“All things considered” has become an increasingly common phrase, heard often in responses like, “I’m doing well, all things considered.” Let’s consider all of those things; COVID-19, working from home, and the new normal. The coronavirus outbreak has now become a pandemic, reaching nearly every continent and affecting a multitude of individuals and their families. In order to react appropriately and flatten the curve in our communities, we’ve had to adopt new practices and change our lifestyles. It is a huge adjustment for all of us. As a whole, we’re experiencing a loss of freedom, a loss of structure, and oftentimes, too, a loss of our sense of purpose. We’re adapting, in a continuous process, to our new and changing circumstances.
A loss of control is a huge shock to our systems, and can be quite difficult to get a grasp on. However, we need to be mindful of the parts of our day that we still do have control over. It is our responsibility — our duty — to embrace these moments and routines. Our bodies crave consistency – whether that be in our more important behaviours like sleep and wake cycles or deep work, or smaller rituals like having a morning coffee or walking the dog. With regular daily activities, our bodies can prepare for and anticipate certain events. Our sleep and wake cycles, digestive system, and mental functioning become alert and react predictably around the times we need them, and also slow down to rest when not in use.
We’re all familiar with our circadian rhythm, mastered by the hypothalamus in the brain, but this also influences our chronopharmacology, or the way in which biological rhythms and drug actions interact. The 24-hour clock influences our bodies and our behaviours, and research shows that the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the blood has an influence on the efficacy of caffeine. For that reason, when cortisol levels dip between 9:30-11:30AM, it becomes an opportune time to fit in that extra kick of caffeine. This is one example of the interaction between routine and biology. Working with your body’s natural ups and downs, as opposed to against them, increases efficiency and benefits mental wellbeing.
On that note, a powerful morning with a fairly inflexible routine helps me to set the tone for the rest of the day. I don’t consider myself to be a morning person, but I do genuinely try to embrace aspects of the morning. In this sense, productivity begins on my terms. My day, essentially, begins on my terms. Research from Harvard University suggests that a productive morning can aid in making the most use of our limited reserves of energy and motivation. When our energy and self-control begin to deplete, as our motivation wavers, it becomes difficult to focus and finish tasks. A good morning routine can then positively influence attitude, energy level, and performance throughout the day.
My day usually begins around 7:00 or 7:30AM. An early rise allows me to fully wake up and get ready before starting a deep work session around 8:30 or 9:00AM. I then immediately make my bed. This creates a simple, relatively short, opportunity for mindfulness right in the morning. Being still a little tired lets me focus only on the task at hand without my mind wandering. By waking up early, I carve out time to do things I enjoy. I prioritize my mornings to set a positive frame of mind for the rest of the day. Learning about early rising from Virgin Group founder Richard Branson also helped to shift my perspective on the first few hours of the day. No matter how you look at it, mornings are really important.
From there, my purpose shifts to preparing for the day to come. I change into something from my business casual, but still on the more comfortable end, wardrobe. This is one of many mental triggers that I incorporate into my day. Work clothes help to foster a work mindset, even (especially) while working from home. Along with that, I also make sure to keep the surface of my desk as clean and minimalistic as possible. A clear space helps to foster a clear mind, free to think creatively and face any challenges that come up during the day. Moving to the kitchen, I next begin the ritual of making my morning coffee. This ritual has become sacred to me, over the years, and it has consistently been the best part of my morning.
I make drip coffee, purposely because it takes a little bit longer than simply popping a pod into the Keurig. It’s a straightforward way to make a good cup of coffee and it gives me a moment of clarity and mindfulness before I begin work for the day. I love coffee and, I’ll admit, I like feeling somewhat like a barista when I make it. This way of making coffee originated in Europe in the 1900s involves pouring hot water over coffee grounds and through a filter into a carafe or mug. As Gloria Chadwick, author of “Zen Coffee: A Guide to Mindful Meditation” says, being mindful of how you make your coffee shows you how to be mindful in every part of your life. I take in the smell, the simple motions, and just enjoy this peaceful moment of my day.
Coffee in hand, I then sit down to prepare further for the work day to come. I open my laptop and my planner to take a look at what I have planned for the day and for the week. Writing a physical, on-paper to-do list where I can order items in order of priority and check off the boxes as I go allows me to have a tangible reminder of what I need to do and what still needs to be done. Now, I ensure that this list never gets too lengthy. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of everything that I need to do in total, but rather a shorter list of a few, no more than four, key things that I need to accomplish over the course of one or two days. The items themselves, too, are specific. I break down large tasks into smaller portions so as to stay realistic and not overwhelmed about my day-to-day productivity.
These lists, too, all live in the same notebook, where each day receives a new page. That way I can track my smaller accomplishments over time and take a look at them in a cumulative manner. My tasks also live on Asana, a website and app designed to track and organize work. In this way, I can keep track of due dates over the course of months, including those that are far in the future. Asana is a tool that can be used by both teams and individuals to ensure that projects are followed through to completion and evaluation afterwards. Nothing is forgotten about and the appropriate individuals are held accountable for the work.
After intentionally preparing for the day, all that is left to do is actually do the work. With a tidy work space and technological tools that I enjoy using, all I need to do is apply my willpower and get started. I’m usually feeling ready to work, and work just becomes the next natural step in my morning. I’ve done some research on the subjects of deep work and flow state, with a particular interest in how they intersect, by reading “Deep Work” by Cal Newport and “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Deep work often generates a flow state, and both then feed into each other to allow me to continually intensify my focus as time goes on. Distraction-free concentration pushes my cognitive capabilities to their limits, allowing me to create valuable work and improve my skills. During these moments, I’m feeling good, the work is getting done, and I occasionally even find myself losing track of time. I am at my peak of productivity.
While deep work and flow keep me focused, time-blocking keeps me on task. With time-blocking, I set aside a certain period of time, whether that be half an hour or three hours, at a time to work on a single task. In doing this, I incorporate the items listed out on my written to-do list into the calendar on my Mac. I keep that opened on my desktop as a gentle reminder to stay on task. If I end up needing more time to finish something, I simply add in another block of time for the task wherever I see a free spot. This structure helps me to maximize the time that I’m spending in deep work and flow states, as I then have direction and know what, exactly, to focus on at that moment. Of course, many of us find ourselves multitasking throughout the day, but I prefer to compartmentalize my schedule instead. That way, I’m able to work on a single task for a longer amount of time, resisting the temptation to flip back and forth between different tasks and tabs, making it easier to focus and maintain that state of flow.
That, in short, is how I start my day and foster the momentum I need to keep going for the rest of my working day. Clarity in my mornings brings me mental sharpness throughout the rest of my day. Now, it’s important to note that new routines are difficult. I’m not always able to follow mine so seamlessly and, of course, additional challenges come up from time to time. An effective routine is beneficial, but also less valuable when not coupled with flexibility and forgiveness when those tougher moments come up. I take things slow and approach each aspect one day at a time.