Daniel Dowling: Win the morning, win the day

American business coach and writer shares his recipe against the eternal companion of a creative person – procrastination.

You already know that sticking to a good morning routine can set the tone for your whole day. That’s why I like getting my first article of the day finished before doing anything else. It’s just a habit that has made me a successful writer. But a morning routine won’t account for everything you need to do. And sometimes even a really effective one can be a distraction for the important things you haven’t done.

That was my case last year. I noticed over a period of several weeks that three important things on my daily to-do list just weren’t getting done: studying French, expanding my writing vocabulary (in English), and reading. Missing out on these longer-term projects was starting to sap my confidence.

So I eventually decided to break myself out of an otherwise totally productive morning routine—again and again and again. At first, I’d just tried pumping myself up in the morning, assuring myself that I would definitely, definitely make progress on those three big-ticket goals at some point. But that definitely didn’t work. I always found myself doing everything but the things I had delayed.

To take the pressure off, I tried giving myself a one-month hiatus from making any headway on those three personal-development goals. But instead of letting myself off the hook, that just left me feeling crappy. The longer I waited, the more my procrastination weighed on my conscience. It didn’t matter that I’d been killing it in the writing world, or that I’d been transforming lives in my coaching career—I felt inept all the same.

Those three things that I hadn’t done were driving me nuts, and I knew something had to give. Then it occurred to me: Why not build a morning routine that was meant to be temporary—something I could stick to for awhile, then burn to the ground and reconstruct on a regular basis?

“Win the morning, win the day.” Cliché as it sounds, that’s the motto I live by as an independent worker. So the thought of changing my morning routine continuously gave me some initial anxiety, even if I could see its appeal in theory. I mean, it was the one thing that had finally got me off my parents’ couch after spinning my wheels earlier in my twenties. I still needed to write that one new article first thing every morning in order to feel whole—or so I thought.

The fact was staring me in the face that I couldn’t have it both ways; I’d have to choose. So I flipped the formula completely: I ditched my tried and true morning routine and front-loaded the vocab, French, and reading time at the beginning of my day, writing be damned. The difference was immediate. A mental weight was lifted. Free from looming regret, I suddenly found the inspiration that had eluded me for a month. When I did sit down to write in the afternoons, I wrote better. I coached better. And, paradoxically, I seemed to have found more time in my days.

Doing the hard things first is hardly a revolutionary productivity strategy—you’ve probably heard Mark Twain’s “eat the frog” directive quoted endlessly by startup wonks on Twitter—but it makes sense. The only factor this formula doesn’t account for is that the hard thing (the “frog”) might change over time. So why can’t your morning habits change, too?

After a few weeks, once I’d regained momentum on my three personal-improvement projects, I shuffled them out of my morning hours and back into their afternoon slots. Then I took a fresh inventory and searched for more confidence-sapping, back-burner tasks to front-load. I realized I hadn’t been playing guitar as much as I’d wanted, so for awhile I did that first thing each day  to regain the habit. I hadn’t pitched as many magazine articles as I knew I could, so I scheduled that before anything else for a few days, too.

Over the course of several months, I repeated this process with a hundred different things that had been clogging up my mental channels. All the stuff I’d been procrastinating on got a few days or weeks in the spotlight as part of my morning routine.

I’ve since come up with some ground rules that allow me to change up my morning habits whenever I feel myself procrastinating on something I want to give more attention to. Every Sunday, I clear out 30 minutes to reflect on my biggest unmet needs heading into the upcoming week. They could be projects I haven’t started, people I haven’t connected with, books I haven’t read, habits I’ve let slide—anything that’s been tugging at my mind. Then I create a priority list: whichever tasks I’ve put off longest, or that I’m scared of, those go first.

Once I have that priority list nailed down—and it’s intentionally short, usually no more than three to five items—I schedule them to be done before 12:00 p.m. each weekday, Monday through Friday. That way my conscience is clear. I know exactly what I need to be doing to feel the drive and purpose to carry me through the week, and I have the momentum to breeze through the rest of each day’s tasks.

It’s true that routines give us stability and purpose. And because we depend so heavily on them, changing them can cause a lot of anxiety. But I’ve found that the results I get are more important than the makeup of the routines themselves—and that to get those results consistently, I need to do the things I’ve been putting off longest at the beginning of the day.

After all, the things you procrastinate on will change with you. So should your morning habits. Don’t believe me? Give it a shot.

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