It’s popular these days to talk about the importance of getting up incredibly early and being productive before the sun’s even up. In fact, if you’ve been online at all over the past couple years, you’ve probably read one of those horrifying… I mean… inspiring stories of people who started waking up at 4:00 am to become uber-productive.
But here’s where most of the become-an-early-morning-super-hero advice goes wrong: It assumes that to be productive in the morning, you have to get up insanely early. But in reality, how much time we have in the mornings is far less important than how we spend the time we do have.
Quick thought experiment: Would you rather have 1 hour each morning of focused, creative, high-quality work, or 3 hours of semi-distracted, disorganized low to medium-quality work?
Why routines are the secret to a high-quality morning
I believe that trying to push and will our way into consistently productive mornings is doomed to fail. I don’t care how much willpower you claim to have, if you’re sleep-deprived, disorganized, and irritable, there’s no way you’re going to consistently produce good work early.
A better approach to getting things done early is to harness the power of routines to eliminate obstacles and increase motivation, because…
- Routines drastically reduce the amount of logistical and psychological friction in between us and our goals. Having to decide what to work on every morning, for example, is a seriously good way to end up procrastinating on actually doing work. On the other hand, it’s easier to get right to work if you have a sticky note waiting for you on your desk describing exactly what you’re going to be working on for your hour of morning work.
- Good routines are also powerful motivation generators. In addition to cutting down on morning friction, good routines can become sustainable sources of motivation which help us maintain our commitment to work overtime. Instead of trying to will our way out of bed, into the car, and through our work after a poor night of sleep, good routines utilizes reinforcement and reward to pull us through that process even when it’s difficult.
So forget about getting up insanely early every morning. Instead, ask yourself this question: How can I design my mornings with routines that make it easy to do my best work in whatever time I have?
To get you started, here are 10 fairly simple routines and strategies I use to smooth out my mornings and make it easy on myself to get to work.
1. Prep your day the evening before.
Radically reduce the number of decisions and tasks you have to do each morning in between waking up and doing your work.
There are a number of ways to do this, but I recommend starting with 3 big categories: Clothing, Food, and Supplies.
- Decide on and lay out your clothes for the following day the evening before.
- Make your breakfast and lunch the night before and have it ready to grab in the fridge.
- Gather all your supplies, equipment, and any other pieces of stuff you need for the day the evening before.
Having to make a series of small decisions and choices first thing in the morning can lead to decisions fatigue and frustration before you even walk out the door. This cognitive and emotional drain is momentum-killing friction and should be avoided at all costs.
By taking 10 or 15 minutes the evening before to pre-make as many decisions as possible and get things organized, you’ll make your mornings far smoother, and as a consequence, make it easier to “just get to work.”
Action Step: Create a checklist for your evening routine, so you know exactly what you need to do each evening to make your morning’s as smooth as possible.
Try your hand at your own, but if you need a little inspiration or some concrete examples, check out my free checklist: 5 Evening Routines for Massively Productive Mornings
2. Get a good night’s sleep.
Everything depends on sleep. Sure, you can function okay on a poor night of sleep, but it’s extremely hard to do cognitively-demanding and creative work when we’re sleep-deprived. Low energy, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, irritability, and poor motivation can all come directly from poor sleep, especially consistently poor sleep. On the other hand, good sleep makes everything better.
Few investments will reap a bigger return on your ability to work creatively and productively than the habit of good sleep.
A few quick suggestions for improving your sleep:
- Be consistent. As much as possible, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even weekends. Your sleep system thrives on routine and wigs out on spontaneity.
- Don’t get into bed unless you’re actually sleepy. Getting into bed before you’re truly sleepy is a great way to start worrying. And worry leads to anxiety, which leads to arousal and difficulty falling asleep. Listen to your body and don’t try and force your sleep.
- Watch out for too much Sleep Hygiene. It’s good to be thoughtful about sleep, but too much tinkering with your sleep routine can quickly lead to Sleep Effort and paradoxically not being able to sleep well. Pick a routine that works and stick with it.
- Establish and maintain a Sleep Runway. Relaxation is the doorway to sleep, and you’re going to consistently struggle to fall asleep if you don’t make relaxation before bed a priority. The final hour before bedtime should be a mellow time that doesn’t involve work or any other goal-oriented activities.
For more concrete advice and practical suggestions on getting better sleep and establishing good sleep routines, check out my free eBook: Sleep Pitfalls: 10 Mistakes that are Ruining Your Sleep and How to Fix Them for Good
3. Don’t snooze.
I’ll admit that I don’t always follow my own advice on this one. Sleeping in is such a tempting option that even the most disciplined of people can fall into this trap. And while occasionally snoozing for an extra 5 or 10 minutes is unlikely to be detrimental to your ability to work productively, the habit of sleeping in will.
In addition to hurting the quality of your sleep, snoozing is detrimental psychologically.
When we set our alarm for 6:30 every night, and then every morning snooze until 7:00 or 7:30, we’re effectively telling our own brains that we’re not very reliable or trustworthy. This leads to an erosion of self-confidence and the ability to follow through on our own best intentions and goals.
On the other hand, when we follow through on our commitments and get up when we say we will, we start off our day with an act of self-confidence and discipline which sets the tone for the rest of the morning and day.
4. Shower right away.
Everyone’s morning routine has slightly different requirements, but if at all possible, try to shower immediately after getting out of bed. I’ve tried all sorts of different strategies to combat initial morning grogginess—from meditation and pushups to journaling and a high-protein breakfast—but nothing seems to work as well as just jumping in the shower.
Psychologically, by doing all the things that go along with showering like combing your hair, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, etc., you’re communicating to your brain in no uncertain terms that it’s time to go and get started with the day. Again, this is all about beginning your day on a confident and decisive note.
If you’re daring enough, a cold shower will crush any ounce of grogginess you may have had. It’s intense, but it works.
Side note: If you consistently feel groggy for more than 30 minutes most mornings, it’s probably an indicator that you’re either not getting enough sleep or your sleep quality is poor, perhaps due to an unrecognized condition like Sleep Apnea.
5. Reward yourself for getting out of bed.
One of the biggest mistakes people make in their morning routines is to try and push themselves out of bed and into their work with lots of willpower and determination.
Here’s the problem: Willpower and determination are fickle and unreliable. They’re highly context and mood-dependent, which means they fluctuate from day today. This is a huge part of the reason we all have trouble sticking with our goals—we rely on willpower to get us there, and when it doesn’t show up, we stumble.
The smarter way to tackle the morning is to build routines and rituals that pull us out of bed and toward our goals. And a great way to do this by creating a pre-work morning routine that’s rewarding and enjoyable. Personally, I stop at Starbucks every morning and get a cup of coffee and drink it on my way to work. When I’m lying in bed considering snoozing again, the thought of coffee gives me that little extra nudge I need to get going.
Your rewarding routine can be anything as long as it’s something you genuinely enjoy and look forward to.
6. Don’t check, read, or listen to anything before you start your work.
I used to check email, read an article or two, and maybe listen to a podcast before I got into my main work of the morning. At the time I didn’t notice anything obviously detrimental about this. That is until I did a 30-day digital declutter experiment and was forced to give all that up for a month.
What I found was that by allowing my mind quiet time before I started my work, I was generating far more creative ideas and connections, and having a much easier time expressing them in my writing. I wrote about this in more detail here: Carpooling with My Unconscious
7. Create a brief pre-work ‘Activation Ritual.’
Each morning when I get to my desk and sit down to work, the first thing I do is open Spotify. There’s a particular song that I listen to every single day before I start my writing. It’s upbeat and somewhat energizing, but the real benefit is that it’s the same song. Every. Single. Day.
This is important because it serves as a cue to my brain to go into work mode. Just like Pavlov’s dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell with food, I try to train my brain to associate that song with working—writing specifically. This little ritual makes it easier for me to “slide” into my work rather than having to will my way into it.
8. Work deeply.
Deep Work is the term Cal Newport uses to describe the kind of work that ruthlessly prioritizes quality over quantity:
To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.
This ability to work at maximum capacity is the heart and soul of a productive morning. One hour of focused, high-quality work is more than most people complete all day long. If you can regularly do that each morning, you’ve already won the day.
Here are a few suggestions for getting one hour of Deep Work done each morning:
- Know the day before what exactly you’re going to be working on during your Deep Work hour. I created a little end-of-day ritual I call The 4:55 Drill to help me do just that.
- Put your phone somewhere out of sight and earshot while you’re doing Deep Work. Even the smallest distraction can throw us out of the valuable flow of focused work and make it hard to get back on track.
- Build up to working for an hour straight. When I first started prioritizing Deep Work, I’d work for 20 minutes, take a short break, then return. Then I bumped it up to 30 minutes with one break, then 45 minutes, and eventually I got to the point where I was able and used to working straight through my Deep Work hour without breaks or distractions. This uninterrupted flow is invaluable.
Also, if you haven’t already, get a copy of Deep Work and study it. There isn’t a single type of work broadly defined that can’t benefit tremendously from this skill.
9. Track your work.
Most productivity hacks typically fail to live up to their promises. But there’s one very small routine I use for tracking my work that makes a huge difference: The Seinfeld Method.
It’s called The Seinfeld Method because it’s apparently the trick Jerry Seinfeld uses to consistently come up with new material for his stand up comedy. It’s incredibly simple:
- Either buy a monthly calendar or make one yourself.
- At the top of the calendar note the task or action you’re tracking. For me it’s usually write for 1 hour.
- Each morning after you’ve completed the task, put a big X or some kind of mark through that day.
- Try to go as many days as possible without “breaking the streak.”
- If you do miss a day, note how many days in a row you went and set that +1 as your new goal.
There’s something incredibly motivating about knowing that calendar is there with a big empty square on it and imagining how ugly it’s going to look if all but one day is filled in. There have been many days when I was on the verge of blowing off my writing habit but that Seinfeld Calendar kept me on track.
As a bonus, once you’ve done this for several months, looking back over all your tracked work can be pretty inspiring and motivating.
10. Reward yourself for finishing.
We talked about the importance of rewarding yourself for getting out of bed, and the same idea applies to completing your work.
Whether we recognize it or not, we all thrive on reinforcement and reward. In fact, if you’re consistently having trouble achieving a particular goal, the problem likely isn’t that you don’t have enough motivation or reinforcement; instead, it’s probably the case that other behaviors and routines that are at odds with your goals are better reinforced and more rewarding.
Knowing how reinforcement works and designing our routines to take advantage of it is essential to consistently achieving our goals.
To get started building a rewarding post-work routine, first understand that the magnitude of the reward isn’t very important; it’s the ritual of the reward that matters. In other words, it’s enough to do something small as long as it signifies that you’ve completed your task.
For me, I walk out to the entrance of my office and spend a minute or two looking out the window at our amazing view of the mountains. It’s a small pleasure, but more importantly, it’s a routine—a little psychological pat on the back that helps cement and reinforce my habit of working.
Small routines done consistently is the key to long-term success.
- Waking up insanely early in hopes of being productive is misguided since the quantity of time in our mornings is far less important than the quality of that time.
- In order to do high-quality work we need to create morning rituals and routines that make it easy to get to work and stay there for whatever amount of time we have—and for most of us, an hour of high-quality, Deep Work is a great place to start.