Quick: How do most people start the workday (not including coffee)?
Bingo! The hands-down winner is email, that pesky taskmaster.
Starting your day with email is risky behavior. Yet, most people do it. You want to get ahead of the avalanche.
Why is it risky? Because the avalanche may win. Odds are this seemingly innocent act of checking email is going to take you off track, running up and down a whole network of rabbit holes.
Then, before you know it, it’s time for lunch and you’ve handled everyone else’s priorities but your own. Email can easily hijack your day and all those good intentions.
If you feel the workday gets a way from you, start paying attention to something as simple as the first few actions of the day. How you start can make a big difference to how you end.
Consider installing a start-up menu for your workday. Identify a sequence of steps you’ll take each day when you get to your desk. 1-2-3…
I recommend to my clients a start-up menu that goes like this:
1. Check calendar
2. Review to-do list
3. Plot day
4. Check email
This simple, start-up script takes 5 minutes and will launch you in a productive direction.
First, check calendar. This is the starting ground. You see the contour of your day. You note where you need to be when. Check.
Second, review the to-do list. You select what you need to accomplish by the end of the day. Check.
Third, plot the day. Figure out when you are going to accomplish those things and block the calendar. Check. Remember, everything you do takes time. If you don’t figure out when you will do those things on your list, your day is teetering on wishful thinking.
Now that you have plotted your day, you can check your inbox. Checking email may take you beyond the 5-minute start-up menu, and that's fine (if that's what you want).
Be sure to "time block" email so time doesn't run away from you. Decide how much time you will process email, say 10 minutes, and set a timer on your phone. This protects you from going unconsciously down the rabbit hole. If, when the timer sounds, you decide you want to spend more time on your email, set the timer again. A timer will keep you honest and alert.
And yes, there may be good-morning emails that cause you to fine-tune your plan for the day. That’s fine. The difference is you are fine-tuning your plan. You are consciously constructing the day based on the solid footing of what you have in mind to accomplish. You are building your day. Not someone else’s.
What makes a start-up menu powerful is when you do it religiously. Let me explain.
Much of work – all that deciding, figuring, creating, problem-solving – happens in this small but mighty part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain takes a lot of energy to run (comparatively speaking) and it fatigues as you use it throughout the day.
Here’s the cool thing. As you do this start-up menu every day, it will get easier and eventually automatic. The start-up menu will go from being an intentional activity of the pre-frontal cortex (you have to think about doing it and apply some willpower) to an automatic script run by the basal ganglia.
The basal ganglia is that part of the brain that turns routines and patterns into automated scripts that run with very little effort or energy. It is what takes over when you drive to a location but don’t remember how you got there. It allows you to conduct much of your day without having to consciously make decision after exhausting decision. It allows you to pour a cup of coffee and add cream without having to think too much about it.
The basal ganglia is a master pattern seeker. It notices when something happens again and again and then pulls it into its repertoire of scripts. It is supremely energy-efficient. It hums along under the surface.
So, long story short, if you make the initial effort to install a productive sequence of steps that you do every day when you get to your desk, you’ll get the attention of the basal ganglia. Soon, simply sitting at your desk will trigger an automated routine that gets you going in the right direction. This is the power of a productive habit. It’s simple: how you start predicts how you finish.
And if you want to go the extra mile, create a closedown menu, because a great start to tomorrow begins the night before.