Here’s a funny paradox: I’m not really a morning person, but mornings are my favorite part of the day. It’s strange, but totally true — mostly because mornings have totally changed my career. In fact, they might just be my secret weapon. When wielded properly, mornings can actually be the key to building a successful career.
Growing up, my mother and I had our worst fights during the mornings because getting to school on time was a chronic struggle. Even in college, I let early several classes slip by, with the help of the snooze button.
But these days, I wake up every morning with an odd, sometimes inexplicable sense of joy, eagerness and anticipation. I credit gratitude for part of it, but a change in attitude and approach for the rest of it. The simple fact is this: whether or not I want to admit it, I’m most productive in the morning. I’m more focused, motivated and optimistic about what I’ll accomplish throughout the day, and haven’t yet been brought down by meetings, emails and exhaustion. S0, when I made the jump to the freelance life, I resolved to maximize my mornings, and have since committed to giving myself at least an hour of solid work time in the morning before clocking in for the day. I like to think of it as my “professional development hour.”
I use the time to finish at least two very important tasks in the a.m. before starting in on my deliverables for the day. Sometimes that’s sending pitches to new publications. Other days it’s a workout, weekly meal prep or some side writing. Getting my big tasks out of the way first makes more space in my brain to focus on smaller deliverables in the afternoon, and has totally changed the way I do business. Here’s how to use mornings to build a successful career.
1. Start early.
Even if you firmly place yourself in the “not a morning person” camp, start early. Face it: early afternoon is not morning, even if you do count yourself a night owl. For best results, get started by 8 a.m. That doesn’t have to mean but in chair (though for me, it’s better if it does), but it does have to mean butt in motion. If you’re hoping to knock out your workout, a home improvement project or a catch-up with an old friend before the workday begins, try to get things going before 9 a.m. My brain is hardwired to associate the hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. with work, so I try to get side-projects out of the way before diving into professional stuff. It keeps my focus compartmentalized, and keeps me on task, too.
2. Keep it simple.
Don’t try to do 35 things before noon. Sorry, but it’s just not gonna happen for you. Instead, choose the two or three most important things on your list (like that hot deadline), and commit to getting them knocked out before the afternoon rolls around. This leaves you free to spend the afternoon on meetings, planning, invoicing, and scheduling and things that might not require quite so much focus and creativity.
3. Stick to a routine.
If you can help it, get into the habit of starting your morning out the same way. Do you need to have coffee before doing anything else? Feel like the day doesn’t start before you brush your teeth? Need a morning dose of cardio to get going? Maybe it’s a morning mantra just to get you up and at ‘em for the day. Whatever helps trigger your focus in the morning, try to start each day with a dose of that, then establish a rhythm from there.
4. Avoid incessant email checking.
Repeatedly checking your inbox isn’t going to make you more productive — it’s actually going to slow you down. Instead, give yourself a specific window for popping into the inbox, then close it until you’ve crossed off your important morning tasks. Unless your daily morning task it catching up on email (boring, but I get it — sometimes that’s necessary) it’ll still be there when you get done.
5. Chase opportunity.
One of the best pieces of career advice I’ve received as a freelance writer is to start each day by chasing new business. Maybe that means pitching three new publications. Perhaps that means asking a thought leader in your field for coffee. Probably, it means trend-scouting and catching up on the industry developments you missed overnight. In any case, if you really want to be productive and build a successful career, spend your mornings setting yourself up for new opportunities.
6. Have a hard stop time.
Once you’ve maximized your morning, do something to signify that you’re shifting your focus to something else. Maybe that means making breakfast or a snack, heading into the office, or checking email again. Whatever you do, get into the habit of setting a hard stop time and sticking to it. This’ll keep you from negotiating a shorter amount of focus time, or getting too far down the rabbit that you can’t knock other smaller tasks out, too.
7. Treat it like a job.
Finally, even if you aren’t technically on the clock, treat this “professional development hour” as a job in and of itself. Even if you don’t have any big projects to handle, use this time to clean up your resume, read a new study, send out some emails to thought leaders, listen to a podcast or work on your side hustle. You’ll be surprised by how quickly the time flies when you start doing it every day — and by how beneficial it can be.
Tell Us What You Think
Do you agree or disagree? Morning people and late risers, we want to hear from you. Tell us what works best for you, in the comments or on Twitter.