Leverage Your Brainpower with a Morning Routine

When you work remotely, it’s important to have a routine that marks the end of the day: A habit that acts as a mental switch telling you that the workday is done and it’s time to relax. Similarly, a morning routine can help your mind to transition from resting state to a productive concentration mode as effortlessly as possible, and with less chance of having your attention derailed early in the day.

If you’ve read about the habits of highly productive and successful entrepreneurs, you may have noticed that they tend to have one thing in common: They’re early risers. Many will admit that they were not natural-born “morning people”—those who wake full of energy and ready to meet they day. Yet they trained themselves to rise early so that they could get a head start on the day. Why? They’ve learned that the first few hours of the day tend to be our best for creativity, concentration and problem-solving.

The earlier you rise, the better your chances for preserving a block of time for distraction-free thinking and creating. After all, if you start work at 5 a.m., chances are your clients, teammates or supervisor will not be emailing, calling or texting you. And if they do, you can usually feel free to ignore them until a more appropriate hour. But getting up at 9 a.m. generally means that you’re fair game for external interruptions. It becomes much more difficult to schedule off-the-grid time, or explain your silence to those who expect a response.

Many remote workers also find that a side benefit of getting an early start is that your workday ends earlier — while you still have time to enjoy the day, run errands or get the best seat at happy hour. The earlier you get things done, the more time you will have to play.

How early is early? It depends on how much brainpower time you need in your daily schedule. For some, it may be only an hour, while others may need three. That typically hinges on your goals, tasks, workload and motivation. (Are you motivated by the feeling of accomplishment that comes with getting your work done, producing quality work, meeting deadlines or having time for your personal pursuits? All of the above?)

The following are tips to help you create a morning routine that will preserve your willpower and energy when it is at its strongest so you can tackle your most complex tasks first thing.

Rise at the same time every day — even on the weekends. If you get up at 5 a.m. during the week, and then sleep in until 11 a.m. on weekends, your body will not be able to form a habit of rising early, which also may make the start of the week more painful for you (every Monday will put you back at square one in forming the habit).

Prep your daily chores to eliminate early morning decision-making. Make the first few minutes of the day easy on yourself. For instance, set out the clothes that you plan to wear the night before. Fill the coffee maker with grounds and water so that you only need to flip the switch — or even better, if you have a programmable unit, set the timer to go off a few minutes before your alarm. If you usually shower in the morning, try doing so before bedtime. Use the weekends to prepare meals that can be quickly heated up or are grab-and-go. Consider healthy, energizing foods like oatmeal, peanut butter, yogurt, fruit and nuts.

Make sure that you have clear goals for the work that you’re tackling in the morning. Your morning routine can help to ease you smoothly from waking into working mode, but if you’re uncertain about what to work on or don’t have a specific activity to spend your productive time on, you’re more likely to be distracted by low-priority tasks. Step back and consider how you’re scheduling your activities. Make a plan that allows you to designate the first few hours of the day to the more complex tasks in your work routine.

Batch your daily tasks using the inverted pyramid. Think of your most complex tasks as the base or widest part of the pyramid. Attend to those items in the morning and taper down by the level of mental effort. For instance, writing or creative problem-solving activities in the morning, followed by team project reviews, email, client calls, social media, administrative tasks, routine tech maintenance, and task management or scheduling for the next day. This way, even if you lose steam before the end of the day, you’ve at least completed the most important items. Only schedule two or three tasks that require significant energy and focus for the morning — or whatever can be completed within your morning productive timeframe.

Schedule your time and stick to the schedule. Don’t allow for activities in the morning that have the potential to derail your focus, such as checking email, looking something up online, social media, etc. If you have a job that requires you to check email in the morning, get up earlier to preserve your productive time. Schedule email for specific times during the day; for instance, check it at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 5 p.m. If you must check email early in the day, respond only to those that require immediate attention. Create a reply-to folder for the others that require a 24-hour response, and handle those in the afternoon. If the message is from a VIP (e.g., top client, boss) — someone who should get an immediate reply, but the actions required are not urgent, then send them a brief message to let them know that you received their email and then give them a timeframe for when they can expect a more detailed response or follow-up.

Review your schedule on a daily and weekly basis. Before ending each workday, look over your next day’s to-do list. Is it feasible or are you overloading yourself? Revise and reschedule. Each Friday, or at the end of your workweek, take a few minutes to review the upcoming week’s schedule. Can you even out the mix of complex and simple tasks to make it go more smoothly? Have you given yourself enough time for each activity, allowed time for breaks, as well as enough buffer time in between meetings and complex tasks? If you find yourself constantly behind schedule or not able to achieve your daily or weekly work goals, consider timing yourself for a month or two to get a better gauge on how long it takes you to complete each type of task.

Turn off notifications and alarms on all of your devices. Don’t give in to the temptation to see if anyone responded to your emails, chats or what’s going on in social media. Disable email accounts on your smartphone and tablet so that you can break the habit of constantly checking it on those devices, which tend to be always near at hand.

Make sure that your routine is simple and repeatable. It takes 21 days on average to build a habit so that you can perform it on autopilot. Can you do that with the routine that you’ve setup? Remember that consistency builds strong habits. Try to stick to your initial routine on non-workdays. If your morning habit is to rise, shower, drink coffee, eat a healthy breakfast while reading the news and then start on your work, keep it up on the weekends, too (except skip the work part). Once it becomes ingrained in your daily life, there will be less chance of breaking it.