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How The Most Productive People Structure Their Mornings

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With the right morning routine, you and Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Soni could have more in common. With the right morning routine, you and Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Soni could have more in common. Daniel Ochoa De Olza/AP

Over the past five years, I have interviewed over 300 successful people about their morning routines—including the chairman of the Vanguard Group, Bill McNabb; the president of MIT, L. Rafael Reif; the president of Ariel Investments, Mellody Hobson; venture capitalist M.G. Siegler; and three-time Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Soni.

What I discovered is that almost none of the world’s best and brightest leave their mornings to chance. Based on what I learned, here is my advice about how to structure yours.

Schedule your mornings

There is enormous power in putting your first few morning hours to use on your most creative and fulfilling projects, making large strides on goals that would otherwise have sat on the back burner, and feeling a sense of early morning productivity that you can then take with you into the rest of the day.

Having a to-do list and sticking to it can help increase your overall focus and productivity. I advocate writing out your to-do list for the next day at the end of your workday, so the moment you sit down to work you have it right in front of you. You’ll feel less decision fatigue—that reduced ability to make decisions, or to make the decisions you know you should make—as you’ll know exactly what you have to do that day, making it harder for you to jump around working on less important tasks. Farnam Street founder, Shane Parrish, told me “I dictate my morning routine before I go to bed the night before. That’s when I write down two to three important projects that I want to concentrate on the next day.”

If you often find yourself having to reschedule work throughout the day as earlier tasks run long, there’s a good chance that you need to allow for some “buffer time” between items on your calendar so you can move between calls, meetings, and other work, while allowing for any of these to take slightly longer than planned.

Ease into your mornings—don’t let outside noise creep in

Mornings are when we’re at our freshest, so it’s no surprise that many successful people start their day by taking advantage of their first few morning hours to get as much focused and productive time in as possible.

But this doesn’t mean you have to throw yourself into your mornings at full-pelt without first giving yourself some “me time.” So many of us allow outside noise to creep into our mornings from the moment we wake up. We immediately grab our smartphone and hold it a few inches from our face as we scroll through a seemingly endless ream of emails, notifications, and news alerts that, if we’re being honest, don’t make us feel especially excited to jump out of bed and start the day.

When I spoke with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone about his morning routine, he told me that his first hour upon waking is spent playing Legos (and more recently, Minecraft for iPad) with his son. In Biz’s own words, “If I don’t get a chance to play with my son in the morning I feel like I missed something that I’ll never get back. It’s such a joy to wake up and be in the mind-set of a five year old before transitioning into the role of ‘executive.’”

Learn to be proactive in the morning instead of reacting to events that are outside of your control. Read that book you’ve been meaning to get to for months. Go for a run in your local park. Eat breakfast slowly while chatting with your partner or kids about the day ahead. And reclaim the mornings as your own.

Cut out early morning calls and meetings

If you find that your mornings are frequently eaten up by early morning calls and meetings, try to get permission to sit out as many as you can. If you can convince your boss of your willingness to work hard outside of these meetings, they’ll likely allow it for the less crucial ones. (Make it a long-term goal to be able to sit out more and more.) Of course, the potential to carry this out depends on your job and your level of seniority. With that said, I recommend trying to keep your morning meetings and calls to a minimum.

If your most productive hours are in the morning, it doesn’t make sense to waste these hours on meetings and calls that, if we’re totally honest, don’t usually require you to bring your A game. Try to schedule meetings and calls for the afternoon instead.

Sherry Lansing, the former president of 20th Century Fox, chairperson of Paramount Pictures, and the first woman to head a Hollywood movie studio, told me in an interview: “When I was running Paramount I had 8:30am breakfast meetings almost every single day. Two years after leaving Paramount, [I eliminated] daily breakfast meetings.” Sherry now spends her mornings doing Pilates, running on a treadmill, or lifting weights, exercises she considers as equally important to her job running her foundation.

If you’re in a position where you can set boundaries on other people’s requests, make it clear that your first available “slot” for meetings or calls each day is at midday. Then make sure these boundaries are respected (if you use a shared calendar, consider creating “unavailable” blocks for these morning hours), only giving exceptions, as the word suggests, in the most exceptional of circumstances.

Benjamin Spall is the co-author of My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired.

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