Many years ago in high school, Mom gave me one of the best ideas I have ever received. It was the night before my Algebra II final examination and I was not making much progress in comprehending the material. As the night progressed, I was seemingly absorbing less and less information. My Mom, being the great mother that she is, could tell I was stressed. She said “Why don’t you just quit for the evening, wake up a bit earlier tomorrow morning and start fresh.” Being 17 and not knowing much about the workings of the mind, I was doubtful. But I was tired and thought that I might as well give it a go.
The next morning I woke up at 6 am (a feat in itself for a 17 year old boy) and immediately began my studies. To be honest, I have no recollection on how I performed on that final exam. I suppose I did well enough to pass, because I ended up taking Trigonometry the following year. But what I will always remember is how much better and easier my mind worked that next morning compared to the prior evening.
Over the years, I have quite a few different routines. Sometimes at lunch I work out, other times I just relax and grab a bite, and still other times I work straight through. I have thought a bit about different routines at different times of the day and I have concluded that what we do with the few first hours of the day has the biggest impact on the remainder of our day.
For the past ten years, I have woken up at least one hour before getting to work. I have used that magical golden hour for a variety of focused activities – blog writing, exercising, leisure reading, prayer and meditation, and as of late, computer programming for my Data Structures and Algorithms class. And after ten years of waking up early, I have learned four lessons about mornings routines.
Lesson 1: The mind is most fresh in the morning
After a full night of sleep, the brain has had seven or eight hours to rest and recharge. The human brain is like any other muscle, for two primary reasons. First, the mind grows tired after continued use. Like doing push-ups, the more we use the mind throughout the day, the more mental fatigue sets in. Second, just like muscles in the body, we can strengthen the mind to enable longer and longer periods of mental endurance. But at the end of the day, our mind still works best after a solid seven or eight hours of rest.
Hands-down one of the best productivity hacks you can easily implement is to do important work first thing in the morning. If possible, get in the habit of waking up a little bit earlier. You don’t have to save the world in single day – start small. Perhaps start with waking up 15 minutes earlier to knock out that article you want to finish or that book you want to read. I’ll argue you will get signficantly more output per unit time of input by working in the morning versus later in the day.
Lesson 2: What we focus our attention on in the morning keeps our attention throughout the day.
I learned pretty quickly that our minds work best in the morning. However, its only in the past few years that I discovered another productivity benefit to early morning routines.
Whatever we give our attention to early in the morning will generally setup and structure our thought habits throughout the remainder of the day.
We often use the word obession in a negative context. But I’d argue we can learn to master the power of obession and use its power for for good. Using the early morning time to focus my thought life enables me to master that power. The idea is to “create an obession for the day” by thinking hard about something in the morning.
If I have a particular task, or assignment, or project that I know will demand my focus, it is helpful to spend time early in the morning working on that task or project, even if for just 30 un interrupted minutes. While I may have other responsibilities that I must meet throughout the day, by spending some focused time on a priority task early in the morning, my mind will be set up to think about it more often throughout the day.
But using the morning time to create a daily obession works both ways. If I put low value information into my mind first thing in the morning, that is what I will think about throughout the day. Guard what your mind receives in the morning wisely.
Lesson 3: Focused morning time not only impacts what we think about, but also how we think about it
A third lesson I learned from focused morning time mental work was that it not only sets up what I think about, but also how I think. Focused mental work like writing or meditatation time first thing in the morning strengthens my mind to work better throughout the day. I can concentrate and maintain attention on single tasks for longer periods. Organising ideas in my mind is easier and I am not easily distracted by shiny things. Conversely, if I jump on to the web for an hour before work and start clicking, clicking, clicking, I am actually weakening my ability to concentrate and focus.
That is why I turn off my smart phone before bed. If I start clicking around on my phone, checking email, Facebook and the latest Perisher Valley snow forecast first thing in the morning, I am training my mind to have fragmented attention and simultaneously be pre-occupied with status updates, snow falls, and not-so-critical emails.
Lesson 4: Avoid social media and email like the plague
If you are going to bother to wake up early to work on important tasks, keep social media and email far away from that time block. The point of using the early morning to set up our day is to keep it clear from distractions. The mind is in its most “pure” form during this early morning time. Keep the mind clear for work purposes. Don’t introduce into your mind thoughts of Donald Trump’s latest shenianigans or whether you received more likes on your Instagram posting from last night. Check those things later, but guard your mind during your golden morning work time. Additionally, and only if possible, avoid screens in general. We want to minimise the opportunity to introduce scattered thinking into our mind. Screens – T.V.s, computers, phones, gaming systems – generally create more opportunitities for scattered thinking.
Think of spending morning time wisely and intenionally setting up how your day will unfold. What we think about in the morning will stay in our minds throughout the day. Ever have a dream about an old friend or family member and the following day you can’t help but think about that person? Same idea. Also, focused morning time strengthens our minds to work better and more clearly through out the day. And you can’t get much more productive than using a powerful mind.
“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die.
And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”