Highly successful people and mornings: How to make context matter for theory and advice

Many people yearn to learn the keys for success and there is no shortage of advice out there on how to make great things happen. There are the 33 Daily Habits Highly Successful People Have and advice on how The First 3 Hours of Your Day Can Dictate How Your Life Turns Out . Much of the advice focuses on how we spend our mornings, what routines we need to follow to be highly successful, and how we can become high achievers.

Much of this wisdom is personalised to us through examples of what famous and successful people do. We now know that Oprah journals every morning before doing anything else and reflects on life. Author Tim Ferris has a morning training routine before he drinks special Chinese tea and does his journaling and meditation. In fact, Ferris says “Meditation or mindfulness practice is really about, to me, decreasing emotional reactivity so you can proactively create your day and create your life”. Apparently 90% of high achievers perform some form of morning meditation.

Many of these insights are highly useful and following them is likely to offer opportunities to higher productivity in many ways. But most often I find that they don’t really resonate with my everyday reality. This is because most of this advice does not consider the everyday context. For example, the thought that your life is dictated by the first three hours of the day is pretty terrifying for anyone who has young children. Even more so if you are a single parent with young kids, it’s extremely rare that you have the luxury to spend the morning in concentrated meditation, journaling your thoughts while enjoying the first cup of green tea in perfect harmony with the world, or to leave to work at 6 a.m. for those precious first 3 hours of the day…

More likely, we are awaken by the sound of small steps, someone climbing into our bed or ordering us to get up because they need to have a small yoghurt before watching Paw Patrol or Pete the Postman. The next steps after a speedy and messy breakfast include helping the child to dress for daycare/school, arguing which shirt they should be wearing (why is the Spiderman shirt always in the wash?), finding their shoes, then again finding the child, and trying to keep the child dressed wearing shoes while we change from our pyjamas to work clothes.

So what does this alternative morning routine mean for high success and innovation? Firstly, as Dave Stachowiak would tell you: pack the lunches the night before. I would add: make sure the shoes are visible and can be fetched easily by the child. Ideally, send the child to fetch the shoes while you dress as this will save you time and give him/her a designated task even if it’s only for a few minutes. That at least decreases the chances that you will be late from work even if only slightly.

The point here is that much of the advice we read and are given is coming from people whose lives are often vastly different from the everyday constraints that the majority of us have in our lives. Our lives are often shaded with sleep deprivation for having young children, a chronic illness where you can’t even plan your next day, when your relationship breaks up and you are left to care for a young baby without a job, when you are depressed, or have a major addiction in your life.

At some point people should just start writing blogs on how they actually manage their mornings and how they’ve found strategies and skills for themselves that can be helpful for others who don’t own a million dollar mansion, and don’t have a dedicated cleaner, cook and gardeners at hand. Real world advice for real world people. Of course me drinking green tea in my pyjamas and writing down my early morning thoughts is not as fascinating and inspirational as Oprah drinking her special tea in a silk gown and capturing her thoughts.

What delights me is that I don’t have to keep believing that if I don’t perfect my morning routine according to the stereotype of success, my life won’t turn out as it’s supposed to be. Much of this delight comes from reading research on the role of intuition and the way our brain really works. Most of our profound and innovative thinking is actually done by our unconscious while we are focused on more mundane tasks. The Heureka moments of creativity and innovation do not come suddenly but often take years of thinking, trying and failures that then crystallise in a new realisation. So while meditating and journaling in the morning are clearly good for you and can enable you to become more focused, they don’t necessarily determine what your life turns out like.

I think that insights and our most profound challenges lie in between what we learn about things in theory and what our everyday life is like. This also applies to science: while there are many scientific theories and accumulated wisdom in how things should work, we need to look at the real world contexts where such theory is implemented and ask ourselves which parts of that theory make sense in the first place. We can put a lot of faith in ideas and theories without being critical about how they work on the ground.

Bottom line is, whatever theories and advice you read and follow, take the things that work for you in your situation and practice self-compassion. It’s ok if you can’t do 30 minute of meditation in the morning or hate keeping a journal. I would love to do both but my small steps come fairly early and that is just how it is for now. My saving grace has been focus my attention on my evenings and do my reflecting then. Context is where theory and advice are made real and that is different for each and everyone. Gathering aggregated lessons on high achievers is of course worthwhile (they must be doing something right) but so is finding your own routine and making the best of life under your constraints.

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