Back in the 1980s, the U.S. Army ran a series of recruiting ads showing soldiers engaging in all sorts of activities with the tag line, “We do more before 9 a.m. than some people do in a whole day.” I have often thought back on that commercial, because getting a lot of work done early in the morning has been a cornerstone of my own productivity over the years. There aren’t a lot of people who want to have early meetings, so if you can hit the ground running on your own, you can make sure you have had a productive day even before lunchtime.
To make it work, though, you need a good routine. Here are four suggestions:
A good morning starts with a good night
One of the hardest things about having a productive morning is waking up refreshed enough that you’re ready to work at the start of the day. It’s amazing how few people have good sleep routines. If you’re someone who doesn’t sleep well, consider making a few changes.
First, go to bed at a consistent time every night. If you try to fall asleep at 9:30 p.m. on one night and 11 p.m. the next, your brain has few cues about when to expect you’re getting ready for bed. As a result, you will find it harder to fall asleep and to stay asleep than if you go to bed at a consistent time every day.
By the way, that consistency includes weekends to some degree. It is okay to stay up a little later, but if you generally stay up three hours later on weekends than you do on weekdays, you’re basically giving yourself jet lag every weekend.
Second, pay attention to whether you are managing your sleep schedule chemically. There is nothing wrong with the occasional alcoholic drink in the evening, and coffee or tea in the morning. But if you can’t fall asleep without alcohol or wake up without caffeine, then you’re probably not sleeping well. Try avoiding alcohol on work nights and see how that affects your productivity the next day.
Third, avoid your email or other work communication channels for at least an hour before bedtime. Stress can make it hard to sleep, and getting an unexpected email about a work problem can gnaw at you throughout the night. That email will still be there in the morning when you’re able to do something about it, so let it sit undisturbed in your inbox if it arrives right before bedtime.
Practice email triage
When you get to your desk ready to work, chances are you start the day by opening up your email inbox. That’s fine, of course. Something important may have arrived. Often, though, answering your email does not require your best work self. You don’t want to devote all of your valuable unstructured morning time to answering emails.
Start the morning by setting a timer on your phone for 10 minutes. Flip through your inbox and mark the most important emails that need to be addressed right away. Deal with them. Then, shut off your email and get to work on something that requires your undivided attention. You can return to your email afterward.
Have the first task teed up
You don’t want to get paralyzed at the start of the day by the range of things you could be working on. If you’re going to start your day by engaging with some important task, end your workday by preparing for that work. Take out any folders, papers, or other physical objects related to the task and leave them by your work computer. Have a list of the computer files you’ll need.
There are two benefits to this strategy. First, you can dive right into your priority task at the start of the day. Second, because you know what you’re working on when the day starts, you might find yourself collecting and organizing your thoughts related to it as you get yourself ready for the workday. You might even have a couple of creative ideas for solving tough work problems when you’re in the less stressful mode of preparing for the day than you might have staring at your computer screen.
Eat a bonbon before you eat a frog
Finally, as I have written before, there is a lot of advice out there that you should choose the most unpleasant task of the day and do it first. That is known as “eating the frog.” But starting your day with a stressful task can make you dread coming to work in the first place. And once you get there, it can create some anxiety to get your day launched.
You’ll need to eat the frog at some point, but the first task of the day should be something that feels good to do. Engage with something you can work on quickly. The fluent work will lift your mood. Completing something pleasant also gives your mood a little boost. And if you can help a client or colleague, that will also make the start of your day better.
Plus, knowing you’re going to accomplish something fun will make your commute to work (even if it’s just walking to your computer) a little more fun. Once you’re in that happy place, you’ll also be a little more resilient, which will come in handy when you turn your attention to that frog.