How to Start the Day

In Education, Essays, Productivity, Self Improvement

“This new day is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on the yesterdays.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Starting each and every day well is so important that it cannot be over emphasised. If we consider the fact that our lives are just made up of days, then starting each one of those well makes a whole lot of sense.

Starting the day well is not meant to be a panacea for everything that is not right in our lives.

What it is supposed to do, is give us that competitive edge, that small but sure advantage.

I’m not just talking about competing with other people here, but with the different versions of ourselves.

The slob, the productive hard worker, the crazy party head, etc.

If we can defeat the negative tendencies that plague all of us on a day to day basis, then we are well on the way to achieving whatever it is we really want to achieve.

But let’s be clear about it, consistently starting the day well is not easy, but that is exactly why you should do it.

By doing the hard stuff, that is how we improve, that is how we achieve what we want to achieve, that is how we actually give ourselves greater freedom.

Go and ask any creative person, and they will tell you that creativity is fostered in a restrictive environment.

There is no denying that Bach was a musical genius, and yet he had to write music within the confines of counterpoint, which was what was acceptable in his day. Yet that didn’t stop him, it simply gave him structure, and a solid foundation from which he could build upon.

The same philosophy can be applied to starting the day. If you restrict the amount of things you do in the morning, and you block time out for predetermined habits, you too will see how you can actually blossom in this restriction, and how it simplifies your life.

So here is my advice on how to start the day.

Cheat: Start a Day Early

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

A good day is started the day before. Always make sure you plan your day.

The old adage of “Fail to plan, plan to fail” rings ever true.

Planning your day the night before is always a sound tactic. I’ve discussed this before in my essay Ten Insanely Useful Stoic Exercises. Exercise number 8 is “Bedtime Reflections”, which is mostly about digesting and analysing what happened that day, but part of it is also about thinking about the day ahead, and planning for it.

The great advantage of planning for the day ahead is that it allows your brain to pre-process the upcoming day while you sleep, so you awake with a clear schedule and plan, and you may also solve a problem or two while you sleep. I can’t tell you how many times I have woken up in the morning with a solution to a problem.

Now this whole planning your day the night before business may sound rather pedantic, but we’re not talking about keeping a rigid journal with a to-do list and spending exactly 37 minutes planning your next day in 15 minute blocks.

This is a much more casual, and easier, process.

Simply jot down the three or so main things you absolutely want to get done tomorrow, and then leave some whitespace and then jot down anything else you may want to do, as well as reminders, tips etc.

It really should only take a couple of minutes.

Then, I would begin to think about the challenges you may face while attempting to do some of the things on your list, and how you will react to these situation. Now don’t drive yourself into a panic, as you do have to go to sleep shortly after you’ve done this.

A related point to this, is that you should aim to go to sleep before midnight. This is still late enough that it allows you to unwind after a long day, but not late enough that it affects your sleep patterns or makes it too difficult to wake up early.

The hours between 11pm and 2am are often wasted if you stay up, because one is so tired. Swapping those three hours for the time between 5am and 8am will already make a huge difference just by itself.

This leads nicely on to my next point.

Wake Up Early.

“Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

~ L.M. Montgomery

As I mentioned in a previous essay, I think that consistently waking up late is perhaps one of the worst things you can do to yourself. I think it is worth modestly quoting myself from that essay:

You need to wake up early. This much is obvious, after all if you wake up at lunchtime, there is not much diem left to carpe.Think about it: by the time your competition wakes up (and yes, you have competition, welcome to the real™ world) you can already be well on your way to seizing the day. While they are still stumbling out of bed, you will have already exercised, showered, enjoyed a healthy breakfast, read part of a good book and then made coffee or green tea for your loved ones. Your competition stands no chance. It’s a known fact that productive people wake up early.

Waking up early links up with my previous point about starting tomorrow, today.

Waking up early is not difficult, it’s just a matter of going to sleep early and then having a reason to get up.

If you are lucky enough to work in a job you’re passionate about, then waking up early shouldn’t even be an issue.

You see, waking up early can be considered a barometer of how healthy your life is, and I don’t simply mean physical health. If you have a great outlook on life, then you want to get out there and claim the day, you want to “Carpe Diem“, you’re excited to see what will happen.

If, on the other hand, you consistently wake up at midday, then clearly you have no such passion or excitement in your life, and that means that there are serious changes that you should start to think about implementing.

As always, reason must be applied. If you work a job you love, but it means you don’t get to go to sleep until 5am everyday, then obviously you can wake up at midday.

Exercise.

This can be as simple as a dozen pushups, all the way to a full bodyweight routine or a long run and/or bike ride. It’s important to make exercise something that is done incidentally, like brushing your teeth. This, in Japanese, is called Tsune. This also reminds me of chapter 41 of the Enchiridion of Epictetus, where Epictetus gives the following advice:

“It shows a lack of refinement to spend a lot of time exercising, eating, drinking, defecating or copulating. Tending to the body’s needs should be done incidentally, as it were; the mind and its functions require the bulk of our attention.”

That said, a healthy rational mind benefits from a healthy body, and some degree of exercise is always recommended. This doesn’t mean you can’t be satisfied unless you have perfect chiseled abs, but conversely you shouldn’t be grossly overweight or incredibly weak.

Developing functional strength can prevent a lot of common injuries and problems such as back ache and sprains.

A couple of great books for exercise ideas using only your own bodyweight:

  • You are Your Own Gym
  • Convict Conditioning

Create.

Believe it or not, but creativity is a choice, and it does take the right environment to be creative.

Fostering the correct attitude and environment on a daily basis is key.

Many people think that creative strokes of genius come once in a while and are totally random, and unpredictable.

In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

For sure, the “ahah” moment does come at random times, like when you’re singing under the shower, but it is actually part of a much longer and more laborious process that is part of a life that has good daily habits. Starting the day in a creative way is one of those habits.

My suggestion is that you try and create something early in the day. This could be something as simple as a pencil sketch, or it could be writing 1000 words with your morning coffee, or even playing a movement of a Beethoven sonata, though you might not want to do that too early for your neighbour’s sake.

The amazing thing about being creating something each and every day of your life is that it really builds up over time until creativity also becomes a Tsune: a habit so ingrained that it is simply part of who you are, and it feels as natural as brushing your teeth in the morning.

Get Important Stuff Done.

Leo Baubata is his Zen to Done book, states that you should get the important tasks of the day done as early as possible.

I tend to agree.

The advantages of doing important things early on, are threefold:

  • Life has less chance of getting in the way.

When we get things done early in the morning, we don’t give random events outside of our control a chance to disrupt us.

After all, the beauty of working in the early morning is exactly that – the world has not woken up yet and so there are no incoming phone calls or meetings, and nobody expects you to be available.

This means that we can easily work without distractions for as long as we need. Generally I recommend “blocking” time is 45 minute chunks to do the most effective work.

After 45 minutes or an hour, generally I feel that my mind can start to wander unless I take a ten minute break to freshen up, and then get right back to work.I used this tactic successfully around a year ago to write 1000 to 2000 words a day without fail.

I simply wrote first thing in the morning, while drinking my green tea or coffee. In fact, I am doing the very same thing right now (except I am a few thousand miles away from where I used to be last year.)

  • You’re fresher.

This links up with the point I just made about working in 45 minute chunks.

Although those 10 minute breaks are quite efficient in refreshing the mind and allowing us to get back to working well, I generally find that for each subsequent 45 minute chunk of time, the quality of my work goes a little downhill.

This may be caused by there being more distractions later on in the day, or perhaps that my brain becomes fatigued with too much thinking.

My guess is that on a long enough timespan, with enough consistency, one can probably work very well for up to five or six of these sessions, without evening having any noticeable drop off in work quality.

I’m not quite there yet.

  • First things first!

Psychologically, I think we often value what comes first vs what comes afterwards.

Things that come first are, generally speaking, the most important and so we tend to treat them as such.Additionally, the tasks that we have to do that are the most important for ourselves, should also be the most fun.

Now I know that this cannot always be the case, but if you are consistently doing work that you don’t enjoy – the change career, you’ll be much better off in the long run.

Perhaps you have heard of the old adage about filling a jar with rocks, pebbles, and sand. If you start with the sand, then the pebbles and then the rocks, you cannot fit everything in the jar. If you start with the rocks, the sand and the pebbles can still fit in the jar as they move around the big rocks.

Perhaps the same concept can be applied to our daily, weekly, and monthly goals. Let’s get the big rocks out of the way first, so all the smaller less significant tasks can flow around them.

Read.

“The Man Who Does Not Read Has No Advantage Over the Man Who Cannot Read.”

~ Mark Twain

Reading is the basis for an educated life and, as I have made clear before, you should be educating yourself daily.

Logically, this means you should be reading daily and the best time to do that is early in the morning when your head is empty and there is no-one around to disturb you.

It also gives you the rest of the day to think over what you read in the morning, and if you can at least skim over what you read before going to bed, this dramatically increases your rate of learning.

Personally I start the day reading a chapter or two of the Enchiridion of Epictetus while drinking my coffee or green tea. Most of the chapters are quite short, generally less than a couple of hundred words each, so it only takes a minute.

Then, I spend a few minutes thinking about what I just read. You see, reading doesn’t have to be a chore and you don’t have to read for hours a day to receive some of the amazing benefits of reading.

Of course, if you are able to read for an hour or more each day, then so much the better!

Learn.

This is closely linked to my above point of starting the day by reading. If you do this, you may find that you are already learning something at the start of each day.

However, there are a couple of great resources worth mentioning for those that want to take it to the next step:

  • Wikipedia’s random article navigator. Clicking on this link will take you to a random article on Wikipedia. Doing this each morning can lead to some interesting reads!
  • TED.com. TED (Technology, Education, Design) is a website that hosts thousands of talks by industry leaders, creatives, and anyone who has an inspiring talk to share with the world. This is an absolute treasure trove and in my essay on “How to Educate Yourself Everyday” I suggested that one should watch a TED video everyday.

How not to start the day

Email

Email feels like a natural way to start the day.

Surely it is productive to check everything that has come in from yesterday and quickly formulate replies and start work early?

In theory, yes, it is productive.

In practice, however, it just isn’t that important to start “work” so early in the day.

Nobody else will be up replying to your emails at that time, and then you will have to check them again in the mid-morning to see if you have any replies. It’s a much smarter idea to start emailing at 9am, so you are at the top of everybody’s inbox when they start work.

This means you receive answers faster.

The other problem with answering emails first thing in the morning is that it makes you take decisions. Decision deplete willpower, and that’s not a great way to start the day.

I know that emails can often feel like our “to-do” list, but we must remember that they really aren’t, they are other people’s to-do lists.

Why on earth would you spend the most important part of your day helping other people check off their to-do list, most probably while they are still sounds asleep?

Remember that nothing truly urgent is ever emailed.

If there is a pressing issue that cannot be dealt with before 9am, don’t worry, someone will call you.

Unimportant Things

Don’t start the day by washing the dishes.

Remember that the start of the day is your brain’s prime time. You’re fresh, you’re ready, you’ve got no distractions, so why spend time doing unimportant things?

Either spend the time doing something positive such as learning, reading, exercising, or writing, or get straight to work on one of the day’s MITs (Most Important Tasks).

You should have approximately one to three MITs per day, and there is no better feeling that finishing them before mid-morning.

At Midday

In my essay on How to Carpe Diem I made the point that it is very difficult to seize the day when half of it has already gone.

Again, I cannot overstate the importance of waking up early, it really can turn things around and I think it is one of the first habits anyone should develop when thinking about self development.

I will leave you with this:

The chief beauty about time
is that you cannot waste it in advance.
The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you,
as perfect, as unspoiled,
as if you had never wasted or misapplied
a single moment in all your life.
You can turn over a new leaf every hour
if you choose.

~ Arnold Bennett.