How to Get More Done in the Morning

Robin Madell

It's morning time once again -- what's your first act? If your tendency is to hit the snooze button rather than get up and get going, you might be missing out on the most productive time of day.

Recent research from the University of Toronto has verified that you get more than the worm when you make the most of your mornings -- no matter what your age is. While previous studies suggested that young adults who consider themselves morning people are happier than night owls, researchers have now found that people from their teens to their 80s feel better as early risers.

Perhaps it's this happiness factor that makes morning people want to get busy, and thus get more done. Other studies have shown that people who wake up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. are more proactive and better at anticipating problems, and students who wake up early have higher grade point averages, which can lead to getting better jobs down the road.

If you're ready to up your productivity quotient, try these tactical tips to make the most of your precious pre-lunch hours:

Get the big picture. A productive morning begins the night before, by getting to bed in time for a full night's sleep. Laura Vanderkam, author of "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast," suggests tracking your time for a full week to locate problem spots that may be keeping you up too late unnecessarily. "The reason for doing this is that the solution to morning dilemmas often lies at other times during the day," she writes.

For example, if you spend evening time answering work-related email, colleagues will (hopefully) not see your responses until the morning anyway. There's no point starting the next day sleep deprived to attend to matters that aren't particularly urgent or even enjoyable. Your time tracking may also reveal actions you're taking in the morning that throw you off for the rest of the day, like skipping breakfast to get to work ahead of your boss when that's not expected at your workplace. Use the information from your time log to tweak your schedule in ways that help you start the day energetically, rather than behind the eight ball.

Build healthy habits. While you may be able to clearly envision what constitutes a perfect "power morning" for you, it's challenging to convert that vision into a reality that will stick for the long term. Yet, morning productivity is based on setting the right routine and making a habit of it, according to Vanderkam. Don't try to make changes all at once. Start slowly, adding incrementally to your goals over time, and be sure to master a new action before adding others.

For example, if you need to get to bed an hour earlier in order to get eight hours of sleep, begin by crashing just 15 minutes sooner than you usually do, rather than 60 minutes. You can then work up to the full hour over the course of a few weeks, or even a month. If you've determined you want to add both exercise and meditation to your morning routine, start with just one new practice at a time.

Save it for later. Now let's get down to brass tacks. What are the best activities to do in the morning to improve your productivity? Productivity author and blogger Ponn Sabra recommends holding off on opening your email until you've successfully completed your top three work-related tasks for the day, since email can affect your mood and derail you before you've accomplished anything.

"It's best to open email after you've completed your hardest or most important work tasks for your morning," she says. "By doing so, you prioritize yourself and your work, rather than prioritizing others and the concerns of others." She adds that the more she began to view the inbox as a distraction rather than the morning's top priority, the easier it became to kick her habit of opening email first thing upon awakening. "As my days became more productive, I had to set a time to open the inbox about an hour before lunch, just in case there were pressing things to attend to," she says.

Act, don't react. Productive people understand the difference between planning their actions versus reacting to requests as they come in. It's easy to throw your whole day off kilter -- and in the end have completed nothing that you care about -- if you let the latter strategy rule your day before lunch. To keep this from happening, certified business coach Greg DeSimone advises using the night before to write down the actions you intend to take to reach your most important goals. Then in the morning, you'll have marching orders to keep you on track toward greater productivity.

"Most people can't get out of their own way, because they are always reacting to requests," DeSimone says. "A quick solution is to plan your day the night before and create a tomorrow to-do list. Wake up the next day, and stick to the plan. If an urgent item comes up, write it down on the list and compare its urgency and importance to the next item on your list. If it's more urgent and important, do it. If not, defer."

Find a way. Sometimes it's easy to let the logistics of your current situation keep you from accomplishing what you could otherwise get done in the morning. Perhaps your distance from the gym makes that invigorating morning workout, which could kickstart your productive engine, seem but a dream. Yet there's almost always another way to get things done, even if it isn't the first idea you think about. Maybe there's a gym near your office you could hit before lunch. Maybe you could invest in a treadmill to squeeze in a brisk walk or run before you leave the house.

Vanderkam suggests thinking creatively about your life's logistics -- whatever challenges they may hold -- to find a scenario that helps you use your mornings to greatest advantage. "Come up with a plan, and assemble what you need, but whatever you do, don't label this vision as impossible," she writes. "It's easy to believe our own excuses, particularly if they're good ones."

Robin Madell has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership and career issues. She serves as a copywriter, speechwriter and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries, including finance, technology, healthcare, law, real estate, advertising and marketing. Robin has interviewed over 1,000 thought leaders around the globe and has won 20 awards for editorial excellence. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association in both New York and San Francisco, and contributed to the book "Be Your Own Mentor: Strategies from Top Women on the Secrets of Success," published by Random House. Robin is also the author of "Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30" and co-author of "The Strong Principles: Career Success." Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter: @robinmadell.