I’ve been kicking the Internet’s butt lately — Marshall Kirkpatrick’s words, not my own. And a lot of that butt-kicking has to do with one simple change I’ve made in my life.
Lately, I’ve been getting up at 6:30 in the morning. It’s still dark out, and I hate it with all my soul. But once I got into the habit of it, I realized I was more productive than ever before and I was running circles around many of my late-rising peers.
I don’t consider myself to be anything special as a writer. I believe that what makes a writer exceptional is the extra effort he or she puts into the work. When it comes to newsgathering and reporting, some of that extra effort, for me, at least, involves getting an early start.
Here are some of my “secrets” to maintaining a high level of productivity. All my best days run this course.
1) Wake up half an hour before anyone else.
Good lord, how I loathe waking up in the morning. If not for my constant fear that someone, somewhere is getting the jump on me, I’d never do it.
But the slightest margin of lead time has changed the way I work in a competitive environment.
The most crucial parts of most business days happen in the morning. If you work in a business that is even slightly normal, or if you’re a West Coast resident working for or with an East Coast branch, it behooves you to get up early.
The best thing about getting up at 6:30 is that I get to wipe all my email off the slate before anyone is awake to reply. Clearing out my inbox takes less than half the time it would ordinarily simply because I get to attend to every new email before the back-and-forth threads start.
2) When you wake up, WAKE UP. It’s healthy.
Because I so hate getting up in the morning, I have to trick myself into doing it. My alarm clock blurts to life with some really beautiful jazz music, I turn on the soft, white string lights that decorate the top of my four-poster, and — I kid you not, hand to God — I groggily pop the top on one of the 5-Hour Energy shots next to my pillow.
Yeah, I sleep with a 6-pack of 5-Hour Energy next to my pillow.
I know it sounds stupid, but I’ve written four blog posts, answered all my email, and it ain’t even 8 o’clock in the morning yet.
So, do whatever motivates you to not hate the morning. Rig up the beginning of your day with music, lights, and your beverage of choice so that when you wake up, your brain is immediately jolted into alertness or some semblance thereof.
As a side note, because my brain wakes up before my body does, I’ve optimized by sleeping next to my laptop (the ol’ four-poster is getting a bit crowded at this point) and hauling it open before I’m actually ready to get out of bed. By the time the battery is running down, my body has usually caught up with my brain and I can get myself into the office knowing I’ve made the best use of my time.
3) Don’t engage in conversation during the first two hours of your workday.
Call me an antisocial hermit, but talking to people — via email, IM, phone, social networks, or in person — derails me. One of the other benefits of waking up early is that no one else is around to make requests or assign tasks that might take me off-course.
In other words, I can completely focus a few quiet hours on banging out a difficult task that requires my complete attention, and I am pretty much guaranteed that time will be distraction-free unless I introduce distractions of my own accord.
I recommend banning all kinds of real-time conversation, including social chatter on Twitter and Facebook, from the beginning of your day.
4) Stop your “busy” work at noon, transition to “slogging” work.
Because most of the important business of the day happens during the first half of the day, and because I get my distraction-free time in the early morning, I am generally done with most of the high-intensity work I have to do by noon.
At that point, I switch gears to something that might not be time-sensitive but that requires slower, more careful work.
For example, I’ll do a bit of blogging and email in the very early morning, conduct some interviews around 10 or so, then around noon, I switch to actual writing — the kind that leads to big, long “think” pieces or in-depth coverage. These pieces run into the thousands of words and take days or even weeks to write and edit, and my slower-paced afternoons are perfectly suited to this kind of work.
I’m sure you have the equivalent somewhere in your workday. My recommendation is to load the top of your day with the urgent, quick tasks or those that require a laser focus, then put your longer or more leisurely work toward the end of the day.
5) When you’re done, be done.
When you sense your productivity window closing, when you’ve put in your time, when you’ve finished your tasks, put it down, get up, and walk away.
Anytime I try to squeeze in an important task when my brain is wandering and my mental resources are exhausted, I end up wasting my time. It’s important to realize when you are being productive and when you are not.
When your work is done for the day, leave your desk, your office, and your gadgets behind you. Don’t let those tasks linger on your brain. Part of being productive is being refreshed, and you can’t refresh yourself if you never pause in your efforts and do something completely unrelated to work.
In your evenings and weekends, nourish your soul. During that time, not working is your job.
6) Early to bed.
Part of getting up early is going to bed early.
I am fortunate in that a) I have fewer friendships than most, b) I don’t drink, and c) I’m past my 20s. For me, getting into bed at 10 or 10:30 or 11 at night is a pleasure and a relief.
If “early to bed” is not your wont, I highly recommend melatonin and a large measure of self-discipline.
All of life is a trade-off. If you want to be successful and productive in your career, you do have to make some personal and social sacrifices. I’m not saying you have to live a lonely and joyless life to be good at your job, but you can’t sustainably be a party animal or an all-night gamer and a fabulous worker at the same time. You must choose where your fulcrum lies and achieve your own sense of balance accordingly.