At 9:56 AM of August 13th , 2008, Michael Phelps stood behind his starting block ready to race the 200-meter butterfly final in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
He was bouncing slightly on his toes. When the announcer said his name, Phelps stepped onto the block, as he always did before a race, and then stepped down, as he always did.
He swung his arms three times, just the way he had before every race since he was 12 years old.
He then stepped onto the blocks again, got into his usual stance and leapt into the water to the sound of the starting gun.
As soon as he hit the water he knew something was wrong.
Being Ready for Anything
Phelps couldn’t see a thing. Not the line along the pool’s bottom or the black T marking the approaching wall. He couldn’t see how many strokes were left.
For most swimmers, losing your sight in the middle of an Olympic final would be a disaster. Phelps was calm.
When he was a teenager his coach Bob Bowman would tell Phelps at the end of each practice to ”go home and watch the videotape before you go to sleep and wake up”.
The videotape wasn’t real. It was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Each night before falling asleep and each morning after waking up, Phelps would imagine himself executing the perfect race in his mind.
He would lie in his bed with his eyes shut and experience the entire competition down to it’s smallest details again and again until he knew every second of it by heart.
Bowman had even made Phelps swim in the dark to get him ready for this kind of surprise. Some of Phelps’s videotapes had featured problems like responding to goggle failure.
The Last Lap
As he started his last lap, Phelps estimated how many strokes the final push would require to 19, 20 or 21. He started counting and felt completely relaxed as he swam at full strength.
At 18 strokes he began anticipating the wall. He could hear the crowd roaring but had no idea who they were cheering for. He did his 19th and 20th stroke and felt like he needed one more. That’s what the videotape in his mind was telling him.
He made one huge 21st stroke, stretched out his arm and touched the wall. He had timed it beautifully.
Tearing off his goggles and looking at the scoreboard it said ”WR” – world record, next to his name. Michael Phelps had won yet another gold medal. Today he’s the most decorated Olympian of all time (22 medals) and holds the all-time records for Olympic gold medals (18, twice as many as the second highest record holders).
The Importance of Preparation
For athletes, preparation is key. You don’t have to be at Michael Phelps’s level to realize that if you’re going to have any sort of success you’re going to have to prepare yourself well.
But what most people don’t realize is that life itself is a race of sorts. Just like Phelps did in the race, every day we deal with unexpected challenges that come in our way.
And if we fail to prepare properly we can’t expect to do well. We can’t expect to effectively deal with the bad news, problems and setbacks that will inevitably come our way if we haven’t warmed up properly and put ourselves in the right state of mind.
So how do we do this? By designing and sticking to…
A Morning Ritual for Champions
Every morning presents a new opportunity for you to take on your day in the best way possible. A simple set of predetermined habits can help you take on life in a much more proactive and balanced way.
If you spend the first silent hour of your morning getting prepared you’ll win that time back many times over by being more alert, rested and making better decisions throughout the rest of your the day.
I suggest dividing your first waking hour into three blocks of 20 minutes each and devoting these to your personal morning routine. If you can’t spend an entire hour it’s perfectly fine to start small and spend only a couple of minutes on each of the following three blocks:
1. Physical Warm-Up
After a long nights sleep you’ll find yourself waking upp with stiff and tight muscles. A simple morning stretch or yoga routine helps relieve stress and tension. You’ll also get your blood circulation going which helps you wake up and get moving.
Getting some exercise in first thing in the morning has some pretty sweet benefits like:
• Better long term results – Research has shown that those who exercise early in the morning are more consistent than those who exercise later. Likely because willpower is higher in the morning.
• Improved productivity – Exercising early wakes you up, gets your endorphins going and boosts your productivity. You’ll be more awake and ready to tackle your day with a great sense of accomplishment from an early win.
• Increased metabolism – The effects of the exercise linger throughout the day and you continue to burn calories after the workout is done.
• Better sleep – Studies have shown that people who regularly wake up early to exercise sleep better than those who exercise in the evening. If you’ve ever worked out late you’ve probably experienced how hard it can be to fall asleep afterwards.
• Better diet – Getting your workout done first thing helps you to approach your diet differently. The momentum you’ve gained will make you want to continue your positive choices and avoid unhealthy food.
2. Mental Warm-Up
Just as your physical body needs to get ready for the upcoming day, so does your mind. Doing a simple mindfulness meditation in the morning helps set you get ready for the day in a bunch of different ways:
• Better focus – Meditation is all about focusing your attention and being aware of when it drifts off. Regular meditation improves our focus even when we’re not meditating.
• Less stress – Research has shown that meditation is not only associated with feeling less stress, it’s also linked with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol (1).
• More grey matter – Meditation has been linked to larger amounts of grey matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain (2). This can lead to more positive emotions, longer-lasting emotional stability, and heightened focus in daily life.
• Slow down aging – Meditation has also been shown to diminish age-related effects on gray matter and reduce the decline of our cognitive functioning.
• Better sleep – Just as early bird exercise, meditation has been shown to help us sleep better at night. Mindfulness is associated with a decrease in ”sleep-interfering cognitive processes” (eg, worry) (3).
3. Personal Development
After you’ve warmed up your body and mind is a perfect time to work on your personel growth. 20 minutes a day translates into 120 hours a year. That’s right about three full working weeks dedicated to your self improvement – plenty of time to build your competence and go after your dreams.
How to most effectively spend these last 20 minutes depends a lot on your own personal preferences. Here are some suggestions:
• Watch talks and seminars – Some of the smartest people in the world distill their best ideas into talks and seminars for you to consume whenever you want. Watch a talk from TED, 99U or Talks at Google every day and you’ll quickly notice how your knowledge and perspective starts to expand.
Hopefully this article has given you some ideas on how to start your mornings. Adding some exercise, meditation and personal development into your early hours can work wonders for your health, well-being and productivity. Here’s how to make your morning routine stick:
1. Design your personal morning ritual. Let it involve tea, music or whatever else makes it pleasurable for you. Remember that if you feel like you can’t spare an entire hour, that’s fine. Just do a quick stretch, a minute of meditation and read one page. What matters in the beginning is not the results, but establishing the habit. Once you’ve done that you can build out your morning routine gradually.
2. Assign an action trigger to it. This is the implementation intention that reminds you to do your morning ritual, for example: ”IF I’m getting out of bed, THEN I’ll do my morning ritual”. Without an action trigger, you’re much more likely to forget about your morning routine.
3. Celebrate. When you’ve completed your morning ritual make sure to celebrate it. Do it on the spot and within a second of completing it. Make a fist pump, victory sign, a clap, a short victory dance or tell yourself you’re awesome. This might feel silly at first (it certainly did for me) but it’s a powerful way to reinforce the habit and make it stick.
A morning routine is one of the greatest habits you can have. As it becomes second nature you’ll effortlessly enter every new day warmed up, prepared and a little bit smarter than the day before. I think it’s worth a try, don’t you? 😉
”Success depends upon previous preparation,
and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”
- Self-reported mindfulness and cortisol during a Shamatha meditation retreat.
- Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.
- The effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on sleep disturbance: a systematic review.
The Michael Phelps story was borrowed from Charles Duhigg’s awesome book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business