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A few warm-up strategies to start your workday

Even though I wake up every morning at 4am to start writing, launching into work sometimes takes me anywhere from 10 minutes to a solid hour. This is not uncommon. There are plenty of articles on the internet on why you should have a morning ritual, how to start your day off right, and the morning routines of famous writers. The truth is, for me, mornings are key because it is in the early morning and before 2pm that I write my best stuff, and that I feel most creative. But, contrary to what a lot of people think, I don’t always have an immediate start to my day. It takes me a little bit of time to “warm up”.

I’ve always been fascinated by how other scholars work, and thus I asked several professors of mine what they did every single day to sustain their academic careers. So this list of distilled snippets is my own routine as I adapted the routines of others. I also acknowledge that you can’t always apply this to your own life, simply because you have toddlers or babies who wake up very early in the morning.

1. Read a journal article or a book chapter.

Dr. Terre Satterfield, with whom I took a class when I was in graduate school, told me that she would read a journal article or a book chapter every single morning. She said that it would help her “kick start her day”. I do this when I don’t have a specific writing or research task thatI need to finish, and to avoid being “non-productive”. Some people think that highlighting and scribbling on the margins is not actual “generative writing” and thus shouldn’t be considered “academic writing”. I beg to differ. Even if this were the case, reading, highlighting and taking notes off of a journal article or a book chapter IS work, and I consider it as such.


2. Launch into writing an unfinished paragraph/piece of work.

This is something I’ve learned to do that allows me to do what my friend Steve Shaw (McGill University) calls “insta-launching”. Before I go to bed, I quickly glance at my to-do list (which I’ve previously written on my Weekly Whiteboard and my Everything Notebook). I almost always leave a document open so that I know what exactly I’m going to start working on the next morning. I leave stuff in this document unfinished (paragraphs, calculations, drawings). That way, the next morning the very first thing I do is write the final few words of the paragraph I was working on, or finish polishing the table, drawing or diagram, or running a specific model in STATA. But I always leave something for the next day.

Reading and writing on the plane

3. Take some time to think through an idea and free-write

Sometimes, I am so stuck with writing and/or data analysis, that I simply take the first 30 minutes to 1 hour to think through an idea (“how am I going to analyze these data?” or “what are the different types of bottled water I can find” or “which conceptual models have I not looked at yet”) and then write some thoughts about this idea. I can then type those thoughts and usually that launches me into writing a few paragraphs.

Handwritten notes

4. Do the mechanical work that your research requires

When everything else fails (I’m bored of the topic, I don’t want to read an article or a book chapter, I can’t launch directly into work because I don’t have a plan for the following day), I do what people call “the grunt work”. Pull quotations from a journal article or a book chapter. Type the reference into Mendeley. Download databases. Clip newspaper articles into Evernote. Basically, the work nobody wants to do.

Inputting reference into Mendeley

But here is my most important suggestion, if you want some unsolicited advice.

Create your own routine.

As someone who studies neoinstitutional theory, I am a very big fan of routines. My routine is sustained throughout the week: I always wake up at 4am, start my coffee maker, wash my face, turn my laptop on, turn on my iPod, start some classical music, and then I sit down and work. Speaking of routines, I very strongly recommend that you read this piece on the Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers. I’ve found some excellent pieces of advice here. I also recommend this read describing the morning routines of several authors who write about productivity. I am particularly fascinated by how different authors address the formation of a daily writing habit. I find the notion of having a “trigger” particularly resonated with my own routine, because for me, classical music is the trigger for my academic writing.

Hopefully my weird morning rituals will be of help to some of my readers.

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