Morning routines. Everyone has them. Everyone wants a better one.
But instead of adding items to your morning in hopes of starting your day more productively, consider eliminating a few things from your routine. Consider it addition by subtraction.
What should go on your not to do list for first thing in the morning?
1. Don't plan out your day.
Instead, make a to-do list the night before. That accomplishes a number of things.
One, you'll sleep better. As David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, says, "Your head is for having ideas, not holding ideas, and it's certainly not for filing things away. Without exception, you will feel better if you get stuff out of your head." Deciding what you'll do tomorrow -- especially deciding what you'll do first -- instantly relieves a little stress and anxiety.
And ensures you don't waste time deciding what to tackle first. Or mistaking the seemingly urgent for the truly important. Or wasting time gathering up whatever you need to actually work on what you want to tackle first.
Before you end your workday, list what you need to get done tomorrow. Then determine the single most important thing you need to get done tomorrow.
Then, before you step away, set up your workspace (which, if like mine, is simply your computer's desktop) so you can hit the ground running first thing in the morning. Have the reports you need open. Have the notes you need handy. Make sure you have answers to your questions.
Starting your day with a productive bang creates natural momentum -- and provides the motivation you need to move on to whatever is next on your to-do list.
So, yeah: Don't make a plan. Have a plan.
2. Don't make unimportant decisions.
Malcolm Gladwell only drinks five kinds of liquids: water, tea, red wine, espresso, and milk. Why?
As Gladwell says, "There are so many other things I would rather do with my time than agonize endlessly about those kinds of trivial decisions."
Plus, we all have a finite store of mental energy for exercising self-control. Some of us have less, some have more, but eventually we all run out of willpower steam.
That's why the more choices you need to make during the day, the harder each one is on your brain -- and the more you start to look for shortcuts. That's when you get impulsive. That's when you make decisions you know you shouldn't make.
The fewer decisions you have to make, the better the decisions you will make when you do have to make a decision.
Maybe you'll start having the same thing for breakfast. Or always working out before you start work. (More on that in a moment.) Or scanning the same key metrics.
Or, as President Obama once told Vanity Fair, "You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."
Automate as many decisions you have to make in the morning as possible, especially when they don't improve your efficiency and effectiveness.
3. Don't forget to exercise.
Research shows that as little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise boosts your mood for the next 12 hours. (Keep in mind "moderate" means an average heart rate of between 110 and 120 beats a minute. So, no: You don't have to go all HIIT on yourself.)
Not only will a short workout increase your energy level afterward, it will also put you in a better mood for up to 12 hours.
Which means exercising first thing lets you take full advantage of the "happier" 12 hours that science says follow.
4. Don't forget to include protein in your first meal.
In The 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss recommends consuming 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking up. At least one nutrition professor recommends consuming at least 30 grams of protein for breakfast.
Why? Protein tends to keep blood-sugar levels steadier. Protein tends to help prevent hunger spikes. Most important, research shows dopamine regulates motivation, helping you to "initiate and persevere."
Which is exactly what you need to do first thing in the morning: get started and keep going.
Granted, knocking out 30 grams of protein might sound daunting, so try a protein bar or protein shake. That's what I do: My first meal is always a protein bar and a glass of water.
Decision already made, protein consumed. Win-win.
5. Don't forget to take the right breaks.
Generally speaking, we can only focus on any given task for 90 to 120 minutes. After that, we need a 15- to 20-minute break so we can recharge and be ready to perform at a high level on the next task.
So do this: Split your day into 90-minute windows. Instead of thinking an 6-, 8-, or 10-hour workday, split your day into four or five 90-minute windows. That way, you will have, say, four or five tasks -- or chunks of tasks -- you will get done a lot more efficiently.
Just make sure you take the right kind of break. Sitting and chilling is fine, but taking a break to knock out a few relatively mindless tasks could be just as useful (and leave you feeling a little more productive).
Think of it this way: Momentum is everything. Breaks should reinforce your sense of activity and accomplishment. So take a quick walk. Grab a drink or a snack.
Or, if you feel the urge to stay Type A, pick a few productive tasks you like to perform -- and gain a sense of accomplishment from -- and use those for your "breaks."
6. Don't stick blindly to the same morning routine.
Maybe you'll need to wake up a little earlier to take advantage of "quiet time" to complete your first task. Maybe you'll need to wake up a little later so you'll feel more rested.
Maybe you'll need to exercise later in the day after all, or adjust what you eat, or change a few of your other "automatic" decisions.
To be more productive, you can't do what you've always done.
Nor should you slavishly stick to the new routine you create. Every once in a while, take a few minutes to evaluate what's working and what's not. And adjust as necessary.
Because the key is to do what makes you most successful.
Which, over time, is likely to change.
So make sure you change with it.