The quest for the perfect morning routine.

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Nov. 12 2008 10:45 AM

The Quest for the Perfect Morning Routine

The first in a series on lifehacking.

Coffee and crossword.
Coffee and crossword

Of all the cruel ways the Internet offers to waste time, lifehacking may be the cruellest. A fellow goes looking for a little inspiration, and the next thing he knows, he's reading the "Simple Living Manifesto: 72 Ideas To Simplify Your Life." A few hours later, I still have no idea what my top four-to-five goals are, and the day's already half done. Yet, like a bug to the bug zapper, I return to lifehacking sites in search of a magic aphorism for all of my deficiencies. While awaiting this moment, I have learned an elegant way to wrap my iPod headphones and acquired a near-creepy fondness for the Muji Chronotebook.

This column marks the debut effort to share the fruits of my wanderings in the self-helpy margins of the Internet. Think of it as a field guide to lifehacking. The advice here is not my own, but I have clicked on it. For Exhibit A, let's look at a subject dear to both modern lifehackers and their ancient ancestors: the morning routine. Writers, no surprise, have a lot to say about this. Edith Wharton set a fine example at her home, the Mount. Her maid would bring her breakfast in bed, and she would spend the morning writing. (In general, servants are a big help with this lifehacking stuff.) Web comic-strip author Randall Munroe updates this Whartonian ideal in a brilliant xkcd panel that points out how a laptop can give you a status report on friends scattered around the world before you leave the comfort of your bed.

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Wharton and Munroe suggest the shape of the morning routine dilemma: When do you let the electronic beast loose? Perhaps some of you have friends, as I do, who wake themselves up with the alarm on their BlackBerry. That strikes me as an improvement over a simple alarm clock in terms of actually arising—nothing like a jolt of work anxiety to open the eyelids—but perhaps the CrackBerry doesn't set the appropriate "true at first light" tone that morning can have. For that, witness the routine of Leo Babauta of Zen Habits: "1. Wake at 4:30 a.m. 2. Drink water. 3. Set 3 Most Important Things (MITs) for today. 4. Fix lunches for kids and myself. 5. Eat breakfast, read. 6. Exercise (run, bike, swim, strength, or yardwork) or meditate. 7. Shower. 8. Wake wife & kids at 6:30 a.m." No. 2 shouldn't be a problem for most of us.

Leo's routine, though infinitely worthy, best suits a self-employed writer living on Guam (which he is). Most of us have two mornings: getting out of the house and settling down at work. The house-escape hacks are the most extreme. Joel Falconer, on Stepcase Lifehack, suggests this insane shower: "Grab a two-in-one shampoo and conditioner, chuck it in your hair, and use a scrubber with body wash to clean yourself up while you brush your teeth with the other hand (you can store a toothbrush and paste on the ledge of the shower wall if it's wide enough—and if you can reach up there!). From the time you've got the temperature right, you can be out in 90 seconds without sacrificing any cleanliness." I would need at least another 30 seconds to congratulate myself on my two-handed grooming dexterity. Falconer is out the door in six minutes.

The secret to the superfast morning exit seems to rely on some evening prep (putting all bags in place, choosing clothes, etc.) and not having kids. Once the lifehacker novice arrives at work, the morning becomes a question of e-mail vs. priorities. Julie Morgenstern, who titled her book of work strategies Never Check E-mail in the Morning, counsels that you not log in for an hour after getting to your desk. Instead, finish one thing that's hanging over your head (that's not an e-mail). The idea is to work on what's important instead of reacting to what's being asked of you.

Most of us, however, need to do a little Web surfing before settling into the day. For that important purpose, I recommend the Firefox add-on Morning Coffee. The program places a coffee mug icon in your browser; when clicked, it opens all of your "daily read" sites in tabs, i.e., the New York Times, A Continuous Lean, Give Me Something To Read, Arts & Letters Daily, and FAIL Blog. I find that it gets the brain up and running, and, should I spend the morning going down the blog/news rabbit hole, well, that's not such a bad thing. As of this column, it's kind of my job.

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Got a great and/or awful morning routine? Send me an e-mail at slate.browser@gmail.com. I will compile the responses for an upcoming column.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.