George posted an article recently that caught my eye: 6 Subtle Things Highly Productive People Do Every Day 

I’m always interested in these types of articles (some are drivel, some are useful) and since I obviously wasn’t being productive at the moment, why not get a little edjumacation on how successful people succeed? Not to mention, I’m realizing how addicted I am to my phone in the morning and it’s driving me crazy, so I am always looking for tips to break it. Because I know checking my phone is NOT productive. It should have a minor function in my life.

Start the day easy, calm and happy – establish routine

Since I have a pretty variable schedule in the morning (go to the gym, have to be in the field early, relatively flexible work hours. Also, no kids, not married, live by myself), I haven’t had a solid five-days-a-week routine in the morning for probably 8 years. I thought about this a few months ago and started setting my alarm, no matter what I needed to do, at 5:30 a.m. Then it got switched to getting up between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. If I didn’t get up to go to the gym, I’d snooze for about, oh, 45 minutes… then maybe grab my phone and check email and social media… then get up. So, yeah, that’s fallen by the wayside lately.

This leads to the next point:

Don’t check email or social media first thing in the morning

I notice the difference in my mental function the days I sprinkle checking email/FB within getting ready for the day. It kills my focus. It’s amazing how subtle it is. You wouldn’t think spending a few minutes scrolling the NewsFeed (even while being stationary and just eating breakfast) messes with the head. I find myself more distracted and walking from one room to another, then thinking, what did I need in here? Oh, right. Brush my teeth or put on a shirt or put the towel away or …

This habit makes me question the powerful impact social media has on society psychologically, but I’ll save that for another day. Or for grad school.

It’s like when I turn off the light at 10:15 p.m. vs. 10:30 p.m. Or reading in bed versus reading on the couch before bed. Or watching TV in bed versus not having it in a bedroom at all (I don’t in Washington, but in Ohio, there’s a TV in every room of my families’ homes. I unplug the TV when I’m there so I’m not tempted because I know I feel like hell the next day if I go to bed with the TV on. It’s bad enough I’m usually jet-lagged and not in my own bed). There is a HUGE difference in the quality of sleep I get when I break those subtle rules.

Why the need to check email, I don’t know. I’m not THAT person who gets 500 emails overnight that need to be addressed immediately.

Before you try to do it faster, ask whether it should be done at all

This goes back to a mantra my stepfather taught me a long time ago – Don’t Work Harder, Work Smarter.

I’ve been in the field the past three months and have stories that need to be written. I stare at that list of stories, overwhelmed, on top of the other projects that I need to do and then become more overwhelmed.

When I really stop to look at my list of stories though, I think, OK, that’s just a picture with an extended caption. OK, that’s a story I wrote a few years ago, I just need to update it. OK, that story needs more information, I just need to contact so-and-so. A few sentences, a little research, some emails and phone calls, done.

Basically, it comes down to time management. And knowing when you do your best work (me: Writing in the a.m.; Projects in the p.m.), as well as your best work environment:

Focus Is Nothing More than Eliminating Distractions

The article talks about top CEOs working at home in the morning to get stuff done, “where no one can bother them.” I’m no CEO, but point taken.

It’s interesting the mindset I had when I entered the professional world 12 years ago – the office was the only place where you got work done and that was it. Granted, it was a newsroom and there is something awesome about pounding out stories together under the crunch of deadline in a fishbowl of reporters. But, as technology has evolved (and my job and society’s expectations), it has allowed me to work from wherever. Thus, I can fine tune my most productive environments.

While most of the time the office works well, I have found coffee shops (and only certain ones) are where it’s at when I really need to buckle down on stories and just think. There’s just enough background noise, tasty treats and the ability to NOT connect to the Internet.

Have a personal system

This goes back to routine. I liked the statement “self-discipline is overrated.” I know I don’t have it unless I’m at the gym or outside working or hiking or on a project I’m REALLY passionate about (these days, it’s project management or grant writing). (Post-edit: When I think about it, those activities – working, hiking, passionate project – have end goals, steps, SYSTEMS to achieve an end result).

And I know systems work (bedtime routines, writing in the morning). These questions are good to keep in mind.

  • What handful of activities are responsible for the disproportionate number of your successes?
  • What handful of activities absolutely crater your productivity?
  • Rearrange your schedule to do more of No. 1 and to eliminate No. 2 as much as possible.

Define your goals the night before

I do this but not on a regular basis. There is a feeling of satisfaction of leaving the office with my yellow “sticky note” on the computer with my to-do list for the next day. Now, as to if and how that list gets check-marked off the next day … it goes back to establishing routine and managing distractions.

So, to help implement some of these ideas and see how much of a difference they make, I started Monday night by turning off my phone.

Tuesday – DAY 1

Routine established:

5:30 a.m. Radio goes off, 5:45 a.m. Alarm goes off (I’ve been doing this FOR YEARS, to help ease the brain awake. Also, I’m a horrifically chronic snooze-bar hitter. Ask my college roommates.)

6 a.m. Got up to make tea and do some editing for work

7 a.m. Dropped everything, made breakfast, got ready for the day

8 a.m. Driving to work!

8:30 a.m. Sitting at desk assessing how I did – and felt pretty damn good. Mind was clear, not foggy, felt like I was making progress! Was focused on the morning!

10 a.m. Finally turned on phone (put it on silent though) and checked email on work computer. What did I miss? NOTHING.

3:45 p.m. – WHEN is this day going to end!? It’s been a long day!

10 p.m. Again, turned off phone.

Wednesday – DAY 2

5:30 a.m. Radio goes off, 5:45 a.m. Alarm goes off

6:20 a.m. Out the door to the gym

7 a.m. Came home, made breakfast, got ready for the day

8 a.m. Driving to work!

8:30 a.m. Sitting at desk assessing how I did – and again felt pretty good. However, I DID check email/social media and turned on phone (still on silent) a little earlier than the day before. Yet, I didn’t spend an unnecessary amount of time on those things. And turned off the phone at 10 p.m.

Thursday – Day 3:

Stuck with my routine until about 8 a.m. (Alarm at 5:30, run at 6:20, out the door by 8 a.m.), when I took off for a coffee shop to work instead of the office (Tip #4 – Eliminate Distractions/Change Environment!). Turned on phone earlier than previous days (8 a.m.) but I still stuck with routine and got out the door when I wanted to, with a fresh clear head to attack my backlog of stories.

Friday – Day 4: 

OY. WAY TOUGHER. Partial fail.

Alarm went off 5:30… but got to the gym by 6:15. Good!

But after coming home at 7:20, the morning was a haze: tried to make breakfast, got lazy, realized I needed to make lunch, traded making lunch for eating out for breakfast, needed to gather a few things for this evening’s hike, load up the car…

Out the door by 8:30. Ugh. Not what I wanted. Breakfast was nearly two hours after workout (NOT a good idea) and I’m exhausted and cobwebby this morning.

There are several factors to blame for this morning’s fogginess, including the constant bedtime of 10:45 p.m. – 11 p.m. this week, which is not ideal for me.  That can be next week’s goal:

9:30: Shut down everything, get ready for bed

9:45: On couch for reading. I’ve also realized, unless I’m extremely exhausted, I’ll spend 30 minutes reading, not matter how much I try and watch the time.

10:15: In bed, lights out.

But back to today: Funnily enough, on most Fridays, I’m the most productive from 1 p.m. until I shut down shop for the day, around 4:30, 5 p.m. It’s the strangest thing but I think it feeds my former reporter-deadline habit.


Having a routine in the morning really helped me focus and stay on track and start the day with clear head (yes, Captain Obvious here, proving what you figured would happen), but I didn’t get nearly as much done pre-work (chores or workout) as I’m used to in the morning. But the payoff to be at work earlier than usual lately is MORE than worth it.

Early In, Early Out, Early Weekend!