It’s 6:00pm and you’ve just had another long day at work. You check through your emails one last time and notice that once again, you’ve left most of the important work unfinished.
You’re a bit stressed about some deadlines, but your increasingly growing headache from a rough day at work convinces you to retire home early.
Does this scenario sound familiar to you?
Do you ever have those weeks where you just wonder where all the hours have gone?
Do you sometimes get frustrated about not being able to focus on your most important tasks?
If so, this post is for you.
If you’d like to achieve more in life and increase your overall energy while getting work done, read on.
During my recent Financial Freedom Journey I have built a simple routine system that allowed me to have productive days on regular basis. The system includes only three separate sets of routines: one set in the morning, one during my workday, and one in the evening just before sleep.
I’ve measured and scored every component of my productivity, and since incorporating it into my life I was able to double my work output. More importantly, I was able to prioritize my most important tasks, and have fun while doing so. No annoying headaches, no crazy stress, smooth sailing all the way.
So without further delay, here are my rituals.
1. The Morning Rituals
I used to love checking emails and Facebook first thing in the morning. For years I would turn my laptop on, still bleary-eyed from the night’s sleep, check my emails in one window, read Facebook updates in a second, run some Google queries in a third, and all that while checking the latest NBA basketball results.
I would then make myself a coffee and a quick bite to eat, usually a sugary cereal, and go back to the laptop screen, holding my coffee mug in one hand and the cereal bowl in the other. I didn’t even taste my food.
I’m sure you can find a bit of yourself in the above description. We all have our usual morning routines and some of them seem harmless, but if your goal is to become more productive then you have to pay close attention to your morning rituals.
How you start your day becomes the template for a day well lived. It is the key to a productive and fulfilling day that sets the context and direction for what follows. You may have to use some willpower here to change your morning habits, especially if they’ve been around for long time, but this is where you want to start.
Morning Ritual #1 – Water, Water, Water.
As soon as I wake up I drink 2-3 glasses of water on an empty stomach. I don’t need a medical degree to know that water is the basis of life and is tightly linked to the flow of oxygen and nutrients through the body. Our muscles are 75% water; our lungs are 90% water; our blood is 85% water; our brain is around 80% water; even our bones have some degree of water in them.
Since much of our body is made up of water, the absence of water intake during the long hours of sleep leaves our body under-hydrated. By drinking water on an empty stomach we ensure that fluids are easily absorbed and that blood circulation is enhanced. It will not only refresh your body but also will help remove the toxins released during the night. As water circulates through the body, it flushes toxins and waste from organs, muscle tissues and cells.
I often add freshly squeezed lemon juice to aid in the detox effect and to give my water a more refreshing taste. Lemon makes the body more alkaline and helps to flush out the toxins that naturally build up in the body overnight.
It is interesting to know that drinking a liter of water immediately after waking up is an ancient and popular therapy in Eastern countries such as Japan, China, and India. It is popularly called the “Water Cure” and you can Google it. Some of the claimed health benefits are relief from stress, weight loss, better digestion, glowing skin and most importantly, feeling fresh and energetic throughout the day.
But don’t take anyone’s word for it. Broaden your knowledge and try it yourself for the next month. I’m sure you’ll be impressed by what a difference a simple change like drinking more water in the morning can make to your daily productivity and overall energy.
P.S coffee is not water
Morning Ritual #2 – Moving your body
Moving your body in the morning is a key ingredient for having more energy throughout the day. I’m not talking about getting on some exercise torture machine and sweating until you’re out of breath, but simply about a relaxed and intentional use of your body. This can be as little as a few stretches or a short walk outside.
Movement of the body is not only desirable but also necessary. Unlike the bloodstream, waste fluid (lymph fluid) does not have its own pump, but it does need to circulate. That’s our job. As we move around, the lymph fluid is moved and the metabolic garbage container gets emptied.
This is vital especially in the morning. During sleep the body’s circulation is slowed down and carbon dioxide and lactic acid accumulate. Moving your body helps clearing that, which in turn helps to increase your mobility and boost your energy. It also moves your blood, gets you more oxygen, opens your joints up, and improves your immune system and natural healing. It is perhaps the time to acknowledge that our body was simply made to move and be physically active.
My short exercise routine which is only 5 minutes long, involves some stretching, some push-ups, a small amount of aerobics to get my heart rate up, and a few deep breaths at the end. By the time I’m finished I feel clear, I’ve gotten centered and I’m ready to take on my day.
You can build your own routine. It doesn’t have to be long and it doesn’t need to be outside. I might create a short video with some pointers, but there are plenty of other sites that can help you with that. So start off with some body movements and stoke your fire for the day ahead.
Morning Ritual #3 – Eating a healthy meal.
It is said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you have ever wondered why, a clue can be obtained from the name itself. Breakfast is exactly that, breaking the fast that began the previous night. As you know, the body continues to burn energy while you are asleep so proper refueling in the morning is essential.
When you wake up your body is essentially coming off of a 7-10 hours fast, and because you haven’t eaten all night, by morning your muscle protein is being broken down (catabolism) and converted into fuel. Eating too late or skipping breakfast can cause the body to go into ‘starvation’ mode and this can cause you to over eat at the next meal.
The best way to halt this early morning muscle-tissue breakdown is to take protein and some fast-digesting carbs within 30 minutes of waking up. The same is true after a workout. You basically want a healthy meal that can quickly get in your stomach and to your muscles.
I make myself a quick shake in the morning, made with 1 scoop of whey protein, enriched soy milk, a bit of water and some ice cubes. If there’s a blender around I add blueberries, which are one of the healthiest fruits around. They have high healing properties with anti oxidants that help to prevent cancers. They also have a low glycemic index so the sugar from blueberries goes into your blood in a slow, sustained manner.
Numerous studies have shown that eating breakfast early helps to improve both physical and mental performance, but as any other advice in this post, the best way is to try it yourself. I recommend that through trial and error if necessary, you find a first meal that really works for you.
There’s a lot more to be tried in this area, such as adding healthy oils and other nutrient rich foods, so keep researching.
2. The Workday Rituals
Before you get into creating workday rituals, I recommend you plan out your own morning rituals and start them tomorrow.
Plan all the specifics of your new rituals and how you’re going to make sure that they happen. You might have to put a note on the refrigerator. You might have to put a glass of water out on your sink. You might want to put your running shoes at your bedroom door. Whatever you have to do to set it up, do it. Plan the whole ritual out and the timing of it.
Start tomorrow and don’t deviate.
Now to the actual work…
Workday Ritual #1 – Making a list
A morning list is probably one of the most important tools for improving productivity, yet it is frequently ignored. Without it, it’s difficult to organize and prioritize the day which may result in missed deadlines and a failure to meet commitments.
Moreover, the unsettling feeling of possibly missing something simply depletes our energy. It takes only a few minutes to make a list. It helps to organize the scattered morning thoughts and stay focused on the most important tasks. It is also one of the best ways to not forget anything and keep track of what needs to be done.
The end result: an improved feeling of being in control rather than merely being reactive.
The simplest way of making lists is to use a pen and paper. It fits a variety of environments and can be easily carried wherever you go. A more common choice these days however is to use a computer application such as Word, Excel, Outlook, or any other software that allows lists creation.
I use both methods. When I’m away from my laptop I use a pen and paper, and when I’m near it I transfer my lists to Outlook. That way I have a central location for registering all my tasks.
Now, the list you create should only include tasks you want to complete by the end of the day. It’s a “Today’s Tasks List”and you want to be very selective about what goes onto it. If you include too many tasks, you’ll get stressed. If you include too few you’ll be too relaxed. I only include a few important daily tasks that I constantly review throughout the day and whatever I get to do beyond these is simply a bonus.
All other tasks for the week should go into a separate second list (I call it a “Weekly Task List”) which only needs to be reviewed once in the morning. You can then easily transfer tasks from one list to the other.
I also keep a third list (I call it a “Someday Task List”) which I review only once a week. It includes low priority tasks and projects I might want to undertake in the future that certainly do not need my full attention. Having such a list helps to alleviate the burden of remembering possible activities and allows you to put the focus on what’s on your plate this week.
It’s important to mention that the method in itself is less important. The key here is a daily list creation. You can use your mobile, your laptop, or a small notepad. You can have one list, two lists or multiple lists. Experiment, and choose whatever you find convenient.
Workday Ritual #2 – Putting first things first
Have a look at your list and ask yourself: if you focused on three things today, just three things, which ones would give you the most leverage at the end of the day? What tasks or activities would give you the most in return?
Make a note of them on your list and whatever happens during the day make sure you focus on these three things first. Everything else is secondary.
Now take a moment and close your eyes.
If you were doing this exercise over a month, or a year, or five years, what would your life look like? What would be the end result?
Make a clear picture of it in your mind.
If getting yourself healthier is a goal, then modify accordingly. Set aside a decent chunk of time to exercise before you do anything else. If your aim is a published book, then the first thing you want to do after your morning ritual is to write, and to do so every day.
The goal with putting first things first is to prioritize in a way that is aimed at long-term goals, at the expense of tasks that appear to be urgent (such as responding to a seemingly urgent email). Working on low priority items just because you are used to doing so, or just because they are in front of you, leads to wasted time and further stress down the road.
More than that, when you complete high priority tasks early, you have a sense of being ahead. This can improve your work attitude and add even more motivation for future work.
If you could master this one ritual in your life, I can promise that the feeling of wasteful days would be a distant memory.
Workday Ritual #3 – Focusing on just one thing at a time
How long can you focus on one task at a time before you get distracted? Five minutes? Ten?
How long can you work on your computer for example, before you compulsively check your Facebook or emails?
We live in a multitasking culture, where a busy and hurried lifestyle has become a regular way of life. Most of us juggle between tasks and allow background noise to continuously interrupt us. Emails pouring in, mobile phones ringing, people cutting in. We don’t give ourselves the time for deeper, longer focus.
Multitasking offers the illusion of getting more work done faster, when in actuality the opposite is true. Every time you switch tasks there is an extra fetching time that can add up to substantial amounts. In fact numerous studies show that juggling between activities hurts performance and that multitaskers do significantly worse than the non-multitaskers. It has also been shown that constant multitasking takes a toll on our cognitive abilities, in particular our memory.
Instead, consider the benefits of long term sustained focus. You become immersed in the task you are faced with, build momentum, minimize distractions and have the luxury of letting go of all other thoughts about the day.
Your objective here is simply to expand your focus and get to the point where you can work on one thing for a good chunk of time.
To do so, allocate the time on your schedule and measure your focus chunks (You can use a timer that has a digital countdown function). Then turn off your cell phone, your email, and anything else that might distract you, and work on the one thing proactively for ninety minutes.
Why ninety minutes? Read through to the next point.
Workday Ritual #4 – Working in Cycles
Our body operates in cycles in which our energy flows up and down. You may be familiar with the Ultradian cycle in relation to the human body sleeping pattern, but there are many other cycles as well, which naturally flicker every ninety minutes between high and low energy.
Everything from the beating of your heart to the speed of your breathing, to your sleeping pattern works in cycles, some of the other Ultradian cycles of the body are thermoregulation, hormonal release, urination, bowel activity, and appetite.
The basic idea here is that every ninety minutes you need to take a rest break. If you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for Ultradian Stress Syndrome which involves tiredness, irritability and loss of mental focus. If you ignore the body’s natural need of a break for longer, it can accumulate and lead to sickness.
As Winston Churchill, who used to nap in the middle of the day during times of war, put so eloquently: “Nature had not intended mankind to work from 8 in the morning until midnight without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”
So align your body with your natural energy cycles and take a fifteen to twenty minute break every ninety minutes. Get up, stretch, walk around and clear your mind to boost your productivity.
Also, try having a small nutritious meal every two cycles (Around three hours) like clockwork. I’ve experimented with it quite a lot and I personally found that eating smaller meals (not snacking) more frequently throughout the day works a lot better than having a few big meals. It stabilizes blood sugar and nutrient oxidization levels, makes the body more efficient at burning food and also prevents long stretches of starvation.
More importantly, your body will be in its optimal energy state while working on your tasks with no feeling of heaviness or fatigue. Try it!
Workday Ritual #5 – Dealing with Emails
No one likes it when things mount up in their email inbox, however the reality is most people’s inboxes are cluttered and constantly overflowing with tasks and requests. If you’re one of those people and want to increase your productivity around emails, you’ll be interested in reading this section.
A few years ago I read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done “Getting Things Done” (highly recommended) which totally changed my approach to dealing with emails. Since then I’ve taught the main concepts of his system to dozens of people who then decided to adopt it into their daily life.
The main idea is to “operate from zero base”with your emails, meaning that your goal is to clear your inbox completely on regular basis. By keeping your inbox under control, you are better able to handle surprises of emails you overlooked or forgot.
To do so you need to be clear about the next physical action of each and every email. There are four options (often referred as 4D system)
1. Do – if it is likely to take you less than two minutes. For example a quick email response.
2. Delete – If it does not involve you, or does not demand you do anything.
3. Delegate – if someone else can, (or needs to) take the action. You want to track it as well, and an easy way to do that is to bcc yourself when you send the e-mail. You’ll get a copy immediately back into your inbox which can be filed in a special email folder called “Follow up”.
4. Defer – if the email’s task is going to take you longer than two minutes to execute, then you want to store it in another folder called “To Do”.
The last thing you want to do is to disable the automatic email download (if it exists) and only check emails in preset time slots when you take a break.
This extremely easy to use system will allow you to defer tasks strategically, knowing that they are stored somewhere safe for future operation. By doing so you’ll be able to focus on what’s important rather than what’s urgent.
Plus, it’s always nice to have an empty inbox at the start of the day. Enjoy it.
3. The Night-Time Rituals
Becoming productive is not only about work. Renewal and recovery play an important role in productivity enhancement and I would say that they are as important as the actual work.
Nighttime Rituals are mainly about giving your body and mind a break from work so that they can renew themselves. They’re also a good time to review your day and note the progress you’ve made.
Here are my top recommendations:
Night-Time Ritual #1 – Track your day
If you’re not measuring progress then you’ll never know where to most effectively focus your energy. Tracking results is very common in physical training but less popular in other areas of life.
I tried it myself in various journeys and measuring progress works like a charm. It’s a great way not only to track your work and overall productivity, but also to motivate you to stick with it each and every day.
I use a simple Excel spreadsheet. Every night I review my daily list and give points to the goals or habits I accomplished on that day. I then add the points which give me a way to compare my daily and weekly productivity.
If you have a permanent internet connection and prefer an online application for habits tracking, you can use www.GoalsSoftware.com which is free to try. This is a simple and powerful tool I designed after years of experimentations with an aim to help as many people as possible to become productive.
Another level of tracking that may help is to analyze your computer time with software such as rescuetime.com, or simply by looking at your history files.
Like any other method, they only work if you use them, so try it out and see if they can be integrated into your current working habits.
Night-Time Ritual #2 – Just before you go to Sleep
If you’re like me before I started practicing productivity, then you probably use your computer or watch TV within the hour before bed.
My main addiction was around emails. I used to habitually check emails last thing before bed to make sure I didn’t miss anything, but it came with a cost. I continually got sidetracked and ended staying up much later than I planned, and to add that I lay my head to sleep with an overactive mind.
Researchers have found that checking mobile phones or laptop computers shuts down the brain’s natural preparations for sleep. It disrupts body rhythms and suppresses the release of the hormone melatonin, which promotes sleep. It has been stated that “checking email up to an hour before bed has the same effect on sleep as drinking two espressos”.
Instead consider an “electronic curfew”before you go to sleep. Dim your lamps and feed your mind with a good book. Reading is a not only a good source of knowledge, but also a great way to shifts gears and get relaxed.
Other good habits before bed might involve drinking herbal teas, taking a warm shower or practicing meditation. Whatever new habit you adopt, just don’t let technology invade your bedroom.
Night-Time Ritual #3 – Sleep Cycles and Renewal
Sometimes in our drive to become successful we become addicted to work. We don’t allow our mind and bodies to rest and restore. Working in 90 minutes cycles can help but if you want to become even more effective you should start paying attention to your sleep patterns.
Sleep is by far the most important renewal factor. It heals and rejuvenates the body, reduces stress, fortifies the immune system, regenerates brain function and increases memory retention. Without it, the ability to learn and retain information is weakened and if chronic sleep deprivation becomes a way of life, it usually leads to an array of illnesses.
In order to maximize the benefits of sleep it is important to understand and practice sleep cycles.
Our body sleeps in multiple cycles throughout the night. A complete sleep cycle is about ninety minutes long and most people go through five sleep cycles during an eight hour sleep period. Each sleep cycle has multiple almost-awake moments (REM stage) when you are naturally closest to waking, and these are the best times to be woken up.
If you wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle (deep sleep stage) because you use an alarm, then you will probably feel very tired and groggy no matter how long you were asleep. Your body simply wants to complete the cycle it was in.
So in order to wake up refreshed, set an alarm based on a sleep cycles calculation. Simply adjust the time you want to wake up until you find the best rising time. For example after six, seven and a half, or nine hours. Otherwise and if possible do not use an alarm, and let your body wake up naturally.
I find that when I sleep only four cycles (six hours), I feel more rejuvenated the next day than if I sleep for nine or ten hours without allowing myself to complete the last sleep cycle.
Try it yourself!
Productivity is leverage. Whatever you want in life, whatever dreams you have, if you can improve your productivity then you will get better results. If you can do this long term, day after day, your positive results will be compounded.
I know that not everything I’ve shared here is going to resonate with you. That is fine and you can put those things away from your mind. But something I’ve said makes sense, I encourage you to try it out.
So take what you’ve read and ask yourself how you can apply it in your life. Write down one action that you’re going to take as a result of going through this post, one action step that you’re going to start tomorrow.
Or even today.
Live Your Dreams!
* Big thank you to David Allen, Eben Pagan, Tony Schwartz, and numerous others who inspired me to write this and more importantly, to become productive.