Do you often feel like you’re not in control of your day? Co-workers make unexpected demands, meetings don’t work out the way you planned, appointments fall through. You feel like you’re constantly reacting, rather than acting. As a result, not only does your overall productivity suffer, but you’re not getting done the things you want to accomplish. You find yourself regularly frustrated at work, and find it difficult to slough off this feeling of annoyance after you come home.
It’s rare for you to be able to say, “Today was a good day.”
So what’s the solution?
You can’t make everything go according to plan. You can’t make your co-workers perform like consistently reasonable robots.
But you can change one thing that’s wholly under your control: your morning.
And that will change everything about the rest of your day.
Why Changing Your Morning Changes the Course of Your Whole Day
Because of confirmation bias, your brain will take your morning experience and look for ways to confirm that experience — either good or bad — for the rest of the day. It can seem a bit dispiriting. Starting your day with a bad commute? Your brain wants to spoil the rest of the day. That spilled coffee on your shirt first thing? Your brain wants to tell you that your clients won’t take you seriously and the whole meeting will be shot.
The other side of confirmation bias is incredibly positive though. Have a good morning, and your brain will not only look past those seemingly negative experiences, but search for ways to confirm this positive a.m. vibe throughout the rest of the day.
So, what does it take to have a course-altering morning?
Fortunately, it doesn’t require waking up at 5am (or even early at all, really), nor a prolonged routine of journaling, exercise, a big breakfast, etc. (all the things you often find in articles about what a good morning looks like). Rather, setting yourself up for a good day is as easy as establishing a short and simple mindset-shifting routine.
A Brief Description of a Good Day
Before we delve into how you set yourself up for a good day, you first need to know what you’re aiming for; what is a good day, anyway?
If you’re like me, your first thought might have been about a day spent in a cabin in the woods (or a hut on the beach — to each their own!) with a good book and a plate of bacon by your side. While that would certainly be an excellent day, that’s not quite what we mean here.
The tactics we’ll be describing aren’t for generating just any kind of good days, but good work days (even if your work is being a stay-at-home dad or other non-traditional job). In this particular context, a good day is one in which you felt productive and energetic, and like you moved in a direction toward your larger goals.
This end result doesn’t mean you didn’t work mentally or physically hard, and it doesn’t mean you didn’t encounter setbacks, annoyances, and frustrating changes of plans. Having a good day doesn’t mean everything will go the way you want.
Rather, while unexpected “fires” invariably flare up, you’re ready to adjust to them. Instead of being flustered, stressed, and defeated, you stay calm, positive, and in control. You stay proactive rather than going reactive, and thus get done what you want to get done.
Maintaining this kind of aplomb in the face of frustration all starts with how you set your compass in the morning. In order to be able to handle whatever comes your way during the day, you have to intentionally set forth your attitude and mindset before it’s begun.
The How to Have Good Day Morning Routine
When I first delved into this topic, I was worried that the number of practices tied in to setting yourself up for a good day would be burdensome. Would I need to spend an hour just prepping myself for success? But after practicing and timing this process for a few weeks, I can happily report that the whole routine takes under 10 minutes. You can work through it either before you leave the house each day, or as the first thing you do when you sit down at your desk at work. (If you have a gnarly commute and find your mind starts going downhill before you even arrive at the office, I’d strongly consider making it the former!)
1. Set Your “Rule of 3”
It’s easier to let people and events get you off course during the day when you’re not entirely sure what you want to work on yourself. Your actions for your day should thus be guided by the Rule of 3. Read the article for more in-depth strategies and tips, but the gist is that you should set 3 priorities for the day that you focus on above all other things. What 3 specific tasks can you achieve that further you or your company’s goals the most?
While it’s fine to set your Rule of 3 the morning of, I actually prefer to do it at the end of the previous work day. I just feel better about my morning when I can jump right into my most important tasks. Do what works for you.
2. Set Your Intentions
Starting your day well is not just about setting out the right tasks for yourself in a manageable way. It’s also about creating an overarching purpose for your day — a larger aim. To do this, you must answer the question Caroline Webb poses in How to Have a Good Day: “What am I ultimately trying to achieve?”
For me, the answers to this question look like this:
- Helping men learn new skills and ideas in order for them to become better, more well-rounded individuals.
- Contributing, along with my wife, in providing for our family and the welfare of our household.
- Becoming the best man I can be — in body, mind, and spirit — in order to be the best possible father, husband, friend, and neighbor.
You’ll notice that this seems similar to a mission or vision statement. That’s because it is. It’s functionally what you’re doing here, but for me, it was easier to answer the question “What am I trying to achieve?” than to come up with a mission or vision statement out of thin air. This exercise in fact only took me a few minutes.
Webb calls this practice “setting your intentions.” Once done, they don’t really change a whole lot, and you simply need to review them every day — while you’re in the shower, eating breakfast, and/or driving to work. This review is especially important when you know you’re in for a long day: A big project is launching, with bugs likely. You have to deal with a lawsuit. An employee needs to be disciplined. You have a meeting with a particularly curmudgeonly client. On days like these, keeping your intentions at the forefront of your mind will keep you from getting derailed.
Not only do these “intentions” help guide your daily actions and your Rule of 3, a simple review of them in the morning shapes your entire attitude towards the day. Knowing that each day contributes to a larger purpose helps ground your actions and motivates you to cut out distractions and not waste any of the precious time you have.
All of my actions taken and tasks for the Art of Manliness contribute to that first intention of helping men become better men. Every email I send, every idea I come up with, every little boring administrative task aids in that endeavor. Knowing your intentions connects every task to a greater goal. Webb illustrates this with a story about a handyman at a hospital who describes the little tasks of his job within a larger context:
“‘I’m fixing the hinge so it opens more easily. It’s too stiff, so when you’re pushing patients on gurneys through the doors it gives them a nasty jolt. That’s not going to help them get better, is it?’ Of course, the handyman had been handed a task list for the day by his boss, and he was steadily working through it. It could have been dull, a grind. But in his mind, the goal was not just to fix the door. It was to reduce harm to patients. And making the connection to something he cared about encouraged him to treat the tasks more like his own intrinsic goals.”
Your intentions will not only guide your actions and attitude, but can also assist in positively troubleshooting negative situations. Sitting in bad traffic? “These dang cars aren’t going to stop me from helping my clients today.” Spill your coffee on your work shirt? “This stupid stain won’t keep me from showing these newlyweds some amazing houses to start their life in.” Your intentions will help you see the bigger picture in the midst of the small, inevitable annoyances that emerge each day.
3. Plan for fires. Make contingency plans. Ask, “What could get in my way today?”
This was something I had never really done until reading How to Have a Good Day, and I’ve found it to be remarkably good advice. If we’re honest with ourselves, we tend to know what distracts us throughout the day, be it fluffer distractions like social media, fantasy football, etc., or even important distractions like a new fire to put out at work or an important email that ends up taking you down a rabbit hole. Those things can derail your day and impede you from accomplishing your Rule of 3 tasks (and sour your mood as well).
So, take a few minutes in the morning to anticipate what might come up and distract you. If your kid is showing signs of illness, make a plan for what happens if you’re called to go pick him up halfway through the day. If a project is launching, build time into your day for when something inevitably goes awry. If the kind of slow-going, tedious work that makes you continually check your phone is on the agenda, install some app blockers to nip the distraction in the bud. Troubleshoot before you need to troubleshoot.
4. Do something physical, if you have time.
If you have time for a quick workout or 15 to 20-minute walk, do it. Webb writes:
“researchers found that on days that people exercised before work or did something active during their lunch break, they were far better able to concentrate and handle their workload. Exercise also boosted people’s mood and motivation (by 41 percent) and their ability to deal with stress (by 27 percent).”
She noted that the effects were seen with just 20 minutes of moderate activity (and I’d say anecdotally that 10 or 15 minutes will do it too!). It doesn’t even have to be intense. Moving the body is good not just for your physical health, but also for your motivation, ability to manage stress, and overall productivity. Want to get better at your job? Get active! (Especially in the mornings.)
If you don’t have time in the morning, either make time, or take a quick walk over your lunch break or during a mid-morning coffee run.
5. Set a reward for the end of the day.
When you know a particularly challenging day lies ahead, consider coming up with a reward for yourself after the work day is through. Whether it’s a dram of your favorite whiskey, a couple episodes of your favorite TV show, or simply a silent and relaxing 20 minutes in your favorite outdoor lounger, knowing you have something to enjoy at the end of it all can push you through the challenging hours you’re staring down in the morning.
Follow the above morning routine, you’ll be able to tackle each day proactively, stay productive, and more regularly say, along with Ice Cube, “Today was a good day.”
Be sure to listen to Brett’s podcast interview with Caroline Webb for even more tips on how to have a good day, above and beyond just your morning routine:
Last updated: September 15, 2017