Kickstarter Lesson #221: How Not to Start Your Work Day

13 March 2017 | 37 Comments

I start every work day in a suboptimal and damaging way.

Before I continue, take a second to think about how you begin your work day. What’s the first work-related thing you do each day?

If you’re like me, the first thing you do every day is check your e-mail. If you’re even more similar to me, you spend the next 30-60 minutes replying to those e-mails and scouring social media for questions to answer and posts to respond to. And if you’re exactly like me, you also feed your cats, Biddy and Walter.

In the 3+ years I’ve been running Stonemaier Games full time, I’ve never questioned this method. Then I had a conversation with Gabe at the Board Game Design Lab about schedules and time management, and he sent me a link to this article.

When I got to the part about why it’s not a good idea to start your day by reading your e-mail, this line hit me so hard that my jaw dropped:

“Your email inbox is full of tasks from other people’s to-do lists.”

I’ve always used my inbox as one of several to-do lists, but I’ve considered it my own to-do list. But it’s not. The vast majority of e-mails people send me–while important–are part of their to-do lists, not mine. So why am I prioritizing them? Why not instead start by focusing on a few tasks that are 100% mine?

With that line in mind, I reread the rest of the article and found some gems of advice about early-morning time management. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Don’t start your day by reading and replying to e-mails. As noted above, most of those e-mails are on someone else’s to-do list, not yours. Instead, do one thing that is solely on your to-do list for an hour.
  2. Don’t start your day on social media. This includes the comments on your Kickstarter project. The idea is to avoid negativity while your brain is charging up for the day, because they’re likely to impact you for the rest of the day. Instead, wait until you’re feeling good before you check out social media.
  3. Don’t ignore big projects. It’s human nature to try to accomplish small tasks before big ones–it’s gratifying to cross things off my to-do list. Instead of ignoring the big projects, I try to identify the next step and do it. The most daunting part of a big project is actually starting it.
  4. Don’t read the paper. Or your blog feed. Or watch YouTube. Consuming information you love can be inspiring, energizing, or relaxing, so save it as a reward for after you’ve accomplished something meaningful.

I would love to say that I’ve taken my own advice, but can you guess how I started my day today? That’s right: I checked my e-mail, replied to it, then spent some time on social media. It’s hard to break habits!

How do you start your work day? Is there anything you’d recommend?

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37 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #221: How Not to Start Your Work Day

  1. I start by opening all the apps I use – our DI suite, API tool, project management software – and I grab a cup of coffee because all of this takes a few minutes and if I can get my 250 steps for the 8am hour in on fitbit, at least I did _something_ today.

    Then I read email and make a to-do list. It’s a little different for me in that I’m frequently reacting to what happened yesterday or this morning rather than creating my own thing and in charge of a big project.

    HOWEVER, when I’m studying or focusing on a project on kaggle, I put everything else aside, look at what I did yesterday (class notes or project notes) to catch up to where I was, and the catch here is that I conclude my sessions by writing down where I need to go next. That way I don’t have to keep it in mind. Then I can pick up where I left off.

  2. Ugh, I basically do all of the things you say not to do in the post. I need to change these habits, and implement the twice-a-day email strategy. I think I will be much more productive that way!

  3. I like the thought behind this, but I also think it has to be molded to your process.

    I do the social media/email for our team, so that’s a huge part of my job. However, I make sure that I block off time to stay away.

    So for instance my day may be
    7:30-10:30 AM – Media Interaction
    10:30 – 11:30 – Existing Design review
    11:30 – 1:30 – Brainstorming
    1:30 – 3:30 – Media Interaction

    Probably the most important thing is that I set alarms to keep me on task and responsible for when my blocks of time are up.

  4. I can’t agree with not checking emails as one of the first things I do each morning.

    I run a service company, writing software for a number of clients around Sydney. Email is the main communication tool I have with my clients – even for urgent problems. If I were to NOT check my emails first thing and respond immediately to anything that required it, my clients would not be happy.

    Like any communication tool, the contents of each email need to be evaluated and prioritised with whatever else I’d had planned for the day. Yes each email is from someone else’s ToDo list, but most people sending me emails are my customers – it is entirely appropriate that their ToDo items become mine.

  5. So, my interpretation of the article’s advice is not that e-mails or the people who send them are unimportant, nor do those e-mails lack a sense of urgency. Rather, my takeaway was that spending the first 30-60 minutes of your day answering e-mails can be detrimental in a number of ways. The article explains it in more detail than I did.

    Granted, I’ve been unable to take this advice so far. I’m in the habit of considering every e-mail an opportunity reply within 1 minute or less. But that’s really detrimental to my creative process at times, and most people really don’t care if an e-mail takes a minute or an hour or 10 hours for a response. I really think it’s true that if an e-mail waited from midnight to 8:00 am for me to reply to it, it can wait another 30 minutes while I do some other things that set me up better to be more eloquent, more positive, and more creative.

    Again, this is just in theory. But I’m going to try really hard to not open my inbox for the first 30 minutes of the next few days to see the type of impact it has on me as a person and as a representative of Stonemaier Games. I think the one thing I’m 99% sure of is that no one (other than people who read this comment) is going to notice that I replied to their e-mail 30 minutes later than I otherwise would have. :)

    1. Agreed Jamey – Good luck! You could also try affirmations to help out (I post mine on the wall in front of my desk). BTW I downloaded the StoryBrand Productivity Schedule that was in the article you linked. I’m going to give that a shot :)

    2. Sorry if I got off topic, after reading the comments. I realized we all live different scenarios and are at different points along the journey of success. Priorities have to be adjusted based on your circumstances.

      For example, I am working to build an audience and get the attention of manufacturers, reviewers, etc. So I feel obligated to respond as quickly as possible because my emails are on “my to-do lists”. However, if my audience and manufacturing is already established, I don’t care any less, but I do feel it is important to prioritize communication so I am able to support as many people and tasks as possible.

      If you thought I was saying that emails or the people who send them to you are unimportant because you are busy. I don’t think that at all. I know, first-hand, how much you care about your supporters, the gaming community, and people in general. Best of luck on your 30 minute email delay in the mornings…you can do it Jamey!

  6. I agree with Charles Tan. “Interfacing” with clients through emails is crucial. And just starting out in the Biz, I feel it’s necessary to set the bar high. I’ve been emailing conventions, festivals, etc. about having my game at their event. I feel if I wait a day or two to respond to them, I might miss out on an opportunity; or they might not take me as serious; or I might lose their focus.

    I don’t know if I would feel different once I became a trusted name in the Biz. I can only imagine the number of emails you get Jamey. You could most definitely have to prioritize answering emails vs all the other things you have to get accomplished.

    I love all the suggestions, ideas, and routines people have mentioned. I’m not sure how many of you have full-time jobs and a family, like I do. I try to handle game stuff whenever I get a moment, which various from day to day depending on work and what my 2 year old is up to. routines are tough

  7. This is a great article because I was like this in many ways until a few months back. Like everyone who works for themselves, even more so when you run an online business, I’d check emails and then run through blogs and…. ‘stuff’. Before I knew it, I’d usually put myself in a funk (customer emails can do that) AND wasted a lot of time.

    I changed my habits after waking up to this and now will only look at my Instagram feed, which is more a morning jolt of inspiration, seeing what great artwork’s popped up on my feed overnight. Emails are now left until the start of the workday, unless they are super critical and the rest, I usually wait until I have a mid morning break.

    I’ve been doing this for 3 or 4 months now and it’s really made a huge difference to the start of the day.

      1. Why don’t you start tomorrow as a test day and try it out? Just commit for a day and see how it works. Maybe commit for a week, and see how that goes for you. I’m a big believer that making small incremental changes can have huge benefits over time. If you find it doesn’t improve your productivity or you just don’t like it – maybe there are still parts of it that you can use.

        As a business owner, I don’t buy into the view that my emails are someone else’s to do list, that’s just my opinion and how I feel about the culture we had built in our team. We were crossing time zones. I’m in the US and my dev team were in UK, so my day typically started by checking emails, then following up with meetings. If I had gone into a meeting without the email background, I was wasting my team’s time and potentially lengthening their work day. Pre work day schedule, I try and get in a little bit of gentle yoga/meditation so I can set intention for the day.

        I do think there are always ways to help yourself be more productive, and that might be scanning and prioritizing email, setting times do check it and do it, template responses, etc, or making coffee and doing a little yoga or walking before kicking off with email.

        Ultimately, we’re all different and different people prefer different strategies.

        Since my job right now is to get up to speed with tabletop gaming, I spend a lot of time reading this resource (and others). One of the first things I did was read your book. Thank you for everything you share to help others in the industry.

      2. Jamey, I think it was something as simple as suddenly realising 1. that it was not a good way to start the day and 2. how much time I was ‘wasting’ at a time of the day when one should be wasting time.

        I think the ‘click’ happened when I did it for a few days and saw just how different the day had become (for the better) by not doing all the stuff I had been doing.

  8. For me it depends. Like in my case, interfacing with clients is part of “getting the job done” so answering emails is one of the first things I do when I get to work. (Social media, on the other hand, isn’t what I’d call a priority, but it gets checked next nonetheless. :P) Because #1 usually impacts #3. (Although there are urgent and non-urgent email so it might be best to answer emails based on priority rather than chronologically.)

  9. Wow, never thought of that. I most definitely start with emails every day!

    Need to start applying this mentality. Now, actually doing it seems to be the hard part… ;)

    Sometimes, matters are just urgent and need to be taken care of, and as Adam said, it’s kinda part of my task load since an email could be a follow-up answer to a demand of mine!

    Agree though that sometimes, it could lead to starting the day “off the wrong foot” as we say.

    Very enlightening article.

  10. I suppose I’m a little fortunate in the fact that I have an outdoor job. I go to work, come home get the family settled in and down, and then spend my time once my day is done is going through emails and social media things for the most part as it isn’t essential to income to do. It’s my prize for getting through the day lol. Although with a job that has no set time to go home, some times it’s tough to get time after to write.

  11. I definitely have done this (and still do it if I’m being honest). For me, it’s as Jason alluded to: being “productive” as early as possible. Nothing like taking care of some business before finishing that morning’s coffee or getting out of bed, right?

    However, beyond adding on tasks from other’s to-do lists, what got me to start the shift was realizing the mental cost of not focusing on what I had intended. Spending those ‘brain points’ on other things was leading to reduced throughput on the things that actually mattered to me.

    Focusing on the objective measure of me being less effective was more powerful, in my mind, than a matter of whose to-do list something belonged to. Although again, if I’m being honest, it’s because I can’t leave well enough alone and invariably would try to convince myself that an email was actually a part of my task load (“Well if they respond to my initial email, it’s /technically/ part of my to-do list…”).

    1. Adam: I really like this: “Spending those ‘brain points’ on other things was leading to reduced throughput on the things that actually mattered to me.”

      I think that’s something I’m trying to reconcile. Other people matter to me–customers, partners, etc–and that’s what I find in my inbox. But If they were able to wait 8 hours while I slept, they can wait another 30-60 minutes, and maybe I can use those brain points to accomplish something much more satisfying and impactful than replying to an e-mail. I wonder if that’ll create a foundation for a more successful day.

  12. I’m starting to use Zoho CRM for my game and dice business but I can see the free version being ideal for many uses beyond sales. There’s just so much in there to help you realize your real goals without clouding them with non-essentials.

  13. I try to spend the first 2 hours of my morning drinking coffee, reading devotional and business strategy books, then exercising, and finally studying a language for a few minutes.

    I often fail at this (its hard to want to exercise in rainy dark Oregon) but I feel like its a good system for me, and helps me hit work feeling charged and already productive.

    There are two books I’d really recommend on this topic: “The One Thing” which focuses on prioritization methods, and “The 12 Week Year” which focuses on lining up your daily work with your life vision. And despite being from two different authors, they go really well together.

    1. Thank you for sharing those books, Corey! You start your day much differently than I do. :) I’m curious why you chose that timing for reading business books. I haven’t been able to find a good time to do that (I mainly read as I’m falling asleep, which is not a good time to read a book that is going to get me thinking about anything), so I wonder if you tried out different times and found the morning to work best for it.

      1. Yea, it is a little different- you’re right, most people read at night while going to bed. For me, I like doing it in the morning for 2 reasons…

        1) My mind is fresh, and it easier to stay awake and retain/comprehend what I’m reading, especially for heavy books like “The Lean Startup”, etc…

        2) There is well accepted concept of will power, in which you start everyday with 100% and end at 0%. I’m much more likely to get the reading/workouts/language studies done in the morning when I have more will power and focus, then in the evening when I just want to chill, play a game, or watch a show… Especially given that I work 10 to 12 hours a day on Massif Games.

        That’s what works well for me, although everyone’s different. However, if you look at successful entrepreneurs, you definitely see a common thread of waking up early, meditation, exercise, good breakfast, and not answering emails as a common morning routine.

        I think a really important thing is having your daily morning activities connected to your life goals (something the 12 Week Year talks about). That’s what ultimately provides the motivation to be diligent and focused. :)

  14. Jamey,

    It’s interesting how we’re all wired. In my line of work, I’m the sole extrovert among introverts…if you’re familiar with the Myers Briggs test, I’m the ENTJ among a vast sea of ISTJs. So, for many of them, they come onto the office and immediately start hammering out the e-mails (oi as the article points out…someone else’s tasks). For me, I open the entire week’s calendar in Outlook and plan, hopefully strategically, the big meetings I need to lead or simply attend. Then, I’ll open e-mails and sort them, in descending order…from my boss’s boss, to my boss, to my colleagues, and finally to the field.

    Also, at the end of the day…about 15 minutes before I leave, I take a look at the next day (or Monday, if it’s a Friday) so I have some situational awareness before I start my day.


    1. Joe: I really like the idea of spending a few minutes at the end of the day to look ahead to the next day. I think that’s a good time to write down one or two small steps for the big projects so they’re less daunting.

  15. I caught that interview with Gabe and loved it. I struggle with this too. I imagine lots of us do – especially those of us balancing a gaming hobby and a full-time job. BUT, what I have had to do is set an allotted time. I only allow 1/2 hour for email at the beginning of the day. That way I feel I have put out any fires (if any) and get the little buzz from being SOMEWHAT productive.

    BUT, I wonder if your email in the morning is necessary because of how you are running your business? You are driving a very personable and approachable brand. I am sure you are struggling (or have struggled) to balance the desire to reply to your customers/fans/admirers right away. I bet when you don’t, you feel you are missing a chance to build your brand – and you would. For instance, right now: with this Comment on your blog. You always respond to a comment on your blog within a few hours – which is amazing! Do you really need to? I don’t think many of us expect it or would feel disconnected if you don’t.

    Hey – give this a try. Don’t respond to this until tomorrow. Good luck! No “penalty card” either way. I’ll still come back and read your blog and buy your games.

    1. Jason: That’s similar to the method I currently use to respond to e-mails, but I think what I’m starting to realize is that there are very rarely any fires that can’t wait 30-60 minutes (after all, they already waited 8 hours while I was sleeping).

      With comments, there’s actually a method to my madness. :) I typically try to respond to the first 1-2 comments on a blog entry or YouTube video right away to demonstrate to people that I’m going to be part of the conversation. After that, though, I typically group my responses into 5-minute chunks of time later in the day and the following day(s). Hence why I’m replying to your comment now, but I probably won’t respond to the next few comments until this afternoon.

      1. I think Jason is right. Everything you write and talk about has an underlying message about how you run your business and your life. It’s your brand. You’re all about building community and giving back, and I think that’s great.

        While your morning emails might have some negativity and fires to put out, I imagine it can also be motivating to know you’re part of something bigger — that you’re connected and that people rely on you from day to day. That’s what keeps me going at work and with my game design.

  16. To help me be productive, I have the following message auto-send to anyone on my contact list who emails me:

    Hello! Thanks for your message!

    I check my emails only on weekdays at 11:30am and 4:30pm (CST / -5 GMT).  This allows for concentrated creative hours, where I get into a state of flow and the work gets undivided attention.  I will get back to you as soon as I can.  If this is urgent, please contact me via skype or phone.

    Thanks, and have a fun day!

    [Contact info: ……]

    It’s helped me to be a lot more productive.

    1. Peter: Thanks for sharing that method! That’s really interesting, and I can see how it would result in more productivity for you while setting expectations for others. The only big downside I see is that (at least for me), it’s always annoying to get an auto-response.

      1. I have something similar, only I put it in my email signature. No autoreplies.

        If someone regularly communicates with me, they’ll see it.

        If someone has not exchanged emails with me before, it would be extremely presumptuous of them to expect a reply outside of working hours or with any less than a several-hour turnaround!

    2. A continual autoresponse says to me ‘This person thinks his time is more important than mine’. Every time I send you an email, I’ve got to delete an email I get back from you. It’s fair enough that you have these set times, but advise me of it once, when we first start working together, not every time I send you an email.

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