Do you frequently have that realisation that it’s 10am already, but you haven’t really accomplished anything yet? You might have made a coffee, browsed through a couple of articles, jotted down a quick ‘to do’ list, had a chat with a colleague and responded to a few low priority emails…but really, in that first hour or so, you know you haven’t begun to tackle anything substantive.
It’s an all too common problem, and I’d argue particularly for working parents who have been up since the crack of dawn, rushing around to get lunchboxes made and the kids dressed and ready for school, that by the time you arrive at your desk, you’re exhausted! Or for some, a long, draining commute to work, or a high frequency of work-related travel, may make it tricky to get off to that flying start each day.
Early morning productivity can be the defining element between someone who’s great in their work, and someone who’s average. Finding a routine that’s effective can take some trial and error, but it can make the difference between a fraught, haphazard start to the day, which can leave us feeling overwhelmed at what we need to achieve; versus a calm, structured and energised beginning, where we dive straight into the day’s priorities.
If you’re frequently encountering a lacklustre start to the working day, here are five things you can do to make that first hour as productive as possible, so that you feel motivated and raring to go…
1. Get to your desk earlier
It’s an obvious point, but getting up a little earlier and arriving at your desk at least 30 minutes before you need to, can help you to begin your day more productively. If you’re based within a bustling office, being first to arrive while things are calm and peaceful, will give you a valuable head start and the time you need to focus your mind on the important stuff. There is a massive trend towards mindfulness right now, for good reason, as too many of us have got drawn into the routine of beginning our day feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
Arriving early additionally buys you the time to sensibly consider your priorities for the day ahead. Visualising the day’s biggest tasks, whereby you picture what they may look like, the creativity they might involve, how the final product should look etc, can be a highly effective strategy. Going on to visualise yourself working through and completing the tasks successfully is a technique frequently used by professional athletes, and can be a great way to program your mental performance for the day ahead.
2. Tackle your single most important task, first!
For some, the prospect of diving straight into the most important task of the day, before we respond to a single email, is a daunting concept. If we’re honest, many of us would prefer to procrastinate for the first hour, while we gear ourselves up for work.
Respected author Mark Twain once said: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” The quote was later adopted by self help guru Brian Tracy within his book on productivity, aptly named ‘Eat that Frog’. The crux of the message is that if you tackle your most important task first thing in the morning, the remaining jobs will seem easy, because they’re not nearly as big in comparison. For most, our energy levels and concentration are at their peak in the morning, and so by tackling that critical task head on, you’re doing so when your brain is at its most productive. Plus you additionally set in motion that ‘can do’ attitude for the rest of the day.
In my line of work it is usually pretty easy to identify the most important task, but if in any doubt, it’s often the one that daunts you the most, but which you know will get you closest to your overarching goal.
3. Try habit stacking
Habit stacking is the practice of adding one new habit to an existing one. So, for example, once you’ve made your first coffee of the day, you could add reading for 10 minutes, or listening to a short but inspiring TED Talk. The theory goes that you’re more likely to establish a new habit if it’s on top of an old one, as your brain has synaptic connections already in place for the existing habit, and the new one will soon follow automatically.
Habit stacking can be an effective way to make your morning routine more productive, particularly in your first hour at work. Instead of beginning your day in a disorganised haze, jumping from one random task to the next; you can programme your brain to follow a positive, more structured routine, which doesn’t rely on willpower.
4. Step away from your inbox (until mid-morning)
Your most important task could require one hour or four, but regardless, avoid opening up email until at least mid-morning. Rarely do we factor in sufficient time for email, and so it ends up becoming a massive distraction and an inhibitor to productivity. While occasionally an email requires urgent attention, in most cases, it can wait an hour or two.
If you plan to adopt this strategy, it might be an idea to let your key colleagues and clients know that if they need your attention urgently in the morning, it would be better to phone or contact you another way.
5. Limit decision making to critical, time-sensitive issues only
Decision making can be the perfect excuse for procrastination. Particularly if you’re in a position of leadership, there will be decisions to make on a daily basis, but there’s no need to agonise over them first thing. Our brains are at their most creative in the morning, so better to focus that first hour or two on writing-based tasks, proposals or presentations, than to deliberate over a problem facing your team, or who to hire, for example.
If the decision has been on your radar for a day or two, the chances are it can wait until later in the day. Unless it’s a red flag issue, leave such problem solving for where you’re taking a mental break from task-based actions, and where you can allocate a fixed amount of time to consider the implications properly.