The Rudder of the Day

It’s been said that the first hour is the rudder of the day. I’ve found this to be very true in my own life. If I’m lazy or haphazard in my actions during the first hour after I wake up, I tend to have a fairly lazy and unfocused day. This kind of day might begin by lingering in bed to cuddle the wife, being pounced by my daughter, stretching a bit, getting dressed, shaving, having a leisurely breakfast (the kind that takes me 20 minutes to prepare and another 20 minutes to eat), unloading the dishwasher, discussing the day’s plans with my wife (we both work at home), etc. Then I might start the workday by checking email, writing a blog entry, and doing a few other minor tasks. By this time I’ve usually been up for several hours, and by that time those early hours have already predisposed me to having an uninspired day. On a scale of 1-10, my overall energy level rarely tops a 7 on this kind of day.

But if I strive to make that first hour optimally productive, the rest of the day tends to follow suit. This day begins by waking up at 5am and physically getting up the instant my alarm goes off — no lingering or thinking about sleeping in. I quickly get dressed but skip the shaving. I make a cup of herbal tea (no caffeine) and then go straight to my desk in my home office. No checking email. By 5:10am, I’ve begun work on my #1 project. After 60-90 minutes, I’ll take a break to go shave, acknowledge my family, then make a quick 5-minute breakfast and eat it in my office while I continue working. That productive first hour propels me forward, and by 11am, I’ve usually completed the equivalent of a full day’s work under the previous model. And normally my energy level will be at least an 8 or 9 through the rest of the day.

What surprised me was that the second version, although it seems harder, was actually easier once I got used to it. Getting the most important work done early in the day is energizing, and when you have a few weeks of highly productive days, it adds even more energy and momentum. I feel great when I see the clock hit 8:30am, and I’ve already done 3 solid hours of focused work on my #1 project. This creates strong momentum that carries me through the rest of the day. Many days I don’t bother to check my email until after 5pm — in fact, I think if people adopted the simple habit of not checking email until after 5pm (assuming normal business hours), that alone would dramatically increase productivity. Try making email the last activity of your workday, and watch how quickly you can dispatch it.

Of course I have the advantage of working from home, so I can be at my desk within minutes of awakening. But I had similar experiences during those years when I had an office outside the home. I generally found it best to get up and go straight to work with minimal delay. Eating breakfast at the office instead of lingering at home usually led to a more productive day.

The advantage of starting so early is that you finish early. Sometimes I’m done with my workday before I pick up my daughter from preschool at 3:30PM, so I feel no guilt in taking the rest of the day off.

Motivation can precede action, but motivation also follows action. How you spend that first hour will induce the corresponding level of motivation in you, which you can then use to good effect. If you want a highly productive fast-tempo day, make that first hour as such — get up and go straight to work on your #1 project. If you want a peaceful day, make that first hour peaceful — meditate, read, go for a walk, take a relaxing bath. If you want a lazy day, be lazy that first hour — sleep in, watch TV, have a leisurely breakfast. If you want a day lost to trivialities, spend that first hour on trivialities — check email, visit online forums, read the news, get chatty with others.

The good news is that if you want to have a certain kind of day, simply focus your best efforts on that first hour. Don’t worry about what comes afterwards. If you nail that first hour, the rest of the day will tend to fall in line. Leverage the power of the rudder to steer the whole ship.

To a lesser degree, I’ve also found this can work midday, although it’s usually harder. If you’ve started off having a lousy day, take a breath and then focus your best efforts on mastering the hour that’s right in front of you. That’s your rudder.