Make your first hour at work more productive in 6 steps

Remove the stress and take control

For a long time, I was a person who found walking to my desk and switching on my computer an incredibly stressful experience. Thoughts ran through my mind, such as what emergency happened during the night, how many emails do I need to work through before I can start on my projects, what meetings do I have today, and what do I need to read? I felt that I was behind before I had even begun. I started to wonder how I could take control of the first hour of my day to make sure that I felt calm, in control, and on top of my diary.

A few years ago, I came across a quote that resonated with me: “successful people can weed out the noise in their first hour and focus on what matters” (Lynn Taylor).


This philosophy can be applied to anyone in any workplace to help set you up for a successful day. Creating the first-hour routine has changed my approach and mindset to work. I feel calmer, more in control, and secure in knowing what I need to achieve. No longer do I feel an overwhelming sense of email dread!

To help you develop a first-hour work routine of your own, I have shared a breakdown of my average first hour at work with you:


9:00–9:05 Mindset: Step back and relax for 5 minutes. You don’t need to dive straight into a meaty project as soon as you walk through the door. Take this time to identify what the main goal is you want to achieve that day. Thinking about this goal will help you to stay focussed and make your day more manageable. You can do this whilst making a cup of tea or coffee, watering your desk plants, talking to a colleague.


9:05–9:15 Check your to-do list. It’s important to know what lies ahead for you during the day. Missing meetings or deadlines or prioritising the wrong task will lead to unnecessary stress and anxiety. Whether it is in a notebook, calendar, or organisational app, a simple list helps to give you an overview of your day, and you can start to prioritise and plan. I go through my list and prioritise everything by giving each item a score from 1–10 (1 being the lowest and ten highest). Ensuring that I know what to work on first and that project does not get forgotten or neglected.


9:15–9:30 Project focus. After prioritising my to-do list, I look at which projects will be very time consuming and require focussed work, e.g. 2 hours might be needed for strategy, auditing, research or design work. I decide which big project I will focus on for that day, and I plan everything else around it. It is crucial to think about these big projects early on so you can tackle them head-on and reduce your stress levels.


9:30–9:45 Check for meetings and prep work. This also helps you plan for the rest of the day by seeing which meetings you have for that day, when they are, how long they will last, whether there any reading that needs to be done beforehand, will there be any follow-up work? All of these elements help you plan not just for the meeting, but the time you might need before or after the meeting to ensure you are prepared and able to act on outcomes.


9:45–9:50 Check emails. In this first hour, I glance at emails. I want to start the day in a proactive, not reactive way. If I start reacting to emails early on, I already feel overwhelmed and on the back foot as new tasks and requests flood in. I look through the emails to check for any updates to meetings or for the project or tasks that I have planned as changes may impact how I approach a job. I also check to see if there have been any emergencies that might require a quick reaction. Whilst checking emails, I use a colour coding system to help me prioritise, e.g. red is used for high priority and must be replied to within an hour or so, orange for items to be responded to that day, yellow for requests actioned either later that day or the next, and other colours for specific project work.


9:50–10:00

Writing or reading time. In the last 10 minutes of my hour, I may use this time to start writing a document or report as I am highly focused and motivated in the morning and less stressed because I have organised my time. Or if I have an important article that I need to read for a strategy meeting, I will start to read it and make notes.


A few extra things to help you manage first-hour work stress:

Be realistic with your to-do list. It is better to have five items on your list that you know you will get done rather than 20 items and only complete half.

Try not to plan meetings for the first hour. The first hour of your day is where you have the highest levels of concentration for focussed work. If you have to have a morning meeting, make sure it is a meeting that requires a high level of focus. Save lighter meetings for the afternoon as the morning should be used for projects where you have the energy and motivation to focus on them.