When people see others out there accomplishing their dreams, many watching from afar often attribute their success to unusual talent, circumstances, luck, or magical external factors. However, as I said in Chapter 3 of my book Dream Big! How to Reach For Your Stars, the key to accomplishing one’s dream is sticking to completing a series of small actions over time and with consistency. The small steps you take add up and eventually will build towards reaching that larger goal or big dream.
Think About the Small Steps – Not Just the Big Picture!
When we hike a mountain it’s not helpful to just look at the summit and start hiking to the top without setting some sort of plan of action to get there. That plan will consist of a series of smaller steps that help you reach the top. Knowing what trail to take helps, but what’s really going to get you up a 4,000 foot mountain is taking one step after the other, keeping a good pace, and following your plan for water, snacks, rest, weather, and time.
This is similar to studying for a test. If you’re studying for your chemistry test, for instance, you can’t expect to learn all the material at once. You won’t memorize the periodic table overnight! (There are 118 elements…trust me…) Instead, learning will come when you make a consistent plan to learn five or even ten elements a day – and sticking to that plan! When accomplishing a task, consistency and motivation are key.
So how can we continually focus on the next step each day? How can we stay motivated and keep going? While there are many first steps to accomplishing your big dreams, oftentimes it will be the smallest and most consistent steps that will be the most effective to helping you get to those massive steps.
One of the smallest and yet most important steps to any big dream or goal is productivity. How can you be productive? Well, by starting the day off right! The fact is that big dreams and goals are hard to reach if you are not doing the things that are necessary everyday to be productive and stay on track towards larger goals. Especially during COVID-19 quarantine, many of us are stuck at home, working or attending school remotely, and motivation can be harder to achieve (even for us introverts!). Here’s some of my biggest tips which help me stay productive and motivated.
Productivity and Motivation: My Morning Routine Tips for Success!
The morning, in my opinion, is the most important time of day. In the morning you can set the tone for the rest of your day and have the opportunity to set yourself up for success. Man, does this sound like my mom speaking, but it is so true. She used to wake me up as a kid and say “Wake up Abby, you don’t want to sleep the day away.” While back then I was reluctant to get up and get going, as I grew up I started to realize that she was right. Getting up early and having a morning routine meant I did not waste my day and that I could pursue my passions with more fury and work towards my goals more effectively.
However, establishing a routine isn’t always easy. I know mine definitely took a lot of trial and error to get right! While different things work for different people, here’s what I’ve found works the best for me.
Tip 1: The Early Bird Gets the Worm
The time you wake up in the morning has been shown to affect your work and school performance. For instance, Biologist Christoph Randler has found that morning people are more productive and tend to do better in school. This higher academic performance gets them into good colleges and from there, they can get coveted job opportunities. While they found about 50% of a person’s chronotype (which affects whether they are a morning person or evening person) is due to genetics, a person can still train themselves to get used to waking up at different times.
While waking up early seems great, it can be tough to get out of bed early in the morning. My advice? Set an alarm – but don’t use the alarm on your phone! That will only tempt you to scroll through your phone in the morning and waste time. Instead, invest in an alarm clock. You can also set it across your room so you even get up! There’s even one that rolls across your room in the morning so you have to get up to go get it. (Talk about a running start.)
Remember to not be so hard on yourself: Everyone needs different amounts of sleep, depending on your health and age, so don’t force yourself to wake up at an unhealthy hour, and make sure you couple getting up early with going to bed early to get the rest your body needs! Whenever you do wake up, we’re all a little vulnerable in the mornings. We’re shaking off sleep and still coming alive. It can be helpful to do some brief stretching or breathing exercises and take your time getting out of bed. (But not too long! Avoid using the snooze button on your alarm more than once or twice!)
Another important factor in our sleep schedules is our circadian rhythm. We all have different circadian rhythms. This regulates our sleep patterns. It is connected to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in our brain. The SCN is sensitive to light, which is why the circadian rhythm is connected to day and night. When there is more light exposure, the SCN sends signals and releases the hormone cortisol to help keep us awake. When night falls, it produces more melatonin to help us sleep.
The good news is that you can help adapt yourself to being an early bird if you’re a night owl! To do so, The National Sleep Foundation says consistently waking up early, modifying meal times and exercising all can help. These strategies will shift your circadian rhythm, alter the times you feel most alert, and improve your sleep quality. You can also try light therapy and melatonin supplements.
Remember, take up these strategies in a way that works best for you! Depending on your age and health, everybody needs different amounts of sleep. I advise you to talk to your doctor before making significant changes in your sleep schedule. Don’t expect results overnight, but helping adjust your body’s sleep patterns can set you on the right path towards success.
Tip 2: Get the Blood Pumping
If you have time, the morning is a great time to workout! Not only does it increase your metabolism for the rest of the day, but it gives you a nice endorphin rush and boost of energy to begin your day with a good start! Developing a connection between mind and body builds your mental strength. Exercising can be uncomfortable at times, when you step out of your comfort zone, you’ll find that your body is capable of things you never knew!
Science backs this up too! A study conducted in Finland found that the metabolisms of active and inactive people are different. In active people, the mitochondria of the cell can more efficiently burn off fatty fuels. Why is the mitochondria important? As Dr. Susan Cheng, a Cardiology Specialist affiliated with Brigham and Women’s Hospital explains, “Researchers have theorized that the healthier our mitochondria are, the less likely we are to develop a variety of age-related diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.”
So get moving! Remember: even 15 or 20 minutes can go a long way. Just get out and get moving! You can go on a walk around your neighborhood, run through a scenic trail, or take up a yoga class. You could even just stand up from your desk and do a few jumping jacks!
Many CEOs, actors, and even Presidents commonly start their days like this! For instance, President Obama would workout six days a week for 45 minutes first thing in the morning, and Michelle Obama would even wake up at 4:30am to work out.
Other successful people who swear by being active are Oprah Winfrey and Tim Cook. Winfrey, a billionaire author and television host, strives to take 10,000 steps every day. In a recent interview with PEOPLE magazine, she said, “But I try to do something every day that allows me to feel active, and I don’t make myself crazy about it.” Apple CEO Tim Cook has a similar mindset. Cook wakes up around 3:45 AM and heads to the gym. Often, he’ll log over 5,000 steps before the afternoon!
You don’t have to go as long or as far as anyone else, so long as you keep moving!
Tip 3: Eat Breakfast
Breakfast has been called “the most important meal of the day” for a good reason! After fasting overnight, eating breakfast in the morning replenishes your body’s supply of glucose. This will improve your energy levels and your concentration, and help keep your metabolism up for the day.
According to a report by Rush University Medical Center, people who skip breakfast tend to have a higher body mass index. They are also less likely to meet recommendations for daily nutrient consumption. In comparison, people who do eat breakfast often consume less fat during the day and tend to eat the needed daily amount of fruits and vegetables.
A cup of coffee, tea and a little food really goes a long way in terms of energy levels. Try to make time for it or at least grab something to have with you as you work! My personal favorite quick breakfast is Earl Grey tea with honey, an orange, and peanut butter or avocado on whole grain toast.
Tip 4: Plan Your Day
Write out your goals for the day! There are many ways to do this, so you can choose a method that works best for you. My favorite is using the bullet journal method. This style of journaling keeps all your tasks organized and coherent (no more writing your to-do list on a scrap piece of paper!) in four sections: Index, Future Log, Monthly Log, and Daily Log. This method is completely customizable, and all you need is a notebook and a pen!
Other journaling methods I suggest are Morning Pages, lists, and reflection. Morning Pages is stream-of-consciousness type writing where, first thing in the morning, you write down everything you can think of. Lists is a quicker type of journaling where you can just list everything you need to do – both big and small. Lastly, Reflection is a method where you think about both your past and future goals. What did you accomplish today? What do you need to do in the future?
No matter the method you choose, include everything – not just schoolwork or work, but also say, doing your laundry, taking a shower, etc.. Putting down your small tasks on a checklist will make you feel more productive and motivate you to keep going!
It’s also nice to write down a variety of tasks to stay motivated. For instance, if you’re growing tired of doing your calculus problem set, it might be a nice break to take your dog for a walk in between, even though it’s one of your other tasks! Include a couple of things you enjoy (maybe even something you do for fun!) to your to-do list each day; it will help keep you refreshed and looking forward to making progress on your list.
Keeping a journal has a variety of health benefits as well. James Pennebaker, a researcher at the University of Texas found that writing is an important stress management tool. Getting your thoughts all our on paper helps you come to terms with them. Writing also improves our creativity and problem solving skills. These benefits are sure to lead us to more productive days!
Tip 5: Limit That Screen Time
Try to get rid of distractions, and that means your phone. Turn off notifications and try to put it in another room. In fact, a Kennesaw State University study found there is a negative correlation between academic performance and cell phone use. It is difficult to multitask on your work and what’s happening on your phone. So while you’re working, keep your phone away, and you might just be more successful on exams!
If you’re struggling with lowering your screen time, I would suggest the app Forest. You can plant little virtual trees in your forest that take a certain amount of time to grow (30 min, 1 hr, 2 hrs, etc..). If you pick up your phone and leave the app, the tree dies.When you don’t pick up your phone, it grows and you have another tree in your forest! While it’s just a little virtual tree, this is a great app for productivity that actually really works!
Tip 6: Stay Motivated
Create a nice setting for yourself with music, lighting, candles, or more. I’ve made myself personal Spotify playlists just for writing that really get me energized! Also, feel free to grab snacks or a drink you like. I love having carrots and hummus near me for extra energy boosts.
Many astronauts say that staying motivated is essential throughout their long missions in isolation on the International Space Station. NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson says it is important to focus on the “higher purpose.” In other words, what are you working towards and why is it so important to you?
Research has also found that rewarding yourself can also be a powerful factor of motivation. In a 2014 study with 226 college students who wanted to go to the gym more, researchers split the students into three groups. The first group was given an iPod with a 10 week loan to listen to popular audiobooks, but only when they were working out at the gym. The second group was given an iPod they could use anywhere to listen to audiobooks. The control group was given a gift card and encouraged to go to the gym more. The first group went to the gym more than the second group by 29% and more than the third group by 51%! Think about ways you can reward yourself throughout your productive times! Another trick I love when I’m feeling really stressed with a lot of work is to start with my easiest and quickest task (unless there’s something else with a really tight deadline coming up). That way, I can start out by feeling like I’ve completed something!
I would also recommend adding a vision board to your workspace. When I was in high school and studying for my SATs, I put a postcard of Wellesley College up on my desk. Whenever I’d get to a really hard problem or feel stuck, I’d look up and remind myself of what I was working towards. And it worked! For more information on how to make a killer vision board check out my blog post here.
Also, feel free to take short breaks. Take a quick walk outside, stretch, play with your dog, etc. Don’t sit down at the TV or pick up your phone if you know you’re prone to staying on it. Whatever you do for a break should end with you getting back to completing your tasks of the day.
Final Tip Productivity and Motivation Tip: Take it One Day at a Time
Remember, it’s the progression of small steps that leads towards accomplishing dreams, and that applies to becoming your best, most productive self! Productivity and motivation are both challenging feats in themselves to figure out, but they’re insanely powerful and essential tools towards helping you achieve your goals. If you can keep taking small steps over a period of time, I’m confident you’ll get to where you want to go.
To learn more about turning these small steps into big leaps toward your dreams, check out my book Dream Big: How to Reach for Your Stars here! From staying motivated, to setting goals, to finding a community, to facing your fears and more, it’ll help you take your new-found productivity and channel it in the best possible way!