The first few hours of the work day can have a significant effect on your level of productivity over the following eight—so it’s important you have a morning routine that sets you up for success.
“Having a good start to the day where you have greater control is critical in achieving better results, and ultimately greater career success,” says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant. “How you begin your morning often sets the tone and your attitude for the day. It can also derail or direct your focus. If you remain committed to good morning work habits, you won’t fall prey to feeling unproductive and distracted at the end of the day or week.”
With the help of career and workplace experts Taylor, David Shindler, Michael Kerr, Anita Attridge, Alexandra Levit and Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, I compiled a list of 14 things all workers should do when they get to work each morning.
Arrive on time. This may be obvious to most people—but some don’t realize that showing up late can not only leave a bad impression, but also throw off your entire day. “Getting in on time or a little early helps your mindset for the day and helps promote a feeling of accomplishment,” Taylor says.
Take a deep breath. “Literally,” says Michael Kerr, an international business speaker, author and president of Humor at Work. “And do something to focus in on the here and now.” Many people come into work harried because they don’t leave enough time at home to deal with “home stuff,” he says, “and then they’ve barely survived another horrendously stressful commute, and then they dive into the madness.” Slowing down, taking a moment to pause, and creating a routine around centering yourself can work wonders, he adds.
Take five. After the deep breath, give yourself five minutes to get settled in, says Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD, organizational psychologist and author of The YOU Plan. “This is a good way to set the tone of the day. Don’t allow yourself to be bum rushed by frantic co-workers lost in their own confusion.” It’s not unusual to wake up to a long backlog of e-mails just screaming for your attention, he adds. “The challenge is taking a moment for yourself before diving head first into your day.”
Start each day with a clean slate. You may have to attend to projects or discussions that rolled over from the previous afternoon—but try to treat each day as a fresh one, says David Shindler, an employability specialist and author of Learning to Leap. “Leave any crap from yesterday behind, tap into what’s happening at the outset of the day, get organized and ready or hit the ground running, if that’s what is needed,” he says.
Don’t be moody. You’ll want to pay attention to your mood and be aware of its effect on others. “First and last thing in the day is when emotional intelligence can have the greatest impact,” Shindler says. So if you’re not a “morning person,” try to suck it up and have a positive attitude when you arrive at the office. Grab a second or third cup of coffee, if that’s what it takes. Kerr agrees. “Your first hour at work can set your ‘attitude barometer’ for the rest of the day, so from a purely emotional point of view, I think it’s an important part of the day,” he says. “One morning grump can infect an entire team and put everyone on the wrong footing.”
Organize your day. The first hour of the work day is the best time to assess priorities and to focus on what you absolutely need to accomplish, Kerr says. “Too many people get distracted first thing in the morning with unimportant activities such as diving right into their morass of e-mail, when there may be a whole host of more important issues that need dealing with.” Make a to-do list, or update the one you made the previous day, and try to stick to it. However, if your boss has an urgent need, then it’s OK re-shuffle your priorities within reason, Taylor adds. Anita Attridge, a career and executive coach with the Five O’Clock Club, a career coaching organization, says when you prepare your morning to-do list, determine what must be done today and what can be completed tomorrow, and prioritize accordingly. “Also determine your peak working time and plan your schedule accordingly,” she says. “Use your peak time each morning to do the most important tasks.”
Be present. Even if you’re not a morning person, you need to be awake when you get the office. Especially if you’re in a leadership position, it’s critical to be present, mentally and physically, and to communicate. “One of the biggest office pet peeves I hear from employees is about how their immediate supervisor just blows by them in the morning without so much as a smile,” Kerr says. “Taking the time to connect with your team members is essential, and doing the seemingly small things–making eye contact, smiling, asking them about their night, and checking in on what they may need help with–helps you as a leader take the pulse of the team, and helps set the tone for all the employees.”
Check in with your colleagues. “A quick 5 to 10 minute team huddle can also be an effective way for many people to start their day,” Kerr says. Make it a short meeting, with no chairs, have everyone share their top goal for the day, and share any critical information the rest of the team absolutely needs to know, he says. “Doing the huddles helps people focus and more importantly, connects everyone with the team. And by sharing your goals for the day publicly, the odds of achieving them rise substantially.”
Ensure that your workspace is organized. Clearing off the desk and creating a neat workspace sets a tone for the rest of the day, says Alexandra Levit, the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. It can also help avoid confusion. “While most communications are through e-mails and texts, if your boss or co-worker stopped by looking for you and left a sticky note about a last-minute meeting occurring in ten minutes, and it’s sitting on a mound of mail or papers, you’re already behind the eight ball,” Taylor says. “Also, for many, it’s difficult to think clearly, easy to forget important reminders, and just plain stressful if you feel you’re fighting the battle and the tornado of mail or paper is winning.” Ideally, you’d clear whatever you can out the night before so you can have a fresh start before you even turn on your computer in the morning. But if not, make sure clearing your desk takes precedence over things like checking e-mails and chatting with co-workers in the morning.
Don’t be distracted by your inbox. This one is difficult for most people—but the experts agree that you shouldn’t check your e-mail first thing in the morning. If you do, only read and respond to messages that are urgent. “Priority-scan your inbox,” Taylor says. “Not all e-mails were created equal. Hone your ability to quickly sift the wheat from the chaff and address what must be answered on an urgent basis.” Attridge agrees. “Only respond immediately to the urgent messages so that you control your morning activities.” There will be time during the day to respond to the less urgent e-mails.
Why must you put off checking e-mails? “For far too many people, e-mail and the web can serve as huge time-wasters and distracters, particularly in the morning,” Kerr says. “Once you start checking e-mails, it’s a click away from watching the funny video someone forwarded you, which then sucks you into the abyss: checking the sports scores on line, the news headlines, the stocks, et cetera, and before you know it you’ve been watching a cat play the drums for twenty minutes and, like a poorly planned Oscars ceremony, your entire schedule is already thrown off before you’ve even begun your day.”
Listen to your voice mail. Most people jump on the computer and ignore their phone. “While office voice mail is indeed becoming antiquated as people rely more on personal cell phones, Blackberrys and e-mail, some people do leave voice messages, and if you ignore them, you could miss something important,” Levit says. Place important calls and send urgent e-mails. If you know you need to get in touch with someone that day, place the call or send the e-mail first thing in the morning. If you wait until midday, there’s a greater chance you won’t hear back before you leave the office. “There’s nothing more frustrating that trying to complete something and not having access or answers from people you need because your day time hours were lost on other matters,” Taylor says. “If you have your questions ready and your e-mails fired off during early peak hours, by the end of the day you should have what you need.”
Take advantage of your cleared head. “Many people feel that their brains function best in the morning, and that morning is when they are most creative and productive,” Kerr says. “Consider whether you are making the best use of your brainpower and plan ‘high brain’ activities in the morning.”
Plan a mid-morning break. “This is the time to assess where you and take time to revitalize yourself so that you can keep your momentum going,” Attridge says. If you’re stuck in a routine that doesn’t include these must-dos, it may be worthwhile to re-examine your habits and make some changes for enhanced career development, Taylor says.
“Habits are created out of having regular cues that prompt a routine, which then eventually become our habits,” Kerr adds. The morning is the perfect time to create some critical habits that will, over time, become routine and help you be more focused and productive.
“I know my morning routines are critically important. They help me focus and build momentum,” he says. “I’m a big believer in thinking about the start of your day the night before.”