Neuroscientist shares the 'nonnegotiable' routine he uses to stay mentally sharp during the day


If you spend any time on TikTok, there's a good chance you've encountered some bafflingly elaborate morning routines: 5 a.m. wake-up times, a bevy of chores, workouts and journaling all before the start of the work day. 

The implication: Anyone who wants to be successful needs early-morning workouts and green juice to stay fully productive and alert throughout the day. 

There's nothing inherently wrong with these routines, but building success with your sleep schedule is a lot easier than that, says David Creswell, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Carnegie Mellon who studies sleep.

By focusing on a couple key elements of your morning and nightly routine, you can increase both the quality and quantity of your sleep — without having to wake up at the crack of dawn. That'll significantly improve your ability to operate at peak performance during the day, Cresswell says.

Last month, Creswell published a study of more than 600 college students' sleep schedules, and found the less a student slept, the lower their GPA. That held true even when controlling for their GPA the previous term and how many classes they were taking. 

"It's not just for young adults," Creswell tells CNBC Make It. "These issues around sleep and [its] benefits on your mental health and achievement are likely to generalize to other groups as well." 

Here, he shares the key ingredients of an effective, success-building morning routine.

Build a consistent routine

The first key: consistency. Establish a regular sleep time and wake time, and stick to it as often as possible. 

That's more important than the amount of sleep you get, Creswell says — noting that while he personally aims for "a nonnegotiable eight-hour sleep window," there's some leeway in terms of those "magic eight" hours.

Creswell leaves his screens and other distractions outside the bedroom, and uses a simple version of counting sheep to quickly fall asleep once he's in bed. He counts his breath, working up to 10 and then starting over again.

That focused attention helps him break "patterns of rumination or worry," which otherwise would make it difficult to fall asleep, he says.

Keep it simple

The second key: Keep your morning routine simple enough to actually stick with it.

If your routine is so complicated that you're "losing track of what you need to be doing," there's a good chance it's unsustainable in the long run, Creswell explains.

His recommendation: Try different routines and see what works for you over time. If a morning stretch feels feasible, try it. If you only have time for a bare-bones routine where you pack your lunch and run out the door, give it a shot too. Adapt as needed, and stick with whatever feels the most rejuvenating and natural.

Once a particular aspect of your routine starts to feel like a chore, reconsider and potentially drop it. And if your morning routine means sacrificing an extra 30 minutes of sleep, decide whether its beneficial elements are enough to warrant that loss.

For example, if 20 minutes of morning yoga totally revitalizes you, setting you up for a productive day, you'll probably want to stick with it, Creswell says. Other elements of a morning routine, like making an elaborate smoothie or reading for 15 minutes, may not be worth that sacrificed sleep.

"You may say, 'Oh, it's just 30 minutes,'" Creswell says. "But if you think about 30 minutes adding up over a period of weeks and months, that's a significant amount of time you're taking away from your overall sleep time."

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What a brain expert eats in a day to boost memory and stay sharp
What a brain expert eats in a day to boost memory and stay sharp