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“The first hour is the rudder of the day.” This quote is from Henry Ward Beecher, and for a while I loved it, along with any other focus tips I could find to improve my productivity.

Then I hated it. That’s because I explored 5am productivity life – and it led to more daytime fatigue and missed expectations than anything else.

During that exploratory process, though, I found various focus tips that helped me get into flow. 

Yes, early-morning productivity is a movement, but for many a 5am wake-up call either short-circuits your sleep goals or is not available.

So even if you’re not getting up at the crack of dawn, you can still set the tone for a great day by what you do at or near the start of your day.

Over time, one or more of these triggers can help you ‘switch on’ your productivity and focus when it’s time to be resilient and get things done.

Here are 7 I’ve personally had success with in my morning efforts.

Focus tip #1: Consume something

The baristas must think I’m crazy. Even on a cold Winter morning, my coffee beverage of choice is a jet-black cold brew. Why?

At this point, I associate cold brew with working.

Starbucks calls it the “first sip feeling”, but no matter what local café I order from the feeling is the same: Hold the slick plastic cup in my hand, take an icy sip, and feel a rising wave of desire to clack my fingers against a laptop keyboard.

My “trigger beverage” has shifted from time to time. Sometimes I take a caffeine break and move to a ginger tea, or hot water with lemon.

Until further notice, though, cold brew is my beverage of choice when it’s time to start the day strong. You could explore using a food trigger as well, though I personally had less success with this approach.

Look for a potential ‘trigger’ you can sip or snack on as you take on the day.

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Focus tip #2: Eat the frog

This classic aphorism from Brian Tracy is simple: tackle your biggest, most uncomfortable task first thing in the morning before you have a chance to avoid it or talk yourself out of it.

I have a love/hate relationship with this one!

If you usually start your work around the same time each day, see if you can “eat the frog” before a certain hour or within a certain timeframe.

If that’s not realistic due to other work or family responsibilities, then choose an alternate time goal.

You’ll be amazed how much more productive you feel getting this one big task done rather than several small things that don’t actually make as big of a difference.

Focus tip #3: Listen to the same song on repeat

In mantra-based meditation, the same sound is repeated or channeled over and over again to help the brain descend into a more relaxed state.

Lucky for us (and Spotify), music can achieve a similar effect; in fact, music is proven to help suspend a wandering mind and alter the speed of brain waves.

So why not hypnotize yourself into flow state? Consider listening to the same song over and over again.

I went to music school (and then burned out and hated myself for a decade, more on that some other time), so the idea of a musical trigger caught my attention.

In practice, I realized a couple things:

  • I ruined a few of my favorite songs from thousands of listens while trying to eat frogs and break my distraction addiction. Look for songs you’re not too attached to (as you’ll probably tire of them eventually).
  • I personally did better with songs with no lyrics; this lets you get the aural benefits without the storytelling potency of verses and choruses. 

A “song trigger” also helps when you’re working or writing from a new place and outside of your usual environment. New café, hotel room, coworking space - it won’t matter.

Focus tip #4: Choose a not-too-comfortable location

Remote life is great.

It’s so easy and tempting to curl up with the laptop on the living room couch one morning, check emails another day from your desk, and spend yet a different day at a new coffee shop taking in the scenery and people-watching.

This will also likely sink your productivity and enable distraction like nobody’s business.

Challenge yourself to curate the same environment -- one in which you get your best work done -- each day.

And if possible, have the location not be the same as where you spend personal time or relax with family and friends.

Otherwise, you risk memorizing that spot as a work spot, not as a relaxation spot, and both your socialization and productivity may suffer.

Focus tip #5: Write something in a physical notebook

When it comes to cognition, physical writing with a pen and paper may yield deeper learning.

For many of us, we type a lot throughout the day, or spend a lot of our day on screens. (The latest statistics, in fact, point to over 10 hours a day on screens.)

Moreover, we associate typing and screens with email responses, feed scrolls, and other more superficial tasks.

It can be challenging to move into focused work when our vehicle for expression is the same one that we use throughout the day for conversation and general engagement. 

So instead, get off the screen to get down some of your initial ideas. Even just 5 or 10 minutes can give you the mental head start that you need to build momentum for your morning.

Focus tip #6: Start the day with a passion project

Whenever I tried to complete client or side hustle work first thing in the morning, one of two things would happen.

Either I wrote at a snail’s place, or I smashed the snooze button repeatedly.

To build up intrinsic motivation, I had to put passion projects first, even if it felt inconvenient from a time management perspective.

This output boost also really set the tone for my day. So while I felt like I was putting myself in a time crunch by starting on my own material, I actually get the most done on these days because of the attitude shift.

Your passion project doesn’t have to be writing-related, or even take that long. 

I found it helpful when my project was output-related, though - reading pages of a book or writing for myself set the tone better than listening to true crime podcasts in your car for a few extra minutes before the work day began, for example.

Explore something output-related that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning.

Focus tip #7: Suspend distraction

This statistic made me reflect: Each time we are interrupted, the recovery period to re-achieve flow state is twenty minutes or more according to a UC-Irvine study.

As a distraction addict, I had definitely become my own self-saboteur.

So I took a day to orient yourself to the notification settings on my various devices (which, ironically, I had been procrastinating on due to distraction).

I zeroed out the push notifications on your phone, disabled desktop notifications on your computer, and experimented with other boundaries to achieve a “distraction-free zone”, such as browser blockers and word count trackers.

I was so acclimated to distraction, in fact, that when I first implemented these updates I found my working environment to be excruciatingly quiet. I craved any reason to flit from one project to another or have five Google doc tabs open at once.

Explore ways to “suspend distraction” in your environment, and you’ll discover not only more awareness around your distraction addiction, but also a boost in motivation to extinguish it.

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Obviously these tips are not gospel. I found they have all helped me in some way, though.

Feel free to tinker with or incorporate any of these triggers into your routine. In summary,

  1. Consume something
  2. Eat the frog
  3. Listen to the same song on repeat
  4. Choose a not-too-comfortable location
  5. Write something in a physical notebook
  6. Start the day with a passion project
  7. Suspend distraction

I’m still tinkering, too. If you have any triggers you particularly like, I would love to hear them.

Thanks for reading.

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