“Early Bird Gets The Worm”
Many of us are not, and never quite will be, morning people. There’s nothing easy about cracking your eyes open before the sun rises, with or without coffee’s assistance (or even a shower). Yet some CEOs and creative workers believe that the key to your entire day’s productivity is waking up before anyone else’s alarm clock goes off.
I began to start analyzing my situation to understand why I couldn’t wake up early, through a self-questioning process. I probed into the situation, and asked myself “why” this was happening to drill down to the root cause.
Below is an example of the drilling process:
- Why can’t I wake up early?
- Because I’m tired.
- Why am I tired?
- Because I didn’t have enough sleep.
- Why didn’t I have enough sleep?
- Because I slept late.
- Why did I sleep late?
- Because I had too many things to do.
- Why did I have so many things to do?
- Because I can’t finish them.
- Why can’t I finish them?
- Because I schedule more tasks than I can accomplish for the day.
Getting down to this root cause helped me realize two things (1) All our habits are tied to one another (sleeping time, waking time, timeliness) (2) I underestimate the time taken to finish the tasks (and subsequently overestimate how fast I can do those tasks). Many times, I would target to finish multiple projects in 1 day, which wasn’t possible at all.
As Bob Sullivan explained on CNBC.com, “Research that attempts to quantify the relationship between hours worked and productivity found that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour work-week, and falls off a cliff after 55 hours — so much so that someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours, according to a study published last year by Stanford University.”
“The pressure of being required to sit at your desk until a certain time creates a factory-like culture that ignores a few basic laws of idea generation and human nature: When the brain is tired, it doesn’t work well, Idea generation happens on its own terms, When you feel forced to execute beyond your capacity, you begin to hate what you are doing.”
A good attitude at work will help you set standards for your work, ensure that you’re taking responsibility for yourself, and make decisions easier since they’re based on your intuition.
“We are creatures of habit, and so are our brains. When we establish routines, we can carry out tasks faster since we don’t have to ‘think’ about the task — or prepare for it — as much, and can work on autopilot,” says Hallie Crawford, a certified career coach, speaker, and author.
From 630 a.m. to 8 a.m. I work on the hardest and most important tasks of the day.
Work on my next most important tasks from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Regroup after lunch, which may include a nap.
In either case, focus more on the work that you actually enjoy doing.
Tackle Tasks You Despise First
Have trouble getting things going when you sit down at your desk each morning? According to Alok Bhardwaj, founder of software startup Hidden Reflex, the worst tasks are the best place to start.
Bhardwaj suggests that beginning each workday with the least desirable item on your to-do list increases your productivity for the rest of the day.
Most Important Tasks (MITs): At the start of each day (or the night before) highlight the three or four most important things you have to do in the coming day. Do them first. If you get nothing else accomplished aside from your MITs, you’ve still had a pretty productive day.
Big Rocks: The big projects you’re working on at any given moment. Set aside time every day or week to move your big rocks forward.
Inbox Zero: Decide what to do with every email you get, the moment you read it. If there’s something you need to do, either do it or add it to your todo list and delete or file the email. If it’s something you need for reference, file it. Empty your email inbox every day.
Wake up earlier: Add a productive hour to your day by getting up an hour earlier — before everyone else starts imposing on your time.
One In, One Out: Avoid clutter by adopting a replacement-only standard. Every time you but something new, you throw out or donate something old. For example, you buy a new shirt, you get rid of an old one. (Variation: One in, Two Out — useful when you begin to feel overwhelmed by your possessions.)
Brainstorming: The act of generating dozens of ideas without editing or censoring yourself. Lots of people use mindmaps for this: stick the thing you want to think about in the middle (a problem you need to solve, a theme you want to write about, etc.) and start writing whatever you think of. Build off of each of the sub-topics, and each of theirsub-topics. Don’t worry about whether the ideas are any good or not — you don’t have to follow through on them, just get them out of your head. After a while, you’ll start surprising yourself with some really creative concepts.
Ubiquitous Capture: Always carry something to take notes with — a pen and paper, a PDA, a stack of index cards. Capture every thought that comes into your mind, whether it’s an idea for a project you’d like to do, an appointment you need to make, something you need to pick up next time you’re at the store, whatever. Review it regularly and transfer everything to where it belongs: a todo list, a filing system, a journal, etc.
Get more sleep: Sleep is essential to health, learning, and awareness. Research shows the body goes through a complete sleep cycle in about 90 minutes, so napping for less than that doesn’t have the same effect that real sleep does (although it does make you feel better). Get 8 hours a night, at least. Learn to see sleep as a pleasure, not a necessary evil or a luxury.
10+2*5: Work in short spurts of 10 minutes, interrupted by 2 minute breaks. Use a timer. Do this 5 times an hour to stay on target without over-taxing your physical and mental resources. Spend those 2 minutes getting a drink, going to the bathroom, or staring out a window.
Break Up Your Day with Breaks
No, I don’t mean you should start taking a break every few minutes. You should, in fact, take a break every 25 minutes, though.
Break up your day into precisely-timed chunks, and you’ll find yourself more focused and energized for the whole eight-hour day. The Pomodoro Technique, created by Francesco Cirllio, works with your brain’s attention span rather than against it.
You simply focus your attention and energy on one task for 25 minutes. At the end of that time, give yourself a five-minute break. This quick break allows you to take your mind off the task at hand, and enjoy distractions.
SMART goals: A rubric for creating and pursuing your goals, helping to avoid setting goals that are simply unattainable. Stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.
SUCCES: From Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick, SUCCES is a set of characteristics that make ideas memorable (“sticky”): sticky ideas are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories.
Eat the Frog: Do your most unpleasant task first. Based on the saying that if the first thing you do in the morning is eat a frog, the day can only get better from then on.
80/20 Rule/Pareto Principle: Generally speaking, the 80/20 Principle says that most of our results come from a small portion of our actual work, and conversely, that we spend most of our energy doing things that aren’t ultimately all that important. Figure out which part of your work has the greatest results and focus as much of your energy as you can on that part.
What’s the Next Action?: Don’t plan out everything you need to do to finish a project, just focus on the very next thing you need to do to move it forward. Usually doing the next, little thing will lead to another, and another, until we’re either done or we run into a block: we need more information, we need someone else to catch up, etc. Be as concrete and discrete as possible: you can’t “install cable”, all you can do is “call the cable company to request cable installation”.
The Secret: There is no secret.
Slow Down: Make time for yourself. Eat slowly. Enjoy a lazy weekend day. Take the time to do things right, and keep a balance between the rush-rush world of work and the rest of your life.
Time Boxing: Assign a set amount of time per day to work on a task or project. Focus entirely on that one thing during that time. Don’t worry about finishing it, just worry about giving that amount of undivided attention to the project. (Variation: fixed goals. For example, you don’t get up until you’ve written 1,000 words, or processed 10 orders, or whatever.)
Give Yourself Two Minutes
Have two minutes? You might be surprised at what you can get done. David Allen, who is famous for his “Two-Minute Rule”, suggests that tasks should be categorized in two ways: can it be done in two minutes, or does it require more time?
If something can be completed in 120 seconds, do it immediately. The more time you spend preparing and planning for these brief, easy tasks, the longer and more complicated they become.
Focus on knocking out the easy, little things as they appear, rather than letting them slowly pile up and become bigger tasks. With the two-minute rule, you can accomplish countless tasks in a very short amount of time.
Batch Process: Do all your similar tasks together. For example, don’t deal with emails sporadically throughout the day; instead, set aside an hour to go through your email inbox and respond to emails. Do the same with voice mail, phone calls, responding to letters, filing, and so on — any routine, repetitive tasks.
Covey Quadrants: A system for assigning priorities. Two axes, one for importance, the other for urgency, intersect. Tasks are assigned to one of the four quadrants: not important, not urgent; not important, urgent; important, not urgent; and important and urgent. Purge the tasks that are neither important nor urgent, defer the unimportant but urgent ones, try to avoid letting the important ones become urgent, and as much as possible work on the tasks in the important but not urgent quadrant.
Handle Everything Once: Don’t set things aside hoping you’ll have time to deal with them later. Ask yourself “What do I need to do with this” every time you pick up something from your email list, and either do it, schedule it for later, defer it to someone else, or file it.
Don’t Break the Chain: Use a calendar to track your daily goals. Every day you do something, like working out or writing 1,000 words, make a big red “X”. Every day the chain will grow longer. Don’t break the chain! That is, don’t let any non-X days interrupt your chain of successful days.
Review: Schedule a time with yourself every week to look over what you’ve done that week and what you want to do the next week. Ask yourself if there are any new projects you should be starting, and if what you’re working on is moving you closer to your goals for your life.
Roles: Everyone fills several different roles in their life. For instance, I’m a teacher, a student, a writer, a step-father, a partner, a brother, a son, an uncle, an anthropologist, and so on. Understanding your different roles and learning to keep them distinct when necessary can help you keep some sense of balance between them. Make goals around the various roles you fill, and make sure that your goals fit with your goals in other roles.
Spend Less Time Sitting at Your Desk
We all know sitting down for the majority of the day is harmful to our health — but hanging out in your desk chair all day is also negatively impacting how much work you manage to complete.
Want to get more done? Entrepreneur Gokil Nath Sridhar suggests taking your work away from your desk. Rather than staring at the same desktop screen, check emails elsewhere. We all get our work emails sent to our smartphones anyway, so why not take advantage of this feature by getting up and moving around?
Flow: The flow state happens when you’re so absorbed in whatever you’re doing that you have no awareness of the passing of time and the work just happens automatically. It’s hard to trigger consciously, but you can create the conditions for it by allowing yourself a block of uninterrupted time, minimizing distractions, and calming yourself.
Do It Now: Fight procrastination by adopting “do it now!” as your mantra. Limit yourself to 60 seconds when making a decision, decide what you’re going to do with every input in your life as soon as you encounter it, learn to make bold decisions even when you’re not really sure. Keep moving forward.
Time Log: Lawyers have to track everything they do in the day and how long they do it so they can bill their clients and remain accountable. You need to be accountable to yourself, so keep track of how much time you really spend on the things that are important to you by tracking your time.
Structured Procrastination: A strategy of recognizing and using one’s procrastinating tendencies to get stuff done. Items at the top of top of the list are avoided by doing seemingly less difficult and less important tasks further down the list — making the procrastinator highly productive. The trick is to make sure the items at the top are apparently urgent — with pressing deadlines and apparently large consequences. But, of course, they aren’t really all that urgent. Structured procrastination requires a masterful skill at self-deception, which fortunately bigtime procrastinators excel at.
Personal Mission Statement: Write a personal mission statement, and use it as a guide to set goals. Ask if each goal or activity moves you closer to achieving your mission. If it doesn’t, eliminate it. Periodically review and revise your mission statement.
Backwards Planning: A planning strategy that works from the goal back to your next action. Start with the end goal in mind. What do you have to have in place to accomplish it? OK, now what do you have to have in place to accomplish what you have to have in place to accomplish your end goal? And what do you have to have in place to accomplish that? And so on, back to something you already have in place and/or can put in place immediately. That’s your next action.
Tune Out: Create a personal privacy zone by wearing headphones. People are much more hesitant to interrupt someone wearing headphones. Note: actually listening to music through your headphones is optional — nobody knows but you.
Waste Some Time Online
Admit it: you sneak onto Facebook and Tumblr at work, checking out updates and giving yourself a little break — even though you’re technically not supposed to visit these sites from a company computer. As it turns out, those short bursts of distraction are a great way to increase your productivity.
Write It Down: Don’t rely on your memory as your system. Write down the things you need to do, your schedule, anything you might need to refer to, and every passing thought so you can relax, knowing you won’t forget. Use your brain for thinking, use paper or your computer for keeping track of stuff.
Gap Time: The little blocks of time we have during the day while waiting for the bus, standing in line, waiting for a meeting to start, etc. Have a list of small, 5-minute tasks that you can do in these moments, or carry something to read or work on to make the most of these spare minutes.
Monotasking: We like to think of ourselves as great multitaskers, but we aren’t. What we do when we multitask is devote tiny slices of time to several tasks in rapid succession. Since it takes more than a few minutes (research suggests as long as 20) to really get into a task, we end up working worse and more slowly than if we devoted longer blocks of time to each task, worked until it was done, and moved on to the next one.
Habits: Habits are as much about the way we see and respond to the world as about the actions we routinely take. Examine your own habits and ask what they say about your relation to the world — and what would have to change to create a worldview in which your goals were attainable.
Triggers: Place meaningful reminders around you to help you remember, as well as to help create better habits. For example, put the books you need to take back to the library in front of the door, so you can’t leave the house without seeing them and remembering they need to go back.
Unclutter: Clutter is anything that’s out of place and in the way. IT’s not necessarily neatness — someone can have a rigorously neat workspace and not be able to get anything done. It’s being able to access what you need, when you need it, without breaking the flow of your work to find it. Figure out what is “clutter” in your working and living spaces, and fix that.
Visualize: Imagine yourself having accomplished your goals. What is your life like? Are you who you want to be? If not, rethink your goals. If so, then visualize yourself taking the steps you need to take to get there. You’ve got yourself a plan; write it down and do it.
Tickler File: A set of 43 folders, labeled 1–31 and January — December, used to remind us of tasks we need to do on a specific day. For instance, if you have a trip on March 23rd, you’d put your itinerary, tickets, and other material in the “March” folder. At the start of each month, you move the previous month’s folder to the back. On March 1st, you’d transfer your travel information into the “23” folder. Each day, you move the previous day’s folder to the back. On the 23rd, the “23” folder will be at the front, and everything you need that day will be there for you.
ToDon’t List: A list of things not to do — useful for keeping track of habits that lead you to be unproductive, like playing online flash games.
Templates: Create templates for repetitive tasks, like letters, customer reply emails, blog posts, etc.
Checklists: When planning any big task, make a checklist so you don’t forget the steps while in the busy middle part of doing it. Keep your checklists so you can use them next time you have to do the same task.
Make Mondays Easier by Working on Sundays
Can’t stand crawling out of bed on Mondays? You’re not alone. Part of the reason we dread Monday morning each week is because we know we’ll sit down to a full email inbox and list of things that didn’t quite get finished on Friday. As a result, we spend a good chunk of our time starting the week by slogging through leftover work.
No: Learning to say “no” — to new commitments, to interruptions, to anything — is one of the most valuable skills you can develop to keep you focused on your own commitments and give you time to work on them.
Unschedule: Schedule all your fun activities and personal life stuff (the stuff you want to do) first. Fill in whatever time’s left over with uninterrupted blocks of work. Write those into your schedule after you’ve completed them. Reward yourself after every block of quality, focused work.
Purge: Regularly go through your existing commitments and get rid of anything that is either not helping you advance your own goals or is a regular “sink” of time or energy.
One Bucket: Minimize the places you collect new inputs in your life, your “buckets”. Ideally have one “bucket” where everything goes. Lots of people experience an incredible sense of relief when everything they need to think about is collected in one place in front of them, no matter how big the pile.
50–30–20: Spend 50% of your working day on tasks that advance your long-term, life goals, spend 30% on tasks that advance your middle-term (2-years or so) goals, and the remaining 20% on things that affect only the next 90 days or so.
Timer: Tell yourself you will work on a project or task, and only that project or task, for a set amount of time. Set a timer (use a kitchen timer, or use a countdown timer on your computer), and plug away at your work. When the timer goes off, you’re done — move on to the next project or task.
Do Your Worst: Give yourself permission to suck. Relieve the pressure of needing to achieve perfection in every task on the first run. Promise yourself you’ll go back and fix any problems later, but for now, just run wild.
Make an Appointment with Yourself:Schedule time every week or so just for you. Consider the state of your life: what’s working? What isn’t working? what mistakes are you making? what could you change? Give yourself a chance to get to know you
Quotes and Information gathered from many sources by Roger Keyserling
published first at by Roger Keyserling