The Importance of Ritualized Mornings for Personal Productivity
One of the side effects of the coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly the challenge of remaining productive under lockdown. Many of my friends and acquaintances have shared with me that they find it difficult to maintain their daily routines and I have felt some of the more challenging effects of the home office myself. At the outset, I think it is important to acknowledge that the lockdown conditions are truly unique and undiminished productivity may not be an appropriate goal. At a time when we worry about our own and our loved ones’ health, our financial well-being, taking care of children, and a myriad of other second-order effects, simply doing less and adjusting our goals will inevitably be a part of the answer. At the same time, I have over the past few weeks learned a few things about my own daily routine and the importance of following it even when working from home. I addition, the lockdown gave me an opportunity to ask myself why it is that my usual routine works so well for me.
Though my routine has a number of components, key among them are religiously ritualized mornings. Indeed, I consider the first hour or two after waking up a quintessential part of my schedule that sets me up for the rest of the day. Before I describe how exactly my mornings unfold, it is crucial to mention that the most important principle behind my mornings is conservation of cognitive and emotional energy. While time management is often hailed as the essential tool for productivity, I have found that budgeting cognitive and emotional energy is equally consequential. Before I explain what I mean by this, let me briefly describe my morning schedule.
I wake up at 5:30 AM every single workday. Because I make sure I am in bed by 9:30 PM, I get exactly eight hours of sleep. Sleeping less makes me feel tired, sleeping more makes me feel less fresh. Immediately after waking up, I exercise for about eight to ten minutes. This gets my blood flowing and fully wakes me up in case I need it. After washing my face, I eat my breakfast, which typically consists of oatmeal and 500 ml of water. I prepare my food the evening before which means that all I have to do in the morning is sit down and eat. I go so far as placing my water bottle on the table, together with the spoon I use to eat my oatmeal. My clothing for the day is also prepared, as is my backpack in which I carry my gym clothing, laptop, and lunch. I try very hard to be done with eating and dressing up by 6 AM. When there is no pandemic, I kiss my wife goodbye and leave for my office and the gym by 6:05 AM. Yes, I check the time when the front door closes to make sure I hit this mark. Now that I work from home, I at least try to make sure I am sitting behind my home office desk, opening my laptop.
Clearly, this is an extremely rigid way of going about one’s morning. I am also aware that this may not work for everyone and that a similar schedule becomes impossible once taking care of others enters the picture. Yet I would still argue that having as ritualized mornings as possible will on average contribute to personal productivity. Here is why. I mentioned above that conserving cognitive and emotional energy is as important as managing one’s time. I read this in various books whose titles I no longer remember but I did not discover or invent this. Notice that my mornings enable me to conserve cognitive and emotional energy to considerable extent, making sure that by the time I hit the office and have to engage in often unpredictable tasks that require me to come up with creative solutions, my cognitive and emotional energy tanks are still full. The reason why ritualization conserves cognitive energy is easier to deduce. Because everything is planned and prepared in advance, I do not have to think about what I am going to wear, what I am going to eat, or what I am going to do next. Thinking about minute details is a daily activity, but I try to save it for moments when I am facing an environment (such as writing a new dissertation chapter) that requires highly variable cognitive activity. This does not mean I avoid thinking (I love thinking), it just means that I see cognitive energy as a resource and choose not to spend it on agonizing over my choice of breakfast. I admit, if oatmeal was not such a natural fit, things could be quite different.
Interestingly, and I realized this only recently, ritualized mornings also help with conserving emotional energy. Take the example of going through our wardrobe, deciding what to wear. One could go through the innumerable criteria based on which we choose what to wear (I have seen people do this and believe me, the emotional energy involved is substantial.) but ultimately, I think a lot of us end up following our gut. We choose to wear something because it just feels right that particular morning. Gut feelings, I surmise, are ultimately emotions that help us decide when there are simply too many objective criteria to consider. What I am trying to say is that decisions, even small ones, have an emotional aspect to them. By reducing the number of decisions I have to make every morning, I simply conserve my emotional energy for moments when I really need it.
One final habit that I use to save emotional energy and keep my mornings streamlined is leaving my phone alone for at least thirty minutes after waking up. This has the obvious benefit of saving time but it also helps with practicing self-control. Our social-media-ridden phones are very good at using our emotions to increase our usage. Quite often, I find myself feeling the urge to grab my phone and use it to check the latest notification. I then simply observe the urge without acting on it.
I think for many of us, external constraints and expectations are key for enhancing productivity. Regularly scheduled meetings make us arrive on time, the friendship of our gym partners keeps us from skipping workouts. With those crutches temporarily suspended by the pandemic, betting on the power of ritualized mornings is all the more important.