The first hour at work can be a game changer. If used wisely, it’s an opportunity to strategize for the day ahead before the chorus of emails and phone calls begins. If you start your day by tending to basic admin and jump on the task at the top of your inbox, you’re missing out on an opportunity to set the tone for the day ahead. Don’t have a first-hour game plan? Ahead, we’ve delved into the routines of nine fierce female leaders to see how they tackle the start of each day. From actresses and business owners to CEOs and trailblazers, these women know a thing of two about mastering a chaotic schedule.
Set the alarm—your new routine starts tomorrow.
Actress, businesswoman, and working mom Jessica Alba says her typical day is filled with meetings. “I wake up early, get the kids out of the door, sometimes I drop them off and sometimes I go straight to the office, and I am usually in meetings all day,” she tells Forbes. As the co-founder and face of The Honest Company, Alba knows the value of focusing on one top-level task. “My day-to-day stress is running my business and knowing I am part of a bigger movement with my company. I have my hands in all the creative decisions, from marketing assets to product development to packaging. It’s a lot of work. I am being pulled in a lot of different directions,” she says.
First thing: Sift through your task list, and set your number one priority. Ask yourself: If you were to only complete one task today, what would it be? Honing in on one important must-do job will help focus your attention if distractions arise and boost your satisfaction at the end of the day when you’re able to cross it off.
Dr. Alaa Murabit
No two days are identical for Alaa Murabit, MD, a United Nations high-level commissioner for health employment and economic growth and a leading international advocate for peace processes. Whether she’s traveling for work or in the office, the Canadian tells MyDomaine she always starts her day by taking stock of the most important tasks ahead.
First Thing: “For me, it starts with checking my daily schedule and seeing what I have on the agenda. If I don’t have a meeting, flight or call first thing, then I take the time to reply to emails that I’ve checked on my way to work.” Given her layered role, prioritization is key. “At the beginning of each week, I make a list of important but not urgent tasks, and if I have the time, the morning is usually where I try to fit them in,” she says. “And, of course, I tend to have a few cups of tea to start off the workday.”
Imagine waking up and checking your inbox to find 800 unread messages. That’s often a reality for former Yahoo CEO and author Marissa Mayer, who says her first hour of work is crucial for setting an agenda to help her stay focused and avoid feeling overwhelmed. Mayer tells Money she creates a task list each day with “five high-priority things to focus on,” as well as “a list for each person I work with or interact with, of what they’re working on or what I expect from them.” Her task list is always numbered, so from the very start of her day she can see what to prioritize. She also doesn’t stress about ticking off all the jobs. “If I did [get to the bottom of the list], it would be a real bummer,” Mayer shared at a conference. “Because think about all those things at the very bottom of your to-do list that really shouldn’t take time out of your day.”
First thing: Create a three-level priority list. Jot down three headings: first, second, and people. Under the first headline, write your most important tasks. Use the next headline as a second-tier to-do list, which includes smaller tasks that deserve your attention next. Lastly, use the third headline to take note of what your team needs to achieve today. The three-level list will give your tasks more structure so you won’t be overwhelmed.
As the director of fashion partnerships at Instagram, Eva Chen is always on the go. The former Lucky editor says she does one thing as soon as she arrives at the office that helps power through a busy day, and it’s not what you think. After rising at 6:30 a.m., she’s in the office between 9 and 9:30 a.m. “Most of the day I’m sitting on a chair responding to emails,” she says. She’s careful to stock her desk drawer with healthy snacks for the day ahead, especially if she has a busy day. “I think that eating healthy is the foundation to good health, good skin and everything,” she tells Forbes. “My office is basically a revolving door of baked goods [so] I always bring fruit into the office.” It might not sound like a crucial first-hour habit, but research suggests it’s game changing. Those who reach for unhealthy snacks or forego food altogether have a 66% higher chance of having an unproductive day.
First thing: Don’t overlook the basics. Stock your drawer with healthy snacks to reach for when you’re stressed (or don’t have time to leave the office). Fuel your body and mind so you have the energy to face the day ahead.
AHEAD OF THE PACK:
Mornings are a chaotic time for actress, mom, and businesswoman Blake Lively. Moving between the nursery, film sets, and the boardroom, Lively is the master of multitasking. The star says that since announcing the closure of Preserve, the lifestyle website that marked her first foray into the business world, she’s focusing on starting a new project that learns from her mistakes. Her top lesson? Use your office time more wisely by asking for advice and feedback from people you admire. “Business is also about generosity; entrepreneurs helping each other out,” she tells Stylist. “People starting their own companies who could be competitors are actually saying to me, This is a mistake I made and this is how you can do it better. You realize there is room for everyone, as long as you work hard enough.” She stresses the importance of making every moment count, and calls on mentors like Martha Stewart to help her make smart decisions. “I love [business,] but I think it’s more innate for me; it’s not something I went to college for,” she says. “I’ve always been hungry for knowledge and experience so I rely heavily on friends, loved ones and people that I look up to.”
First thing: Check in with a manager or mentor for advice. Look over your topline tasks, and don’t be afraid to ask for guidance. Too often, we tick off easier tasks in the first hour of our day, but tackling an important job by seeking advice from someone you admire will help you feel more productive and motivated.
“My morning routine is a super important part of my day,” admits Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz Marketing Group and board member of NPH USA, a nonprofit dedicated to improving lives of disadvantaged Latin American and Caribbean children. Wells oversees the marketing strategies for clients like Proctor & Gamble and Sony, and has also penned a book, Chasing Youth Culture and Getting It Right.
First Thing: “I start by reading three Fortune newsletters (CEO Daily, Broadsheet, and Race Ahead). Then I check my Gmail using the extension Followup.cc, as it keeps me totally in line to follow up with people,” she tells MyDomaine. Wells is careful not to let others set her priorities for the day, and tries to keep distractions at bay, especially early morning. “I do not take any phone calls in the first hour after I wake up,” she says. “I really use that time to focus on the news of the day, and I hold five-minute Slack sessions with team members so we can knock out any big items first thing.”
A full inbox and mounting to-do list can make the first hour at work daunting, but Sallie Krawcheck, chair of leading women’s networking group Ellevate Network, says it’s important to fight the urge to enter response mode. Before the daily chaos hits, Krawcheck uses the brief moment of calm to focus on a creative task. Whether it’s a brainstorm session or working on a task that requires a fresh perspective, Krawcheck lets creativity flow before the daily grind begins.
First thing: Work on a creative task. Responding to emails and calls might seem like the most natural way to start your workday, but it can push innovation and creativity to the end of your day when you’re in a stressed headspace. Instead, flip your routine, and set aside a small amount of time at the start of your day to tackle a creative task.
Self-confessed night owl Emily Weiss finds mornings tough but has found a way to make her a.m. routine count. The inspiring leader admits that while no two days are the same in the life of a digital entrepreneur, staying up-to-date with industry news and overnight data is key to starting the day right. Before work, Weiss takes stock of overnight changes, from monitoring breaking news to checking social media activity. When she arrives at her desk, she’s up to speed with changes and can respond and delegate tasks accordingly. Oh, and morning habits aren’t always super serious for the CEO. “When I get into Glossier HQ every morning I cut out The New York Post’s daily horoscope section and tape it to the wall in the elevator. It’s important to know when Mercury is in retrograde and all,” she tells Good Morning Good Night.
First thing: Respond to overnight changes. Update your inbox with filters so you don’t have to sift through menial messages in the morning and can action important tasks straight away. Sign up to industry and competitor updates, and set aside some time to catch up on news that’s relevant to your role.
Great leaders know that business isn’t just about meeting deadlines—it’s about building relationships. Website founder, designer, and reality star Lauren Conrad says she always makes time to talk to colleagues and make a connection at the start of the day. “Successful women don’t have to be stuck to their desk 24/7. Talking with other people during work hours can help you to get your motivation back or get inspiration for your work,” she told Career Girl Daily. Conrad’s advice isn’t frivolous—a Gallup study found that having close friends at work boosts satisfaction by 50% and that people with a best friend at work were up to seven times more engaged.
First thing: Make time for colleagues. Rather than heading straight for your cubicle, take a moment at the start of the day to check in with people in your office. It doesn’t need to be a long-winded conversation; a quick chat will help establish an important connection and build a relationship.
How do you spend your first hour at work? Tell us in the comments below.
This post was originally published on February 29, 2016, and it has been updated by Sophie Miura.