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How Acting Like a Cheetah Can Make You More Productive

May 10, 2017, 7:00 PM UTC
Stephen Belcher/Getty Images/Minden Pictures RM

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 Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, founder of CSE Consulting, adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, and author of Problem Solved, a Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence & Conviction.

My morning routine actually starts the day before, while still in my office. Before I leave my desk and shut off the office lights, I check my calendar, list new and current projects, and arrange my to-dos in order of importance. That’s what enables my morning peace of mind. Often we’re in such a rush to resolve each little problem—answering emails late at night and waking to urgent texts—that we don’t actually take time to think. But in work, and for our future, we deserve and need time to reflect. Insight doesn’t come from collecting information alone; it comes from brainwork.

I love to get up early, when it’s still quiet. Over coffee, I review the plan I made at the end of work day yesterday—the to-do list of new things, the current projects—then take a strategic pause. It’s the first of many I take every day: They enable me to chunk my learning and work more effectively. I lace up my running shoes, and head out for three and a half miles around the neighborhood. While running, part of my mind is on the job, even though I’m not consciously thinking about it. Running gets rid of some of my restless energy so I can sit at my desk—and yes, be able to eat cookies later in the day.

I call these intentional stops in my day “cheetah pauses.” What makes cheetahs such remarkable hunters is not their speed, but their ability to slow down quickly. They not only reach 60 miles per hour running down their prey, but they can cut their speed by nine miles per hour in a single stride. This gives them an incredible advantage, enabling them to turn sharply, jump sideways, and change directions in an instant. As researcher Alan Wilson explained in a New York Times article, “The hunt is much more about maneuvering, about acceleration, about ducking and diving to capture the prey.”

Just like cheetahs, we can develop that kind of maneuverability—and better capture each day. By taking calculated pauses, slowing down, and consolidating knowledge, we’re more effective when we’re back up to speed. We benefit more from being flexible and creative than just rushing non-stop.

So in the morning, I check the pending hierarchy of to-dos and the time each task should take. I tend to place time codes next to each item. I know when I’ll be able to check emails, eat lunch, and slot in phone calls. But this isn’t just about organization: My pacing allows me to consider my own natural rhythm, those ebbs and flows of energy that impact each of us differently throughout a given day. For me, the best time to tackle the heavy thinking tasks is when I first get into the office. I already have that on the top of the list.

Placing my to-dos into a hierarchy and using time codes not only keeps me on track, but keeps me from feeling overwhelmed and disappointed that I didn’t do more. We tend to operate under a planning fallacy: We underestimate the time tasks require. By using the time-code system, I’ve come to better understand how I work, and how long a task should take.

These techniques are what enable me to get a good night’s sleep and start the morning calm and settled. I already know I’ll have pockets of time for concentrating on what’s important, as I’ve programmed them right into the schedule. I know what’s on tap if all goes as planned. If not, I’ll be able to use one of my cheetah pauses to regroup and still conquer the day.

After I finish up my morning’s run and shower, I go wake my kids. Having taken care of myself first, now I’m ready to take care of them, and get on with the rest of the day.