What you do before you get to the office (or roll out of bed and turn on your computer, if you work from home) sets the tone for the rest of your day. Learning how to prioritize and focus can mean the difference between knocking out your to-do list before noon or getting knocked out by it.
Instinctively, the first thing most of us want to do is check our email. And that’s a huge mistake, says Julie Morgenstern, a time-management expert who literally wrote the book on this (seriously, it’s called Never Check Email in the Morning).
Doing so first thing in the a.m. is the fastest way to make a detour into distraction city and kill your productivity. Email is reactive, not proactive, which lets outside forces control your time and agenda.
So the real question is: What exactly should we be doing first thing — both for work success and general well-being? To get answers, we asked some successful people killing it in business, fitness, and life in general what they do to be productive (and resist the siren call of their inbox) during their morning routine.
1. Get your energy up with some movement
A whopping 80 percent of U.S. jobs are considered sedentary — meaning most of us aren’t likely to hit our daily activity targets just by showing up to work. With a busy day ahead, there’s no time like the morning for a bit of brisk activity like a walk, jog, bike ride, or swim, if you’re able to.
Making space for some movement early on not only gets your heart pumping and your muscles limbered up, but it could also help you focus. A 2020 study found that older adults who performed moderate-intensity exercise in the mornings had better working memory and executive function throughout the day.
OK, so not everyone may end up avoiding screen time in the morning. Just make sure it’s intentional and not deprioritizing something more important for you, like getting the blood moving.
2. Trap your anxieties on paper
You’ve heard of the Sunday Scaries… but staring down your calendar Monday morning is when the rubber really hits the road (or the sh*t really hits the fan, depending on how you look at it). Feeling anxious about all the day may hold? Haul out a trusty journal for a little writing therapy.
“The first thing I do when arriving at ‘work’ (which is usually my wooden table next to a living wall in my house) is journal. I use a notebook like The 5-Minute Journal to clarify my goals and priorities for the day, as well as perform a basic gratitude exercise. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll drink pu-erh tea [a type of fermented dark Chinese tea] and free-associate for another few pages in a separate notebook. This often allows me to trap my anxieties on paper so I can be more productive with less stress throughout the day.” — Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and host of the podcast “The Tim Ferriss Show”
3. Start with some meditation
Is there anything meditation doesn’t help with? Quieting the mind in meditation can help lower blood pressure, quell anxiety, boost mood, and reduce insomnia. Plus, some research has correlated having a meditation practice with better job performance and satisfaction.
There’s no bad time to get your ohm on, but traditionally, the hours before sunrise are considered prime meditation time. (It only makes sense to dive into stillness before the stresses of the day have a chance to derail your focus.) If you’re a newbie, check out a quick guided mindfulness meditation on YouTube or any of our favorite apps. As you ground yourself for the day ahead, you’ll be reminded to stay in the present, no matter what comes your way.
4. Spend some time in the outdoors
We get it — not everyone can squeeze in a lengthy trail run or forest hike on the average Wednesday morning. But even a few minutes in the great outdoors could set you up for a greater sense of overall wellness before your workday.
According to research from 2019, just 2 hours a week in nature is all it takes to see higher levels of general health and well-being. (We did the math — that’s only 17 minutes per day!) If a one-with-nature sesh isn’t realistic in the mornings, try a simple ritual of drinking your coffee outside or doing some a.m. stretching on your patio.
5. Go over your to-do list
A way-too-long to-do list can leave you feeling exhausted before you even start. Instead of focusing on all the things you could do today, consider: What actually needs finishing by EOD? Then put those things (and only those things) on your list of must-dos for the day. You could even do this the night before, especially if trying to remember to-dos is keeping you awake.
“The very first thing I do — even before I power on my computer — is enjoy a cup of coffee while reviewing my to-do list, which I make before going to bed every night. This helps me get pumped and organized. After that, I’m ready to take on the day!” — Joy Bauer, RDN, nutrition and health expert on NBC’s “Today Show” and founder of Nourish Snacks
6. Complete the task that requires the most mental focus
Lots of people find their energy is highest first thing in the morning — so why not put all that vigor to good use by tackling your biggest task right away?
“I pour a cup of coffee and get to work writing. I’m fierce about not letting anything interrupt that time. I write for a few hours and then go to the office for meetings or teaching or student appointments. If I write every day, even for just an hour, there’s a momentum that works for me. I can just pick up where I left off. I don’t write quickly, but the consistency makes it all add up.” — Marion Nestle, PhD, professor of nutrition at NYU and author of Soda Politics
7. Make (and use!) a really effective calendar
Whether you’re an old-school pen and paper type or a digital devotee, no judgement here. But choosing the right calendar or planner for your personal style is key for organizing your day.
“The first thing I do in the morning is check my calendar. It’s far more effective than a to-do list. This approach radically reduces the number of decisions I have to make every day because I don’t have to decide what to do. I just do it. The calendar also has something called buffer days where I handle small things, focus days where I do things that matter the most, and free days where I do whatever I feel like that isn’t work. This is the only way I’ve found that makes sure I get time for myself, for family and friends, and for my company.” — Dave Asprey, creator of Bulletproof Coffee and author of Bulletproof: The Cookbook
8. Eat an energizing breakfast
Yep, we’re resurrecting the mantra of cereal commercials from your childhood: A balanced breakfast really can make a difference for the day ahead. Research shows that consistently eating breakfast stabilizes blood sugar levels and keeps you feeling full — major factors in maintaining focus. And besides fueling your body and brain, the simple act of sitting down to eat forces you to take a pause before diving into the day’s busyness and stress.
When crafting your breakfast of champions, focus on slow-digesting complex carbs, a bit of protein, some fruits and/or veggies, and healthy fats. Almond butter oatmeal, fruity protein smoothie, or savory egg muffins, anyone?
9. Express gratitude for who (and what) is working
When you start to think about it, there’s always something to be grateful for, no matter what your circumstances. Expressing your thanks, whether to others or in a gratitude journal, kicks your day off on a high note.
“I like to start my day with a little gratitude. I walk all the way through the office to the kitchen at the back and say hello to the people on my incredible team, making sure to let each one know how much I appreciate them!” — Kathryn Minshew, founder and CEO of The Muse
It’s sooooo easy to auto-pilot your way to opening email first thing in the morning. But for productivity and an overall better mental outlook, there are better things to wake up to than a screen full of stress-inducing messages.
As you start your day, remember: You — not your inbox — control your morning mojo.