The Importance of Starting Well (1/2)

Some exciting personal news: I recently became a dad! I’m not sure how often I’ll be writing given that reality. However, I have some pockets of free time during my paternity leave, so I thought I’d jot down some lessons I’ve learned as a single/married person without kids to serve as a launching-off point for this new stage of life I’m entering.

I’ve found that the most accurate predictor of how my day will go is how I start the day. When I start well, I can approach my responsibilities with a sense of calm and intention. I’m more likely to adhere to other systems and strategies I’ve put into place, which allows me to better maintain focus. Conversely, when I start poorly, I often never recover. Even when I try to get back on track, I’ll feel continually restless and distracted.

Why does how we start the day have such an outsized impact on the the rest of our productivity?

Rolling into Momentum vs. Digging Out of Inertia

“Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest.”

In his article, “The Physics of Productivity: Newton’s Law of Getting Stuff Done”, author James Clear creatively applies Isaac Newton’s first law of motion to our productivity. Clear explains: “When it comes to being productive, this means one thing: the most important thing is to find a way to get started. Once you get started, it is much easier to stay in motion.”

It makes sense, then, why it’s worthwhile to focus our efforts on beginning each day with healthy habits and priority tasks. These decisions may feel costly as we battle through bleary-eyed grogginess, but they make each subsequent step easier. They set us in motion down the right path.

On the other hand, the longer we delay getting started, the more difficult it becomes to get ourselves going. Each choice to indulge in procrastination is like shoveling a handful of dirt beneath our feet. Rather than coasting on momentum we’ve built, we must spend precious energy digging ourselves out of a hole of our own making.

Giving Distraction a Foothold

Our morning choices set the direction for the rest of our days. Here’s the problem: morning time is often when we’re least prepared to make wise decisions. All we want is to hit the snooze button and succumb to the whispers of sleep. When we do manage to roll out of bed, we’re susceptible to the onslaught of distraction from our devices.

I’ve written in the past about the pull of infinity pools — that is, how YouTube and other social media apps are designed to capture our attention and hold it hostage. We are especially vulnerable to those temptations when we first wake up. What begins as “Let me watch this video or check social media for a few minutes” quickly stretches to 15-minutes, a half-hour, or more of wasted time. This has several harmful effects that bleed into the rest of the day:

First, by granting distraction a foothold to start the day, we make it more difficult to battle distraction throughout the day. When talking to other brothers about the battle for purity, a common refrain is that the temptation for lust doesn’t subside once you give in; it only intensifies. In a similar vein, once we allow distraction in, our willpower to resist it grows weaker and weaker. Even if we’re able to get back on track, we will likely face increased temptation to relapse into laziness later on.

Second, beginning the day with distraction usually means beginning the day behind. By the time we emerge from our social media stupor, we are often frantically playing catch-up. This triggers a poisonous cycle of procrastination: (1) We’re behind on our responsibilities, (2) we feel guilty, frustrated, or overwhelmed at all we have to do, (3) unable to process those negative emotions, we turn back to distractions.

Passing the First Test

Recently, I listened to a short podcast (which somehow combines basketball and productivity) which helpfully captures how we should approach the crossroads we find ourselves at each morning:

“This practice is what I call passing the first test. When you first wake up, the first test of your discipline is… to not take your phone out of airplane mode until you’ve done your first major task of that day… What happens when you do this, is it’s this little bicep curl for your discipline muscle first thing that activates it. The rest of the day, when the choice comes up to be disciplined and do the thing you know you need to do, or go soft and eat the junk food or skip the work out, you’re going to have that muscle already pre-activated.

What I suggest is extending this to the rest of the day. See if you can notice times throughout the day, where there are these little tests. You have a choice whether you can maintain discipline and do the thing you know is right to do, or lapse into this softness and do the thing that impulsively you want to do. See if you can pass as many of those tests as possible.

Let’s endeavor to “pass the first test” and start our mornings with discipline rather tan distraction. In the next post, I’ll share some practical considerations on how we can start well.


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