It has been impossible for many of us to feel productive since the COVID-19 pandemic began, which makes total sense. We’re just trying to get through the days while so many routines and norms are still totally out of whack.
But as the end of the pandemic inches ever closer — and more Americans return to work and school — many of us may be feeling a desire to boost our personal productivity, even if it’s just a little bit. And your morning routine can be a great place to start. Just a few simple tweaks can pay dividends in how energized and effective you are throughout the day.
With that in mind, here are seven common mistakes people make in the morning that hamper productivity, and what to do instead:
Mistake #1: Forcing yourself to wake up early.
So many articles about highly productive people marvel breathlessly at how early those high achievers wake up. But the notion that you have to be an early bird in order to get a lot done simply isn’t true, said Chris Bailey, author of “The Productivity Project.”
“We tend to beat ourselves up about the time we wake up,” he said — but we’re “all wired differently.”
A person who wakes up at 10 a.m. can absolutely be as productive as a person who wakes up at 5 a.m.; what matters is how “deliberately” they act once they’re awake.
So if your schedule allows, play around with your wake time a bit and see what feels best, Bailey said. You might find you’re able to get more done throughout the day if you sneak a few more ZZZs.
Mistake #2: Starting your day in ‘reactive mode.’
Many of us wake up and immediately check our phones, but that puts us in “reactive mode,” he explained. By contrast, a more proactive start to the morning would involve spending some time thinking about your priorities for the day, running through your calendar and to-do list, and making a plan.
Note: This doesn’t mean going through your messages. “An email inbox is not a to-do list,” Allcott said. “In fact, it’s a list of everybody else’s priorities, not yours.”
And he’s not the only productivity expert whose top tip is steering clear of email.
“The biggest mistake people make is starting their days without a clear plan for what they intend to do,” said Laura Vanderkam, author of “Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done,” who added that whatever plan you make should include open times for inevitable curveballs.
“Email can fit in around the edges, because, well, it’s always there,” she said. “Email expands to fill all available space.”
Mistake #3: Not getting dressed.
For many, this really only pertains to COVID-19 times, but experts say it’s important to put on actual clothes.
“Getting dressed properly helps,” Allcott said. “There’s a thing in psychology called ‘enclothed cognition’ which shows us that the brain performs differently if you’re wearing a suit, and you get better intelligence scores if you’re wearing a scientist’s lab coat — even if you’re not a scientist.”
While you may not want to, say, break out a suit while you sit at home, preliminary studies do suggest that getting dressed can have a real influence on a person’s attention levels, in large part because of the symbolism of it all. As psychotherapist Ryan G. Beale previously told HuffPost: “It tells your brain something new is about to happen and helps you shift gears.”
“An email inbox is not a to-do list. In fact, it’s a list of everybody else’s priorities, not yours.”
– Graham Allcott, founder of Think Productive and author of “How to be a Productivity Ninja”
Mistake #4: Skipping breakfast and a.m. hydration.
“Breakfast is a huge part of a successful morning routine because it provides you with the energy that you need to focus on whatever it is that you have going on in the rest of the day,” said Stephanie Nelson, a registered dietitian and in-house nutrition expert for MyFitnessPal.
Nelson recommended something “balanced with protein and carbs,” but said you should really be realistic about what you’ve actually got time for — and keep it simple. Nelson, for example, likes making herself protein pancakes for breakfast, but a much simpler choice might be, say, a piece of toast with some peanut butter.
Also hydrate, said Erica Zellner, a health coach with Parsley Health in New York City. “Hydration plays an important role in our ability to concentrate and be productive. Our brains are strongly influenced by our hydration status,” she said. “Studies have shown that even mild dehydration, as little as a 1% dip in hydration status, can impair mood, memory, concentration and executive function.”
She personally recommends drinking at least half your body weight in ounces of water daily, but just getting in the habit of downing a glass of H2O first thing in the morning can be a good starting point.
Mistake #5: Doing too much multitasking.
When you’re trying to whip through a long to-do list, it’s tempting to juggle. (It’s also unavoidable if you’re balancing work, child care and other responsibilities.)
But to the extent it is possible, you should aim to “monotask,” Zellner said.
“Multitasking reduces productivity by up to 40% and can have negative long-term effects on the brain,” she explained. She urges her clients to focus on one thing for a given period of time, which has the added bonus of potentially putting them in a state of flow.
Transitioning to monotasking can take a few weeks, Zellner said, as you retrain your brain to focus on a specific task for longer periods of time. But stick with it, and pencil in plenty of breaks.
Mistake #6: Not prepping the night before.
At the end of a long day, the last thing anyone wants to do is plan for the next. But experts say it can make a big difference in productivity and might ultimately buy you more downtime.
“I recommend that at the end of each work day, people list out their must-dos for the next day. Then look at the ‘hard landscape’ of the day ― meetings, calls ― and figure out a rough schedule. When can you do the tasks that must be done by the end of the day?” Vanderkam said.
Another key part of preparing for the next day?
“Quality sleep,” Zellner said. “A 2016 study confirmed that sleep deprivation will impair a process known as selective attention, or the ability to focus on specific information when other things are occurring around you. This means that a poor night of sleep will hinder your ability to monotask and be productive.”
Mistake #7: Not prioritizing calm.
The mornings can be chaotic, particularly if you’re trying to cram a lot in while caring for others. But Bailey warned that trying to do too much can truly backfire.
“If we start the day off on a note of anxiety instead of a slower note — when we’re disconnected and experience some calm — that’s going to carry through the rest of the day,” he said. What “calm” looks like is really personal. Maybe it’s meditating for five minutes. Maybe it’s sitting quietly with a cup of coffee. Maybe it’s talking your pet for a walk.
Also, whenever you’re trying to make changes to your morning routine, go slow. Make one (ish) at a time, ideally tacked on to something you already do, Nelson said. So, if you already make coffee every morning, could you use the brew time to whip up a balanced breakfast? To do some deep breathing? To formulate your daily plan?
“If you try and change everything you do in the morning,” Nelson said. “It’s going to set you up for failure.”
Because when it comes to productivity, slow and steady truly does win the race.