This Is the Best Time to Make Your To-Do List

April 16, 2017, 2:00 PM UTC
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The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “What’s your morning routine before going to work?” is written by Dennis Yang, CEO of Udemy.

We’re all wired a little differently, so no morning routine is going to work for everyone. If you want to be effective in the morning, the most important thing is to recognize your patterns and manage your time accordingly.

I find my mental clarity is sharpest the first thing in the morning. I capitalize on that to do as much thinking, planning, and problem solving as I can soon after I wake up. Without fail, I’ll make my to-do list for the day and set my priorities. If I don’t use my early morning to get a handle on how I’ll spend the rest of the day, things can go quickly off the rails. If something isn’t on my daily list, it’s probably not going to get done.

Starting the day in this way helps me prepare for whatever awaits and is the keystone of my approach to tackling complex, long-term challenges. Once I’m in the office, it’s far too easy to become engulfed in processing email, having someone grab me for a “quick chat,” and other reactive tasks that invariably come up and interfere with creative thinking. As soon as I’m responding to pings, I’m playing defense. Then there are meetings, and by the end of the day, I’ll be simply too fatigued to engage in deep thinking.

After I’ve sketched out what I want to accomplish that day, I like to catch up on the news. I’ll look at headlines and scan articles of interest, but I try not to get too involved in any one story or I’ll never extricate myself. I bookmark anything I want to come back and read more closely later. I also need to stay on top of business and technology news, so I subscribe to newsletters focused on these topics.

I have to be fairly regimented about my morning routine, because I’m not just accommodating my own needs. I’m also busy making breakfast and lunch for my two daughters and taking them to school. This forces me to stick to a regular schedule. You do not want kids yelling at you the first thing in the morning about how they’re going to be late if you don’t leave right then.

With the kids taken care of, I try to use my drive from Belmont to San Francisco productively. I often listen to (I’m currently working through The Second Machine Age) or Udemy courses (such as Adam Grant’s new course on developing original ideas and Dan Rather’s on finding the truth in news) as I navigate traffic. I’m less inclined to take calls from the car, because I find them too distracting.

Morning is my precious time to think clearly. It’s when my head is least cluttered and, just as importantly, I can usually count on not being interrupted or distracted. Whether I’m prepping for something happening that day or ruminating on a complex, ongoing challenge, it feels good to start the day by exercising my brain.

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