I’ve been accused on several occasions of being “one of those annoyingly productive morning people.” And while there are far more productive morning people out there, I am pretty productive and 90% of it happens in the early morning.
For example, on a typical weekday morning, by the time I see my first client of the day, usually around 9:00am, I have:
- Showered, shaved, gotten dressed, picked up a coffee and gotten to my office by 6:00am at the latest.
- I then write for at least an hour, usually a draft of a new article or section of a new book.
- Next, I meditate, typically for 15 or 20 minutes.
- Following that, I spend about an hour doing research for future work or reading.
- And I typically end my early morning work with about a half hour’s worth of marketing and/or promoting my work online.
I do this—or something close to it—every weekday morning, Monday through Friday, rain, shine, whatever.
Whenever I describe this to people, I usually get the following that’s-fine-for-you responses:
- Well, you’re probably just one of those super early birds who’s biologically wired to jump out of bed at 5:00am every morning. Except I’m not. If anything, my biological tendency is probably slightly in favor of being a night owl. I only started this routine a couple years ago.
- Then you’re probably on speed or some kind of energizing Tibetan herbal tea. No drugs or goofy supplements other than my medium cup of Starbuck coffee every morning around 5:30am, plus a booster cup around midday.
- If it’s not drugs or genetics, it has to be magic, right? Absolutely. As I’ll explain, it’s the magic of a good evening routine.
I’m convinced that the reason productive morning people are able to do what they do actually has very little to do with things like biological tendencies, mental discipline and will power, or even morning routines and habits. When you ask people who are productive early in the morning, they rarely describe how arduous and difficult it is and how they’ve slowly developed the grit and special collection of life hacks to push themselves through every tortuous early morning. Quite the contrary: most productive morning people usually say something (annoyingly) along the lines of, It’s easy or I actually enjoy it.
This means these people are either lying (and secretly biologically hardwired extreme early birds or hopped up on stimulants), or there’s something else going on. Something equally powerful but, I suspect, much more ordinary and mundane. So much so that we don’t even consider it because it’s so… boring.
As the subtitle of this piece suggests, I believe that the secret to being a productive morning person actually has very little to do with the morning and everything to do with an evening routine that makes it relatively easy to get up early and be productive.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what this evening routine might look like. Specifically, I’m going to walk through the 3 reasons why a relatively boring evening routine is the secret to being energized, creative, and productive in the mornings.
Reason #1: The Relaxation-Sleep Connection
Poor sleep is arguably the biggest obstacle to getting up early and then being productive. If you didn’t get adequate sleep, or the quality of your sleep was poor, you’re going to be excessively sleepy and groggy in the morning (and perhaps all day). And I don’t care how disciplined you are, if you’re exhausted every morning you’re not going to successfully establish a habit of productive mornings. You must get adequate sleep. And adequate sleep starts the day before.
Just like a car going 90 mph on the freeway can’t safely exit the freeway without slowing down first, people can’t successfully fall asleep without relaxing first. In a way, relaxation is the mental equivalent of downshifting from the high gear of work/daytime life, to the low gear/park of sleep. And the more time you have to downshift, the smoother your transition will be. To mix my metaphors: a boring evening routine is relaxing, and relaxation is the doorway to good sleep.
So, how do we create a more relaxing evening routine? To be honest, I don’t think coming up with relaxing ways to spend your time is the problem. Most of us know what’s personally relaxing for us and have a pretty good idea of how we could incorporate those things into our evening routines. The harder question, I think, is whether we’re willing to accept the tradeoffs that would go along with it. Specifically, most people have trouble building a consistent and relaxing evening routine because they don’t want to miss out on all the fun, exciting things that could happen in the evenings.
In other words, the primary obstacle to a consistently relaxing evening routine is FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). And while there’s nothing wrong with an exciting, spontaneous, and wild night life, it’s important to acknowledge that for most of us it’s probably incompatible with a productive early morning routine.
Reason #2: Friction Removal
While being sleep deprived is the first and biggest obstacle to getting up and being productive early, there are many other potential obstacles or sources of friction in the morning that make it difficult to just get up and go. And in many ways these little bits of friction are problematic because they’re often small and seemingly inconsequential. So small we ignore them.
A classic example is deciding what clothes to wear. It seems silly, but having to take time to decide on, find, put on, decide against, then find and put on some other arrangement of clothing is a time-consuming and mentally draining process.
The same could be said for an assortment of little things we do in the morning, all of which create morning friction and make it hard to quickly get up and start working productively:
- Making and preparing breakfast.
- Making, preparing, and packing a lunch.
- Deciding on and packing up workout clothes.
- Tracking down and packing up work-related accessories like laptops, tablets, folders, documents, ID badges, etc.
- And on and on the list goes…
Instead of expending the mental and physical energy to do all these little things early in the morning—when most of us, even if we got good sleep, are still a little groggy—why not do them the evening before? Getting up early and going straight to work would be significantly easier if your clothes were laid out already, you had a breakfast and lunch waiting for you in the fridge, and your briefcase or work bag was already packed full of everything you needed, waiting by the door.
One surprising reason that most of us would acknowledge that this is a good idea but never seem to actually implement it more than sporadically is that we don’t have a good system for reminding us of and walking us through the process in the evening. The term system sounds complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. A simple checklist of evening to-dos written on a little index card that sits on your bathroom counter so you always see it before bed can be amazingly effective.
Not convinced? Read this: The Checklist Manifesto.
Reason #3: Making a Plan
While getting good sleep and removing morning friction are important components to establishing a consistent and effective habit of morning productivity, a hugely important factor is having a clear plan for doing work that matters.
When you talk to those annoyingly productive morning people, one strong pattern that emerges is that the kind of work they’re doing early in the morning is work they deeply care about and are generally excited to do.
I imagine, for example, that there are very few productive early morning widget packagers. Conversely, people who are productive in the morning tend to be productive on a certain type of work. Namely, work that is creative, challenging, and in some way personally meaningful.
Now, it would take more than a couple paragraphs to elaborate on the process of finding meaningful work. For now I think it’s enough to say that it’s important to ask yourself, Why do I want to get up insanely early and be productive every day? It seems to me that most productive early morning people have a compelling answer to that question which acts as a very powerful force that pulls them out of bed early and into hard work.
But let’s assume for now that you do have a good reason for getting up early and being productive. As important and perhaps necessary as that is, I still don’t think it’s sufficient to get us up and going every morning, day in and day out. To push us over the edge, there’s one missing ingredient that should, I think, be added the evening before: A plan. More specifically, a very clear one.
The last reason why having a relatively boring evening routine is essential to getting up early and being productive is that it allows room to make a plan for what you will work on and how you will do it. And even the simplest plan or outline for work, makes it significantly easier to just get started, which in turn makes it a lot easier to get things done.
I recommend staying very, very simple. Take 5 minutes after dinner but before you sit down to watch Netflix (or whatever your relaxing and mildly boring evening routine involves) and jot down the one thing you would like to accomplish most with your early morning. Here are some examples:
- Write introduction and first section of article on evening routines.
- Find and summarize 3 articles on the effects of sleep on decision making.
- Finish reading Section 2 of The Checklist Manifesto.
- Send 5 emails to prospective customers.
- Meditate for 30 minutes.
Just like Reason #2 was all about removing friction from getting up and on your way to work, Reason #3 is all about reducing friction between getting to work and actually getting started on the right work. If you find yourself routinely distracted and unsure about how to get started, this little practice of deciding on one important task the evening before will be a life saver.
I would also recommend reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work. It’s all about how to set yourself up to successfully work well on the work that matters most.
By creating space for an intentional and relaxing evening routine, we can massively cut down on the amount of friction that comes between our intention to wake up early and be productive and the reality of hitting snooze and then feeling guilty about it for the rest of the day. But the broader lesson here, I think, is to build a habit of thinking about achieving goals in terms of identifying and removing obstacles rather than the more primitive push harder mentality. This is a key ingredient in learning to work smarter at personal development goals.