Part of being organized is creating habits that help us get the most out of every day. When we rely on habits rather than deliberate actions that require conscious effort, we free up our brains for more important stuff. Morning is an ideal time for the habits that can lead to a high productivity day. Here are five things you can do early in the day, every day, to get more done.
1. Track Your Sleep
After you wake up, while sleep is still fresh on your mind, check how much you slept the night before. If you wear a fitness tracker or smartwatch that has a sleep-tracking function, look at your data. If not, estimate it based on the time you went to bed.
People need sufficient sleep to be able to focus and be their most productive. Not getting enough sleep takes a serious toll on performance. One bad night’s sleep isn’t going to ruin you, but several days in a row will. While the exact amount of time a person needs to sleep varies, research shows that getting six hours or less of sleep, night after night, is not enough for most people. (Parents of small children: I’m sorry.) Aim for something in the ballpark of seven to eight hours, more if you need it.
If you’re not getting enough sleep, how can you fix it? Most people can’t simply sleep later because they have to wake up at a fixed time to prepare for work. Instead, you’ll have to go to bed earlier. Figure out by what time you’d have to be in bed to get a solid eight hours of sleep, and then set an alarm to remind yourself to go to bed. For example, if you need to wake up at 6:30 a.m., set a bedtime alarm for 10:30 p.m.
2. Review Your Calendar and To-Do List
Has your productivity ever been derailed by an appointment or meeting you forgot was on your calendar? Get in the habit of reviewing your calendar and important to-do items before your day gets going. It helps if you can tie this action to an existing habit, such as drinking coffee or riding the train in your morning commute.
Set a quick-access view in your phone that shows your daily calendar or to-do list. In iOS, you can customize the pull-down screen to show a summary of your calendar or tasks in the Today view. Android phone users can add a widget to their home screens or other custom view, depending on what their specific phone supports.
By default, your calendar probably notifies you about meetings a few minutes before they’re scheduled to occur (and you know they’re coming because you reviewed your calendar first thing in the morning). Take those notifications seriouslynot to arrive at the meeting on time, but to wrap up your other work before you leave your workspace. Meetings add to stress when they are seen as interrupters of more important work. Try not to let meetings get in the way. If you only have half an hour until your next meeting, don’t start a task that will take an hour.
3. Check the Language of Your To-Dos
How we phrase our tasks greatly affects whether we complete them. I mentioned in a recent column how a poorly written task on my to-do list ended up getting snoozed for three months. The problem wasn’t my motivation to complete it. The problem was the task wasn’t written for success.
As you review your calendar and to-do list, be aware of what exactly you’re asking yourself to do to today. For example, “Book the corporate retreat” is way too big to be one task, but “Call three possible venues for corporate retreat” is achievable.
4. Decide When You Will Process Email
Do you get sidetracked by email? Decide ahead of time, before you even start your workday, when you will process email. Pick three or four time slots when you will look at email and do something with the messages you see. Early in the day, while your willpower is still high, vow to close your email program when it’s not time to do email.
Following through on your promise to not get caught up in email when you’re trying to do real work is even more important in the morning. Research shows the interruptive effects of email are worse in the morning than in the afternoon for most knowledge workers.
If you use webmail and have a hard time breaking email’s temptations, you can block your own access during just the morning hours using a browser extension like StayFocusd. With Stayfocusd, you can block your access between specific hours, such as 8:30 a.m. to noon, or limit how many minutes you can use the site during the times you set.
5. Watch Cat Videos
Think of some things you enjoy that you can do in about two minutes, and try to do some of them during a few short mid-morning breaks. Breaks only rejuvenate us from work when we do something we enjoy during them, and there’s mounting evidence that shows breaks are most effective when we take them frequently but keep them relatively short.
In one interesting experiment PDF, researchers found that a group of subjects who watched comedy clips before completing a series of tasks outperformed a control group by about 12 percent. And researchers in Japan who study the effects of cute images found that subjects who first looked at pictures of kittens and puppies were more careful at completing tasks than a group who looked at photos of adult cats and dogs or neutral objects.
So think of something relatively quick that you enjoy, whether it’s checking sports scores online or treating yourself to a fresh coffee, and don’t feel guilty when you do them during your morning breaks.