For one week in March, I decided to spend the first hour of my work day focusing on high-priority, high-brainpower tasks rather than frittering it away on email.
I based this experiment on the common wisdom of massively productive people: that email is “shallow work” or “a distraction” that drains the fresh morning focus you could have been using to do something more meaningful or productive.
For me, that something is usually writing.
There are a handful of different kinds of tasks I accomplish during my day — editing, holding phone interviews for future stories, coordinating the production of stories from our contributors, finding great pieces from our content partners — but writing generally requires the most intense focus.
So, for one week, I decided that I would spend the first hour of my day at the office writing two stories chosen the night before instead of going through my email.
Here’s how it went:
Monday: Started strong
I arrive at work, turn on my computer, and go get some tea while it loads. I come back and my email is open on my screen. Have to admit I took a quick peek and registered there wasn’t anything urgent, or many more than there had been when I checked my email the night before on a train home from a wedding in Boston.
Closed the window and started to write.
Quickly encountered a dilemma: I have some follow-up questions for the subject of the article I’m writing that I need to email over. Should I pop into email to send? Ultimately decided to write my email in a text document during “no-email” time, then copy/paste when I’m allowed back in my inbox.
I wrote one of the two articles during that hour, minus the follow-up questions. Maybe I was too ambitious. Amended the next day’s goal to one story.
Arrived at 7:40 a.m. for an 8 a.m. call with someone who is currently in Thailand. Use that 20 minutes to read Business Insider and, yes, deal with some emails. By the time my call wraps up it’s 8:37 and technically, my first hour is over. I call it and move on with my day.
Wednesday: Got distracted
I was having some anxiety about my email so I went ahead and skimmed it when I arrived. I archived some irrelevant PR pitches, then closed the window and checked site analytics.
Ended up accomplishing about half of my morning article in that first hour.
Thursday: Back on track, an hour later than planned
I had an 8:30 a.m. coffee meeting and scrolled through emails on my phone as I waited in the cafe.
When I got back to the office about 40 minutes later, I peeked at my inbox, then quickly closed the window and spent the next hour writing.
I did write one story that morning.
Friday: Wrapped up loose ends
Over the course of the week I’d written a bunch of stories that needed a finishing touch or an extra detail, so I spent the first hour doing that. I had glanced at email on my phone before leaving my house that morning, so I knew there wasn’t anything terribly urgent and had no problem ignoring it.
I didn’t spend the hour writing, really, but I was able to finish a handful of projects and send them off to my editor.
What I didn’t realise was what this practice would do for the rest of my day.
I did a pretty lousy job with the experiment. Every day, I at least glanced at my email in the first hour, and I rarely accomplished my goal for that hour.
But looking back on the week, I realised that I had been incredibly productive with my writing overall. Even if I didn’t finish the piece or pieces I started in the morning, I wrapped them up during the day. Plus, diving straight into the most intimidating work in the morning gave me the nerve to keep tackling the biggest tasks on my list all day long.
What I also didn’t realise before this week was that I don’t generally fritter away my day on email. The vast majority of the emails I send have content I need or are related to important projects, and really, it doesn’t sideline me from my other work. Ultimately, this morning hack probably wasn’t the optimal one for me … but being mindful about the most impactful projects on my plate did lead to a very productive week.
Learn more about how productive people set themselves up for success every morning in The Success Series.
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