How to warm up your brain in the morning without losing focus?
March 18, 2023 9:21 AM   Subscribe

What strategies do you recommend for getting your work-from-home day on track faster? My brain can't seem to work immediately in the morning no matter how hard I try, but using the internet to warm it up has sent me down rabbit holes that can derail the entire day.

I wish I was the type of person who could instantly get back into work where I left off the day before, but it seems like I need a little time to warm up. The problem is the internet can send me down rabbit holes (news, side research, shopping) that make me lose focus for far too long.

I have the same problem if I don't have any coffee or if I have too much coffee. Consistently finding and maintaining the efficient middle ground has proven difficult.

Has anyone else struggled with this and found solutions?
posted by bluecore to Work & Money (28 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
This is one reason why people go for morning jogs/walks/bike rides/etc in all weather.
posted by aniola at 9:22 AM on March 18 [17 favorites]

I like to do morning pages: three pages of journaling in longhand, completely unstructured and uncensored, every morning--normally the idea is to let yourself write about anything but if there's anything you want to get started working on later that day, I find it helpful to give myself a prompt the previous day. It's amazing how many ideas I churn up if I just do that over breakfast and then I'm ready to go.
posted by derrinyet at 9:25 AM on March 18 [4 favorites]

I deliberately get up 45 minutes earlier than necessary. This gives my brain a chance to wake up before I have to start working. If I were to just roll out of bed and get to work, my brain would be in a fog.
posted by SageTrail at 9:28 AM on March 18 [3 favorites]

I do Wordle or a crossword while still in bed. My sister-in-law used to say about her kids, "Their soul needs to return to their body" when they had a hard time waking (I know, Woowoo). The imagery stuck with me, and I see this as a way to gently transition from the sleeping world to waking each day.
posted by agatha_magatha at 9:32 AM on March 18 [7 favorites]

I usually limit my morning internet to the time it takes to eat breakfast and finish my first cup of coffee, so usually around 20-30 minutes, sometimes 45 if I get too sidetracked. Finishing the coffee is usually a good prompt to get up off the couch and move to my desk.
posted by MadamM at 9:35 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

I’m REALLY slow to wake up - I usually give myself an hour in bed and another hour to hour and a half of breakfast/getting ready/maybe doing some chores. Normally I’ve been awake for like 3 hours by the time i feel ready to work. Also, I make a to do list at the end of the previous work day so I can just pick something to do and go once I start.

This leisurely morning means I work pretty close to bedtime on the back end of the day so it’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s gotten me through the past 3 years of wfh.
posted by justjess at 9:41 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Drink a huge glass of water right away. Helps the brain. When you get up to use the washroom, try to connect some habit to it like putting on your shoes and going outside, or whatever else you want to start your day with.
posted by lookoutbelow at 9:43 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Depending on what your work is this may not be easily adaptable, but I’m a big fan of the programming strategy of “leave something really dumb unfinished for the next day” even if it’s like “I left an obviously incorrect placeholder in there” it still gets me thinking when I start back up about how to correct that minor mistake which usually reminds me enough of where I was and what’s next that I can usually get going again. For long non-programming tasks I’ll intentionally leave off on something easy for the next day, like on the level of “remove columns X and Y from Excel sheet” and write down exactly what that step and the next steps after are.
I try to keep a running to-do list and have many of my bigger projects broken down into the next few tiny actions like that and if I forgot to explicitly set something up the previous day I’ll just pick one relatively accessible sub-step to trudge through while my brain gets over that AM “buhhhhhh” feeling.
posted by crime online at 10:03 AM on March 18 [7 favorites]

My morning ritual:
Wake up. If I've been having nightmares, I spend some time doing solitaire on the phone to get out of the confusion (I have PTSD).
Get out of bed at least an hour before I need to leave the house / start working if from home.
Drink water while doing Wordle and scanning the news including MetaFilter (but not engaging if I have work to do, that's for after work).
Make breakfast including tea and eat it.
Take a shower, get dressed, walk the dog.
Now go to work or start working. By this time I am ready. This can be very early. I find it very hard to do complicated things at the end of the workday, so I often have some unsolved problems that I want to deal with before others arrive at their screens. In the morning, after the whole proces of getting ready, I can solve them in minutes.
posted by mumimor at 10:07 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

A cold shower, as the very first thing in the morning, will get your brain working very rapidly and effectively. The downside is having to take a cold shower every morning The issue is not so much getting used to it, but it can be a very hard wagon to climb back on once you have fallen off it, even for a day.
posted by tallus at 11:01 AM on March 18 [3 favorites]

So much great advice has been shared here. Seconding what’s been said about a big glass of water 1st thing. And exercise. You might be pleasantly surprised how little exercise is needed in order to realize cognitive benefit.

Regarding what you said about coffee: i switched to green tea and got myself used to having only half a cup 1st thing in the morning. I get enough of a kick to get my brain working but not enough to get it really racing in an unproductive way. I have the rest of the cup later in the morning or afternoon.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 11:12 AM on March 18

I have water and a little bit of coffee and I sit somewhere which is not my computer and read a book for about half an hour. Topic doesn't matter but it's a book not just random things online (I'm sure audiobooks are okay too, not sure about podcasts). This helps my brain get going without the "whatsnextwhatsnextwhatsnext" of the internet world.
posted by jessamyn at 11:33 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]

I can be like this and the best solution I've found, which may or may not work for you, is to have separate computers for work and personal use. Sometimes the solution is just mechanical and not behavioral.

I can do this in part because my work supplies me with a laptop (a generic business-class Dell), but I've found this to be such a big help that even if I took a job where I was expected use my own computer I'd probably buy a second one just to use for work and nothing else.

So right before it's time to start work, I put my personal computer into sleep mode, boot up my work laptop, and start work. Switching over to my work computer puts me in "work mode," and I (try to) only do work stuff on my work computer. It's enough of a pain to switch between computers (KVM, docking station, etc.) that it's rare for me to switch again until the end of the day.

Having that separation is critical for my productivity, and I know this because I had a previous job where my personal computer and my work computer were the same, and there were a lot of days where I had problems getting on track because it was too easy to just start scrolling through pages and pages of stuff.

If you're looking for more of a behavioral change, then one thing I do at the end of each workday is to create my task list for the next day, with reminders to pop up about 10 minutes after my work start time. So if I start at 8am, then at 8:10am I'm getting reminders for my tasks for that day and that gets me moving.
posted by ralan at 11:46 AM on March 18 [6 favorites]

I save my hard work until the afternoon. Start with some easy stuff.
posted by rd45 at 12:19 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]

For many people the morning commute serves as that transition time, and without it you may be missing it. You can replace your commute with a walk around the neighborhood; you can get dressed for work instead of just throwing on a hoodie; and/or you can do something like the Pomodoro Technique, where you specifically do one thing for an interval (say, morning email triage) and then when the timer clicks you move onto your first focused task.

Me, I always have the same amount of coffee every day but I expect that the first hour I'm "awake" is going to be unfocused and unproductive. A walk definitely helps me; the rest of those ideas I can take or leave.
posted by fedward at 12:27 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

My brain is super slow to get going in the morning. Like, there's a pill I have to take every single morning of my life and half the mornings it takes me over an hour to remember that I have to take the goddamn pill. So anyway. The number one thing that helps me is taking my dog for a walk. Luckily the dog doesn't let me forget.
posted by HotToddy at 12:30 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

++ to the separate work and home devices if at all possible.

My long term work from home success also stems from the good fortune of having dedicated office space - but even during a couple of years when that was in our bedroom, only sitting at my work desk for work was very helpful.
posted by hilaryjade at 12:40 PM on March 18

I take the dog for a 45-60 minute walk every morning with very rare exceptions. I sometimes listen to podcasts, but lately I’ve been leaving my phone at home, and forcing myself to just quietly observe the world- birds, flowers as they emerge, the progress of different people’s house projects, etc. It’s nice, and centers me for a long day of meetings and MS Teams.
posted by rockindata at 12:41 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

I really feel you on this, and wish you luck addressing it.

Here is my morning routine, which I can sometimes hold to, and sometimes struggle with. I only do audio (no screens) while I get up, eat breakfast, and then clean up. Usually this is podcasts of some sort. I try to be forgiving with myself if I'm slow - it's more important to me that I avoid getting sucked into the Internet, which can blow a day, than that I start at some specific time each day, but I know some people can't choose their working hours. I then walk around the block (or for times where that isn't physically possible, I go for basically a ten or even five minute walk), which I find is nice because it's not too strenuous, but gives the illusion of a commute. Then I come in, start my day. When I'm disciplined, I also commute home. When I do this routine, I feel great, and when I don't, it's a pretty good sign I'm going to be zombie-ish.
posted by nightcoast at 12:49 PM on March 18

I find a little bit of physical puttering in the morning is good for me. I'm slowly trying to declutter and pare down posessions, so going through one drawer or very small category of stuff (like "travel mugs" or "sock drawer" or "that one drawer in my desk") is a good way for me to do something easy and productive when my brain isn't firing on all cylinders. Doing some laundry works too.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 1:05 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

As one more data point, this is my daily WFH process:
- scan my phone when I'm sitting on my bed and about to get up in case there's anything urgent, else it can wait until lunch or after work (unless you are POTUS or a governor or very leveraged on Wall Street)
- standard morning routine including getting dressed in real clothes
- bring a banana and a yogurt with me to the computer and connect via VPN and start up Outlook, Teams, etc.
- review/reply/file emails and check for upcoming meetings (eating a banana and/or yogurt as I do so)
- before end of day and logging off I write a semi-formal note to myself as to where I stand with projects, promises, deadlines and what wasn't working and my best guesses as to maybe why.

Rinse, wash and repeat.

I have followed this WFH process from the beginning, March 2020.

posted by forthright at 1:31 PM on March 18

The cold shower thing: web search "cold water vagus nerve" for some of the ideas behind this.

Not yet suggested: Wim Hof breathing or centering breathing (3 or more of: in for 4, hold for 3, out over a count of 7),
posted by k3ninho at 2:05 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Agree on books. Mornings are a nice time for them with my coffee. Just flipping between several is also fine, for more of an online vibe with less rabbitholing.
posted by lokta at 2:42 PM on March 18

I'm about to try a light box for this. It's normally used for SAD treatment, but there is another use where you can use it to change your body clock, in my case to wake up earlier. 10,000 lux (not lumens) at 12-24" (or w/e your budget allows) is the rule of thumb as I've gathered. I'm also predicting that shining a big bright light in my face for a half-hour every morning will informally help me get my focus together.
posted by rhizome at 3:15 PM on March 18

Exercise for sure. If you are physically able to walk and have a safe area to do so, do that first thing. You won’t feel like it but all you have to do is start moving your feet. For a long time I’d bail on walk/run if the weather was too hot, cold, rainy, etc. I asked for a variety of layers for gifts and now 35 F and drizzling? No problem, toasty warm. I also do podcasts during my walks which gets my brain going. This works any time I lose energy during the day. Walk around the block, come back, sit down … boom my brain is awake.
posted by caviar2d2 at 3:17 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

I also wake up really slowly and I’ve worked from home for almost ten years. I learned pretty early on that I am not one of those people who can roll out of bed 15 minutes before I need to be online. I need some time for myself in the morning to slowly “boot up.”

To do that, I wake up an hour before I have to be online. I have an auto coffee maker so my coffee is all ready when I get up. I feed the dogs and let them out and then make a smoothie for breakfast. I listen to the news and do a Sudoku puzzle or three before getting ready for work.

I’ve found that giving myself this half hour or so before I really go into work mode has helped me be much more ready to start actual work when I sign on.
posted by anotheraccount at 3:51 PM on March 18

Very simply, I just have to get up earlier. I need awake time before I’m required to be online with executive functioning. Some folks hate hearing this, but this is how I realised I’m a morning person and not a night owl after all. The days when I wake up to go for a jog at 5:30 am are the days when I can be manually sharp for a 9 am call. On non-run days, I still have to get outside for a 30-60 minutes walk first thing. After that I get shower, coffee, and reading time in bed. That stretch of time has become pretty essential to my approach to a working day that starts at high intensity right at the morning clock-in.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:20 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

When I look at a to do list from Yesterday Me, I hate it. Yesterday Me is a jerk and I don’t trust them. I do a lot better if I start my day with a real to do list, not that stupid one Yesterday Me stuck to the monitor. I may refer to an older list when making it, but Today Me is a more trustworthy person, plus it sets my tone for the day and generally warms me up for the tasks of the day.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:46 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]

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