How to start on the most important thing every day

Before writing this post, I googled “do the most important thing first” to see if someone else had written it for me. The answer was… sort of. Lots of famous folks — James Clear, Leo Babauta — have written about why to do the most important thing first. It’s a good “why”: imagine the difference between someone who does 365 important things in a year and someone who only does such things when they have a deadline.

But the problem with those articles they describe it as “straightforward” and “simple”, which… it might not be.

Why not?

You have existing morning habits, which might be hard to break. You probably have counterproductive evening habits, which make it harder to be productive in the morning. And also “do the most important thing” is kind of a vague instruction. What if the most important thing ends up being something you can’t possibly complete that day? What if you get distracted by email? Can you do the most important thing after dealing with just that one email?

I’m going to outline how I designed and implemented my system, and give you some tips on creating yours. This is the most valuable habit I have in terms of moving my life forward towards my goals.

And you can do it too.

Set the stage: the night before

Choose a most important task. Actually though. This step is critical, because if you don’t do it, it’s gonna be really hard to work on your most important task when you wake up. The book Eat That Frog calls this your “frog”, after the quotation

“if the first thing you do in the morning is eat a live frog, you can go through the rest of the day knowing the worst is behind you.”

(which is attributed to Mark Twain but probably wasn’t him) This highlights the point that often the most important thing to do is aversive in some way: it may involve thinking hard about something, or dealing with paperwork you’d been avoiding.

Turn stuff off. Put your phone in airplane mode (or turn it off altogether). Close out email, facebook, etc on your computer. Make it so when you turn on your computer, the first thing you’ll see is that most important task. Possibly as part of a list that contains other tasks, but with the frog clearly designated.

Off to a good start

How I structure my morning is this:

When I get up, I will do a minimum of one pomodoro (a 25-minute focused work session, named after the italian word for “tomato”) towards my most important task, before going downstairs. When I go downstairs for the first time, I’ll go outside and do a bare minimum of 5 seconds of exercise. (Not joking. The point of this is that when I do feel desire to exercise, I will always have a clear moment in my day for it.) Only once I have done that tiny exercise thing can I check email or go on facebook or other sites that will tend to diverge my attention. Before then, those sites are just considered not-an-option.

Since I usually do much more than my minimum 1 pomo — often 4–8 — before I go downstairs, exercise, and “unlock” gmail & facebook, this means that my entire morning is spent in a very productive mode, where even during my pomo breaks I’m remaining centered, by meditating, doing a little yoga, decluttering my room a bit, or taking care of some other small task.

Remember: often the most important task will be something aversive, so having the goal as being just a single pomodoro means that I don’t feel overwhelmed by the thought of having to work on that thing all day if I don’t finish it. However, if I only had that, without the downstairs thing, I’d be likely to check my email right after that pomodoro, and get lost forever and never finish the frog. So by having a really clear action that indicates “I am no longer in frog-mode”, and which requires a bit of energy, I’m able to extend that period out for hours. Once I get into the groove, I usually feel pretty motivated to continue working on it and ideally finish it.

Although sometimes you can’t finish it: that’s where the “just do one pomo” to start really shines. Once I’ve done that pomo, I’ve already won. Ideally I finish the thing, but if for whatever reason (time, prerequisites, waiting for someone else) I can’t finish it, then I don’t feel bad. And every additional pomodoro I do after the first one feels like me going above and beyond.

(Now that I’ve done this for awhile, I’ve noticed that I’m so much more productive when email is off the table that I want to extend that morning focus block as long as possible, because I know I’ll achieve more things if I do. I’m experimenting with ways to get re-centered mid-day, but so far none of them seem to be as effective as in the morning.)

Other tips

It’s okay (perhaps even better) to have different days. When I started this habit, I had several days each week when I had to go to a lecture by 8:30am. On those days, which I called “CampusDays”, I deliberately didn’t try to follow this routine. I just got up and got dressed and left the house. The key is to have a routine and know when you’re going to follow it and when you aren’t. So there was no ambiguity on my non-CampusDays: get up, eat my frog.

A couple weekly morning commitments are the simplest way to make this happen, because then there’s no decision, you just obviously have to go to the thing. If you don’t have external commitments, maybe just decide “and on sunday mornings, instead of doing this frog thing, I will go for a long walk in the park”. Or simply “and on sunday mornings, I’ll do whatever I want! :D”

At least some days, choose something you’re not dreading but are actually really excited about. Where you have a kind of anticipation like “finally, I’m going to [ship that feature / write that blog post / set up that system]!” This is related to the idea that you don’t want to force yourself to do things: if you’ve been feeling like you should do something for awhile, then probably it would also be true to say “part of you has been really wanting to do that thing for awhile”. Tap into that part :)

As much as possible, I try to simply turn off my alarm clock then immediately start working, but that might not work if you (a) do your work somewhere other than your bedroom, or (b) have a dog or something that needs to be let out. In those cases, you’ll just need a new set of behaviours, like “when I get into the office, I’ll do that pomo before I take my headphones out” or “after walking the dog, I’ll leash myself to my desk until I’ve done a pomodoro.”

Integrate with existing morning routines. If you already like your morning routine, then work bits you like into this do-the-most-important-thing routine. So maybe do your meditation, or your coffee before you start working. But don’t use the coffee as an excuse to read blog posts before you start your creative or important work or whatever.

For avoiding email distraction, I seriously recommend these hacks. It’ll take you only 2–3 minutes to set them up, and they let you search for a specific email, or send a new email, without getting lost in your inbox. And something similar for Facebook. Even if it took you (*gasp*) a whole 15 minutes to set up, it would pay itself back within a day. Ping me on Twitter if you need help with setup.

One thing it’s important to note is that your system can change. One easy way to not implement something like this is to say “well, it won’t work because [issue]” and then not do it. Just try it. If you were right, you can tweak it to mitigate [issue], or you can just try something different. But if [issue] ends up not mattering, then BAM you have a new awesome habit!

I want to emphasize that this is the most valuable habit I have, by a large margin (and I’ve got some good ones!). Therefore if you’re reading this, I think that it’s at least worth trying to create a similar system in your own life. I got a friend to try it and they said:

This might be the best single atomic lifehack that I’ve implemented so far. Major thanks due.

(…it could be you saying this next week!)

If you want a name for this routine, you can call it frogs in a tomato reduction ;)

Bonus tips for Complice users

Use an asterisk, like “1*)” to mark your most important task. It’ll get converted into a big star, like 1★). Put it first, or (if you’re like me) put it right after a “don’t hit the snooze button” intention.

Set your intentions the night before, so when you wake up you already have a clear sense of your mission for the morning.

Set the pomodoro timer to continuous mode so that it will just keep you rolling.

(What’s Complice? It’s a system I created that will help you stay on track towards your goals. Learn how to use it here.)

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