How to start your work day productively

Posted by Amy Wallace Amy Wallace on .

What's the first thing you do when you get to work? Some people, it is is rumoured, spring joyously out of bed in the morning ready to attack the day head-on. But for those of us who have a little less bounce in our step first thing in the morning, what is the best way to make sure we start our days as productively as possible?


Eating That Frog

There are many schools of thought about how to be most productive throughout the day. One popular philosophy is to start your day off with the most difficult task, or 'eating your frog' as Brian Tracy puts it in his intriguingly titled Eat That Frog.

Tracy explains why he thinks that starting by 'eating your frog' is a great way to start your day:

"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." Eat That Frog, Brian Tracy, p91

Brilliant as this sounds, almost everyone has days when starting off with the less difficult tasks is what makes them feel more productive, and this in turn brings a burst of energy for attacking the most horrid task of the day later.

As Buffer's Chief Happiness Officer Carolyn highlighted in her January Happiness Report, sometimes getting a flow of productivity going first thing in the morning, even if it is working on the simpler tasks, can really help the day go most smoothly:

"We’re big believers in “managing your energy, not your time,” so we thought that  having everyone jump into the tougher emails in the morning, when we’re most fresh, would be best. However, we found that we were able to make a bigger impact by diving into the newer emails first thing in the  morning. This allowed us to “wow” some people who have emailed recently, as well as kick off the day in a super productive way, which inspires the rest of the day."

External factors & stresses

The key here then is flexibility because even when you get your 'productivity method' into a routine, it's still not an easy path to unparalleled productivity. Your day will almost always have a certain amount of unpredictability. That is the one thing you can predict.

No matter how carefully you plan out what you need to get done, you have no way of predicting your own mood or focus for the day to come. You also have no idea what will be delegated to you by colleagues, how many customer support emails will arrive in your inbox or what last minute task will appear and throw you off your zen-like flow.

Peter Bregman hits the nail on the head in one of his posts on the HBR blog:

"Yesterday started with the best of intentions. I walked into my office in the morning with a vague sense of what I wanted to accomplish. Then I sat down, turned on my computer, and checked my email. Two hours later, after fighting several fires, solving other people’s problems, and dealing with whatever happened to be thrown at me through my computer and phone, I could hardly remember what I had set out to accomplish when I first turned on my computer. I’d been ambushed. And I know better."

So how do you combat this to get yourself into a truly productive mood in the morning?

Most Important Things

As with almost everything, achieving a balance and a realistic view of how your day will pan out is key to helping you be most flexible – and happiest – while doing your work.

Most people have a to-do list in some form or another to stay organised. This can be an extremely long list in a notebook or a neatly organised app but either way, it's a very necessary tool for productivity.

But you can focus your day and more particularly your morning further by writing out what's known as a Most Important Things list (MIT). This list would have 3-5 of the things that it's most necessary for you to accomplish and gives a sense of clear direction for the day that a longer list of to-dos might not.

This does not replace your usual to-do list of course, but it can act as a way of focusing your energy for the day. If nothing gets in your way, you can get through that list and then head over to your main to do list to check what needs to be done next.

But if something gets thrown at you, you can quickly change focus knowing two things: that when you are done with the most urgent task, you can go back to the most important task you were working on, and that you won't have to think too hard to know what to do after that.

This list also means that you can fit things in whenever you have a moment between the things that pop up. It acts somewhat like David Allen's explanation of the context within a Next Actions list:

"Since context is the first criterion that comes into play in your choice of actions, context-sorted lists prevent unnecessary reassessments about what to do. If you have a bunch of things to do on one to-do list, but you actually can't do many of the in the same context, you force yourself to continually keep reconsidering all of them" - David Allen, Getting Things Done, p193

Just as contexts allow you to immediately see who you need to call or what you need to do at your computer, the MIT list acts as your immediate Next Action list. So when you inevitably get side-tracked by something unexpected, when you're done with that, you know exactly what you can go back to work on, in a much more precise and focused way than a general and long to-do list.

Of course, everyone is different so the best thing to do is to experiment with the way you find yourself working best. This isn't the most helpful piece of advice but there are ways that you can make it really easy to see how you react to different productivity tricks and external stimuli.

Run your own experiment

Take a short amount of time to plan an experiment out for yourself. Decide which methods you want to try out, in what order and how long for. Pick one to do first and then, because you have them all written down, you can forget about the other methods for a while.

Keep a record of how you find yourself working with this method. This doesn't mean quantifying everything you possibly can. Simply make sure you note down a few things about how your day is going.

If you use a to-do list, look over it at the end of the day and see how much you've achieved and whether or not those were actually tasks that you needed to get done. If you focused for the whole afternoon on that one important and difficult task, how did that go for you? Make a note of whether you feel more productive first thing, after lunch, or in the last couple of hours of the day.

And then, ask yourself how you feel about your day overall and how productive you were. You can use notes as simple and cheesy as having a 5-star rating for each day that you write down in your calendar. Then you can look back over and see which days were most productive for you

There can sometimes be a disconnect between how efficient we feel and the reality of what we've achieved but feeling extremely productive for a few days in a row can make a big difference to your attitude and in turn help you achieve even more. Think of it like a Don't Break The Chain for your 'productivity-mood'.

Experimenting with the first thing you do each morning can have a great impact on the way your whole day goes and can help you find an even better routine for yourself. Of course, no matter how good your plan, there will always be some frogs that appear suddenly and unexpectedly throughout the day. But if you're ready to be flexible and change methods when you find something isn't working, then you'll be well on your way to creating your ultimately productive day.

Do you have a favourite hack for making sure you start your day most productively? And do you regularly track your own productivity? Share your own tips and tricks in the comments below. It could help someone find their much-needed inspiration!

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Written by Amy Wallace

image credit: Flickr user: monsieurlam