We often get up in the morning and immediately jump into where we left off the night before: we flip open our laptops (or even just roll over and grab our phones) and dive back into email or whatever windows we left open on our computer. The problem with this (as I’ve written about before) is that often times hours can go by and then we realize that we haven’t actually gotten anything of any importance done.
I started an experiment a couple of weeks ago to see what would happen if I didn’t look at my inbox until I had done at least 3 hours of real work. This practice worked great – I got way more work done and still took care of what I needed to in terms of responding to email. I deviated sometimes, especially when the work I needed to do was related to the emails I had waiting for me, and it was a struggle to constantly remind myself to adopt this new practice, but it proved to me how much we get sucked into to doing things that make us feel busy.
Doing the email experiment connects with something else I started thinking about earlier in the summer. I had been thinking about the few things I can do in a short amount of time each morning that have the highest ROI. My thought was that if I can make my day meaningful in the first hour that I’m awake, then on the days when things seem to spiral out of control, I don’t end the day feeling like it was a waste.
So I’ve been experimenting now with a high meaning, high ROI morning. It’s a combination of the things we know have the highest impact on our overall well-being, our creativity, and our ability to contribute something meaningful to the world. And it takes less than an hour.
- Do 10 push-ups and 50 situps (less than 5 minutes). It may not seem like much, but at least it is something. At least I get up and get my body moving. Doing this small amount of exercise motivates me towards doing more and on the days I do this, I feel better.
- Write Morning Pages (10 – 15 minutes, sometimes a little longer). This is the morning mind dump. Whatever you woke up worrying about, whatever you’ve got on your mind, falls out onto the page. Morning pages is a concept I learned through Julia Cameron‘s book The Artist’s Way. In the traditional way, you write 3 pages by hand of literally anything that comes to mind. If you need a more modern way (because writing by hand can be painfully slow), I use 750words.com. No one is going to see what you write. It’s your way of clearing your mind at the start of your day.
- Meditate (10 minutes). I used to shy away from meditation because I associated it with freewheeling hippies who didn’t shower, always smelled like patchouli, and had an unrealistic view of the world. But the research is there that meditation is absolutely one of the best things you can do for yourself mentally and physically. It reduces stress. It helps you handle the ups and downs of a day. It teaches you a skillset that you don’t really learn anywhere else. My favorite way of meditating in the morning is with Susan Piver as my guide – she is the one who helped me realize that meditation is not just hooka-hooka stuff for hippies. You can follow ten-minute guided meditations as part of her Open Heart Project.
- Create something (1o to 30 minutes or longer). This is something that stuck with me from a post on Leo Babauta’s blog about creating a profound workday. We are really good a filling our days with doing, but not so good at filling our days with creating. If you start each day by creating something – writing a helpful blog post, taking a photograph, even drawing a little sketch – the day feels different because you’ve already added something meaningful.
I’ve been thinking a lot more about something Seth Godin wrote about on his blog the other day, and that I’ve written about before too.
We often worry so much about whether our ideas are good enough, whether what we’re about to do is going to have an impact, that we never even bother to start. We worry that whatever we do won’t be enough.
But what if you forget about trying to get over all of your fears? What if you simply conjure up the courage to start? To take one step forward at building something, at creating art, at making the world better?
That one step, it turns out, means something. In fact, it means a lot.
With that one step, it’s likely that you will inspire someone else to take a step forward themselves. You will give them the courage to start.
Your courage to take a small step creates a chain reaction of small steps. And those small steps add up to something big.
I realized recently how much I do out of routine.
The routine of my own habits.
The routine of other people’s expectations.
So I started asking myself a question every day.
Many, many times throughout the day.
It’s the best question ever.
And it’s only one word.
Why am I about to RSVP to this event?
Why am I setting up this meeting?
Why am I feeling bummed out right now?
But I don’t let myself end there.
I’ll follow it up by asking again: “no, really, why?”
If it’s a complicated why, sometimes I’ll draw it out – create a little diagram that looks like the expanding roots of a tree. I’ll keep asking myself “why?” until I get to the real answer.
My questioning of myself isn’t about passing judgment. It’s about understanding motivation.
Because understanding motivation is the key to helping me separate out what’s truly important from what’s not.
Your meeting ended earlier than you expected.
Your conference call didn’t take as long as you thought.
You find yourself on the train for a commute that is taking a little longer than usual.
The dentist is late finishing up with the patient before you.
You’ve got 15 minutes.
What are you going to do with that time?
For me, those are the times when the guilt sets in, when I think I should be doing something “productive.”
And productivity experts would be quick to jump in and give me tips on how to make the most out of that time – how those little pockets of 15 minutes throughout the day can lead to getting a lot more done.
But I find it kind of ridiculous that we’ve come to believe that we have to fill every nook and cranny of our day with doing something.
If we can’t give ourselves the fifteen minutes in the waiting room at the dentist or the five minutes in line at the grocery store to just chill out instead of sending emails or making a phone call, then we’re doing something wrong.
We’re doing too much. And we’re focusing too much on productivity techniques being the trash compactors of lives – squishing as much as possible into the small space we’ve got in a day.
If productivity is supposed to about getting more of my life back, then I’ll take my 15 minutes back.
And gladly do nothing but stare out the window.
I’m not quite sure when we became so obsessed with how much we do…and how much we do compared to others.
Maybe it started in high school, when we somehow adopted the belief that it was good to aspire to be the person who was in every club photo in the yearbook, smiling out from the page in the shot of the soccer team, the newspaper staff, the French club, the National Honor Society, the Peer Advisors group, the dance team.
Even now, I’ve been in conversations with a group of people and after one person has introduced himself with the long list of things he does (I founded a tech company, I’m virtuoso violinist, and I help build schools in Africa), another person in the group, who doesn’t have such a long list, inevitably introduces himself by saying “I’m just a writer.” Or a teacher. Or an office manager.
Since when does only doing one thing require us to add a self-deprecating modifier?
Doing as much as we can has turned into a competitive sport.
We have been primed to believe that “more” is more interesting. That a jack of all trades is more interesting than a master of one. Why? I think in part because we perceive it to be more difficult to both be an entrepreneur and a violinist, for example, then to be only one or the other. That perception of heightened difficulty turns being a master of “more” into something we covet and therefore something we celebrate.
But it’s the classic “more is better” trick. And we’ve been falling for it all our lives.
In the end though, I don’t think it’s a matter of whether more is bad or good – it can be both. It’s a matter of why we’re choosing more. If we’re choosing it to impress others, to fulfill a societal quota that we think will make us seem more desirable and successful, then we’re doing it wrong.