You know the snowball effect, right? You start with a small ball of snow that you squeezed in your hand. You roll this small ball over the snow that's on the ground. The more you roll the ball, the bigger it gets. From the humble beginnings of a tiny snowball, you can end up with a huge snowball several feet in diameter.
If you didn't start out with the small snowball, you'd never be able to create the big snowball.
When it comes to productivity, you can choose how you start your day: with a small snowball or no snowball. Which will you decide?
In the previous tutorial in this series, we looked at how procrastination isn't a one off choice but a bad habit. In short, procrastination is the habit of putting off starting. One of the keys to breaking procrastination is to become an effective starter. And the biggest battle you can win here is in the way you start your day.
In this tutorial, we'll look at two ways you can start every day with a productive mindset. The first—in steps 1 and 2—concerns your morning routine. What early morning habits would help you get more done throughout the day? The second—outlined in steps 3a and 3b—concerns how you choose which task to begin with when you sit down at your work desk. I'll show you a couple of ways that you can make good choices to kick off your day with productive momentum.
Ready for it? Then let's get going!
Step 1: Get Enough Sleep
How productive your day will be is determined, in large part, before the day even begins.
Most Americans don't get enough sleep. Adults need at least seven hours sleep per night, and many people actually need up to nine hours. Yet over 30% of us are averaging less than six hours sleep in any 24-hour period.
If you don't get enough sleep, your tiredness eats away at your productivity. Lack of sleep has an observable impact on your mental performance. Harvard Medical School states that lack of sleep has a negative impact on your concentration, your working memory, your capacity to solve math problems, and your logical reasoning. In other words, "the evidence is clear that a lack of sleep leads to poor performance."
Sleep deprivation leaves you feeling sleepy. Sleepiness means you work below par because you struggle to maintain focus.
If you want to start every day with a productive mindset, then you need to finish most of your days at a reasonable hour. Of course, there are some evenings when you'll be out late socializing. You don't have to become anti-social to be a productive person. But if you go short of sleep one night, you should find time to repay the sleep debt later in the week.
The quality of your sleep is just as important as the length of time you spend in bed. To help you sleep well every night, you should:
- Limit your caffeine intake after lunchtime. Studies show that any caffeine you ingest up to six hours before bedtime will significantly harm your sleep patterns that night. So lay off the tea, coffee, and chocolate.
- Turn off screens two hours before bedtime. Looking at bright screens tricks your body clock into thinking it's still daytime. So going to bed after looking at a screen means it will take you longer to wind down and fall asleep. As an alternative to evening screen abstinence, you can install the free f.lux app onto your phone, tablet, or laptop. F.lux automatically gives your screens a warmer, more relaxing light in the evenings.
- Have an evening routine. Following the same ritual every evening, such as making yourself a caffeine-free hot drink, brushing your teeth, then dressing for bed, helps you get into the right state of mind for sleep.
After your good night's sleep, you're ready for step 2.
Step 2: Rise and Shine!
Once you start going to bed at a reasonable hour, you'll find that you wake up refreshed and firing on all cylinders. Make the most of this new energy by building productivity-boosting habits into your morning routine.
Note: If you still find that you're sluggish in the morning despite getting enough sleep, you'll likely benefit from a sunrise alarm clock and/or a light box. These are especially helpful if you need to get up while it's still dark.
Everyone is different, so it's important that you structure your morning in a way that works for you and those you live with. Here are some ideas to help you set yourself up for a productive day:
Eat Breakfast. If you have time for nothing else in the morning, the one thing you must do is start your day with a healthy breakfast. A recent study in the UK found that in terms of productivity, skipping breakfast is the equivalent of reducing your working day by 82 minutes. That's because not having breakfast significantly reduces your ability to focus. Eating breakfast can also help you maintain a healthy weight, as a full stomach makes you less likely to reach for high-calorie mid-morning snacks. Taking 10 minutes to fix a healthy breakfast is well worth your while.
Exercise. Your mental energy—and thus your productivity—depends on your physical energy. Exercising boosts your physical and mental energy. Research shows that people who exercise on work days get more done, feel happier in themselves, and experience less stress.
Exercising for an energy boost is a far better motivation than exercising to lose weight because you'll see immediate results.
If an early morning trip to the gym sounds like too much, then why not take a morning walk, do some simple exercises at home, or invest in some home gym equipment? The extra work you get done due to your increased productivity will quickly repay the money you spend.
Meditate. Meditation is the ideal practice in learning to focus on one thing and resist distractions. It also makes you more mindful, which can help you beat procrastination. Even as little as a couple of minutes will make a difference. Watch this YouTube video to get started.
Take Time for What Matters. Why not set aside time in the early morning to focus on important tasks? These are the tasks you choose to do because they help you achieve your goals—such as starting a business or writing a book. To discover what important tasks you could be doing in the morning, run your to-do list through the Eisenhower Matrix.
Write a To-Do List for the Day. This will help you stay focused on what needs to get done, so you'll be more productive. Need convincing that this is really worthwhile? The industrialist Charles Schwab paid thousands of dollars to the guy who taught him how to prepare a to-do list. Having a to-do list in place will also help with step 3 below.
Remember, you don't have to do all of the above as part of your morning routine (though if you have time to, that's great). Incorporating just two or three of these habits into your morning routine will make a massive difference to your productivity.
Once you've started your personal day on the right foot, what should you do when you get into work? That's what we'll consider in the next step. For this step, you can choose between two pathways.
Step 3a: Eat that Frog!
As we've established, the essence of starting your day productively involves being a starter. A productive person sits at his or her desk and just starts working. This act of starting is the small snowball that grows throughout the day.
Yet it's a good idea to ask: what task would work best as the starter snowball? There are two answers to this question.
One answer is to start with the task you're most dreading. Remember when you were a child at the dinner table, and your parents told you to eat your vegetables first? Then when you'd eaten them, you could enjoy the rest of your meal. Productivity can work in a similar way.
Brian Tracy, the author and consultant who developed this approach to productivity, calls it Eat that frog. The name comes from an old saying:
If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long!
The act of eating the frog has a twofold effect. First, it stops you from procrastinating because procrastination is often the result of the dread you feel about a particular task. Second, completing the "frog" task gives you an energy boost that provides productive momentum for the rest of your day. As Tracy explains:
Starting with your most difficult job, or piece of the job, gives you a jump start on the day. As a result, you'll be more energized and productive from then on. On the days when you launch immediately into your top job, you will feel better about yourself and your work than on any other day. You will personally feel more powerful, more effective, more in control, and more in charge of your life than at any other time.
Other components to the Eat that Frog system include:
- Eating the ugliest frog first. That is, if there is more than one task on your to-do list that you're dreading, start with the most difficult.
- Remembering that: "If you have to eat a live frog, it does not pay to sit and look at it for a very long time!" In other words, just get on with eating the frog. In any case, it's unlikely to taste as bad as you imagine.
Eating frogs is a fantastic approach if you've got the discipline to do it. But it's not for everyone. If you try to force eating frogs on yourself and find you can't face them, then you could end up creating a procrastination problem. Fortunately, there's another approach you can take to building productive momentum that's a little more gentle.
Step 3b: Build Momentum Gently
What if, instead of starting with the task you're most dreading, you started with the task you'd most like to do? That way, you'd still be building the momentum that comes from working through your to-do list. But you'd be doing so gently, without the need to start your day with a "grin and bear it" attitude.
This is the approach of Mark Forster's Final Version time management system. Forster spent several years developing and perfecting the system to maximize his own productivity. The full system is now available free on Forster's blog.
Essentially, the system works as follows: you take your to-do list and look at the first task on the list. This might be "Check my emails." Then you ask yourself, "What do I want to do before I check my emails?", and you look down your list. You might find the task "Call a prospect," which you want to do before checking your email. So then you ask yourself, "What do I want to do before I call a prospect?"
This process continues until the answer to your question is "nothing." Then you work through the tasks in the new order you've created. Following the example above, you'd first call a prospect, then check your email.
Once you've completed your tasks, you go back to the list, and starting at the top of the list, you follow the same process.
Forster explains why this system works so well:
By using a pre-selection process, the brain is softened up towards the selected tasks. But this isn't all. The selection process is based on what you want to do. This colors the whole preselected list so that even the first task, which you may not have wanted to do at all, gets affected. In addition, doing the list in reverse order, with the least wanted task last, uses structured procrastination to get the tasks done.
Note: This system doesn't mean you should start each day thinking, "What do I want to do right now?" Rather, you start with a to-do list, then you order the tasks based on the ones you most feel like doing.
Get Rolling that Snowball!
Whether you're a glutton for punishment or you prefer to wander the path of least resistance, you now have a range of tools in your productivity toolkit to start every day with a bang. So get to rolling that snowball!
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