Last Updated: April 13, 2021

What if nighttime routines have the greatest impact on a person’s well-being? 

Of course, it would be ideal if we each adopted both morning and evening routines. But for many people today, it’s a challenge to stick with both routines, or to build upon an existing routine that is not yet automatic.

For ourselves, as health coaches, and when we’re coaching clients, I’ve noticed we have a tendency to add more elements onto a morning routine, instead of building an evening routine where those practices might be more impactful.

Note: For the sake of clarity on this topic, let’s assume that whenever I say routine, I’m referring to the intended new actions a person aims to add to their existing, automatic routine. So, if you brush your teeth, make the bed, pour yourself some coffee, and feed your dogs every morning, that’s already automatic. I’m talking about the things you’d like to add to your automatic routine.

In general, morning routines are perfectly suited for:

  • Exercise
  • Goal Review
  • Visualization or Intention Setting
  • Meditation (can be too relaxing for some)
  • Meal Prep (can interfere with time-restricted eating)

Common elements of a morning routine that may work better in the afternoon or during work hours (not recommended at bedtime):

  • Checking social media notifications
  • Posting on social media
  • Reading news headlines or go-to publications
  • Checking email
  • Scheduling and attending morning meetings 

All of these activities have the power to derail your day and even exhaust you before tackling your pressing priorities.

Common Wellness Practices: AM vs. PM

1. Gratitude

Gratitude—which is a valuable wellness habit for any time of day—might be more effective when practiced in the evening. PM gratitude practices promote a glass-half-full sort of mindset after a long day.

While expressing gratitude in the evening, we tend to be more specific, like, “I’m grateful for that compliment I received from my client even though I doubted myself. I’m grateful for my diligence in finishing the last task on my to-do list even though I was exhausted. I’m grateful my husband hugged me when I walked in the door. I’m grateful for the money refunded to my account today.”

Whereas gratitude in the AM tends to have a repetitive quality through which we express appreciation for the more general aspects of life, like, “I’m grateful for my comfortable bed, I’m thankful for my family, for my job security, for an opportunity to pursue my goals at my age.”

Feel the difference?

2. Journaling

I look at journaling as a key practice to implement routinely, and it could be one of the most underutilized habits with the greatest potential for a positive impact. When you practice journaling or planning in the AM, it feels like you’re being productive, but it can eat up time you’d otherwise spend on tasks that require full brainpower and efficiency. (I’ve noticed this is especially true for clients who love to write or vent about their emotions, and anyone who loves planning.)

Some of us will readily comply with a morning journaling habit in an effort to, unknowingly, procrastinate on other responsibilities for that day. You might also notice that some of your clients tend to skip morning journaling, because as soon as they’ve splashed water on their face, something more urgent pops into their heads.

Evening journaling/planning seems to be more effective for many of us today….maybe because it allows us to dump our anxieties onto paper, ease a racing mind, reflect on the day that’s passed, and capture thoughts for the day to come. This frees up bandwidth for decision-making, and can cut down on the number of mistakes we make after missing sleep from an anxious mind. Instead, we get our thoughts and plans out of our heads and onto the page, and can rest assured knowing the next day is planned and organized.

3. Meditation and Mindfulness

Although this, too, is a practice that we benefit from any time of day, I have found that many of us, who are not stimulated by meditation/mindfulness, will experience the greatest return on our invested time and effort when we meditate in the evening.

In the morning, meditation and mindfulness are easier. There’s less noise in the mind, and emotions/demands from the day haven’t been stirred up yet, either. Meditating in the morning keeps us practicing in a state of mind that doesn’t represent the state we are in when we need it the most. Certain forms of meditation also have a tendency to calm our bodies and minds so much that we lose a sense of urgency towards the next tasks on our to-do list.

Compare that to an evening practice. After a day’s work, meditation and mindfulness test our mental muscles to a degree that makes learning and mastery sooner achieved with less time invested. Even just a minute or two of evening meditation/mindfulness can foster a state of self-awareness sooner than what we might achieve with a morning version.

We experience lots of noise in our heads at night, reminding ourselves what we should have done or need to do the next day. We replay scripts from our daily interactions and rehearse what we’ll say next time. And of course, we may struggle with being wired and tired, exhausted but wide-eyed.

Meditation and mindfulness in the evening help to calm the sympathetic response and balance our autonomic nervous system so we can prepare for sleep. It helps reduce anxiety and teaches us how to utilize this masterful practice when we need it the most—during times of stress and distress.

As Emily Fletcher, author of Stress Less, Accomplish More, says,

“Meditation allows you to feel safe enough for emotional release…Like a loving mother, meditation wraps you in her bosom and lets your nervous system know you now have access to your own bliss and fulfillment internally, which allows you to feel safe enough to let go of a lifetime of stress.”

Those are just a few of the examples as to why I believe the best way to ensure a good day is not so much based on the first things you do in the morning as it is the last things you do before sleep.

10 Reasons Nighttime Routines Beat Morning Routines:

1. Sleep Optimization

Most people are chronically sleep deprived. Evening routines help prioritize sleep, promote our natural circadian rhythm, and improve sleep quality.

2. Evenings Anchor Mornings

An evening routine makes any morning routine easier to implement and succeed at.

3. Morning Discipline

Ambitious morning routines can tank our discipline bank before work even begins.

4. Low Evening Willpower Begs for Routine

Willpower and decision fatigue are highest in the evening, which implies that without a routine we hardly feel capable of changing our default habits.

5. Unfinished Business

Evening routines provide an opportunity to reflect on any unfinished tasks from the day and plan ahead to accomplish them. For many people, this means less anxiety, better sleep, and an increased feeling of control.

6. Emotional Awareness and Closure

Evening routines help us process or cope with unresolved issues and emotions from the day.

7. Replace Undesirable Habits

An evening routine replaces undesirable evening habits that detract from our well-being.

8. Evening Freedom

Evening routines happen at a time when we’re already awake and free to do as we please.

9. No Earlier Rising

Morning routines typically require one to become an earlier riser (when quality sleep may already be lacking).

10. Hormonal Balance and Reset

Evening routines help balance stress, sleep, sex, and hunger hormones, as designed. When the day is done and the sun has set, we’re gifted this opportunity to wind down from the day’s experience and reset for the day ahead.

A strong finish fosters a fresh start. Or as my peer, health coach Rob Arthur said, “An evening routine, and the sleep it promotes, lay the foundation for a morning routine.”

I’ll close with one important piece to consider. Do you know your chronotype? Your chronotype is one of four genetically-confirmed classifications, as defined by Michael Breus in his book The Power of When, that determine the timing of your circadian rhythm—perhaps because my chronotype is a “bear,” and bears make up approximately 50% of the population, I am partial to the benefits of evening routines. Are you a “Lion”? Well, then, you can take what works for you from this article and leave the rest, prioritizing morning routines if that works best for you.

Knowing your chronotype helps you determine the best time for just about every daily activity, from sleeping and waking, to exercise and binge-watching Netflix. Maybe it’s time we learn our clients’ chronotypes, too. 

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