December 15, 2020
 min read

How to Be More Productive in the Morning

I’ve never been a morning person. There’s something about my iPhone’s default alarm dinging in my dark room that's very annoying.

I often snooze my alarms until my brain realizes that getting 9-minute increments of sleep is unproductive. After this realization, I’m out of bed.

I tried for several months to wake up at 5 a.m. (two hours earlier than my usual wake-up time), but I failed. However, recently I’ve been waking up at 6 a.m., and although I can’t say I’m a morning person, I am productive.

By 9:00 a.m., I’ve already done a few things:

  • Journaled for 15 minutes
  • Stretched
  • Went through personal emails
  • Answered urgent client emails for my job
  • Consumed the newsletters I’m subscribed to (The Hustle, Indie Hackers, Daily Stoic), which keeps my inbox close to 0 and generates a bunch of ideas that I file away into my notes
  • Run (if I’ve scheduled cardio for the morning)
  • Gym (if I’ve scheduled strength training for the morning)

The momentum I generate by accomplishing these small tasks helps me get more things done throughout the day. But it all starts with having a productive morning.

If you’re someone that wants to learn how to be more productive in those groggy, dark hours, keep on reading.

Principle 1: How you start your morning sets the tone for the day

I really hope this doesn’t come off preachy, but I can’t stress this enough: if you win the morning, you’re ahead; if you lose the morning, you’re behind.

Let me explain.

I used to be the guy that was always a few minutes early to things. I was never late, but I was always sweaty and out of breath. This led to the rest of my day becoming a constant game of catch-up.

I’d run from task to task, and it wasn’t until noon that I finally got into a good groove. Soon I’d finish my day just to fall asleep and go through it all over again.

It was frustrating.

I wasn’t any closer to finishing my personal projects. My audio and physical books were half-read. My inbox was full, and I was still out of shape.

I felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

The loop was so infuriating that I started researching productivity tips and tricks. I soon learned something that revolutionized my mornings.

Principle 2: Your morning begins the night before

The second I started planning out my days the night before, my life changed. I downloaded a task manager (Todoist) and every evening, I began using Todoist and Google Calendar to structure my schedule. I’ve synced the two so that anything I put into my Todoist ends up on my Google Calendar.

I jot down 5-10 tasks that I need to get done the following day, starting from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed. However, I'm realistic with how much time each task will take. For example, going through morning emails doesn’t take me more than 10-15 minutes, but I allocate 20 minutes just in case.

After I’m done planning, I know a few important things:

  • What time I need to wake up
  • What I’m going to do when I wake up
  • How much time my tasks will take
  • What my afternoon will look like

Knowing your day gives you more control over it. But it all starts the night before.

The key is to set a recurring time every night to plan and treat that planning time as sacred. You’re planning your ideal day, so don’t let anything distract you.

I turn my phone off, and I will not answer any calls or texts during this time. It’s gotten to the point that my girlfriend knows if I don’t pick up my phone at this time, she knows exactly what I’m doing: planning tomorrow.

It shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes. If that seems like a long time, think of it this way: you're trading 30 minutes of your evening to plan a productive 17-hour day.

Seems like a fair trade to me.

Principle 3: If you hate waking up early, get creative

Now if you’re like me, waking up early will be a challenge. But like I said earlier, your morning is setting the tone for your entire day, so you need to make it a priority.

In my experience, I was waking up a little past 7 a.m., and I didn’t have enough time to complete my daily tasks. To fix this, I decided to start waking up one hour earlier.

It’s been a challenge, but I’ve been able to consistently hit my target time by setting three alarms: one for 30 minutes before my target time, one for 15 minutes before my target time, and one for my target time. I know this sounds silly, but there’s a huge benefit to this approach.

I usually spend 20-30 minutes struggling to wake up before my target time. I actually did an experiment with myself where I set my alarm for 6 a.m. for a week and found that I usually wasn’t out of bed until 6:15-6:30 a.m. So now, instead of struggling to wake up after my target time, I’m doing it before.

The great thing about using three alarms is that on those days that I’m annoyed by one of them and wake up, I often end up starting my day earlier than 6:00 a.m.

Now you may be different and need other strategies. For example, if you have a spouse in bed, you’re going to have to commit to a single target time or find another creative workaround. The goal is to increase the chances that you wake up early.

Even now, I still experiment with ways to increase the likelihood of hitting my target time. Putting my phone away from my bed and using a wake-up light alarm has helped.

My goal is to have a 100% success rate with 6 a.m. for 6 months before increasing the difficulty to 5 a.m.

I guarantee that if you find some creative strategies for yourself and start waking up earlier, your mornings will be more productive.

Principle 4: Be okay investing in apps and tools

If you really want to get serious about your productivity, invest in it.

I remember spending hours researching good apps to track my streaks. I knew I wanted to buy Streaks ($4.99 on the App Store), but for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Strange, I know.

We spend hundreds on a phone yet refuse to pay a dollar for an app that could possibly skyrocket our productivity.

Well, eventually I purchased the app, and man, I saw my productivity increase. It’s become a game where I want to hit all my streaks for the day such as waking up at 6 a.m., working out, and drinking a gallon of water.

After experiencing the benefits from such a small purchase, I no longer hesitate to invest in productivity tools. Whether it’s Todoist or Forest or a wake-up light alarm, if an item will benefit me by even 1%, I’ll buy it.

Now I’m not saying to go crazy buying tools either. I see people using 10 different tools for 10 different things.

My advice is to invest in a few tools and get consistent with using them. Review your progress and tools quarterly and then adjust.

Try not to get stuck in the black hole of comparing all the tools either (Notion versus Evernote; Todoist versus Things 3). Just pick something, use it, and focus on getting consistent.

Closing thoughts

Using the principles and methods above, I’ve been happy with my progress over the past quarter. In my personal projects and at work, I’m no longer the guy forgetting tasks and rushing to get things done. On the contrary, I’m the one having to remind people of things since, by my first morning meeting, I’ve already reviewed my day twice, the night prior and by dawn.

The irony is that, despite how much more I’ve added to my to-do list and how much earlier I’ve started waking up, I’m much more relaxed. It may be because I’m scheduling time to go for walks and write articles like this.

I can’t tell you what events will lead to your productive morning. For you, it may be going for a run, meditating, praying, taking your dog for a walk, practicing the guitar, reading a book, doing yoga, or finishing an online course. Whatever it is, plan it, and do it.

Getting meaningful things done will lead to more joy in your life, so decide to start conquering your mornings.

Your future self will thank you for it.

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