Morning motivation – the most productive ways to start your day

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The first hour of your working day could be the most productive.

Or you could waste it by going on Google, chatting or general procrastinating you can think of. According to research by we are at our most productive between 9-11am on a Tuesday morning – and our least between 3-5pm on a Friday.

But what about the other days of the week: how do you ensure you use the first hour of your working day best?

Slave to the rhythm?

There’s some science behind why we work best first thing in the morning. According to John Trougakos, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Toronto, and quoted on the BBC, “Based on circadian rhythms, about 75% of people tend to be most mentally alert between 9-11am”.

Your circadian rhythm is your internal, 24 hour clock, which cycles between sleepiness and alertness says the National Sleep Foundation. It is controlled by your hypothalamus, but is also affected by outside factors, particularly lightness and darkness . So for most people who don’t work night shifts the biggest dip in energy happens between 2-4am (when you are fast asleep). But another big dip occurs around 1-3pm after lunch, which just shows how those in continental Europe have it right having siestas.

Circadian rhythms and how they affect productivity have even been studied by Nasa, so they can study how to improve astronauts’ health and work patterns, which of course aren’t affected by changes in light and darkness.

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day

The right start

You wouldn’t expect your car to start without fuel in the tank, so don’t expect to be productive if you don’t eat breakfast. Carole Alexander, director of Carole Alexander and Associates which provides bookkeeping services for small businesses, makes sure she gets the most out of her first few hours of every working day. “Breakfast is usually porridge and a couple of cups of tea with my diary and notes for the day’s work” says Alexander. You need to eat to get your blood sugar stable – so that doesn’t mean sugary cereal or fatty croissants but complex carbohydrates (oats, whole wheat unsweetened cereals), fruits and lean protein.

As well as having something to eat, it’s worth making it easy on yourself by having a morning routine. Putting out your clothes the night before is something we probably all did when at school – you don’t need to make style decisions first thing. Knowing where your phone/keys/wallet is will also save time and hassle first thing. It’s also a good idea to take a few minutes the night before to work out what you’re going to do tomorrow – it will save time and mean you get off to a running start.

Alexander usually leaves for work at about 8am and she will check her emails before she leaves but tries not to make phone calls. “We tend to go to clients in the morning so we can concentrate on them for two to four hours” she adds. “If I go into the office first it is easy to get caught up in something else and then I find I don’t give the visit to the client enough time”.

Do a to-do list

This is a vital tool to making sure your first hour isn’t wasted. You can do it on your phone or on paper. Prioritise on the must/should/could basis: ie tasks you must to do today; those you should and those you could do. Must tasks should be the ones you tackle when you first start work – when your circadian rhythms mean you are your most productive. Once you’ve done those, move onto should tasks and then finally could tasks. Update your list every night. You won’t clear it every day – there will be curved balls that come in to disrupt it – but you’ll make a big dent in it if you concentrate on the most important tasks first thing.

How about a frog for breakfast?

Make sure you don’t just put easy tasks on the must list: it can be better to do the most difficult first. Mark Twain once said: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.”

American productivity guru Brian Tracy, author of Eat the Frog says, you should do the most daunting one (the frog) first – and when you finish it “your body releases serotonin the natural feel-good drug which makes you feel happier and more productive. You power through the rest of the day knowing the most important task has been achieved”.

What’s important is that you don’t get derailed from being productive first thing. Emails can be disruptive: unless you are waiting for an urgent one then only check them once every few hours, set yourself times, if that helps.

Keep away from social media, otherwise you’ll find it’s lunchtime before you’ve done anything. If you don’t trust yourself not to be distracted, you can use browser add-ons such as StayFocused to keep you away from time-wasting websites. And there’s a final bonus to working hard for the first hour: it will make the rest of the day just go faster.

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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