(You can find all the posts under the Making Better Mornings Series here.)
In What Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, journalist Laura Vanderkam argues that most people spend their mornings dashing around, usually after children or crazy commutes, or on mindless tasks (i.e. checking Facebook). They avoid "highest-value" activities by filling up on hurry, hurry, hurry. And this creates more hurry and less success at the things that matter.
Highest-value tasks are described in a lot of ways. They are not necessarily the activities that will make you the most money. In the productivity community, they are known as 'absolutes.' At the end of every day, productivity blogger Shawn Blanc writes down his three absolutes. These are things that have to get done the next day. They include important career, family and personal things. Vanderkam calls them "core competencies" and specifically refers to career, family and self. No, brushing your teeth doesn't count as nurturing the self. That's a human must. She means things like prayer, meditation, exercise, etc. In The One Thing, Gary Kellar and Jay Papasan narrow down highest-value activities into just one thing. The one thing is the one action that will make everything else easier or even unnecessary.
Ok, fine. So I see why these highest-value activities should form part of every day.
But why do I have to manage them in the morning?
Why can't I just do them at night?
If you have kids, then you know why. Evenings with a family are like extended mentorship/house-cleaning/love-in/entertainment sessions. Hard to find a second to go for a jog or write in your journal as the master of that circus.
People have been divided into personality types since the dawn of psychology. And it turns out that personality, highest-value activities and early rising all form this sort of nest of inter-relavence. Historically, people have been divided into three circadian groups: larks (morning people), owls (night people) and intermediates. A series of studies from the past 10 years show that these groups demonstrate specific personality traits. Larks tend to be less impulsive, more grounded in reason, demonstrate higher levels of self-control and have a cooperative relationship with authority. Owls are more impulsive, creative, imaginative and more likely to take risks.
I am a late intermediate, closer to the owl side of things.
And I am trying to become a lark. In order to actually get my highest-value activities done every day, I need to do them in the morning. I may not be able to change my personality entirely but if I can quiet the mind and avoid the temptations of the evening (TV, news, etc), I might become more focused and productive. If I am up at 5:30am, my instinct isn't to muck around on the internet because, honestly, I would rather be sleeping. If I am going to be up, I am going to be useful to humanity, or at least to myself.
You've probably heard about the Stanford marshmallow experiment. A bunch of kids were told to wait in a room with a pile of marshmallows. Some kids waited and didn't eat them. Some kids waited a little while to eat them. And some kids just ate them right away. These kids were followed over time and the kids who waited longest were found to be most successful in commonly-accepted life measures. They had a sense of the future and were able to delay gratification in order to attain some higher reward down the line. If I had been a subject, I would have been covered in marshmallow. That's my nature. Through maturing I have been able to temper my nature but my successes have rarely been pre-ordained or even likely.
The Stanford experiments helped shape previously accepted ideas about willpower: willpower is limited every day, it's most available in the morning and it can be built like a muscle. The tides are changing on this theory, however. An April 2015 study showed that university students who believed their willpower was limited were more likely to procrastinate and get poor grades. Those who believed that willpower was unlimited scored better grades and procrastinated less.
I am banking on the idea that if I can change my mindset about my ability to wake up early and my ability to accomplish my highest-value activities, then I can actually get up early and get them done. And by showing myself that I can do these things I reinforce the idea that I am capable of executing my highest-value activities. This is known as self-efficacy. And I've been up writing since 5:30am so maybe I am onto something.
If I were to try writing my three absolutes for today, they would be:
- Get in a few minutes of yoga because I am feeling pretty stiff right now (It's a marathon, not a sprint)
- Call my mom and dad to see how they're doing (Family is everything)
- Read this week's New England Journal of Medicine (Doctors don't stop learning)
These cover career, body and family. The list is short. The absolutes are specific, measurable and time-limited. Also, I can manage them without feeling totally overwhelmed. I've also attached a reason for each activity.
Connecting these pieces of work to a purpose, a sense of meaningfulness, is essential.
My lightbulb moment around why I need to connect activities to purpose came when reading Gretchen Rubin's new book, Better Than Before. The book is devoted to figuring out why some people are superheroes when it comes to habits and some people have no habits whatsoever. Through several years of research, she nailed down four human tendencies into which most people fit, and the tendencies reflect internal and external motivation to do something like a habit. Upholders respond to both internal and external motivation. Obligers require an external motivation to get going. Questioners rely on internal motivation and need to articulate for themselves a damn good rationale for doing something. Rebels respond to no motivation, by definition.
I am, without doubt, a questioner. Being a questioner and a marshmallow-eating kid can make life complicated sometimes. So if I don't have a purpose-driven goal then I don't have a goal at all. I have a list of "shoulds" that I refuse to entertain because there are marshmallows that must be eaten immediately.