How to Turn Around an Unproductive Morning in Three Simple Steps

The benefit of feeling productive goes beyond conquering your to-do list—it can set the tone for your entire day.

pouring coffee into coffee cups
Photo: Adene Sanchez / Getty Images

A productive morning looks different for everyone: It could mean squeezing in a workout before 9 a.m., getting the dishwasher loaded before you leave the house, returning all your pending emails over your first cup of coffee, or tackling your toughest long-term analysis project before the team meeting. But the benefit of feeling productive goes beyond simply crossing items off your to-do list—it can set the tone for your entire day.

"When you have a productive morning, you feel like you're on a roll and you keep going," says productivity coach Alexis Haselberger. "When we do what we intended to do, we feel a sense of accomplishment, and that feeling can help us keep up the momentum."

And even when your morning falls apart—dirty dishes in the sink, the workout long forgotten, the project abandoned—it's never too late to reset. "There's no point dwelling on the overdue, or what we should have done, or that we should be further ahead than we are," says Haselberger. "The truth is that we are where we are, and the faster we face that and make a new plan based on where we are and the time we have ahead of us, the more productive we'll be." Here's how to do just that.

Shake it off.

The first step toward rebooting a morning that's gone off the rails, says productivity expert Grace Marshall, is taking a pause to clear your mind and reset before the stress of your task list (now clearly impossible to achieve) sends you into fight or flight mode—which manifests as either trying to complete everything at once in a panic, or spending the rest of the day procrastinating. "Use this opportunity to reflect on how you're feeling and what happened," she says—maybe you were called to help with a co-worker's project, your team meeting went long, or you're tired and unfocused—"and reshape your expectations around that." Physical movement can also help you clear your head: Try a quick walk around the block, a few minutes of deep breathing, 100 jumping jacks, or dancing to your favorite song.

Edit your goals.

Once you've cleared your mind, it's time to reassess your to-do list. Ask yourself, "What needs to absolutely happen and what can be pushed without consequence?" says Haselberger. Consider your energy levels and the rest of the day's commitments to make a realistic plan for what will make you feel like you had a productive afternoon, whether that's finishing all the small tasks on your list or making major progress on a long-term project. Your mindset is key here, too, says Marshall: Think of yourself as "starting now," not "catching up." "'Catch up' makes us feel like we are constantly behind, where 'start now' feels intentional and purposeful," she says. "With 'start now,' every step is closer to your goal, whereas, 'catch up' is 'not there yet.'"

Prepare for tomorrow.

Whether you'll make up for today's lag tomorrow or you find your mornings to be generally unproductive, rework your evening routine to include time for preparations that can make things run more smoothly. "Look at your calendar for the next day and compare it to your task list; make sure that you have a realistic plan for what you'll accomplish the following day given the time you have available, and adjust your calendar to account for this," recommends Haselberger. "This allows you to avoid using up a lot of activation energy to just get going in the morning. When you sit down to work, you already have a prioritized list of what you plan to accomplish that day and can just start executing. End-of-day planning ensures that you're being smart with your time, and that you're proactive instead of reactive." Both experts recommend putting your most difficult, annoying, or stressful task at the top of your list, and working on it before you even check your email in the morning. "There's an old time management tip called 'eat the frog,'" says Marshall. "The idea is that if you eat a frog for breakfast, everything afterwards will taste sweet. If you start your day with the hardest task, the motivation boost will fuel you for the rest of the day."

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