SFAS Prep - Lifestyle Habits For Recovery Pt. 3

Master Your Morning


Before you close your browser because you’re sick of being bombarded with morning routine content, hear me out. This won’t be your typical morning routine article. You won’t be asked to embark on a series of time and energy consuming, arbitrary tasks before you even consider getting anything important done for the day.

A morning routine doesn’t need to include all (or any) the typical “influencer morning routine” shenanigans. You don’t need to meditate, practice earthing, journal for 30 minutes, bounce on a trampoline, sun your taint, concoct an overly elaborate nootropic stack, chug 2 liters of alkaline water, go in the sauna for 30 minutes, do a 7 minute cold plunge, or anything of the sort. 

A morning routine is meant to prime you for performance for the rest of the day so you can move the needle. But many individuals have tried the aforementioned activities in an effort to “level up”, only to find that by the time they’re through (2-3 hours later), their morning routine sapped so much mental energy that they feel the need to recover from it. 

You should not feel like you need a nap or a “mental recharge” after your morning routine. This article will discuss a simple, yet effective blueprint for setting up your morning to win every single day. You’ve already prepared the night before. You’ve done your PM journaling, you’ve nailed your pre-bed routine. You’ve experienced the many benefits of a great night of sleep. It’s now time to attack the day.

It’s very difficult to stack up daily wins if you don’t start in the morning. Because most people fail to consider what was mentioned in part 1 and 2, they find themselves constantly waking up far behind the power curve. A reactive morning is a losing morning. A losing morning has a tendency to lead to a losing day. A proactive morning builds momentum. An object in motion (you) will stay in motion - the hard part is getting the object into motion. 

With a simple adjustment to your mornings, you’re unlocking a day of hard earned dopamine, motivation, momentum and ultimately, satisfaction. Although the actions in the first hour of your day may seem trivial, days amount to weeks, months, and years - mastering this time will give you a 365 hour per year leg up on the competition. 



The power of a morning routine all boils down to dopamine - a neurotransmitter that’s released in times of pleasure, progress, effort, reward and accomplishment. Dopamine makes us feel good. But there’s a key component to dopamine that must be considered - it’s finite.

We only have a certain allotment of it we can use throughout the day. Because of this important factor, it can either be leveraged to improve performance and result in better outcomes, or it can be spent on “cheap” activities that drain it far more quickly. The former can be thought of as “hard earned dopamine” and the latter we’ll call “cheap dopamine”. Let’s take a look at the differences.

Hard earned dopamine is that which we experience when we set out to accomplish needle moving, effort and perseverance requiring tasks. It’s released in steady increments during periods of struggle. Hard earned dopamine leads to less immediate pleasure, but more long term satisfaction. While pleasure is short-lived and fleeting, satisfaction is long lasting and has no limit.

Getting a workout in, writing for an hour, going out for a walk in the cold, studying hard for an exam, preparing for a presentation or speech, knocking out an important task that you didn’t want to do, reading and learning about something that’ll move you forward in life…these are all examples of activities that release hard earned dopamine. Each of these activities require the sacrifice of immediate pleasure and comfort for future success and satisfaction.

Following an activity involving hard earned dopamine, we feel accomplished. We feel more confident in ourselves. We create hard evidence that we can successfully negotiate challenges and discomfort. Because it feels good, we often seek opportunities to feel it again.

Cheap dopamine, on the other hand, is what we experience when we do something pleasurable or indulgent. It’s what occurs when we give in to our addictions or vices. Death scrolling social media, checking email obsessively, eating heavily processed food, watching porn, binge watching Netflix, and drinking alcohol are all examples of activities that release cheap dopamine. 

The problem with these activities is that in doing them, we eventually require more and more stimulus in order to achieve the same results. By succumbing to them in an unstructured, unplanned, unregulated, sporadic manner, we’re choosing immediate comfort, which leads to future pain.

This form of dopamine is problematic, such that we eventually build a tolerance to it and what used to bring us pleasure no longer does, therefore requiring a higher dose of the stimulus over time. Before we know it, we’re anxious, depressed, and realizing we’ll never get the last hour or more of our life back.

This is what I call the “cheap dopamine hangover”. Following an activity involving cheap dopamine, we’re less likely to pursue tasks requiring effort because they won’t result in the same hard earned dopamine hit they otherwise would since our reserves are already so low. 

The key component these two mechanisms of dopamine have in common is that they’re both addicting. This is a double edged sword - we can either become addicted to hard earned dopamine OR cheap dopamine. Our actions and habits will determine whether we experience the powerful benefits of dopamine, or the pain of the dopamine hangover. Because cheap dopamine activities don't require effort, discomfort or struggle, it’s easy to get caught in the cheap dopamine downward spiral. 

But if you can develop the habit of cultivating positive morning habits, the wins you’ll experience become addicting, thus allowing you to leverage dopamine for the rest of the day and accomplish more. Accomplishing more (which is different from just being more “busy”) each day will result in accomplishing more each week, month, year, decade, and so on.


Cortisol and Recovery

What does this have to do with recovery and performance? Stress management is one of the key components of optimal recovery. Starting your day with a myriad cheap dopamine hits also results in the excessive release of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is an important hormone, and despite popular belief, it’s not all bad.

What is bad is when cortisol is higher than it should be and/or high at the wrong times. In a healthy person, cortisol is highest in the morning, allowing for alertness and wakefulness. It then incrementally decreases throughout the day, and is lowest at night time, which allows for relaxation, and ultimately sleep. When your cortisol is imbalanced (excessively high or high at the wrong times), it can affect recovery in several ways - the three most important of which are:

  1. Cortisol is a catabolic (breaking down of muscle tissue) hormone. While it’s high, recovery is not taking place
  2. Cortisol and testosterone do not coexist well. Those with high cortisol tend to suffer from less than optimal testosterone levels.
  3. Cortisol must be low in order for your pineal gland to secrete sufficient melatonin. If your cortisol is high in the evening before bed, you’re less likely to experience quality sleep.

The same activities that release cheap dopamine also skyrocket cortisol after the fact. In other words, once you’ve burned through your dopamine reserves, your stress levels naturally increase. This is the main reason I refer to it as the dopamine hangover.

When you seek hard earned dopamine, however, you’re better able to keep cortisol levels at bay because you’re controlling and leveraging your dopamine release. When you’re less stressed, you’ll be more likely to fuel your training properly. You’ll sleep better. You’ll think better. You’ll be more motivated to train. You’ll be in an anabolic (muscle gain) state more often than a catabolic state. You’ll cultivate an internal environment primed for performance and recovery.

Systems, Habits And Rules 

To reach your goals and enjoy the process (rather than just the outcome), it’s crucial to put systems, habits and rules in place that allow you to avoid cheap dopamine hits and leverage hard earned dopamine. Because every day begins in the morning, a morning routine that starts you on a winning note is the best way to set yourself up for continued wins thereafter. 

Before we get into what a winning morning routine may entail, let’s do an inversion thinking exercise - instead of thinking “what would a great morning that’ll lead to a day of wins look like?”, we’ll switch it to “If I wanted to have the worst possible morning, thus leading to the worst possible day, what would my morning routine look like?” Once these ideas have been laid out and we know what not to do, we can easily flip it and determine what to do instead.  

What Not To Do

Joe is looking to go to selection. He’s in the national guard, so he typically works as a civilian in a 9-5 job. He’s struggling with consistency and can’t seem to recover well from his training sessions despite thinking he has all the recovery blocks checked. This is what Joe’s morning looks like on an average workday:

-Pressing snooze

Joe starts the day with a lie (which, by definition, is exactly what you’re doing when you press snooze), thus crushing his confidence and self esteem. Since he can’t hold himself accountable from the first minute of his day, he’s bound to follow this trend throughout the rest of the day. Add to that, getting a few extra 9 minute stints of low quality sleep is perfect for a low functioning brain and body.

-Death Scroll

Once he finally presses “alarm off”, Joe rolls over and opens up social media - it’s the perfect time for a cheap dopamine barrage. He’s on a mission to scroll mindlessly for at least 20 minutes, but he’s totally fine if it happens to take longer. He looks at photos, stories and videos of people fitter than him, having more fun than him, and seemingly living the perfect life - playing the comparison game is a surefire way to reinforce his thoughts of inadequacy. Since he already feels bad, he searches long and hard for something he disagrees with and takes the time to write a lengthy comment about how much it offends him. While he’s at it, he figures he may as well check out some news to see all the terrible things going on in the world. Joe now feels anxious, depressed, and behind the power curve.

-Play Catch Up

Joe Suddenly realizes he’s running behind, and hops up out of bed without making it and turns on the shower. He digs for some clothes to wear for the day since he didn’t prepare them the night prior. Joe realizes he should be leaving the house now, and he hasn’t even showered yet. He’s not in unfamiliar territory - he’s become known as “the guy that’s always late”.

-Sabotage With Morning Fuel

He doesn’t eat any breakfast or drink any water - straight for the coffee. To ensure he experiences an imminent caffeine crash combined with a blood sugar crash, he adds a generous serving of sugar because plain coffee tastes gross.

-Scramble & Avoid Punctuality

Joe leaves the house hoping he has everything. 5 minutes later, he realizes forgot his lunch and gym clothes. No need to go back, he can just eat lunch out “this one time”. He can always train tomorrow (he’s sore and fatigued anyways). Plus, although he’s already running late, going back will not allow him to stop at Starbucks for his daily milkshake disguised as coffee. On that note, since he didn’t eat at home and he’s already feeling stressed and anxious, he’ll get himself a muffin or piece of banana bread to secure another brief hit of cheap dopamine. Since he can’t decide, he’ll get both! This will ensure his energy levels and clarity are all over the place for the next several hours.

…I think you get the picture. Although this was an inversion thinking exercise and perhaps a bit of an exaggeration (especially for a future SOF hopeful), it’s not far off from how many people in the modern world execute their mornings. A morning like this would put anyone in an extreme deficit. Even the strongest willed person would have a tough time turning it around for the rest of the day.

Now that we know what not to do in the morning, let’s take a look at some simple things we could do to set ourselves up for success. A positive morning routine should include the following concepts (or at least something similar):


-Consistent and repeatable (whether at home or on the road)

-Mentally stimulating (hard earned dopamine)

-Physically stimulating (hard earned dopamine)

-Overcoming struggle - accomplishing something that by getting it done, you’ll be less stressed

-Brief (begin working on your most important task within 60 minutes)


To give you an example, here’s what my morning routine looks like.

-I wake up between 0345-0415 naturally (since I go to bed at the same time nightly)

-I let the dogs out, mix an electrolyte supplement into ~20 ounces of water - I don’t believe in the common advice saying you need to chug water, unless you ran a marathon in your sleep. I’ll sip on this for 60-90 minutes

-Prep coffee (I typically wait 60-90 minutes before having coffee, but my wife gets up at 0500 to go lift, so I ensure it’s ready for her)

- I do some mobility (hang from pull up bar, sit in squat), run up and down the stairs a few times, or do a few very short sprints on my rower or echo bike (this takes 5 minutes total)

-I read for 20 minutes minimum (sometimes up to an hour - it depends mostly on what I have for work tasks that day)

-I get to work on my most important task of the day, which is already annotated in my PM1 journal, and the tab is open on my computer

-Once the sun comes up, I get outside and take my dogs for a walk. Morning sun exposure is a powerful sleep enhancer (this can happen sooner in your morning routine if you’re not an excessively early riser like I am).

That’s it. The only other thing I’ll occasionally do is a bit of morning journaling. If I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed, I’ll write down a few things I’m grateful for. Gratitude and anxiety can’t coexist, and being grateful is a powerful way to squash it.

Just as important as what my morning routine does include is what it does not include. It doesn’t include pressing snooze, news, social media, email (I hate email anyway), television, a sugary breakfast, or other cheap dopamine activities. It hasn’t always been this way - I've had to establish these winning morning habits over time. 

I used to check social media every morning, and it took some discipline and trust in the process to squash this habit. For me, Instagram is a double edged sword. It’s an integral part of my coaching business and I really enjoy making content and interacting with followers - but I’m human. Sometimes I go on with good intentions and end up sucked into it for much longer than I had wanted.

I now have a rule that states I can’t open Instagram, Twitter, or Reddit for at least 2 hours after waking. Quite often, this extends out to 4 hours or more. I’ve found that by at least avoiding it in the early morning, I can avoid this temptation during my most needle-moving hours of the day. Not coincidentally, the days I delay social media the longest are my best days, bar none. 

Again, your morning routine may look different from mine since you probably have different priorities than I do - but it should include the basics listed above. You’d be amazed at how much better your day goes when you leverage hard earned dopamine rather than succumbing to cheap dopamine.

An intentional routine or ritual in the morning will allow you to build momentum for the rest of the day. It’s far easier to stay ahead when you start your day ahead than it is to start each day in a deficit.

If you’re still not convinced that a well intended, proactive morning routine will benefit you tremendously, I urge you to try it for at least 2 weeks. This is not long enough to build a habit for most people, but I do believe it’s long enough to get the ball rolling and begin to experience the many profound benefits of a winning morning routine.

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