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Don’t morning routines sound wonderful? Rise gracefully before the sun, focus your mind, center your spirit, and rock your to-do list before anyone or anything can get in your way. There is no shortage of highly successful people in the world (Apple’s Tim Cook, FLOTUS, and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, to name a few) who are quick to cite an early wake-up time for how they’re able to be so productive.

But despite good intentions, life can get in the way. It’s taken a couple of false starts to figure out what works for me, but now that I have a strategy, I go about the rest of my day happier, more patient, and feeling stronger. Each morning, I do my best to get up at 6 a.m., read and pray from spiritual books for about fifteen minutes, stretch for five, and do a two-minute plank. In just over twenty minutes, my mind, body, and soul are ready to tackle whatever the day will bring. 

Now that I'm hooked on a routine, I wanted to know what other women are doing. Use these tried-and-true techniques from other busy, successful women to create a morning and night routine that will make an eye-opening difference in the hours that lie between.

01. Go to Bed

The first step to a productive morning is getting to bed on time the night before, i.e. with room for seven to nine hours of sleep. For a lot of us, this takes a near Herculean act of discipline. Start by examining how you spend the last few hours of your day. Is what you’re doing productive or even enjoyable? Do you really need to do it? If you’re tired, Laura Vanderkam, Verily columnist and author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, says the best thing to do is go to sleep. “Going to bed early is how grown-ups sleep in,” she says.

This means the electronics need to hit the sack, too. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg checks her email before bed but turns her phone off while she sleeps. Arianna Huffington won’t take an electronic device into her bedroom. She gifts friends old-fashioned alarm clocks to encourage them to do the same.

If the first thing you do in the morning is reach for the snooze button, look back a few hours. Consider that “morning people” can be built, rather than made.

02. Eat the Right Breakfast

Your mother was right: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. That is, the right breakfast. Americans have long gravitated to foods high in carbohydrates for our morning meals: oatmeal, toast, pancakes, grits. However, if the supermarket cereal aisle is any indication, we’re starting to catch on—every other box now boasts how many grams of protein each serving contains.

Verily’s editor in chief, Kara Eschbach, has found that a protein-rich breakfast “makes me far more energetic throughout the day.” In part, that’s because protein—e.g., eggs or lean meat—is more satisfying than carbs. Protein also helps inhibit snacking on less nutrient-dense foods a few hours later, thus paving the way for more thoughtful culinary choices. Eschbach is in good company: Jennifer Aniston starts every day with a protein shake. Audrey Hepburn never skipped a plate of two eggs and a slice of whole wheat toast—simple and classy, like the woman herself.

03. Turn Your Focus Elsewhere

Making time to incorporate even a short mediation or reflection in the morning has been proven (by science, no less) to be beneficial to our lives. This will set a positive, charitable tone for the day ahead. “Taking 15 to 30 minutes in the morning for prayer radically changes my day,” says Eschbach. When she doesn’t make the time, she says, “I'm not as consistently on-point as when I take that time to stop and go outside myself at the outset.”

Robin Long, creator of The Balanced Life, recognizes that her stress can affect her whole family. So when she takes steps in the morning to mitigate that, it can have a ripple effect. Whether it’s taking five minutes to reflect on a Daily Dose, meditate, or read a passage, find a method that inspires you to be your best, and prioritize it every morning.

04. Get Moving

Before I established my morning routine, the only thing that seemed worse than waking up early was attempting to exercise early. I was heartened to learn Jessica Alba works out first thing, even if it’s mostly to get it out of the way. “I don’t like working out,” she says. “But I do feel good after. It gives me energy—it just sets a good foundation for the day.”

Vanderkam observes that busy people who manage to fit something else into their lives—say, training for a marathon—often utilize the early hours. She explains, “We have more willpower in the morning. You can’t devote as much mental energy later in the day.” Considering exercise improves productivity and can improve mental clarity for up to ten hours after your workout, even ten or twenty minutes (or for me, seven minutes) can be doubly beneficial.

05. Accept Where You Are in Life

There will be seasons of life in which certain aspects of a morning routine just aren’t feasible. For the first year of my daughter’s life, I didn’t set an alarm. I needed every bit of interrupted sleep I could get. Now that my children are older, I am able to structure half an hour of my morning. 

“Morning routines exist to serve our lives,” and not the reverse, Vanderkam says. “The goal is not to have an unbroken streak of perfect mornings,” but rather to use the time we have well.

On her off days, Eschbach relies on the mental strength she built as a competitive golfer. “I have to salvage what I can to move forward as best I can. Knowing that there will be off days helps me be kind to myself when they happen.”

Really, that’s the goal of morning and evening routines—to help us be the best versions of ourselves. My experience has proven that simple practices, thoughtfully established and consistently used, can lead to beautiful results for mind, body, and soul that last far beyond a single day.

Photo Credit: Belathée Photography