How to Win the Morning: The CEO Solution

There she sat across the table from me. Frazzled, frustrated, and utterly exhausted.

This gifted, passionate leader had been the CEO of her company for only a few months, but she was already running on empty.

And wondering …

Wondering if the role was right for her. Wondering if she had what it takes to lead at this level. Wondering if all her hard work really mattered anyway.

Yes, yes, and yes.

But no. No to how she was going about it: waking up, smartphone in hand, texting, emailing, and getting the latest news before her first cup of coffee. And continuing her mad dash through the day, collapsing in bed just before midnight, smartphone in hand again.

This is a recipe for disaster, physically and emotionally, mentally and spiritually. So I shared with her what I’ve come to call The CEO Solution.

The CEO Solution is based on a powerful principle that effective leaders for centuries have followed. Make the very first hour (or so) of your day a protected, private time of personal reflection and strategic preparation.

In short, win the morning. For when you win the morning, you win the day, and when you win the day—everyday—you win the weeks, the months, and the years of your life and leadership.

So whether you’re a busy CEO, a stressed-out salesperson, or just looking to gain greater control in your life, here’s my approach to this morning practice: four rules and four rhythms.

Win the Morning: Four Rules

1. No Snooze

The first key to winning the morning is refusing to lose to your alarm clock. Every time it goes off and you hit snooze, you’re admitting defeat at the very start of the day.

So rule number one is this: when the alarm clock goes off, get up. No exceptions. No excuses. What that means for most of us is getting ready to win the morning the night before. Turning off the television, shutting down your electronic devices, not drinking too much alcohol, and going to bed at a decent time.

If waking up is a challenge for you, Google the term “sleep hygiene” and follow the instructions you find. Or read the brilliant book The Promise of Sleep by the pioneer in sleep research,  Dr. William Dement.

2. No News

The second rule involves not injecting yourself with the drug of adrenaline at the very start of the day.

“If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead,” is an newsroom mantra for a reason. News is about the latest emergency. Breaking headlines scream crisis, crisis, crisis. And if there’s no crisis to report, one will be made up.

This is not how you want to begin your day because crisis kills creativity and short-term urgencies undermine long-term priorities. Feel free to read the news later in the day, just don’t start with it.

3. No Email

For similar reasons, the first hour of your day should not be spent answering email (or posting on social media).

“Once you start looking at email, the whole day cascades into email responses and replying back and forth,” writes Laura Vanderkam in What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.

Urgency, not priority. Crisis, not creativity. Don’t start any day this way. Again, after your morning practice, take the time to answer your email. But not before.

4. No Cheating

This final rule is like the eleventh commandment. What’s the eleventh commandment? Do the first ten!

In other words, don’t cheat on the above rules. And I know that’s easier said than done, adrenaline can become an addiction and checking email an obsession. As with any bad habit, though, its power must be broken or your life is not your own.

Win the Morning: Four Rhythms

1. Read and Reflect

What do you do instead of reading the news, checking email, and posting on social media first thing in the morning? Read and reflect.

Feed your mind. Feed your soul. Feed your spirit.

While you’re Googling sleep hygiene, Google the term “sinkhole” as well. What you’ll find is extraordinary video footage of the ground swallowing up roads, houses, cars, and anything else in its path.

What happens with a sinkhole is ground water below the surface of the earth dries up and things above the surface collapse into it. It’s a crisis affecting states like California and Florida that have been overrun with commercial development. Get the point?

Your outer world is entirely dependent on your inner world to survive.

Reading and reflecting is the first 30 minutes of my morning practice. I read the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs in their entirety once a year and write in my journal the thoughts and prayers that flow from them. Your spiritual tradition may be different, but the principle is the same: the perspective of eternity is where to start with time.

2. Exercise

Having fed my soul and spirit, the next 30 minutes of my morning practice involves physical exercise.

Exercise is another one of those below the surface activities in our inner world that our outer world is entirely dependent upon. A sudden heart attack or a case of chronic depression is often the collapse of a sinkhole in a life that’s not attended to the priority of physical health.

It doesn’t take much, but 30 minutes of vigorous exercise, some strength training and stretching, and I’m energized for the day. If I need a longer run or a more extensive workout, I’ll do it later in the afternoon or on the weekend.

While leaders of past centuries don’t mention health club memberships and elliptical machines as part of their morning practice, they didn’t live the sedentary sitting life we do today. That’s why exercise is one of the four rhythms and the morning the best time of day for most of us to succeed in it.

3. Review Your Vision

Now it’s time to think about work. But not its pressing problems. Reviewing vision is about looking at your strategic priorities. The demands of the day should always be filtered through a larger lens, the view from 30,000 feet.

“Concentration—that is, the courage to impose what really matters most and comes first—is the executive’s only hope of mastering time and events instead of being their whipping boy,” Peter Drucker wrote four decades ago in The Effective Executive. His words are even more true today.

Impose what matters most and comes first by writing out your vision and reviewing it every day. Keep it simple and powerful. Vision is what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how you’re going to get it done. That’s it.

I have statements like these for each area of my life and make them an integral part of my morning practice (instead of being the whipping boy of time and events).

4. Focus on Execution

You’re now ready to plan the day, but in a different way than perhaps you’re used to. Instead of having a long list of things to do and whacking at that list like a slab of meat, take a different approach.

Ask yourself, “What’s the most important things I can do today to fulfill my highest priorities?”

Pick five or fewer, three might even be best, and write them down. You can use a 3×5 card, an app on your smartphone, or a dry erasable board on the wall. Whatever method you use, these five (or fewer) are your focus for the day.

I call these items VIT’s: Very Important Tasks. They’re not the only things you’ll do in the day for sure. But they’re the first things. The most important things. The things that are aligned with your strategic vision for all the areas of your life.

The cumulative effect of five VIT’s getting done everyday without fail has a profound effect on personal and professional productivity. You’ll be amazed at the difference focusing on the execution of a vital few priorities will have on being more successful as a leader, instead doing a dozen things half-way.

Here’s another piece of wisdom from Peter Drucker, this from an interview with Forbes magazine, “The pressure on leaders to do 984 different things is unbearable, so the effective ones learn how to say no and stick with it. They don’t suffocate themselves as a result. Too many leaders try to do a little bit of 25 things and get nothing done. They are very popular because they always say yes. But they get nothing done.”

Don’t be that kind of leader.

Strengthen your “no” muscle first thing every morning. That’s how you’ll get stuff done. The important stuff, the high priority stuff, the stuff that really needs doing.

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