Whether it’s Mark Wahlberg waking up at 2am and icing himself in a cryogenic chamber or Jennifer Aniston doing yoga, strength training and then going to the gym all before breakfast, we love to hear about the zany ways in which public figures claim to hack their morning routines to guarantee that they will have a productive day.
But there's a sad, inevitable truth: a lot of the hype is nonsense. We’ve all heard getting eight hours sleep is a must, but evidence in recent years demonstrates that there’s actually a huge amount of variation between people. Now, researchers say that anywhere between four to 11 is normal if you feel well rested. But even if you obsessively track your sleep, there is no guarantee that your day will be productive. The question is this: how can you, a normal person, ‘hack’ your morning routine?
The key to being productive during the day lies in planning. Productivity coach Jeff Sanders advises clients devise a written plan for their day the night before. He recommends prioritising early in the morning, “something you really want to tackle first thing, which sets you up to be more productive the rest of the day”. One or two main goals a day is sufficient, otherwise we can get easily overwhelmed.
Data on circadian rhythm (a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours) shows that people take a few hours from when they wake up to reach peak mental acuity, according to Christopher Barnes, associate professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. So for example, if you wake up at 7am, this means you’re probably entering the sweet spot at around 10am. But this window doesn’t last long: it dips as soon as you’ve had lunch, and extends up until just before 6pm.
So how can you make sure that you are productive despite this? It’s probably best not to begin tackling your most important task as soon you sit down at your desk. Instead, warm yourself up with some admin at the beginning of the day.
“I would suggest that you prioritise your in-tray,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School. “Deciding what needs to be done today in order of importance in terms of achieving your objectives, what can wait until tomorrow or the next day—remember your in-tray will always be full.”
It’s important to go about this strategically though, or risk being sucked into an email vortex for longer than you planned. Email is commonly listed as a source of employee stress and feeling a lack of control.
To avoid this, set yourself strong time limits and go in with a strategy. At the beginning of the day, tackle the emails that are the most important and urgent. If you tackle these early in the day, not only will it achieve a feeling of achievement, it means you can tackle the less urgent and more straightforward correspondence later in the day – perhaps during that 3pm slump. Have a hard cut-off by which point you need to click off your email.
After this, take advantage of your peak mental acuity by scheduling your most important task of the day. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World advocates the importance tasks that prioritise quality over quantity. This means working at extended periods of time with peak concentration. If you can factor in an hour of deep work during your period of peak mental energy (say, 11am to 12pm) this means massive productivity gains for the day.
And, whatever else you do to get in the zone, make sure you minimise distractions – turn off notifications, close tabs, and place your phone out of reach. If a whole hour is too intimidating at first, try two half hour blocks broken up with a five minute break. Psychologist Nick Wignall suggests deciding what you’re going to work on during this hour the day before to make you even more streamlined.
You can extend this throughout the day with the 50:10 rule: uninterrupted work for 50 or 80 minutes (whichever seems more manageable) and then a ten minute break. In the book 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management author Kevin Kruse recommends getting a kitchen timer or hourglass to measure this time so you don’t have to set it on your phone.
Something you need to be wary of is not letting your increased energy during this period tempt you into jumping between tasks. According to a study by the University of California Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task once they’ve taken your concentration away from it.
But what about before you even reach the office? Are there things you can do at home to set you up for a productive day?
While tackling emails when you arrive at work can be a good idea, binging on social media or emails as soon as we open our eyelids is probably not. They can flood us with external concerns, and in the case of emails, other people’s demands and agendas, immediately subsuming our own intentions and desires for the day ahead. According to psychologist Ron Friedman, if you spend the first ten minutes of your day checking and replying to email, you’re priming your mind for a reactive (rather than proactive) state.
Your morning is about setting the tone for the rest of the day. “The best way to start is that intentional practice of saying, I'm not going to let the day distract me. I'm going to have my goals, my priorities, and then try to do your very best to ensure those things take place rather than being reactive and distracted,” says Sanders. So if you mute your alarm, wake up an hour later in a panicked tangle of sweaty sheets – is your day doomed? The short answer is no.
If your day feels like it’s got off to a bad start, Sanders recommends finding a natural break to regroup and reassess. This could just be taking some time to drink a coffee and reflect on your goals for the day ahead. “That way, you're not going to lose that sense of momentum,” says Sanders.
He recommends identifying in your schedule where those breaks might ideally take place. You can reflect on your goals for that day, and how best to tackle them.
For example, deciding to incorporate a run into your morning routine is a great idea, but is it realistic to go from zero to 30 minutes every morning? Instead, why not aim for a ten minute run, or running every other day, and build this up gradually over time. The same applies for meditation. Instead of trying 20 minutes, why not start off with five? Little successes are more sustainable than big failures.
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