Mornings Should Be Easier, Not Earlier

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ItIt seems like everybody’s talking about why you should get up insanely early every morning to become more productive. We’re inspired by stories of entrepreneurs building the next big thing at 4:30 a.m. and artists toiling away on their passion projects long before the drudgery of their day job begins.

But the glorification of the early-morning superhero ignores one crucial detail about the nature of true productivity: It’s not the amount of time you have that matters, but how you spend the time you have.

Would you rather have three hours of semi-distracted, disorganized, mediocre-quality work, or one hour of consistent, focused effort? The second option is always better in the long run. As a psychologist who works with many high-performing individuals, I’ve learned that meaningful work doesn’t happen on its own. It doesn’t matter how early you wake up — if you’re sleep-deprived, disorganized, and irritable, you’re not going to perform at your best.

To make the most of our mornings, we need to make them easier, not earlier. And the secret to making them easier lies in creating good routines, and establishing systems that clear distractions, prepare our minds, and reinforce habits. Here are six simple routines I use to smooth out my mornings and make it easy to do my best work.

Prep for your morning the evening before

Having to navigate a series of choices first thing in the morning can lead to decision fatigue and kill your momentum before you even open your laptop (or get out your easel or toolkit). The solution is simple: Radically reduce your morning mental load by prepping the evening before. For example, before you go to bed, you can:

  • Decide on and lay out your clothes for the following day.
  • Make your breakfast and lunch and have them ready to grab in the fridge.
  • Gather all the supplies and equipment you’ll need.

Get a good night’s sleep

Sure, most people 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. Here are some suggestions for improving your sleep:

  • Be consistent. As much as possible, try to go to bed and wake up around the same time each day, even on weekends. Your sleep system thrives on routine and dislikes 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 difficulty falling asleep. Listen to your body and don’t try to force your sleep.
  • 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.
  • Don’t try too hard to “hack” your sleep routine. 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.

Create a pre-work “activation ritual”

Each morning when I get to my desk, the first thing I do is open Spotify. There’s a particular song I listen to every single day before I start my writing. It’s upbeat and somewhat energizing, but what makes this ritual so effective is that it’s always the same song, serving as a cue to my brain to enter work mode. Your ritual might be taking three deep breaths or focusing on a set image; what matters is that it’s consistent.

Focus on working deeply

“Deep work” is the term author Cal Newport uses to describe the kind of work that ruthlessly prioritizes quality over quantity. “To produce at your peak level,” he writes, “you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.”

One hour of focused, high-quality work is more than most people complete all day long. To achieve deep work in the morning, try these tips:

  • Know the day before exactly what you’ll 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: A few minutes before leaving work at the end of the day, I take an index card and jot down three things I want to accomplish the next day and leave it on my desk.
  • 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 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. After about a week, I bumped it up to 30 minutes with one break, then 45 minutes, and eventually I got to the point where I am able to work straight through my deep work hour without any breaks or distractions. This uninterrupted flow has been invaluable.

Use the “Seinfeld strategy” to track your work

It’s been decades since management guru Peter Drucker coined the idea that “what gets measured gets done,” but the basic principle is just as valuable now. When we keep track of our goals and progress, we are naturally motivated to continue and improve.

To measure my own progress every morning, I use the “Seinfeld strategy,” a system that Jerry Seinfeld credits as his secret to producing so much popular content. It’s incredibly simple:

  1. Buy yourself a plain monthly wall calendar.
  2. At the top of the calendar note the task or action you’re tracking. For me it’s usually “write for one hour.”
  3. After you’ve completed the task, put a big X or some kind of mark through that day.
  4. Try to go as many days as possible without breaking the streak.
  5. If you do miss a day, note how many days there were in your streak and set that, plus one more, as your new goal.

There’s something extremely motivating about imagining how ugly it’s going to look if all but one day is filled in. I’ve had 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 motivate you to keep going.

Reward yourself for having a productive morning

If you’re consistently having trouble getting good work done in the morning, it’s likely because other behaviors and routines are more rewarding, and therefore more strongly reinforced.

To combat this, start building a rewarding post-work routine. The magnitude of the reward isn’t nearly as important as the ritual itself. After I work productively in the morning, I spend a minute or two looking out the window at the mountains. It’s a small pleasure, but more importantly, it’s a routine that signifies I’ve completed my work. It’s a little psychological pat on the back that helps cement the habit and ensure that I do it all again tomorrow.

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