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Sit Down and Start Working Right Away

Let’s paint a picture of the average knowledge worker. They get into work – around 9 – and after putting their bag down at their desk, they stumble into the kitchen still a little sleepy, and reach for coffee. They get to their desk. And then they spend oh, about 30 minutes or so on Facebook, YouTube or reading the news to “get into work mode”.

At this point they usually go to their email, maybe look at some sticky notes from the day before, and start to think about what they’re going to do that day. Or worse, they just look at what was left open on their computer/desk from the day before and start working on that. Or even worse, they turn to their manager and ask “what do you want me to do today?”.

Now if they got in at 9am, it’s probably about 10am or 10:30am right now, and there goes a good chunk of the work day.

This is not how productivity works.

Contrast this with what we teach readers and clients at Asian Efficiency:

How to wake up, go through an optimized morning routine, get to their workstation as quickly as possible, and to sit down and knock out their most important task right away. By 10:30am, as most people are beginning their days… Efficient Asians have already done the most important parts of theirs.

So how do we go from being an average knowledge worker to being a productive and efficient knowledge worker – and someone who is able to sit down and start working on things right away?

Well, Thanh wrote about his version of this a little while back. So did Zachary.

I’m here to give you my take, and I think it comes down to 2 things:

  1. What you do the night before.
  2. What you do the morning of.

This is very much a system and sequence that anyone can follow to be productive every morning – and every single day.

The Night Before

Night Before

The night before the morning you want to be productive, you should be going through an evening routine. There’s a detailed outline in the Asian Efficiency Primer, and also here and here.

Now the single most important part of this evening ritual as it relates to starting work right away is this:

Build your to-do list for tomorrow, today.

What this means is that if tomorrow is Wednesday, you build your to-do list for Wednesday on Tuesday night (i.e., TODAY).

You can do this as your last piece of work for the day, usually just as you’re packing up and getting ready to leave work (recommended).

If you work from home or a laptop, you could also do this right before you go to sleep.

So what exactly does this do?

It tells your subconscious what you have planned for the next day. And lets you leverage the subconscious to make your tasks for the next day go that much easier.

So how exactly do you this?

Well, you start by looking at your sources of tasks – be it a task manager like Things or OmniFocus, or a project management system like JIRA or TFS. You look at your scratchpads, sticky notes, and random things you’ve jotted down. You also think about anything that comes to mind.

And from these sources, you piece together your task list for the next day, segmented into work and personal sections. You then identify your most important task (MIT) and rank your tasks in the order you think you will do them. Your MIT will be the first thing that you do in the morning.

And then, you go home, rest, and sleep!

Now I know some people are screaming at this point “But this won’t work for me – things change between when I go home and come back in the morning and I have to deal with them”.

Well… from working with clients, we know that isn’t true in most cases where people think it is (there are always exceptions of course). So let’s see what we should do the morning-of if that does in fact happen.

The Morning Of

Morning Of

At this point you’ve got your written-out task list from the day before, and woken up ready to go.

You’ll want to start with a strong morning ritual – there’s a detailed version in the Asian Efficiency Primer, and also a couple of articles on the blog explaining the basics.

Fast-forward to the point where you’ve arrived at work. That could be after your commute (great time for audiobooks if you drive, or checking email on your phone if you take public transport), or as you walk to your home office and open up the laptop.

Either way, you arrive at your desk/computer. Grab a cup of coffee or tea if you want, but then go straight to the computer.

When you sit down, read your task list that you prepared the night before and start on your MIT first. NO EXCEPTIONS.

Literally ignore everything else and get that most important task done first. Don’t read email, don’t read the news, don’t browse Instagram and don’t open up Facebook. Just get the task list out and work on that most important task first.

Now the only exception to this, is if there are fires around you that are really threatening to burn your world to the ground. And I do mean really. Like “life and death” or “I’ll get fired if I don’t”. In fact, if you ignore the notifications for those fires until your most important task is done – you’ll have an infinitely more productive day, and still get around to handling those “emergencies”.

A quick example: we recently had a military coup in Thailand. I could have spent the whole day reading the news, checking Twitter or watching tanks roll past on the main road. Instead, I kind of registered something my girlfriend said about it, noticed that there was no immediate danger, went to my computer and got right to work.

The events of the world around you will typically sort themselves out… with or without your input.

Putting It Together

Putting It Together

So how exactly do we put this all together?

What we’re really talking about here is a string of habits – from setting up correctly the night before, to a morning ritual, to starting on tasks and specifically your most important task as soon as you sit down to work. And all that’s needed is a really tiny bit of self-discipline to kickstart this string of habits.

It also helps to have the right mindset. This can be “I can be productive”, and it can also be the idea of not mixing work and play together (and by play I mean reading the news, Facebook etc while at work). You can always play later – after your MIT.

I promise you that if you practice this string of habits daily… you’ll have plenty of time leftover to do whatever it is you want to do.

This chain of habits will turn you into an unstoppable force of productivity – you’ll be working productively, consistently ever single day, and always get something significant done, no matter where you are.

(Example: I’m writing this from my hotel room in London, before heading out to a seminar at 9am.)

In Closing

To make this work, remember that you need to:

  1. Set up the night before, and let your subconscious go to work while you sleep.
  2. Flawlessly execute your game plan the next morning.

It’s that easy.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Nice post, Aaron ! I would add that you should plan your next day at the end of your work day rather than before going to sleep.
    Planning will reactivate your brain and make you feel more awake, so it’s not the best thing to do in the few hours before your night.

  2. Great article – but I have one question. The strategy assumes that your MIT is always a work task. For me, my MIT’s are always around personal goals and the challenge is finding time to do those, and stay fit, and live – in between doing 8 hours at the day job.
    How do you suggest reframing Eat that Frog in the context of someone whose top priorities are all outside of the day job?

    1. Hi Kevin,

      Not sure if this helps, but I’m in a similar situation. To make sure I got some personal MIT’s done consistently, I included them in my morning ritual. It currently includes 10 minutes of meditation and 20 minutes of some type of exercise (anything from weights to yoga to skipping rope – something you can easily set up and do in your home).

      Another tip: make sure your personal MIT, that you want to get out of the way first thing, can be done quickly and without relying on a ton of external people or circumstances. I’ve disqualified tasks associated with research (time consuming) and requiring input from others (they may not be available at the time you need them). But things like exercise / reading / writing are great, as you can just go ahead and do them then and there.


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