Another day gone, another day feels wasted.
Today was meant to be different, but you can’t seem to buck the trend. The to-do list keeps growing. Tomorrow might be better. None of those productivity tips you have read seem to be working or maybe you are not applying them correctly.
You did not intend to end the day this way. You put in the effort to manage your calendar. You probably booked a conference room to avoid distractions, but that did not help.
You may be reading this thinking that you want your day to be productive. But, how can you jumpstart into a productive day?
You need to do something different, but what?
Why Starting Right Matters
Make each day your masterpiece. — John Wooden
Just like a race, how you finish a day is really important. However, you’ll agree that how you start it off really sets you on a trajectory. An airplane that starts off course a few degrees will likely be miles away from its destination if the right checks and balances are not in place.
This post is about starting the day with your instruments rightly tuned from the get go. It will be touching on 7 tips which can dramatically change how you feel about yourself and accomplishments at the end of each day.
1. Starting line for Momentum
There is no getting around this one, so we should get it out of the way first. In fact, it is the very first thing Laura Vanderkam touches on when highlighting what the most successful people do before breakfast. What is it?
You need to get up early. It doesn’t feel great and you may never get used to it. You should know that upfront.
However, you might be able to cheat. Maybe just a little. No, you don’t have to time your sleep cycles and no, you don’t have to take a cold shower in the morning. You can accomplish the goals of this post without timing sleep cycles or enduring cold showers. How can you cheat?
Go to bed a tad bit earlier. You probably said, ‘Thanks, captain obvious!’ But, hang with me for a second. Think about this. To get up at 5 AM you simply have to be in bed by 10 PM to get 7 hours of sleep. Why 7 hours?
Maybe it’s simply because it’s a little more than 5 hours of sleep and close to the recommended 8 hours? See! You can get good sleep and still get up early.
And why early?
You can focus a lot better in the morning with less noise and distractions around you. You need this to execute on the next tip. That’s tip #1 — Get up early.
2. Best Kept Secret of Truly Productive People
If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable — Seneca
There is one thing truly productive people know that is easy to miss. Activity does not imply Productivity. Just because you were in back to back meetings all day doesn’t mean you were productive. This may be obvious — to some.
You probably don’t realize though that checking off everything on your to-do list might equally have been a waste. Why?
A productive day is all about being effective not simply being efficient.
Doing the right thing — effectiveness — is vastly different from doing things the right way — efficiency. If you really want to hit a home run every day, you need to focus on the former.
So, how do you focus on the right things?
Well, you need to start from the end. Essentially, the end of your life. What do you want your life to have stood for? What legacy do you want to be celebrated when a memorial service is held on your behalf? That is the legacy you need to spend your life building.
Every day, you need to make a deposit into this legacy account. Tangibly, this should translate into goals. 5 year goals, 1 year goals, 1 month goals , 1 week goals and yup, daily goals. So, tip #2 is simply — Make long term goals that build upon your desired legacy. Make it a point to write these goals down somewhere you can review them daily.
You need to figure out if you have settled for a career or your calling. If you struggle with articulating what your legacy should be, don’t lose heart. Make it your goal to nail that down before the end of the year.
Heading in the right direction is a good start even if the destination is not crystal clear. Just like heading east — instead of west — is a good start if going to New York city from Cincinnati is your goal.
3. A penny doubled every day for 30 days crushes $1 million in hand after a month
If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way. — Napoleon Hill
Getting $1 million at end of 30 days for no work is pretty sweet, but it actually doesn’t beat a penny doubled every day for 30 days. If you are in doubt, here is the math:
Day 1: $.01
Day 2: $.02
Day 3: $.04
Day 15: $163.84
Day 16: $327.68
Day 17: $655.36
Day 28: $1,342,177.28
Day 29: $2,684,354.56
Day 30: $5,368,709.12
credit: Alan Yu
This is a clear illustration of how chipping away adds up. If you never gave thought to how you spend your time daily, I hope this illustration left an impression. Your daily choices are adding up, but you might very well not know what they are adding up to till your figurative ‘day 30’. There is good news though?
The good news is that you get to choose how you spend your time (for the most part). This really translates into thinking about the few critical things you need to invest your time in to deposit into your legacy account.
Gary Keller in his book, The One Thing recommends asking the focusing question.
“What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
Your key priorities for the day must be born out of this question. Gary presses you to think about ONE thing and his book really backs this idea up. For where you are now I would recommend you list not more than three personal goals and three work goals for the day that align with that question.
I know you have a list of ten things, but boil it down to at most three. When everything is a priority nothing really is.
Tip #3 is very direct then — Highlight 3 keys things to accomplish for the day (Work and Personal). This might take just 10 minutes, but it makes a huge difference. Do it before you leave home or start the day and then you can direct your attention to how you execute on them.
4. How Seasons of the Year Hold Clues to Executing
There are only two seasons — winter and Baseball — Bill Veeck
Turn! Turn! Turn! Is the catchy tune made popular by The Byrds in 1965. According to Wikipedia, it’s based off the first eight verses of the 3rd chapter in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The core message is simple: there’s a time for everything.
What does this have to do with being productive?
Well, you need to block out time for those top three things. You absolutely need to guard the blocked time. Paul Graham, wrote along these lines on the benefit of partitioning your day.
If and when it’s in your control, split your day into two key chunks: when you get your creative work done versus time for meetings. My maker time is before lunch. I try very hard never to schedule meetings before lunch. That time is my creative time. It’s my protected time to work on my top three things.
After, lunch then I’m not worried about meetings holding me back from a productive day. I have no problem with those enriching side conversations — after lunch. The culprit, if you don’t break your days into chunks, is context switching, which is a deadly killer of creative time especially for Software Engineers and other creative roles.
Amy Mortensen has a great post on the hidden cost of context switching. In it she says:
“The impact of simply answering your phone, checking email and responding to every ping of your mobile phone can be profound.”
How much more having meetings between creative work. This image below from the same post drives home the point.
credit: Amy Mortensen
There are lot of great ideas on how to manage blocked time. Everyone is slightly different and you need to figure out what works for you. The key point to keep in mind is Turn! Turn! Turn! Your top three work priorities deserve their turn. Block out some measure of continuous time for them if it means deferring meetings in your control till after lunch.
Tip #4 then is — when you can, Split your day between maker time and meeting time.
Actually, that’s not all.
Don’t be time based, be event based. This additional point Gary Keller makes is one you have to constantly remember. When it comes to the key things you want to get done. Focus on one of them at a time. Work through each one at a time and take it as far as you can.
It can be helpful to time box your work as a way to measure progress. However, the goal is to always limit work in progress (WIP).
5. Why You Need to be Master of the Bean
What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
This might be a controversial tip here, so take it for what it’s worth.
You need to break the morning coffee habit!
I’ll tell you why.
A lot of people depend on their morning coffee fix to get the day started. If you fall into that category it simply means: no coffee, no jump start, no coffee, no momentum.
Unless, you have unlimited and guaranteed supply of this lovable bean, your coffee habit is going to ruin some mornings for you. So, what you need to do is to be the master of this bean. Tell it when it can be had and not the other way around.
Be the boss!
Nothing really deep here. Tip #5 is — Kick the coffee habit.
How you do this is really up to you. Charles Duhigg in his bestseller, The Power of Habit, points out that for every habit there is a cue or trigger, then a routine and finally a reward that reinforces the behavior. He recommends paying attention to the cue or trigger and focus on switching up the routine.
What are your coffee cues? Is it when you drop your bag off at your desk or when you start to boot up your computer for the day? If you find the cue, you can nip the habit. If you follow Charles recommendation, all you need do is change up what you do when when the cue tape plays.
For some, the reward Coffee gives is that jolt that makes you alert. In that case you can try walking up a few flight of stairs to wake up. For some, it’s just the pleasure of having a cup to your mouth while sipping something warm. Well, in that case may be tea will do.
It might just simply be the taste of coffee, in which case decaffeinated coffee will still hit the sweet spot.
Coffee has its good parts and this is not a call to eliminate it completely. It’s the habit and dependency that is at question here. Simply make it your goal to eliminate any dependency on coffee to get your day moving or instead make it your goal to gain access to an unlimited supply. You have a race to run, lay down the weights that may hold you back.
6. Prepped Like Zoolander
I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is — Derek Zoolander
This might be the most magical tip of all. It’s so simple (at least for most) that you can instantly feel the impact.
Have you ever thought about how much time and energy it takes to pick out what you are going to wear for the day? Stop and think back at this past week or even just this morning. If this is a daily mindless action for you, feel free to skip to the next tip.
If not, why does this matter?
In the late 90s, psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues came out with a research in support of willpower as a limited resource. This was referred to as ego depletion. One way this could be observed is that as you make decisions through the day and put your brain through enough cycles this reservoir gets depleted.
This was one way to explain why you may feel exhausted on Friday after a long day of meetings and all you can seem to do afterwards is make unhealthy food choices and binge on Netflix. It also seemed to explain why you would head to the vending machine around 3pm on a regular basis.
However, subsequent research seems to disprove this notion. The new claim is that those who actually experienced the feeling of being depleted did so because they believed it could be depleted. So, the fix in this case was simply, don’t believe willpower is a limited resource and believe it won’t get depleted.
So what’s the real story and have we been thinking about willpower the wrong way?
Nir Eyal, in his HBR article, points out one more explanation which I am more inclined to agree with. This is the same point of view supported by Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, that willpower acts more like an emotion.
Nir’s central point is that a task that doesn’t engage you is likely to drain you. However, a task that you are deeply interested in or curious about is likely to energize you.
It’s very likely that picking out what you will wear will consume some brain cycles or is just not an exciting activity for you. This might explain why Steve Jobs (later in his life) and Mark Zuckerberg had been rumored to keep a wardrobe consisting of the similar style clothes.
Simple decision, wear the exact same style clothes you wore yesterday.
Not everyone can get away with this, so what’s the next best thing? Well, that’s tip #6 –Decide on what you are going wear the night before. Easy right?
I get my young daughter ready in the mornings for daycare and recently started picking all her clothes for the week the Sunday before. One less decision I have to make in the morning. I essentially fly through my morning routine now.
If you doubt the impact this can have towards jumpstarting your day, give it a try for a week. Decide the night before what you will wear. And you just might have discovered one thing more important than being really, really, ridiculously good looking.
7. Why the Race doesn’t always go to the Swift
A year from now you may wish you had started today — Karen Lamb
The idea of alternating harder workout days with easier ones, though generally accepted now, was not the norm until Nike Co-Founder, Bill Bowerman, helped popularize this idea. This is now referred to as the hard/easy system of running.
Going full steam constantly is not sustainable. Here’s the deal: you are going to have days when you just don’t get to execute on all these tips. Go easy on yourself. This is a marathon not a sprint.
Keep your eyes on the prize and pick yourself up. Tomorrow will be better. If you woke up later than planned because you were up working on a deliverable that co-worker didn’t get to you on time, catch your breath at work for 5 mins and make note of your top 3 things for the day.
If your Project Manager slams your morning with meetings thereby disrupting your morning maker time, block out some continuous time in the afternoon to focus and get your work done.
You might forget here and there to pick out your clothes the night before, simply set a reminder on your phone.
The non negotiable in all of this is figuring out what you want your legacy to be. If you don’t have that done, block out time when you are done reading this to really really think about what you want your life to have meant when you are gone.
Make lifetime goals, 5 years goals, 3 year goals, 1 year goals down to monthly and weekly. What will it profit you to have bleeps of productive and fulfilling days along the way and have it all add up to nothing at the end?
These long-term goals help you live life more purposefully and with greater meaning.
With that, Tip #7 — Embrace the hard/easy system of life to run effectively on life’s marathon