The Optimized Doctor

Morning rituals


“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”Annie Dillard

It’s 4:40 a.m. and I’ve got two items checked off my list. As I stir my coffee, made the same way each day, I’m engaged in my morning ritual. It begins at 4:30 a.m. and ends with me ready for whatever comes that day.

In our life-hacking world, morning rituals are hotter than my mug of Italian roast. Blog posts, magazine articles, podcasts, and books, such as the New York Times best-selling “Make Your Bed,” (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2017) written by a former Navy SEAL, all argue that the secret to a successful day, and life, lies in the start. But do morning rituals apply to us doctors?

Jeffrey Benabio, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Unlike entrepreneurs, coders, or creatives whose days are self-directed, doctors’ days are dictated by rigid clinic schedules and OR times. For many physicians, the morning ritual consists of signing out last night’s admissions or previewing scans for this morning’s cases. And unlike career tyros, you’ve already developed habits that yield achievement. Yet, it isn’t enough. Doctors are consistently focused on getting faster, better, smarter. How can I keep up with my journals, squeeze in one more consult, round faster? To deal with the ever-expanding demands of medicine, you’ll need a framework upon which to build your day. We needn’t look to blogs for advice.

Dr. William Osler, the father of modern medicine, had the answer a century ago: “The day [can] be predicted from the first waking hour. The start is everything,” he advised Yale medical students in his “Way of Life” address. “Live with day-tight compartments,” and focus on “what lies clearly at hand.” He encouraged them to develop focus so they might avoid “indecision and worry,” and fluster and flurry. Today, we call it “mindfulness,” so we might avoid “burnout.”

Dr. Osler, who read Ben Franklin, no doubt would have been familiar with Franklin’s recommendations: 5 a.m.: “Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness [prayer]! Contrive day’s business and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study, and breakfast.” Tested by over 200 years of self-help seekers, this is a good start. Through years of research and experimentation, I’ve refined this to the five morning activities that matter most:

1. Wake up early. You can’t walk into a patient’s room without reviewing their chart or into an operating room without prepping. Don’t walk into your day unprepared. I start 2 hours before arriving at clinic; you might need only 20 minutes. Experiment to find what works for you.

2. Reflect on yesterday. Your brain is coming online in the few minutes after waking; while booting, review what happened yesterday. According to an article on-line in the Harvard Business Review (, top CEOs make a habit of reviewing their actions and decisions to deconstruct both successes and failures. Replaying your day, like reviewing game film, is key to getting better.

3. Exercise. Physical activity improves memory, and cognition and aerobics are particularly effective. I vary both my activities and length of time in the gym. Ten minutes, if done all-out, might be all you need.

4. Preview and plan. In the excellent “How to Have a Good Day,” (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016) author Caroline Webb recommends an approach from three angles: “Aim, Attitude, and Attention.” Aim: What are the most important activities today? Who will you meet? What might you say to be successful? Attitude is key and often overlooked. Perhaps you have a patient you’d prefer not to see or a colleague with whom you need to have a difficult conversation. Reflect on how your attitude will impact the outcome. Lastly, attention must be paid. It’s as relevant today as when Dr. Osler recommended it. What must you focus on today to be successful?

5. Breathe deeply. Developing the habit of mindful breathing can help you become more resilient and focused. Spend 10-30 minutes breathing deeply and mindfully. You can take this time to pray as Franklin did or for priming as self-help guru Tony Robbins recommends today. Whichever you choose, be deliberate and consistent.

I’m invariably energized when I finish my morning routine. Even on my worst procrastination days, I have the satisfaction of getting at least five things done. Much of today will be out of my control: Patients will arrive late and surgeries might run over. But this morning was all mine. By faithfully carrying out this ritual I’m not only ready each day, I’m better each day.

What’s your morning ritual?

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at [email protected]

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