the first hour

The first hour - something better than coffee

I recently read an intriguing article titled, "How 7 Female Leaders Spend their First Hour at Work". Initially I was skeptical that reading this would do to me the things it advertised. Things like “jump start my career,” or “send me on a fast track to my career dreams.” That being said, I had never given any serious thought to my first hour at work, so maybe this was something to consider.

I thought to myself – before you do anything important or have any major task at hand, you always begin with preparation. I imagine before any big competition, athletes spend the time before the game warming up. I doubt that actors just hop in front of the camera, or on stage, and give an Oscar-winning performance without spending time rehearsing lines, or getting into character.

It occurred to me, why would a regular business day be any different. Am I setting myself up for a successful performance each day? So I started to examine my first hour of work. I opened up my mind to the possibility of altering my regular routine. I didn’t know if these tips were the “key to success,” but what harm would there be in trying? So I continued to read on. What I ended up with were some really impactful tips. Tips that when applied to my day, made me feel more productive, focused and accomplished. It’s possible that it could have just been some really good coffee that day, but I’m pretty certain this advice was the key. I feel strongly enough about it that I’m sharing it with you now.

The article described many different tactics for kick starting your day – since I am writing this to share with you I feel compelled to be completely honest. I immediately dismissed the first tip of “stocking your desk drawer with healthy snacks, so when the hustle and bustle of the day starts, you have a healthy way to refuel, and not be dragged down by the sugary tolls.” For me this was NOT a starting point. I have a reputation at my office to uphold (I love my sweets and coffee).

Now that I’ve told you what tricks didn’t work for me, here are a few that I did find helpful. The first was to build a task list for the day. This is not a new one to me. I love lists, but never thought of this as a first hour activity. Also what was really intriguing, was a suggestion to create the “task list for champions:”

The three-tier task list:

First Tier: (Priorities) Pick a couple of things that are important. Tasks that need to be done, and CAN be accomplished. If the task is too big, break it down and make it something you can complete. This is important – we want to be able to cross this off. Feel free to number them if you so desire.

Second Tier: (Secondary) This is for when you are so productive that you get through the first tier. Your second priority activities  are things that will become a first priority eventually, but for the time being are not of the utmost importance. It never hurts getting a jumpstart on these jobs however, so once the first tier is clear, dive right in.

Third Tier: (People Priorities) I have never seen this categorized, but it’s a game changer! I think we do this intuitively every day but it’s an important one to get on that task list. Who do you need to connect with, whom have you been meaning to sit down to lunch with? Is there something you have been meaning to do for someone else? If you lead/manage a team, have you touched base with all of the team members? What do they need to achieve? Are you tracking their goals and being clear with your expectations of them?

Whether you choose a simple task list, or the three-tier list, sitting down during that first hour to plan your day is a road map to help you navigate the chaos that a typical day brings. More importantly, it is a great reminder for me to think about specializing my lists each day to keep them manageable and achievable. My clutter drawer of a task list still exists, and it usually makes my three tier list easier to create. That being said, knowing what I am setting out to do is a great way to get it done! Just remember, with every good plan comes a need to stay flexible to what lies ahead.

Moving on, I must warn you, this next tip may appear easy until you actually try to do it! 

AVOID checking email first thing in the morning:

WHAT? This seems like a simple pointer, but if you are anything like me, this is the first thing I lean for! However, since I am keeping an open mind (except about the healthy snacks) why do I need to check my email first thing? Of course when working for a global company, this can be a priority. Obviously there are only so many parallel working hours in the day across regions, but WHY should this be the first activity of your day? So I gave it a try. And it was HARD. I am not being dramatic here, it was like a huge magnetic force pulling my attention and very difficult to resist. But I did. I worked on my task list (in full disclosure maybe I took a tiny peek at my email subject lines to ensure my priorities were straight, but I did not dive into emails).

Then I took another valuable first hour direction from the article.

Do something creative:

We all know our energy for creativity and innovation is greater first thing in the morning. At least for me, it becomes harder to engage later in the day after my mind has been stretched and worn out. So I did as the authors of this article suggested and flipped the script. My first hour was purely creative and as a bonus, something to help a colleague that I had been meaning to do. I was able to accomplish the task with a fresh and clear mind (which actually made the task less time-consuming). After completing a task on my list, I checked it off. It felt so good I went on to my priorities (also checking the email finally…PHEW).

I will say this, it was very difficult to change habits I was not even aware I had. Before reading this article I would have said I do not have a routine to my first hour of the day. After embracing some of these tips I realized that I did have a routine of habits. While they were serving me just fine, they were not necessarily serving MY best performance! Prioritizing with the 3-tier task list gave me more focus. By adding people to this list I was ensuring I was aligning with my team and other leaders, or merely leaving room to learn from and connect with my larger network. By doing something creative in the morning I used my energy strategically. By not checking my email first thing, I freed myself of everyone else’s agendas. I was able to set my own priorities (which I did adjust as I worked through my emails). I was also able to focus my day, stick to what I prioritized, and this in the end provided me more clarity, concentration,  strategy and energy to be the most successful I could be. I became less reactive and much more proactive.

I am sure there are many other tricks out there to learn, but bringing more thoughtfulness to the first hour of my day has been refreshing. It has given me the capacity to tackle each day with more enthusiasm, clarity and purpose. I’m not sure this is the key to career success, but it absolutely enables me to be a better leader.

Whether you choose to avoid your emails for the first hour, spend your time stocking up on healthy snacks, or doing something creative and creating a plan for the day, I have learned that this first hour is what sets the tone for the rest of your day. Make it count and make it work for you!

Erin De Vito is a Program Manager at Impact Americas.