Part I: Your Happiness, Your Dreams: The Importance of Establishing a Morning Routine

I’ve never been a morning person. I’m a classic night owl. Growing up, my family sometimes called me “the Bear” because my morning demeanor was like that of a grumpy animal who had been prematurely woken up from hibernation. I preferred sleeping until 11, 12—even 1 o’clock. In college, my nickname was “Sleepy” because I slept so much, even more than college students are notorious for.

My allergy to waking up in the morning is probably the number-one reason why establishing a morning routine—which requires waking up even earlier than one needs to—had previously never occurred to me.

Only toward the end of 2018, after I began reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, did my morning routine change dramatically (more on that later). Now, I can’t imagine how I got by all these years without it. I’ve no doubt that many of you have been following satisfying morning routines for years now and are well aware of their benefits.

But, in case you’re also not a morning person or are just late to the game like me, I want to share with you how I came to create a morning routine and why I now feel it’s so freaking important. I will offer tips about how you can design your own morning routine, and will share some details about mine in hopes of giving you a framework for starting your own.

Until last year, I would always wake up as late as I possibly could to still have just precisely enough time to get ready for work. Even during the past ten years when I’ve had a private practice and could set my own hours, I never woke up any earlier than I had to for my first client. And when my practice was new, if my first client came later in the day or I had no clients that day, I slept in as long as my body wanted to.

Whatever so-called “morning routine” I had consisted of getting up 45 minutes to one hour before my first appointment which was (and still is) typically around 11 o’clock. During that hour, I brushed my teeth, showered, got dressed, did something simple with my hair, put on minimal makeup, and made myself a cup of tea or coffee. I typically didn’t eat breakfast until later in the day. That’s it. No exercise. No meditation. No writing. Nothing but the bare minimum.

What I didn’t consider in my quest for more shut-eye was what else I, my deeper I, might need before my day begins. And by the time my workday was over, which was and still is often later into the evening, I had no energy left to focus on myself. My weekdays were primarily focused on work—getting ready for it, doing it, and recovering from it.

I attempted to balance the workweek (Monday-Thursday) with time in my art studio at the end of the week. I would stay at my studio for two nights (Thursday and Friday) and let myself create art whenever the impulse moved me, uninterrupted and at odd hours.

This worked well for several years, and I made lots of work that I’m proud of. However, when I decided to grow the size of my therapy practice, I had to work longer hours, and I had no energy left at the end of my day or week. I also became increasingly aware that whatever “me time” I got was separated from my life during the week, which meant that a big part of me was being excluded from my own home. “Me time” was relegated to whatever energetic crumbs I had left in me while staying at the studio.

You could say that “I” got jealous of how much time everything and everyone else got in my life, feeling that “I” was the last priority. My soul was resentful and felt abandoned.

I also realized that, besides being a natural night owl, I had another factor working against me in my effort to carve out time for myself in the morning—I’m a woman. How does that affect mornings, you might ask? Well, most women are raised by a family and culture steeped in patriarchy, which tells us to think of others first and ourselves last. We get the message directly and indirectly that we are not inherently or independently valuable, that our well-being is of little consequence except for how well we succeed at supporting others.

We garner our sense of esteem, even our very identity, by being indispensable to others—as the most reliable and responsible employees, friends, mothers, daughters, sisters, girlfriends, partners, or wives we can be. Much of the time we wouldn’t even know who we are independent of those roles—let alone experience ourselves as having great value without proving it through our actions and dedication to others.

These deeply rooted unconscious beliefs affect our ability to care for ourselves, to make ourselves a priority. Our own self-care is often way, way back in the dark recesses of our minds. By self-care, I mean attending to our own needs and desires, all the way from drinking enough water to following the threads of our biggest dreams as they birth into fruition—and everything in between.

In all my previous years of sleeping late, you could argue that I was taking the extra sleeping time just for “me” and in that way I was rebelling against the responsibility to support others (which has truth in it). However, in my choice to sleep later and give myself that particular yummy indulgence (which I still love), I was unaware of the fact that I was neglecting many other, important needs I had that focused more on bigger dreams and goals rather than a moment of instant gratification.

And so, if we’re not on our own radar, how will we ever become the women we long to be? Who will know or hear our song? Will we ever become fully visible to others, to ourselves?

Writing Morning Pages

Now, back to Julia Cameron and The Artist’s Way. Cameron’s foundational and non-negotiable instruction to the blocked artist (or, in her words, the “recovering” artist) to write morning pages first thing every morning has become the centerpiece for my morning routine. Only because she insisted on this exercise for the duration of The Artist’s Way 12-week journey did I decide to take it on. And, in no way am I being hyperbolic when I say that morning pages have changed my life.

Morning pages are defined as writing longhand on three 8.5 x 11-inch pages first thing in the morning. You can write whatever comes to your mind, e.g.:

I don’t know what to write…

I’m in such a grumpy mood…

Gosh, I have so many things I have to do today…

Oh, look at the beautiful bird at my feeder… Here’s the dream I had last night…

This person drives me crazy..!

This is what I long for in my life…

and so forth.

There is no right or wrong way to do them, as long as you hand-write three pages—no more, no less. I’ve found this takes me about 30 minutes. I’ve also found that I most enjoy writing my morning pages while listening to the sounds of a flowing stream from the Insight Timer app on my smartphone while wearing noise-cancelling headphones. The sound is a cue for my brain, saying, It’s time to focus inward, Lisa. It’s time to check in with how you’re feeling and what’s on your mind and heart. This time is just for you.

For me, morning pages became a catalyst for taking a broader look at my happiness in life. As I took this uninterrupted time for myself and noticed a regular feeling of general, nondescript “unhappiness” with my life, I began longing for ways to make my life happier and more fulfilling. I examined my sense of empowerment to dream of and take action toward making bigger changes. I began gobbling up resonant insights from various sources, including Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project, as well as her podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. I began paying close attention, thinking extensively about—and taking deadly seriously—what makes me happy in all areas of my life.

I also stumbled upon Rachel Hollis’s Amazon Prime documentary Made for More (think Tony Robbins as a much shorter, endlessly peppy white girl). While I’m not generally a fan of motivational speakers, I have to admit that this doc jazzed me up, Big Time. Hollis’s mantra “Same you! New mood!” got stuck in my head (watch the doc and you’ll get what I’m saying). I also read her two most recent books, and while I have mixed feelings about aspects of her message and approach, they nevertheless provided more fuel to my growing fire.

I have experienced radical changes in my inner and outer life ever since I began writing morning pages and subsequently developing an entirely new morning routine. While I’ve had extensive training in psychology and inner work methods, I feel much closer to my deeper self than I ever have before. I take my feelings and needs more seriously. I’m more aware of my thoughts, opinions, projections, and recurring sticky psychic spots and patterns. I spend time with my bigger dreams and goals in life. I make plans and plot strategies for making these dreams real. I break them down into actionable steps. I feel more inspired and hopeful about my life than I quite possibly ever have.

I’m also more aware of what makes me happy and unhappy, of what inspires me and what pulls me down, of what I long for in life, of what stops me from reaching for those things, of what supports me to reach higher. Most poignantly, perhaps, I’ve become a much better inner best friend to myself, a close companion, an advocate for my voice and dreams.

Read Part II here where I offer tips about how you can design your own morning routine, and share some details about mine in hopes of giving you a framework for starting your own.

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