  • Use technology to help if you need it. For the longest time, I tried to write three pages in my journal every day (à la Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages), but I couldn’t make it consistent. Then I identified the problem: I think way faster than I write. I’d been trying to be all romantic about it by writing in a lovely paper journal, then getting annoyed when my pen couldn’t keep up with my wandering mind. But the point wasn’t the pretty journal, it was getting my thoughts out. I discovered 750 Words, and now I can a) write way more every day, and b) not resist writing for silly reasons. I also use Lift, an iPhone app that makes me feel a little cheesy for using a goal-oriented iPhone app, but has nonetheless helped me develop a bunch of key habits (everything from remembering to take my vitamins in the morning to painting every day).
  • Talk to the other people involved. For a while, I didn’t meditate regularly because I felt that I’d be ignoring my boyfriend in the morning, and I worried he’d be offended. But once I talked to him about how I wanted my days to start and why, he was on board. Now, he just gives me some peace for a few minutes so I can take the time to meditate in a quiet space. Maybe, depending on how you kick off your day, you can ask your partner to get breakfast started for the kids, or maybe you’ve just gotta get up before the baby starts crying. But to whatever extent you can, get the people you love on board.

For me, these steps have been the key to dreading the sound of the alarm clock and actually looking forward to the start of a new day. If you’re overwhelmed about where to start, just pick the step that sounds the most fun to you, and go seize the morning!

Ever tried to switch up a routine? Got success stories or challenges? Share them with us in the comments!

Mailande Moran is a musician, writer, and media consultant based in Durham, NC. She is a 2013 graduate of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, where she served as a Fellow for the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship's Impact Investing Initiative and the Center on Leadership and Ethics. In the summer of 2012, she worked with Enterprise Community Loan Fund to analyze and communicate the impact of green affordable housing and transit-oriented development in Colorado. While pursuing her MBA, she consulted with the healthcare NGO Healing Fields in India, the microfinance start-up Seeds in Kenya, and the for-profit maternity hospital LifeSpring in India. Prior to Fuqua, she focused on social entrepreneurship and philanthropy in strategy roles at Echoing Green and the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation. Mailande graduated from Duke University in 2006 with an A.B. in Art History. She is passionate about creating a safer, more equitable world. You can hear her music on Facebook (mailandemusic) and follow her other adventures on Twitter (@mailande). read more about
  • Fat CrossFitter

    My mornings are like: UGH I don’t wanna, throw food at the dogs, coffee, dress in an outfit I don’t like, out the door.

    You’ve given me lots to think about.

  • Lisa Jones

    Here’s my combo tiny-difficult and seizing the AM.

    I cannot workout consistently in the mornings. Sometimes, I do, other times–it’s like why? why? why? why? Then comes the lazy moves–like jumping without moving my feet off the ground. It’s hilariously stupid.

    So I decided to do the one thing I could enjoy (ie do something that makes you happy) and something tiny-difficult–cooking in the AM!

    Yes, it works darling! It’s usually a small meal, nothing perfectly nutrient dense but it’s a tiny difficult step in the right direction. It also serves to make me feel pretty good about myself as I rush (still! arg) out the door with a bag of several warm containers in tow.

  • Gary

    Mai, I am so impressed with your Morning Routine story – it took me far longer than your 29 young years to figure out a semblance of the same thing. I am very proud of you and I love you. Mornings are the best part of the day; watching the sun come up and seeing the whole world come alive is such an inspiring way to start the day.

  • Rhonda

    Great tips! I especially like the idea of preparing gym clothes the night before. Too often I wake up and dismiss working out because of the effort to prepare for the gym.

  • Mailande

    @fatcrossfitter:disqus I’m so glad to hear that! Any new developments since your comment? :)

  • Mailande

    @disqus_5IfUIybRlM:disqus I love cooking at any time – and I love that idea, because you’re doing something you look forward to in the morning, which really helps get your butt out of bed. :)

  • Mailande

    @disqus_DZ9HNkv4zX:disqusThanks so much! Yeah, that definitely helps me – anything you can do to reduce the effort is so crucial when you’re already resisting the idea of just putting your feet on the ground!

  • Mailande

    @disqus_0VbLL9hpr7:disqus Thanks! Believe me, I definitely can’t follow this routine 100% of the time – but being able to visualize what you want is the first step to action, right? :)

  • YaSheeka Sutton,CLC

    Love Love Love 750Words. It is helping me stay on task and complete my daily writing goals. Awesome tips as well.

  • Mailande

    @yasheekasuttonclc:disqus Thanks so much! I find 750Words so helpful – but I have to admit I’ve slacked off in the last couple of days, so I really appreciate the reminder! :)