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Set Up Your Morning For All-Day Success

We’ve all been there—those blurry, bleary, chaotic mornings when we curse ourselves for not going to bed earlier or not getting up earlier. But what if it’s possible not only to make morning the best part of your day but to actually own it? Owning your morning isn’t about rising earlier than you usually do. It’s about using the first few hours after you wake up as a warmup that will prime you for all the twists and turns—and possibilities—in a day. No matter what your current beginning-of-the-day routine looks like (and whatever time “beginning” is for you), you have the power to transform it into a healthier, happier experience. “A solid morning routine offers you control and peace of mind,” says Mary Kelly, Ph.D., the CEO of Productive Leaders. “That way, if something unexpected happens later, you can flex with the situation. You’ve already taken the time to accomplish some important things on your to-do list.” I’m so convinced that a morning routine is essential that I wrote a whole book about it. Even if you’re not a “morning person,” these strategies can set you up for all-day energy and focus.

1) Seize midmorning genius

Science shows that we’re primed to be productive, creative, and focused in the a.m., which makes it a great time to dig into a complicated project. However, that doesn’t mean you need to start the grind before the sun’s up. It simply means it’s smart to schedule your most mentally demanding tasks on the early side.

2) Stop wondering, get started

Before a virtual event at which I was a panelist, the organizers shipped me a very fancy high-tech camera. They wanted panelists and moderators to have high-resolution video in the livestream. That camera box? It sat there. I told myself: “I’m tech savvy! I’ll figure it out on the morning of the event, no problem.” What actually happened: In the hour before the panel began, I frantically tried all of the camera’s settings, but nothing worked. And I didn’t have enough time to ask for help or to troubleshoot. So I swallowed the lump in my throat as my blurry Liz box appeared next to the crisp, fancy-camera faces of my fellow panelists.

Ever since, “Open the box!” has become one of my favorite morning mantras. It’s actually a lesson I first heard articulated by life coach Corey Anker. It’s empowering to know what’s ahead. So take a peek at the email. Open the PDF. See how long the form is. You’ll save a lot of mental and emotional energy, and possibly even some midnight-hour anguish.

You don’t have to put the camera together. Just take it out of the wrapping. Look at the cords. Flip through the instruction booklet. Get started. This process not only sets you up to tackle and execute but also Just. Feels. Better.

3) Make a smarter to-do list

Whether you make your to-do list the night before or in the morning, it feels great to cross something off that list during the day. Studies about goal making show that an unfinished task causes interference—often unconsciously—with other tasks you’re trying to complete. Translation: That task you didn’t do yet is hanging out in your psyche, cluttering the mental and emotional space that you could leverage in so many more productive ways.

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People with unfinished short-term goals performed poorly on unrelated reading and comprehension tasks, according to research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In other words, that presentation you need to craft could prevent you from giving 100 percent to something else. But there is a science-proven antidote: Making a plan to simply work toward that thing you’re putting off helps your mind set it aside, freeing you to focus on other tasks. (I’m just talking about a list here—you don’t actually have to complete the task.) When the study participants formulated lists of little to-dos, laddering up to their goals, the negative effects disappeared.

This is why I organize my to-dos into three buckets, a strategy I learned from my good friend Phoebe Jonas, an actor and life coach. Her method helped me stop getting down on myself about the length of my lists and gave me a road map to get my stuff done. The buckets:

The Indisputables: These are the nonnegotiables that must happen today. Try putting a time of day next to each one. For me, that means things like going for a morning run at 6:00 a.m., making the kids’ lunches at 7:15 a.m., doing the school bus drop-off at 8:04 a.m., attending the 10:30 a.m. staff meeting, and so on.

The Manuals: I think of the items in this bucket as on-the-fly, where-and-if-you-can to-dos. Things like loading my credit cards into Apple Pay on a new phone or updating the browser on my laptop with the IT desk. It would be great to get these done, but I’ll squeeze them in when I can.

The Floaters: These are tasks I’d like to complete in the next 30 to 60 days: a nonurgent email, a catch-up call with a college friend. They feel amazing to finish but also shouldn’t stress you out. Simply writing them down is enough for today.

4) Focus on the fun

There is one nonnegotiable to my mornings: coffee. I love each step of the process: hearing it brew in my coffee maker, pouring it into my mug, warming my hands around it, inhaling the aroma, then taking that first sip. And I especially treasure the part when, like magic, my mental fog dissipates. I’ve been a coffee drinker since high school, and I trace it back to morning runs with my dad. In my teenage years, he would convince me to get out of bed and join him for a few miles of jogging by promising me a latte at local Kansas City coffee shops, which doubled as the a.m.’s finish line.

Nowadays, I would never attempt to work out in the morning—or do anything else, actually—without first prepping a hot, caffeinated beverage to get me going. When I switched to decaf for a time, I learned that it’s as much about the ritual of morning coffee as it is about coffee itself. I discovered that in desperate times, I can swap in decaf or tea for my regular brew and still experience that satisfying sense of my clarity sharpening with each sip.

I know lots of people who opt for hot water with a squeeze of fresh lemon to gently awaken their brains and bodies. Others love smoothies to fuel up for the day. Some dig into a bowl of overnight oats. Whatever makes you excited to get out of bed is how you should start your day. Embrace the anticipation of those morning sips or bites.

Bonus: Own your weekend, too

Weekend mornings aren’t just made for pancakes and errand running. I bake into these mornings time to get a jump start on the week ahead and squash the Sunday scaries, which 80 percent of workers report feeling, according to a LinkedIn survey. I’ve found that the best antidote to what scientists call “anticipatory anxiety”—that nebulous, heart-racing dark cloud hanging over the upcoming week—is a game plan. Try this:

  • Do the worst chore early in the weekend. Knock out your have-to-do-it-but-really-don’t-want-to chores first thing on a Saturday morning. “Tackling your most dreaded tasks as soon as possible will give you a feeling of success early in the weekend and prevent anticipatory anxiety from stealing joy over those two days,” says Katherine King, Psy.D., an assistant professor of clinical psychology at William James College.
  • Plot out your week. Proactive Sunday-evening calendar management is one of the best ways to own the following Monday morning. A key: Develop the skill of figuring out how long tasks actually take, and slot them in realistic time frames. For me, knowing that writing and editing need uninterrupted blocks of time helps me look out for myself so I don’t get overbooked with meetings and other obligations. Once you realize the dishes don’t take an hour and an oil change really might, you’ll be better equipped to structure your days successfully.

    Adapted from Own Your Morning, by Liz Baker Plosser. © 2021 Hearst Magazines Inc., Published by Hearst Home

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