I’m sure you recognize this: Starting the workday still kind of waking up. Getting sucked in to email, at some point going back to more serious work, then suddenly it’s noon. You’re like shit I wanted to have more done by now! So maybe you eat at your desk—bad idea, by the way—and try to keep going with some more coffee. Then it’s 3 in the afternoon, your energy dips and you keep trying to power through. But honestly there’s not much motivation or focus left. And then the day ends and you’re slightly confused about what actually happened today.
One Level Deeper
You can fix this. If you want to work with passion and excellence, and be happy while doing it, it takes care and attention to the core skills of knowledge work which are hidden one level deeper than the usual skills you think of. So it’s not skills like project management, or Excel, or customer service. We’re talking about staying motivated, organizing your tasks, note-taking, focus.
We all need these all the time yet most of us don’t regularly practice. A top guitarist will rehearse their most basic scales every single day, but we rarely even think about how to increase our focus. How can we expect to become a top performer then?
Ooof, I’m sorry if this is hitting hard here. I don’t want to make you feel bad—in fact I want to encourage you. Because if this hasn’t been a focus of yours, just imagine what your life could look like in a year, if you started learning and implementing these techniques. I call this The Decision: deciding that, yes, I want to be happier and I want to work with passion and excellence. I will learn and practice this regularly.
What Makes a Great Day
In this video, I want to go over the fundamental practices and techniques that make for a great working day. I’ve been learning personal development and been obsessed with maximizing my performance for more than 10 years—yeah I started early—and these are the habits that have stuck with me.
I try to do all of these every day. I won’t pretend to be perfect, for sure not all of this happens every single day. The thing with habits, though, is that a 100% success rate is not the endgame. Yes, it’s something you strive for and keep striving for, but the real success is the moment when it’s no longer an exception. Rather, when the moment you don’t do your habit feels “weird,” that’s when you’ve integrated it.
Our day has three big blocks:
- The morning
- The working day
- The evening
The Morning Routine
We just woke up. What do we do? Check our email! Nononono. Email is an organizing tool for others’ agenda’s, that’s not what you want your first thoughts to be.
See, the first thing we think and do really sets up our mind for the rest of the day. These first few minutes and hours are absolutely crucial, this is the time where we have the ability to still steer our mind and prime it for more useful thinking patterns throughout the day.
In the morning I like to prime my mind—if I think about what kind of person I want to be, and set some intentions for the day, there’s a much higher probability that I will actually be that person.
Meditation = Focus Training
I start by meditating, usually for 15 minutes. Oftentimes I’ll connect my Muse headband and brain.fm, which gives me immediate feedback on how deep my concentration is, to get in a deeper state more quickly.
Meditating for me is in large part focus training. When I do it in the morning, I notice that I can stay more focused throughout the day. It’s like showing the brain “hey man, this is the kind of thinking we like.”
If you’re regularly practicing gratitude, this will be a game changer for you. I find that focusing on that I’m grateful for can quickly reset how I’m feeling. And again, training my mind from the start of the day to notice things I’m grateful for will make it more likely that that continues throughout the day. You’ll notice, after doing this daily for a month of so, that this really impacts your general happiness. It’s crazy what the effect of such a small habit can be.
So I always think of at least three things I’m grateful for. They could be big things that happened, or small things like the coffee that’s as delicious as every day, or something about myself. I might even be grateful that I’m practicing gratitude! The key here is to really try to feel the gratitude. For me it’s this warm radiating feeling around my heart. And if you’re just starting out it might be hard to feel—that’s okay, just keep trying. It’ll come at some point, and even without a deep feeling it’s having many positive effects.
Remember Who You Are
Yes, this sounds kind of funny but just listen here for a second. I’m sure you have good days and bad days too: sometimes you’re kind, loving, enthusiastic—and sometimes you just get pissed every 3 minutes. And I’m also pretty sure that the first kind of you is the one you would prefer to be.
Sometimes—actually I would argue most of the time, on regular days—the gentle push of just reminding ourselves of the kind of person we want to be, and taking a few seconds to visualize ourselves as this best version of us, is enough to shift our behavior in that direction.
To do that I have a little note where I kind of talk to myself and remind myself who I am. I remind myself to breathe deeply, to love my life and myself, to try and find meaning in the activities I do, to collaborate, treat others well and make sure they treat me well, move throughout the day, work with focus, and bring joy and a little bit of flirtiness to my interactions. I just read through it and try to feel each sentence.
If you would like a starting point, I’ve made a summary of all the habits on here with an example set of values and visualizations. If you want to get that, click the link in the description—when you sign up for my newsletter it’s the first thing I’ll send you.
Plan The Day
Okay, the mind is ready! Let’s get down to the tactics.
I try to plan every minute of my day. At the start of the day I’ll look at what’s in my agenda already, and think a bit about how I want to be in each of those events. I’ll think if there’s anything that I’m worried about or what needs some preparation.
Doing that I start making a little list in my daily note, just dumping what I think of needs to happen today. Maybe I’ll look through my to-do list to see if anything is there too. Then I’ll re-order, assign a time slot to each of those items and see if I can make it. Often I’ll have to throw out one or a few things. Well, nothing to do about that.
With that, I know exactly what to do at any point in time during the day. This has a huge effect on my productivity, because it literally shows me that I should be doing nothing else except for what’s on the plan.
To finish off, I just take a few seconds to reflect on the morning routine so far, and I consciously commit to doing my best to live with all of these beautiful intentions and this great plan. Just a few deep breaths and I’m ready to go go go crush it with love!
Want to build a habit from this? Get the worksheet that will guide you through all this:
The Working Day
Now it’s time to start with the actual working day. I know it’s very very tempting to start early and skip the “prepare” step—and I’m guilty of doing that more than I’d like—but forcing myself to slow down a bit and get grounded honestly improves the quality of my work and how I’m feeling about it. Maybe there’s like 20 minutes less time in total, but I think better so I need less time to make good decisions. In total I think I get more done in less time.
The most challenging part about a workday is the sheer length it is, and keeping your energy levels as high as possible throughout the day. The truth is, just like we have sleep cycles, we have cycles of high and low energy throughout the day. So the first rule I’d give you is this: when you feel really low on energy, go with it. The best thing you can do at those points is to step away from your desk, go for a walk, sit down somewhere and close your eyes for a minute. You’ll be surprised by how quickly the energy dip ends if you give your body the rest it needs.
I’ve been trying to figure out this all-day-energy thing for years now, and the best thing I’ve found is to simplify, simplify, simplify. Try to have as little things as possible in your life.
Do Not Multitask
Multitasking is sooo 20th century. The research is clear at this point: you can’t do it. I always think of how computers work: a processor can only do one thing at a time too, the only reason it looks like your computer does multiple things simultaneously is because it switches between everything very very quickly. But every switch uses a lot of computing power—your computer would be much faster if it only did one thing “at once.” You’re the same way—switching between things costs a lot of energy.
Commit to Focus
People think it takes a long time to get into focus and that they can suddenly lose it. I’d argue that’s not completely true. Rather, when I’m working I feel the impulse to distract myself every few minutes! Especially at the start of a working session. And that’s okay. Before the working session, you should really commit to yourself that you’ll try to focus. Then while working, try to notice distraction and when you do, give yourself a pep talk. I literally have this internal dialogue: “No Marcel, you’re focusing now, you can do that in your break time. Come on, let’s just continue working here. Just 20 more minutes to go, you can do it!”
Focus isn’t a magical beast, it’s just working with yourself to stay focused over and over and over again. You commit, and you remember.
Sometimes, you might think of a new idea or something to do or whatever. Don’t do it now! You’re focusing and there’s a break coming up. Take a minute to write it down on a piece of paper or a note on your computer if you’re afraid you’ll forget, then get back to work. This makes a huge difference.
You can’t do multiple things at once, but you can’t do the same thing for hours on end either. Maybe in the morning it feels like it’s possible, but the truth is that if you force yourself into some breaks in the morning, you’ll last for much longer throughout the afternoon. I usually work for about 50 minutes and then take a 10 minute break, which seems to be around the optimal from the research too.
Empty Your Mind During Breaks
Now, what you do in your breaks is incredibly important. Most people just switch their browser to a news site or Facebook or something. Sadly that will just make you even more exhausted. It’s this switching thing again, and being so hyper-stimulated from news articles or Instagram posts is making you switch again and again and again, and every time it’s draining your energy.
The solution is something I call the Focus-First Lifestyle, and I go a bit more in depth in another video. The goal is kind of to stay focused all the time, but if you switch the type of focus then paradoxically it keeps your energy levels high. Within the breaks, pay attention to your mind and try to let all the thoughts go. For a lot of people it helps to internally repeat “release” to themselves over and over. But it comes down to noticing when you’re thinking—about anything—and then deciding to forget it. You can anchor your focus on your breath, for example.
Also move. Sitting down is actually very unhealthy, people call it “the new smoking” as it actually seems to have negative effects for your overall well-being at the same scale as smoking! Your hips and shoulders in particular get tight when sitting down for longer than 30 minutes. So walk around, stretch, move your arms and legs, shake them a bit, maybe jump a bit. I know all of this is weird in an office, and some colleagues will ask you about it, but if you give them this explanation they’ll probably understand it’s a pretty good idea.
Follow The Plan
The day plan you made in the morning should be something you look at at least every hour, depending on how big your time blocks are. You should always be following the plan. Of course the plan will derail—personally I tend to underestimate everything—but that’s okay. Just adjust the plan, move the other tasks around and get back into it.
Don’t Take It Too Seriously
We’re talking about a lot of serious things here, but please make sure you keep having fun. If you need to, play some music you love and move around with it. When I’m on a roll I love playing music during breaks and just dancing it out! I reflect on everything I’ve already done and all the other awesome things I’ll do today.
It’s really important to stay motivated throughout the day. This is one of your core skills at work but barely anyone learns it! Just thinking about the momentum you have throughout the day will keep your motivation high, and doing things you know make you happy keep you alive and kicking. So make sure you have those moments.
The Evening Routine
Wow, we’ve really crushed it today. And you’re probably still filled up with thoughts wizzing through your head.
Most people just power through into their evening with their brain still in work mode. Then as they’re out of energy they get mad at their spouse, or lazy, or they just keep thinking about work and cannot relax until the middle of the night.
Have a Ritual
You need to make the end of your day a conscious moment. If you have a commute, driving is a great moment as it completely changes your physical environment. Then, when you’re almost home, stop for just two minutes, close your eyes and think about the evening. Decide that work is over and you can let everything go now. Breathe deeply a few times and set an intention for the person you want to be tonight. If you have a spouse, how do you want your interactions to be this evening?
You can even do this little ritual between any kind of task switching, and it helps you brain cool down so much.
I have these words in my Evening Journal:
Stop everything. The day is over. Everything that happened, has past. You’re here. It’s now. There’s nothing more you need to do.
Empty Your Mind
The best way to empty your mind is to just start writing. Take a piece of paper—this works much better than on a computer—and just start writing down anything that comes to mind. At some point you’ll run out of things to think and your brain will have calmed down.
Don’t Do Anything Complex
Now you’ve cooled down, don’t go do stuff that fills up your brain. Don’t scroll through Instagram, instead read a book. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Try to reduce variety. From now on it’s all about slowly getting tired so you can get deep, restful sleep.
Commit & Remember
Okay. You’ve seen a bunch of tips and tricks to optimize your working day. To get more done, still have energy in the evening and do all of that while feeling happy about yourself.
Are you going to do it? All of it? That’s hard isn’t it?
And it’s okay that you don’t become this perfect person within 3 seconds.
The biggest fear I have, though, is that you’ll forget this and not take any action. Yes, a lot of it can be overwhelming, but just take one thing.
In fact, I’ve prepared a bunch of things to help you really implement this:
- There’s a one-page summary of all the habits so you have a good reference
- I made a sort of guided meditation for your mindset in the morning, that you can listen to every day
- There’s also a worksheet with daily questions you can ask yourself to get yourself thinking constructive thoughts
- When you sign up for my newsletter, I’ll send this stuff to you and also keep an eye out to check in with whether you’re implementing something
So I’d invite you to click the link below, and we’ll continue this conversation over e-mail.