Just when you thought we’d run out of Scandinavian words to sum up a better way to live, along comes another.
But, before you press the snooze button, consider whether you may be in need of gokotta, the latest Swedish lifestyle trend that is all about embracing early rising.
Gokotta means “early-morning cuckoo” and is practised in Sweden from Ascension Day (May 30) to midsummer as a means of enjoying nature and improving productivity. “In a world of ‘always on’, the commitment to being with ourselves, fully, if only for a short moment every morning, helps us take notice of our inner compass,” explains wellness expert and author Linnea Dunne. Her new book, Good Mornings, is a lesson in reclaiming the morning as “me time”, through meditation, exercise and self-care. “Changing the rhythm of your day can be tough at the start, but very few people stop rising early once they’ve started.”
Gokotta, like all the other Scandi buzzwords we’ve adopted over the past few years, is a feeling or mood that evades definition. It contains elements of hygge, the art of being cosy, lagom, meaning “just enough”, and umage, the practice of “making a bit more effort”.
Where gokotta stands out, though, according to Dunne, is that there is real science to back it up; our internal body clocks respond to morning light, she explains. This is backed up by research from the Sleep Foundation that shows that, as our internal “circadian” clocks are activated by the early-morning light, so too are the hormones, which promote alertness and activity; early risers are also likely to sleep better in the evening, when our brains respond to darkness.
Surely, though, the Scandis can’t lay claim to early rising as a lifestyle practice? Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, who starts the day with exercise and meditation, Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks, who rises at dawn to walk his dog, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour who is famously playing tennis at 5.45am, have long attributed an early start to their superhuman productivity levels.
A couple of years ago, author Hal Elrod created almost cult followings with his book The Miracle Morning, which suggested six habits that would change your life before 8am. And last Sunday was International Dawn Chorus Day, where nature lovers gather to hear the birdsong. All of which suggests that gokotta is no more than a Swedish word for a global zeitgeist.
Still, it’s one thing knowing that the secret to success is an early start. And then there is the reality of actually doing it. But if you’re not a morning person and are keen to become one, Dunne’s book has plenty of suggested rituals for turning night owls into larks.
Journaling is one. Or you could start a gratitude diary (practising optimism and gratitude has a similar effect on the brain to taking antidepressants, according to Dunne). If ayurveda, a cleansing ritual involving oil pulling (a coconut oil mouthwash) isn’t your thing, or smoke cleansing by burning dried herbs, you can go for a jog, for a dip in the sea or practise some restorative yoga.
Or – good news for those of us who don’t necessarily want to start the day by plunging into cold water – you could simply check in with yourself by sitting on your doorstep with a cup of tea or by preparing a nourishing breakfast; Dunne recommends chia pudding and a green smoothie, but boiled eggs are permitted, too. “What what we eat and drink – or refrain from eating and drinking – in the morning also tells our metabolism how to behave for the rest of the day,” she says. These are just suggestions, of course. A morning ritual can take any form, so long as it is screen free, according to Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, who rises early to set her intentions and write a gratitude journal.
The obvious downside to adopting a morning ritual is that you’ll have to get up early. But according to Dunne, you can adapt gokotta to fit your lifestyle: for the time-poor she suggests walking meditations and bed yoga (don’t worry; there are instructions in the book). Even parents with young children can introduce a morning ritual, she says – although her suggestion of “mindful colouring” might prove optimistic.
“Self-care is never as badly needed as during those early parenting years,” she says. “It might seem impossible, but there are simple ways to fit in that little bit of morning peace.”
The only thing standing in the way of an early riser, says Dunne, is that snooze button, which is why she suggests leaving your alarm in a different room to ensure you have to crawl out of bed to turn it off. If you can master that, she’s certain that your adopted morning ritual can bring luck, confidence and security, plus insulation from the stresses of daily life.
Perhaps, though, we don’t need a Swedish word to confirm a truth universally acknowledged since the 17th century: that the early bird catches the worm.
By Anna Tyzack
The morning meditator
Anna Tyzack tries mindfulness – and jogging
I’m sitting in my garden, a cup of steaming rooibos tea in my hand, listening to the birds (and planes) overhead. The dog is staring at me in horror from inside the house; not even Rudy is crazy enough to venture outside at 6.20am, half an hour before the children get out bed. But this is my attempt at gokotta, the ancient Swedish ritual of connecting with nature.
I sit for a few minutes while London stirs around me: curtains are opening, a siren whirrs, and the breeze is blowing blossom across the lawn. Then I go back inside and potter in the kitchen, enjoying this serene time on my own, plotting out my day ahead. By the time I venture upstairs to get the children ready for school, I’m fully awake – and far calmer than I usually am at this time of day.
When my new alarm goes off the next morning, I try meditation. According to Linnea Dunne, this can be done anywhere, but in the name of gokotta, I choose the garden. I sit cross-legged on the steps, set a timer for 10 minutes (the minimum time recommended in the book) and try to practise pranayama (mindful breathing). At the same time, I try to acknowledge and accept my thoughts and sensations in a non-judgmental way before letting them go and bringing my focus back to the present moment.
This is tough: the minutes pass by so slowly and my brain twitches with thoughts such as, “Have I packed the right games kit?” Gradually, I tune into the wind, my mind wanders and then, suddenly, the timer is bleating.
Next up is a morning run. There’s a whole chapter in Dunne’s book dedicated to the ritual of a morning workout. Studies show that morning exercise increases energy, concentration and motivation throughout the day. It’s usually tricky for me to go jogging first thing in case the children wake up (at least that’s what I tell myself) but today I’m in Cambridge as part of my master’s degree and can run through Arcadian college gardens and woodland without hitting a road. Dunne is right: the world is at its freshest first thing. And it’s invigorating to feel my pulse racing and the morning air on my skin. I feel awake and focused during the day of lectures that follows, and resolve to jog in the mornings, even if only at weekends.
Back at home the next day, I try out a ritual from the “what parents do” section of the book. I can’t see my boys enjoying the “mindful colouring” activity, but I can make us all a mindful breakfast of boiled eggs, as recommended in the book by nutritionist Jenny Tschiesche. “Be aware what breakfast feels like – and then simply try to make it feel good,” Dunne says. On her recommendation, I attempt a mindful conversation: I tell the boys how grateful I am to be their mother, and then I ask them what will make them happy today. “Seals,” says my youngest, which at least makes us laugh.
Over the course of a week of rituals, there’s no doubt that our house became calmer – or, rather, I became calmer. Despite failing to get to bed before 11.30pm (once a night owl…) I found each ritual invigorating rather than tiring, and I’m now convinced of the joys of early rising, even if it’s just to sip a quiet cup of tea in the garden before the rest of the family wakes up.
I’ve been trying to keep up this particular part of my new routine, but the boys have interrupted it a few times by rising even earlier than me. Still, just before 8am, we all pile on to a cargo bike and cycle across the common to school. And although it may look like we’re just doing the school run, this is in fact – according to the book – a ritual. Because, as Dunne says: “When you imbue meaning into an activity, or when you feel a deep emotional attachment to it, you could think of it as a ritual.” I reward myself with coffee and a croissant on my way home, which, by that rationale, is also a ritual; possibly my favourite one of all.
The morning swimmer
Tom Ough throws himself into nature – and very cold water
I view most uses of “I’m not a morning person” in the same way that an Italian might view an Anglo-Saxon monstering of spaghetti bolognese. Andarsene! Get lost! Stop appropriating my culture, man!
You see, I don’t have to get to work till 10am most days, and I still often struggle to make it in on time. Two years ago, I missed an entire holiday because I decided late the night before that I’d rather miss the flight than wake up at 4am. As a student, my biggest fear about the world of work wasn’t the sacrifice of 40-plus hours per week – it was having to be at a desk for 9am.
So I was thoroughly sceptical of the idea that imposing an early-morning ritual on myself would improve my life. The night before Day One, having selected three rituals from Good Mornings, I set my alarm for 7.30am. I was so stressed by the prospect of waking up at 7.30 that, despite an early night, I barely slept. When the alarm finally rang, I was so tired, I felt sick.
I nobly crawled out of bed all the same and slowly got dressed. It wasn’t all bad. Normally I march to the Tube or start the polluted cycle to work, but today I was starting with a walk in the park. In the interests of mindfulness, I didn’t stick my earphones in, and was suddenly conscious of birds singing as I breathed in the fresh air and enjoyed the morning light falling through the green-crowned trees.
Next stop: Brockwell Lido. Outdoor swimming, particularly when it’s cold, has multiple physiological and mental benefits, from firing up your immune system to making you feel relaxed. Doing it first thing, when we have the most willpower, seemed sensible: why waste my finite willpower on my job when I could use it to bully myself into an Olympic-sized vat of cold water? I won’t pretend that getting into said vat of cold water was anything other than buttock-clenchingly unpleasant, but after a brisk length I felt much better. Indoor swimming is boring and humid, like a midsummer maths lesson with the windows shut. But the blue sky, fresh air and trees made it a profoundly refreshing experience.
By the time I’d got out, showered and changed, I was becoming dangerously smug. Look at those fools, I thought, looking at a flow of commuters. Do they have the self-mastery to get up at 7.30am and go for a swim? I glowed with self-righteousness and possible hypothermia.
Fortunately, the final component of my new morning ritual was writing in my gratitude journal while enjoying a coffee. Writing what we’re grateful for improves our well-being by making us more mindful of things and people that enrich us, apparently. So I found a nearby bakery and, with my cold-water adrenalin spike now fading into sleepiness, happily noted my gratitude for a friend’s help, the pleasure of walking through parkland, and, um, struggling here… Aha! The scent of the bakery.
What a delightful morning! And, although I achieved virtually nothing else that day because I was so sleep-deprived, I found myself looking forward to Day Two.
By Day Three, however, a feeling of resentment began to seep in when I was anticipating the rituals. Towards the end of the week, worried about being late for work, I confess that I skipped them. I began to accept that the likelihood of my ever becoming a morning person was faint. Despite having neither kids to take to school nor a long commute, I found the rituals an inordinately time-consuming way of making myself feel relaxed, especially since it was at the expense of either sleep or an hour’s unwinding the night before.
It’s now a few days since my last early morning and, while I’m still attracted to the idea of doing a quick swim and then going straight to work, you know and I know that I’m unlikely to bother. And if I, a childless, 26-year-old bachelor, don’t have time for this, who the hell does?
The morning scribbler
Debora Robertson tries brain training – and herb burning
I used to love rising early and working in the peace of the morning before anyone else was up. I made notes, raced through emails, got a head start on the day.
But, over the past year or so, something has happened. I still wake up early, I just don’t get up. I turn on the Today programme, grab my phone and flip through social media, skim the papers, clutch the cup of coffee my husband brings me each morning like it’s life-giving elixir. And then, suddenly, it’s 9am. I work from home and no one’s going to fire me. But… I felt sluggish. And I missed my early-morning self.
For the past month, I’ve wanted to reclaim my mornings without actually doing anything about it. So when I was asked to try Linnea Dunne’s book, it felt meant by the universe.
I picked out three tasks – meditation, brain training (breathing and thinking – how hard can it be?), and herb-burning rituals, because who doesn’t love a little witchcraft in the morning?
On the first morning, I am up at 6am to attempt a session of diaphragmatic breathing, for which you lie on the floor. Within a minute, the cat is whirling about my head and the dogs are sniffing me suspiciously. So I retreat back to bed for the brain work. I’ve chosen creativity guru Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” – three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing, which many people swear by as a way of unravelling knotty problems and relieving anxiety. As someone who writes for a living, I’ve always been slightly reluctant to get up early to do writing no one will pay me for. But here I am, propped up in bed, scribbling about the noise of birds and motorcycles outside. “What are you doing?” my husband asks, pulling the duvet over his head before I can answer. Unfortunately, Ms Dunne doesn’t cover how to do morning rituals while simultaneously attempting to maintain marital harmony.
I move downstairs before burning bay leaves (for power and confidence, apparently). I don’t have an abalone shell to burn them in, as recommended in the book, so I use a cake tin. I wander around the kitchen wafting smoke into corners. The fire alarm goes off. ARE WE ALL AWAKE NOW? It’s 8am and my nerves are jangling. I also feel slightly sick from the bay smoke.
Over the next few days, I swap diaphragmatic breathing for Nadi Shodhana breathing – alternate nostril breathing – which you can do sitting down. I creep to my study to scribble my morning pages. I burn herbs without activating the smoke alarm.
For the first few days, I find it quite annoying to spend so much time thinking about myself, my feelings and my breathing. To be honest, I miss caffeine and sloth.
But then – Dunne does emphasise the cumulative power of small steps – by midweek, I find it easier to get up earlier. I enjoy the fancy breathing. I look forward to the meandering morning pages. Good habits leak into my day. I add an icy blast at the end of my shower. I download the Headspace app. I begin the day with lemon, turmeric and ginger tea. I jot down things I’m grateful for. My life begins to feel a little less like a permanent essay crisis. Could this be calm I’m feeling? It’s something I don’t recognise but it feels quite nice.
By the week’s end, I resolve to keep on breathing and doing morning pages. I’m ditching the herb-burning because I haven’t lost my damn mind. But I may have found some peace, and got my early-morning mojo back, so perhaps this regime isn’t so cuckoo after all.
How to become AN EARLY RISER
Ask yourself why: think about why you want to change and imagine the feeling you’ll have after your ritual.
Identify and remedy obstacles: bring slippers to your bedside or set the heating to come on earlier to make it more appealing.
Change your alarm: it should sound pleasant rather than loud and strident.
Go to bed earlier: if you sleep during the most important hours, starting at around 11pm when melatonin peaks, you’ll counteract that exhausted feeling when you wake up early.
What not to do…
Check your email: this triggers “work mode”, which leaves little mental space for meditation and also puts you in “reactive” rather than “proactive” mode.
Light a candle: candlelight makes your body think that it’s time to unwind – or perhaps even go back to bed.
Start with a coffee: it’s tempting to reach for a caffeine boost but, ideally, hold off for a little while after you wake up – and certainly avoid drinking coffee on an empty stomach.
Good Mornings: Morning Rituals for Wellness, Peace and Purpose by Linnea Dunne (Octopus) is available for £14.99 plus p&p from books.telegraph.co.uk