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Conscious Beginnings: The Benefits of Starting the Day on Your Terms

  • Try these 5 practices to face the day in a new way

By Jan Bonhoeffer M.D., Psychology Today, Reviewed by Michelle Quirk

Key points

  • With so much uncertainty in the world right now, it’s comforting to know that we have some control over how we start our day.
  • Preparing our consciousness should be as important as a surgeon scrubbing up before surgery.
  • Setting aside time to rehearse your day may seem counterproductive, but it gives you more resources and improves relationships.

How do you begin your day? Source: EnryKun/Canva

How do you set the tone for your day? Do you hit the snooze button, tug the duvet over your head, and try not to think about everything you’ve got to accomplish in the next 24 hours? Or do you wake up refreshed and ready to do your best whatever lies ahead?

Waking up one morning, it struck me that, instead of battling death and disease, here was an opportunity to spend the day at the fountain of life. Rather than letting duty, cynicism, and resentment be my dance partners, I realized I could choose sovereignty, integrity, and presence. That same morning, before dragging myself out of bed and fueling my weary body with coffee and adrenaline, I paused.

Taking five minutes to fill up my heart, I played out the day ahead in full color, using my mind to visualize the patients I would serve, imagining listening deeply to their unique stories, finding out what mattered most to them. Who would meet me today, and what fingerprints would they leave on my world?

I watched with interest as the “virtual me” passed the porter’s lodge at the hospital, ignoring the neon lights and the smell of disinfectant. I smiled inwardly as he greeted colleagues with an open heart, receiving surprised expressions and unexpected warmth. As he strode toward the hospital doors, I saw him prepare to embrace the wonder of life while making peace with the spectre of death, understanding that both deserved the deepest respect.

This was a totally different morning routine for me than usual. As I pulled away from my imaginary “rehearsal,” I breathed deeply, shoulders loose, knowing I was ready to face the day ahead in a new way.

Starting Your Day Well-Prepared

For many years, I would wring every minute out of my insufficient sleep schedule before leaping out of bed, throwing back a coffee, and zooming off to work at the hospital, hardly exchanging a word with my family. It took a near-breakdown and some intense coaching to realize that starting the morning this way wasn’t doing anyone any favors.

With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clear that to be and give the best of ourselves, more groundwork is necessary. We wouldn’t expect a surgeon to perform an operation without scrubbing up first, or an actor to take the stage without rehearsing her role. Similarly, a sleep-deprived and unfocused pilot (we hope) would never get off the ground.

Readying ourselves for the physical and mental demands of our day is one aspect, but another important — and largely overlooked — part is how we prepare our consciousness and disposition.

The idea of investing time in ourselves at the beginning of every day can at first seem impossible because the various demands of our family, working, and social lives may already feel like too much. Paradoxically, making space to just “be” rather than “do” at the front end of every day makes it seem like there is more time available. Here are five habits and practices that work well for me:

  1. Avoid phones and screens for an hour: Unless you’re on an emergency call, resisting the urge to pick up your phone or laptop first thing can be one of the most effective decisions you’ll make all day. When you choose your input rather than responding and reacting to others’ agendas, the resulting sense of autonomy will make a tremendous difference to your energy and mood. Messages, posts, and emails are a record of the past and are anathema to the energy of presence necessary to start a new day well. It’s also a good idea to avoid screens for at least an hour before bed so your brain can relax and produce melatonin.
  2. Reset your circadian rhythm: We are meant to live in concert with nature, but many of us are so divorced from our natural state that we don’t sleep well. Going to bed as early as your schedule allows, rising without an alarm before dawn, and watching the sunrise with your bare feet in contact with grass, earth, or sand is one of the most powerful ways to reset your circadian rhythm.
  3. Do nothing for 20 minutes: Forget advanced meditation techniques. Just sitting in a chair or on the bed when you wake up and doing nothing else for 20 minutes is deeply beneficial. Don’t strive for anything. When you can simply observe your internal chatter and emotions with a compassionate but detached curiosity, peace will come naturally.
  4. Shift your energy: Whether you like to sway with the music or prefer a tried and tested practice like qi gong, moving your body will free pent-up energy and help you feel more flexible and relaxed throughout the day.
  5. Change your perspective: Rehearsing the day in advance could seem unnatural when you begin. Most high achievers and sports professionals use visualization to improve their performance. By understanding that the subconscious mind does not differentiate among past, present, and future, it can be useful to play out some scenarios in your mind as if they’ve already happened. For example, if you know some of your patients, what do you hope to achieve with them today? How would you like to show up with your colleagues? How can you take care of your own well-being, maybe by taking a walk or remembering to eat a nutritious meal? To finish this practice, you could follow up with a few written intentions in your journal.

Observed Benefits

Making the choice to set the tone for the day ahead always pays dividends for me. My family is more appreciative because I prioritise our time together and am much more present. The patients I see can feel the different quality of my attention because I am less rushed and more curious about their lives. Even my colleagues have been commenting on how relaxed it feels to be around me.

Adding 45 to 60 minutes of even more “stuff” to our agenda may seem counterintuitive when we’re already overstretched. The secret rests in the type of activities you add. Habits that restore or boost your energy will help you feel refreshed, calm, and resourceful, making it seem like you have extra time in your day because you are more balanced and less likely to waste energy.

Self-care does not make us selfish. It just fills our cup so we can serve more without becoming depleted. How will you set the tone for your day?

Jan Bonhoeffer, M.D., is a Professor of pediatrics at the University of Basel, Switzerland

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