This subject is extremely close to my heart. I've had a morning routine of some sort for about 2 years now, and I can't imagine how far behind where I am now I'd be without one.
In a sentence, a morning routine is a ritual you perform every day, first thing after getting up. Its content and length is entirely personalized, and its goals are to help you kick start your day, and move you towards your goal, steadily and consistently.
My morning routine
Let's start with an example before we get into the what and why. I know a bunch of people with a morning routine, but I'm only comfortable about talking mine.
Every morning I: Meditate, do yoga, go to the gym, eat breakfast, practice my dutch, make a list of tasks I want to accomplish today, shower, floss and moisturize.
All this I fit into about an hour and a half, and I do it every morning in the same order.
Why have a routine?
If you promise yourself that you're going to get in shape, or that you're going to learn a language, or take up any other goal that requires a daily commitment, you are basically trusting yourself to do something every day. There are two ways to go about doing something every day - one is to keep it in the back of your mind all the time, trying to find a spot during the day that's convenient, maybe see how it fits into one of your breaks or see if you have energy for it when you get back from work. Or, you can do all this planning just once, and commit to executing this same plan every day at the same time. This is how you create a routine.
The power of a routine stems from how it overrides a lot of mentally taxing decision making. When you have something you do every day at the same time, you don't have to ask yourself, "What should I do" and "when should I do it?". There is no planning involved beyond the intiail one. Planning a task takes up mental power, draining resources that otherwise would be available for your willpower, which you need in order to execute the task. The only challenge you have to face when starting a routine is, indeed, the challenge of willpower. I will later get into a few strategies of how to overcome this challenge as well.
Why every day?
This is another way to reserve some mental cycles that can trip us up if we have to run by them every time we want to do something to better ourselves. When you do something every day, you save yourself the trouble of trying to remember which day it is and whether today is the day you do X. If you happen to forget that this was Wednesday and Wednesday was jogging day, then you unknowingly skipped jogging even if you did have the willpower to do it at the time. But once you slip, no matter why exactly you slipeed up, it becomes easier to forgive yourself for not doing it again next time. Paradoxically, the more inconsistent we are at doing something, the more forgiving we are for our inconsistency. If you get back from work next Wednesday a bit more tired than usual, then you're more likely to skip jogging if you have already skipped it last week, rather than if you didn't miss your jogging night for two months straight.
Another benefit of doing the same thing every day is because it's just simpler. If every day of the week is designated to a different type of routine, you run the risk of losing the benefit of not having to think about what you're doing. The more you think about what you should do, the less energy you have to spend on doing it.
Mornings seem like the most unintuitive part of the day to commit a serious and repetitive effort to promote your goals. Aren't you supposed to drag yourself from bed 30 minutes after the alarm rang, chug a cup of coffee and rush to work? I'm pretty sure not many would freely elect this kind of life. I think morning routines are a way out of this lifestye, but that's a sideeffect of them, not the reason why they should take place in the morning.
Mornings are the simplest time of the day in terms of scheduling. If you commit to do something as soon as you get up, there can be no scheduling conflicts, a meeting that got delayed, or unexpected traffic. Even if you overslept and can't perform the entirety of your routine, you will be hard pressed to find yourself in a situation where you can't perform some sort of a routine first thing in the morning. The rest of your day is subject to unexpected changes that can make slipping up here and there more likely, and once you slip up, you are more likely to be more forgiving of future slip ups.
Second, believe it or not, your willpower is at its peak in the morning - it is not yet taxed by decision making, fatigue or irritation. Starting a one hour routine first thing in the morning, compared to doing it when you get back from work, should be easier for most of us. If you find yourself to be more motivated at different parts of the day then perhaps you can experiment with moving your routine there. I'm not preaching a religion here, just what I find to be the most optimal way to achieve consistency. If some of my advice doesn't fit you, by all means you should adjust. But I suggest you do try doing the morning thing for a while before giving up on it. You might discover there's an early bird in you, like I did.
Don't commit to more than you can consistently do
This may sound obvious, but it's not. The reason is that when we take up something, we have some sort of an external expectation on hoe long it should take. For example, when I started meditating, almost every source that talked about it mentioned that you should meditate around 10 minutes at a time (other places listed 20 minutes as the minimum, or even more). But being an extremely impatient person, I already knew that there was no way I could do 10 minutes a day without really committing a lot of mental effort to it. I decided to start with 3 minutes a day and work my way up. After about 6 months of doing that (and having moved up to 5 minutes a day), I talked with a friend who also wanted to meditate every day. When I told him I do 5 minutes a day he said "You should really do at least 10 minutes!", I asked him, "so you, you are doing 10 minutes every day, right?" and he said "well in the last few weeks I really haven't gotten around to it...". He committed to an external expectation that he couldn't live up to. I had almost the exact conversation, word for word, with someone else regarding jogging. I started with 3km, and a coworker who also jogs said I should do at least 6. I asked, "so, you did 2 6 km jogs this week?", and his response was "well, I haven't really found the time lately".
6 km jog is definitely better than 3 km. But 3 km is infinitely better than 0 km. Be honest with what you can do, and work your way up from there, as slowly as you're comfortable with.
Ease into it
The reason I start my morning with meditation is because it is the easiest part of my morning routine. I wake up as groggy as anyone else, not really in a mood to do too much. But meditation is not that hard - I set a countdown clock for 5 minutes, and sit with my eyes closed. By the time I open my eyes again, I'm already 5 minutes into my morning routine, and continuing it feels already more natural. Then I do yoga, basically a bunch of easy poses that move my body without challenging it too much, and a few poses I just found I enjoy practicing every day. When I'm done with that, I find myself in the mood for a real workout, and I hit the gym without thinking twice about it.
If I had gone from bed straight to the gym, I doubt I'd be able to keep it up for too long.
Move towards your goals every day
I have a friend who every morning concocts a drink containing a bunch of vitamins and nutriets she wants to consume consistently. I kind of view my morning routine as a physical analogy to it. My routine is designed to promote my short and long term goals in some way. I want to be in good shape, I want to learn Dutch & I want to improve my control over my consciousness. No matter what else happens the rest of the day, my morning routine guarantess that I spent a part of the day promoting my goals. No day is wasted.
A big chunk of the routine's consistency power stems from this feeling - I am grateful for my routine, and therefore breaking it feels sacrilige to me. If you know what your personal goals are, customize your routine to promote yours.
The feeling of having accomplished something positive for yourself first thing in the morning sure beats the feeling of being dragged from the warm bed to the cold, unforgiving world every morning. It's really a transformative habit in so many ways, that I'm not surprised how passionately I feel about it and how much I enjoy thinking about it. This article covers the bare essentials of what I think of morning routines.
The power of morning routines stems from consistency. If you do 10 minutes every day, it's better than 1 hour every now and then, no matter what it is. Make sure that when you construct your routine, every decision should be measured against the criterion of whether it helps you to keep consistency or not. If you find yourself dreading some part of your routine, either make it easier, move it around to, or give up on it.
The most important thing is to do something for yourself every day.