Previously published on Forbes.com
It’s a new day. How do you start yours? Do you automatically click on the blue and white envelope icon on your phone as soon as your eyes open? Do you stumble into the kitchen reaching for a cup of coffee as salvation? Do you rush around like a chicken with your head cut off making lunches, barking out orders, trying to get dressed yourself?
Or do you get up a bit earlier and put in motion some habits that will fuel you for the rest of your day?
In order to increase capacity for a big job, you need to have supportive daily habits. Remember Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective Leaders? There is a reason that it was and remains a blockbuster business book. We know that building good habits leads us somewhere we want to go.
Habits are easier for the brain. In an NPR interview, Charles Duhigg explains:
"Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts."
Duhigg says that once a habit is in place, the brain doesn’t have to work hard at all —which means you don’t have to expend any mental energy to enact a habit. This matters, because mental energy is finite. Spending less of it by developing healthy habits makes good sense.
Good leaders have routines and habits that allow them to be more productive in their day. Often, these precious hours before the official start of your day set the course for how the entire day will go.
Here are three things good leaders do before breakfast:
- They exercise. About a decade ago, authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz coined the term, “Corporate Athletes.” I like this because it means that, in order to be successful, you have to attend to your overall level of health and fitness. If I exercise first thing every day, I am going to have more stamina and energy all day long. I also know that if I don’t exercise in the morning, it’s likely to get bumped from my priorities and not happen at all. "If it has to happen, then it has to happen first," writes Laura Vanderkam, author of What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. A University of Georgia study also revealed that exercise acts directly on the central nervous system to increase energy and reduce fatigue.
- They engage in something creative. We need to have something in our lives that is an expression of our creativity. Some call it a “passion project” — playing an instrument, reading the Bible, arranging flowers in a vase, making art, woodworking, gardening. Spending time fully present with your children or your partner is also a creative act. Regardless of what you do, the key is to be fully present in it without distraction. Engaging in something creative is a way of refilling and refueling your mind and your heart. It’s like stopping at the gas station before work. Often, if you have attended to your creativity first thing, you will feel like you accomplished something important no matter how the rest of the day unfolds.
- They think about big ideas. Thinking about big ideas is something that requires time and space. We call it “healthy mind-wandering.” And you can’t get into this space while you’re scrolling through your phone or multi-tasking. Give yourself the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee (15-20 minutes) to let your mind wander over big ideas. Keep your mind from heading down into the weeds of small thinking. Don’t force yourself to decide on anything. Listen for the small voice that may be your intuition and deeper sensibility.
Start building a healthy morning routine as part of your leadership. Of course, don’t try to do all of this at once — that’s too hard. Give yourself time and be patient until new routines become a habit. It will pay off in your leadership effectiveness, clarity and ability to address challenging business issues when you walk through the door of your organization.