The Morning Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity

10 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

What’s the best way to start your day so that you really get things done?

Laura Vanderkam studied the schedules of high-achievers. What did she find? Almost all have a morning routine.

I’ve interviewed a ton of top experts about their productivity secrets: Tim Ferriss, Cal Newport, Dan Ariely, Charles Duhigg, and others.

But you’re busy. You don’t have time to read all that stuff. You need a plan.

So many readers have written to me saying what my friend Jason always does: “I don’t have time. Eric, now that you’ve talked to all these people, what do youdo?”

Okay, time to round up what the experts have said and build a roadmap.

1) Stop Reacting

Get up before the insanity starts. Don’t check your email or anything else that is going to dictate your behavior.

When I spoke to productivity guru Tim Ferriss, bestselling author of The 4-Hour Workweek, what did he say?

Here’s Tim:

I try to have the first 80 to 90 minutes of my day vary as little as possible. I think that a routine is necessary to feel in control and non-reactive, which reduces anxiety. It therefore also makes you more productive.

Most of us get up and it seems like things are already in motion. Gotta race to something. Emails coming in. We’re already behind.

So of course you aren’t achieving your goals. You immediately started with what the world threw at you and then just reacted, reacted, reacted as new things came in until the day ended or you were too exhausted to do what was important.

You need to wake up before the insanity starts. Before demands are made on you. Before your goals for the day have competition.

(For more from Tim Ferriss on what the most productive people do every day, click here.)

Okay, you’re ahead of the maelstrom. What do you need to do before things get thrown at you?

2) Decide The 3 Things That Matter Today

Cal Newport is so productive it makes me cry. He’s a professor at Georgetown, cranks out academic papers, has written 4 books, and is a dad and a husband. And he’s done by 5:30PM every day. What did Cal have to say?

All tasks are not created equal. Most of us deal with two fundamentally different types of work, Shallow and Deep:

Shallow work is little stuff like email, meetings, moving information around. Things that are not really using your talents. Deep work pushes your current abilities to their limits. It produces high value results and improves your skills.

Shallow work stops you from getting fired — but deep work is what gets you promoted. Deep work must get priority.

In his book The ONE Thing, Gary Keller applies the “Pareto principle” to the workday:

Most of us get 80% of results from 20% of the work we do. So focus on that 20%.

What really creates progress vs treading water? What gives disproportionate results? Do those things.

And don’t be vague. Specify what you need to get done. Research shows having concrete goals is correlated with huge increases in confidence and feelings of control.

Via The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People:

People who construct their goals in concrete terms are 50 percent more likely to feel confident they will attain their goals and 32 percent more likely to feel in control of their lives. – Howatt 1999

(For more from Cal on how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

Okay, you know what is important. Now you need to think about when.

3) Use Your “Magic Hours” For Your 3 Goals

Just like all tasks aren’t created equal, all hours aren’t created equal either.

Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist at Duke University and the New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

Dan says you have 2-2.5 hours of peak productivity every day. You may actually be 30% more effective at that time. Here’s Dan:

…it turns out that most people are productive in the first two hours of the morning. Not immediately after waking, but if you get up at 7 you’ll be most productive from around from 8-10:30.

And Dan’s findings line up with other research. I’ve posted before that 2.5 to 4 hours after waking is when your brain is sharpest. You want to waste that on a conference call or a staff meeting?

Studies show that alertness and memory, the ability to think clearly and to learn, can vary by between 15 and 30 percent over the course of a day. Most of us are sharpest some two and a half to four hours after waking.

But does this really work? In studies of geniuses, most did their best work early in the day.

Those are the hours when you should be working on your 3 goals. Designate that part of your day as “protected time.”

Maybe you know that you’re a night owl. Fine, then protect those hours. The important thing is to do your key tasks during your key hours.

(For more on the schedule the most successful people use every day, click here.)

You know what’s important today and you know when your best hours are. But maybe you’re not motivated or you feel like procrastinating. How can you get going?

4) Have A Starting Ritual

Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times and author of the bestseller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. What did he say about fighting procrastination and getting things done?

Finishing things isn’t as much of a problem as just getting started in the first place. Here’s Charles:

One way to use habits to fight procrastination is to develop a habitualized response to starting. When people talk about procrastination, what they’re usually actually talking about is the first step. In general, if people can habitualize that first step, it makes it a lot easier.

Maybe getting that cup of coffee is the signal that you’re getting down to business. Or do you have a spot where you’re usually productive? Go there.

Wendy Wood, a professor at USC explains how your environment activates habits — without your conscious mind even noticing.

Via Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore:

Habits emerge from the gradual learning of associations between an action and outcome, and the contexts that have been associated with them. Once the habit is formed, various elements from the context can serve as a cue to activate the behavior, independent of intention and absent of a particular goal… Very often, the conscious mind never gets engaged.

(For more on the fun way to be more successful, click here.)

Some days it just isn’t going to happen. You can’t get going on that #1 task. What should you do when all else fails?

5) Use “Positive Procrastination”

Yes, procrastination can be a good thing — but it has to be the right kind of procrastination.

When do you usually get 1000 things done? When you’re avoiding that one thing that absolutely terrifies you.

If you know you can’t do that scary thing right now, do not turn to Facebook or video games. Tell yourself it’s okay to avoid it — as long as you’re doing the #2 thing on your to-do list.

Dr. John Perry, author of The Art of Procrastination, explains a good method for using this to trick yourself into massive productivity:

The key to productivity…is to make more commitments — but to be methodical about it. At the top of your to-do list, put a couple of daunting, if not impossible, tasks that are vaguely important-sounding (but really aren’t) and seem to have deadlines (but really don’t). Then, farther down the list, include some doable tasks that really matter. “Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list,” Dr. Perry writes.

A similar tip is described by Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation:

My best trick is to play my projects off against each other, procrastinating on one by working on another.

Dr. Steel says it’s based on sound principles of behavioral psychology:

We are willing to pursue any vile task as long as it allows us to avoid something worse.

(To learn a Navy SEAL’s secrets to grit and resilience when things get hard, click here.)

I know what some of you are saying: Where are the bullet points? I need bullet points to follow!

No problem. Here you go:

Sum Up

Here’s what we can put together from listening to all the experts:

  • Stop reacting. Get up before the world starts making demands so you can figure out what’s important to you.
  • Decide what matters today. You won’t get everything done, so what will move the needle? What will let you end the day feeling like you accomplished something? No more than 3 goals.
  • Use your “magic hours” for those three things. Your peak productivity time is probably an hour or two after you wake up. If you know your best hours are at another time, fine. Protect your “magic hours.”
  • Have a starting ritual. Go to the place where you get stuff done. Get your coffee. Anything that tells your brain it’s time to rock.
  • When things go sideways, use “positive procrastination.” If you can’t tackle the super scary thing, do the pretty scary thing. Designating a super scary thing in advance as a decoy can make that pretty scary thing much easier.
  • We’re all trying to achieve work-life balance. You’re not going to get everything done. But start the day right and you can definitely accomplish what matters. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

    You can do anything once you stop trying to do everything.

    This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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