Morning sets the tone for the day, especially when it’s one of those times you wish you hadn’t gotten out of bed. So we asked eight productivity experts to give us a glimpse into their morning routines to help smooth the way and inspire better starts.
You might be surprised that David Allen, author of the productivity “bible” Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, doesn’t have a structured morning routine.
“When I wake up, I have a glass of lemon juice and water, and possibly take the dog out for her morning whatever,” Allen says. Next comes a large cup of French-pressed light roast coffee, while he checks the weather, reads the front page of the New York Times international edition, and plays Words with Friends. “My brain is waking up,” he says. He then glances at new Facebook and Instagram posts, and does an “emergency scan” of emails.
“Then, who knows?” he says. “Every day is different.”
Lisa Woodruff teaches people to be more organized through her website Organize 365. A work-from-home mom, the first few hours of her morning routine include getting her teenage children off to school while readying herself and her household for the day.
“My morning routine is dictated by my high schoolers,” says Woodruff, who is up by 5:45 a.m., dressed and ready to drive her kids to school by 6:50 a.m. She maximizes her time by fitting in some household chores.
“Before I leave, I start the dishwasher and a load of laundry,” she says. When she gets back from dropping off her kids at school, she empties the dishwasher, moves the laundry to the dryer, and starts her workday at 8:15 a.m.
Woodruff maximizes her drive time by inserting some learning: “When I am driving to and from school I listen to two to three podcasts,” she says.
Mornings can bring a special challenge to parents, says Woodruff. “When you’re a mother, you’re constantly juggling the needs of the household, the kids, your spouse, and then the needs of your employment,” she says. “Your time is never your own, and you have to be responsive and connective. Household tasks need to fit in; it’s not optional.”
Andrew Mellen’s day starts much differently than Woodruff’s. Unless he’s catching a plane, the professional organizer and author of Unstuff Your Life doesn’t like to set an alarm clock. Instead, he wakes up when he wakes up–-usually by 7 a.m.
“The first thing I do is meditate for five to 10 minutes,” he says. Some days Mellen goes to the gym, others he moves straight to breakfast, checking his calendar to see what is scheduled for the day and tweaking appointments if needed.
“I like to evaluate the day while eating breakfast,” he says. “I also check email for first time that day, and then I turn it off, checking it just one more time. I like to climb into my day between 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., depending on whether I go to the gym for a workout.”
Mellen says as a morning person, he tries to do high-value activities first. “Those are focused on revenue or outstanding projects,” he says. “I like to do writing in the morning before there are too many demands on my attention.”
Productivity consultant Peggy Duncan is a night owl, and since she works solo from home, and is an empty nester, she can work within her own rhythm without having to consider the schedule of others.
“If I’m not traveling or training, I usually don’t do any real work until later,” she says. “I ease into my day. I’ll do light exercise and enjoy a leisurely breakfast.”
Duncan checks email and voicemail, and handles whatever is needed. “I don’t schedule meetings or phone calls until after 1:00 p.m. unless it absolutely cannot be avoided.”
Productivity speaker and coach Ellen Goodwin is up by 5 a.m. and starts her morning with a glass of warm water before she gets out of bed. For the next 45 minutes to an hour she catches up on the latest research on the brain, productivity, habits, or focus, or she writes.
“I spend a half an hour talking with my partner before he heads out to work,” she says. “Once he leaves I either go for a long walk or lift weights and swing kettle bells.”
After breakfast, a shower, and a phone call with her accountability partner, Goodwin says, “Then the business of the day really begins.”
Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, used to focus his mornings around long-term goal setting, but that’s changed. “I’ve found that starting each day with a simple routine ensures I’ll ‘win the day,’ and if you win most of your days the years will take care of themselves,” he says.
For Kruse, the day starts with his one-sentence personal purpose statement, which he says keeps him on track and gives meaning to his life. Then he thinks of at least three specific things he’s grateful for. “This gratitude practice improves my happiness and really eliminates the minor annoyances and stressors that would otherwise take hold,” he says.
Next, Kruse sets daily intentions around the three domains for a happy life: health, wealth, and relationships. For each one, he thinks about why it’s important and what he’s going to do that day to work toward it.
Next comes 15 minutes of yoga stretches and if he has a very busy day, he’ll add 20 minutes on the treadmill. “Because I know I’ll achieve a peak mental state for a few hours after doing cardio,” he says. “This morning motion doesn’t replace my normal workout routines, it’s just to help achieve extreme productivity right away.”
Most weekdays, you’ll find Peter Bregman sitting in his Eames lounge chair writing from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. The author of Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Replace Counter-Productive Habits with Ones That Really Work, starts his day this way for good reason: “I have found that if I don’t write in the early morning hours, I will never get to it,” he says. “Sometimes I start with a short sitting meditation, and then I plant myself in my writing chair, and I write.”
When he’s done, Bregman goes to the gym, eats breakfast, and is at his desk to check email by 10:30 a.m. “Each day that I succeed in following my routine, it’s a recipe for a great day,” he says.
The most important part of Jocelyn K. Glei’s morning routine actually happens the night before: making tomorrow’s to-do list. “If I start the workday with a clear picture of my key priorities, I am infinitely more productive—not to mention more relaxed,” says the author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done. “Kicking off the day without a plan opens you up to the dangers of ‘reactive work,’ letting other people’s demands dictate what you do with your day.”
Glei uses two large sheets of paper that she puts on the wall beside her desk. One outlines the big projects and goals, while the other is a calendar that tracks her daily progress, mood, and energy levels.
“When you start your day with a to-do list that’s aligned with your goals already in hand, you can dive right into execution mode and your routine will take care of the rest,” she says. In the morning, she wakes at 7 a.m., takes her dog for a 20-30 minute walk to get the blood pumping, and then eats breakfast while reading through her RSS feeds.
When she’s ready to work, Glei focuses on “deep attention” creative work, which is writing. “According to our natural circadian rhythms, most people reach peak alertness between about 9-11am, so I schedule my most challenging work then,” she says.
The drawback to having a routine is that it can be boring, admits Glei. “Occasionally you need to mix it up when things get stagnant, and you need new inspiration,” she says.
“The real challenge is to become exquisitely sensitive to your own bullshit avoidance tactics. Are you trying to break from routine because you would prefer to procrastinate and not put in the work? Or have you truly earned a day off to play hooky and generate some new ideas?”