What Time Should You Start Your Day in Order to Be Most Productive?
Like most excellent pieces of advice, I can’t remember exactly when and where I heard it. I listen to a lot of podcasts and radio drama, and in the Before Times (RIP Before Times) I used to sit in a lot of cafes to work. And when I say work, I — of course — also mean ‘eavesdrop’.
Whatever my mode of discovery, this particular gem was so good that I sort of absorbed it. I became one with it, if you will. It just resonated so deeply. And like all good advice, it’s so obvious, it’s almost embarrassing that I hadn’t already put it into such succinct phrasing myself.
So, without further build-up, here it is:
A good day starts the night before.
It’s so simple, so elegant, and so laughably obvious that it could quite easily be dismissed with the classic riposte ‘No, duh’. But hear me out, because I think its simplicity is its genius. Those seven words have saved me so much time, unnecessary effort and frustration that I feel compelled to share with you how I put them to use, so that you might be able to benefit from their simple wisdom yourself.
The night before
5.30 — 6pm
I used to start every new work day by writing a to do list first thing in the morning. I’d sit down at my desk and make a note of everything that needed to be done that day. The list would start off with just a few items, but the more I wrote, the more jobs would come to mind, so the more I’d include. It wouldn’t take long for the list to spiral out of control and become quite intimidating. I’d throw everything at it: random household chores that needed attention, dentist appointments I had to rearrange, birthday cards I ought to post by a certain date. By the end of writing it, I felt entirely demotivated and sapped of energy.
But, in doing this, I made a surprising discovery. It wasn’t that I was super-productive first thing in the morning — it was that I was good at brainstorming first thing in the morning. This was a mini breakthrough. I realised that I didn’t want to spend that good, juicy brainstorming energy on writing a list, which could be done any time of the day; I wanted to spend it on coming up with article ideas, or working on my novel. I guess it’s different for everyone: your best brainstorming time might be later on in the evening, or just before dinner. It’s worth experimenting with this method to find out, so you can put that energy to good use.
Since hearing the advice, I do things differently. I’ve found that my ‘night before’ begins around 5.30/6pm. That’s when I naturally want to wrap up what I’m working on, and start thinking about making dinner.
But in order to be prepared for the next day, I do two things: I tidy my desk, putting away any paperwork, materials, books that I won’t need to reference the next day; and I write my to do list.
Writing a list of tasks for the following day, instead of on the day itself, gives me more headspace and more clarity. I can think through what really needs to get done the next day, versus what can perhaps wait a couple of days. It just makes prioritising a lot easier, as I don’t feel the same sense of urgency in the late afternoon that I do in the morning.
It also means I’m less likely to miss off important items, because I’m not writing the list in a rush. I can give myself a bit of nonurgent thinking time to make sure I’m only adding time-sensitive items to the list, and not overwhelming myself. Anything noncritical goes into my calendar app which I’ll refer back to the following day, when I’m writing a new to do list.
This method really works for me. It’s a very satisfying way to finish a day’s work and it doesn’t make me feel like I’m just dropping everything abruptly and walking away. It also makes me feel like I’m giving Future Me a high-five. And who doesn’t love a high-five first thing in the morning.
After dinner, like several billion other people, I like to wind down with some TV or a film. My hobby of choice — particularly during lockdown — is crochet. It’s really soothing to do something that’s not all that cerebral or demanding in the evening.
I used to have dreams of being a night-time writer, working into the early hours with only the call of the owls for company, but that just doesn’t work for me. I tried it for a little while, but just ended up sitting in front of my computer screen staring into the terrifying blankness of the empty page as my eyes started to close, or — more often — ending up deep in a YouTube hole looking at videos of baby pandas, or trying to find 1970s BBC interviews with my favourite writers.
This was not a good use of my time. So, instead, I save my writing for the daytime, and before I go to sleep, read a book for an hour (or two, if I can get to bed early enough).
I haven’t kept my phone in the bedroom for years now, and that really helps not just with the temptation of looking up every interesting-sounding reference in the book I’m reading the minute I come across it, but also with the sense of being ‘done’ for the day. If I kept my phone next to the bed, I know that, if I can’t fall asleep immediately, I’ll be on it straight away, burning out my eyeballs with that blue-screen badness.
I’ve settled instead for an olde-fashionede manual alarm clock that doesn’t have glowing numbers, and put my phone on charge in another room. The fewer the distractions the better (I’ve always been a terrible sleeper).
While I sleep, I know that my subconscious is taking a little look-see at the to do list I wrote earlier in the evening and is polishing its items into nice shiny gems. It’s common knowledge by now that, during sleep, our brains help us make connections between the issues we need to resolve, and information we already have stored away (as described in this The Atlantic piece).
If I’ve already written my to do list for the following day long before I sleep, my brain has an additional, super-charged eight hours’ worth of rest to refine the items on it, and I might wake up able to look at those items with a fresh perspective and even be able to approach them in a more efficient way. I wouldn’t get that benefit if I hastily scribbled a list in the morning.
A new day
These days, starting work is so much easier. If I’ve had a good night’s sleep, I’m well rested and can set about using that morning energy to do some brainstorming, and get on with some writing. I can spend more time working on what I love to do most, and less time — and energy — on the things that don’t require as much of my brain power.
To whomever uttered those magical seven words that have somehow embedded themselves in my brain and transformed my productivity rates — thank you.
Who says eavesdropping never comes to anything?