One of the most useful things I do daily is what I call morning thinking: taking a piece of paper and a pen in the morning and thinking in text for 10-30 minutes about whatever is on my mind. I’ve been doing it for 2.5y already, and it’s made a tremendous impact on my life.
Here’s how it works.
I do this thinking literally the second thing in the morning, right after my morning routine. For context, my routine (as of Jul 2022) is: I wake up, go to the toilet, brush my teeth, get dressed in sporty clothes, go outside, walk about 1k in the park to fully wake up my body (getting outside works better than everything I ever tried), do a 10-min bodyweight warm-up on the bars, go back home, shower, take a 10-min walk to the nearby coffee shop, grab a takeaway morning cuppa there (black americano), get back, enter my home office, and sit down at my desk. The whole thing takes about 40-50 minutes and charges me up for the next 3-4h of work until the lunch break. (I don’t breakfast; my first meal is usually around 12-1 pm.)
It’s important to understand that nothing else happens between me half-consciously opening my eyes and me sitting at my desk and sipping black coffee 50 minutes later: no phone, emails, or social media. Even music is rare, mostly on the days when I’m not feeling well and want to “power up” by listening to something like ’Till I Collapse by Eminem. (If you’re into this kind of thing, check out my Power Spotify playlist.) That way, I am more in control of what my mind is working on. In contrast, if I succumb and check the news/Telegram/whatever, I may trigger a cascade of (usually unimportant on a 10y timeframe) thoughts that I won’t be able to wilfully stop. In other words, if I don’t want to eat candy, I try not to go to a candy shop.
When I get to my desk, I grab my pen, some paper, and begin thinking in text about whatever is on my mind. Usually, this may include:
- A check-in: “Hey, how am I feeling this morning?” Both physically and mentally. And if, for instance, I find out that I’m not feeling well, I could follow up and ask, “What makes me anxious?” This check-in is especially useful on days when I’m drowsy; when I feel like watching a movie of my life rather than being an actor in it. It brings the actor back on the stage.
- Some reflection on yesterday: “Yeah, I shouldn’t have gorged a whole pack of Medjool dates….” This one revolves mainly around the corrective lens. However, I don’t blame myself for misdeeds. I perceive my faulty actions as wrong outputs of my neural network and try to act as a programmer who, faced with bugs in his software, would get curious and investigate the root cause. (Incidentally, hardware-software-programmer is a good analogy for brain-mind-consciousness.) If I did something great yesterday, I would praise myself!
- Some recall and/or synthesis of whatever I’m currently learning. If yesterday feels like a particularly insightful day, I ask myself: “What did I learn from yesterday?” and write down either bullet points or fully-fledged paragraphs if I feel like synthesizing. For instance, my recent post — Reflections on Franklin’s autobiography — came from such synthesis.
- My thoughts about all sorts of things, from more technical (“How do hubs in the neural architecture of the brain relate to abstractions? Could abstracting a model like whole-part-part improve recall?”) to more philosophical (“Why do so many people work on seemingly unimportant short-term gains when it’s long-term, important projects like anti-aging, AI, etc. that all of us need?”).
- Work-related problem-solving. During the session, I may get an idea or feel inspired to tackle a problem that I’ve been trying to crack for some time. When that happens, I immediately jump to it and usually make good progress. I speculate that’s because I don’t perceive morning thinking as a work session and, therefore, feel very relaxed, with my attitude being more like “Hm, let’s see what I’ve got there” than “Oh my god, I must not fuck it up; I gotta solve this problem by noon!!!!” (To this day, I am amazed how much of expert problem-solving is about managing your psychology.)
As you can see from the above, my thinking sessions don’t have a formula, a checklist, or a five-morning-questions-I-must-answer kind of thing; they’re more of a free-flow exploration into whatever is on my mind. This freedom, I think, might be the reason why they work so well. From what I understand, the human brain works like a chef. A chef doesn’t just cook one ingredient from start to end and then take on another; if he did, he’d be fired for being too slow. Instead, he cooks many things in parallel. While the veggies are boiling, spinach is being steamed, sweet potato — baked, salmon — fried, and garlic — cut into tiny pieces. Each of those things requires a different amount of time to be properly cooked, so the chef checks from time to time to see how it’s going. Morning thinking does the same for my brain: it allows me to check which ideas, thoughts, and problems have already been “cooked,” take them off the stove, and serve them to the world.
Another valuable aspect of this practice is its modular structure. You can think of the whole session as a platform, on top of which you can build different modules to address your current situation in life. For example, suppose you’re a student. You probably want to improve your understanding and remembering, so you could add “active recall” and “synthesis” modules to your morning thinking. If you’re a consultant and work on many projects at once, you may integrate a “problem-solving” module to help you check your mental kitchen for the things your brain finished cooking for you. Etc. Based on your needs, you can design and create any module you wish and weave it into the practice, guaranteeing that you’ll think about these things daily! The key is to not overdo it. You shouldn’t feel that you must think through all these things. Think of doing the practice as the main course and of visiting these modules as a dessert. Finally, the modules may change over time because you’re changing and evolving. For instance, in Mar 2020, I had a very tough decision to make — whether to stop working on the company that was the pinnacle of my career or keep going — and my morning thinking naturally included a lot of self-reflection and problem-solving.
Finally, morning thinking is a good tool for attaining deep concentration and “kicking off” my workday. I like doing important things in the morning because I feel good about having already dealt with my “frogs” when it’s only 10 or 11 am. (You can learn more about the concept of “frogs” in Randy’s excellent lecture.) However, I’m having trouble “just getting to it” as these tasks usually involve a lot of cognitive effort, and my brain in the morning is like a car in the winter: it needs some engine warm-up. Doing morning thinking for 10-30 minutes warms me up very nicely. Then I easily slide into doing important work, sometimes even without “officially” ending the practice and without even noticing it! I just keep working on those sheets of paper that were supposed to be morning thinking.
I hope you’ll try this practice out and find it helpful. If you have any questions or ideas about it, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org — I’d love to chat!