The relentless pace of life seems like a very modern phenomenon—and it’s certainly a hallmark of our always-on culture—but the idea of choosing how we spend our time goes back to the ancients. They didn’t have notifications pinging them every time a new email or text arrived, but they understood that our experience of time is what we make it. “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it,” wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca. “Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.… So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

That’s some timeless wisdom! And yet, for many of us, days, weeks, and months can go by in what seems like the blink of an eye, and during that time it sometimes seems as though we’ve accomplished very little of real significance. That’s why finding ways to focus on what’s really meaningful—whether it’s our family or goals and dreams that are close to our heart—is so valuable. That’s something TEDx speaker, corporate chief communications officer, and executive coach Shira Miller discovered for herself. “My days were spent juggling a busy, full-time corporate job with starting to work on a book project I had shelved for years,” said Miller, a master of multitasking (or so she thought) who firmly believed she was leading a good, full life. “I spent most weekends and nights creating a new website and building my social media presence, while continuing to rise at the crack of dawn for exercise, make time for my husband, and see friends.”

The turning point came when Miller’s eighty-year-old mother suffered a heart attack. “Overwhelmed, I suddenly couldn’t think straight,” Miller said. A session with her own coach led to the realization that she had to slow down. The upshot: Miller decided to make changes—prioritizing her time and energy. “I began prioritizing things one at a time rather than trying to do everything simultaneously. I cut back on business travel commitments and spent time with my mom instead, who is now fully recovered.”

After implementing Microsteps, such as making a daily task list at work, Miller is now more realistic about what can be accomplished in a healthy manner. “I focus on the top five tasks each day and plan how much time is needed to accomplish each one,” Miller said. She also started to prioritize in a different way. For example, one day she’d been planning to devote time to writing and other creative projects, but Miller looked around and realized her cluttered home office was distracting her from focusing. So she spent the day organizing and clearing out folders of junk. “Making that one task my focus and taking the time to slowly and deliberately accomplish it was freeing,” she said. “Plus, I eventually did everything else on my list more effectively.”


What happens in those first few hours after we wake has a substantial impact on the rest of our day. Those activities and events set the tone for everything to come. When you wake up, instead of reflexively starting your day by checking your messages, take a minute or so to breathe deeply. That breathing space can be expansive.

Even before you put your mind to work on the tasks of the day, remember to focus on yourself, to set the tone for the day in a positive way. That might mean meditating, working out, walking the dog, doing some stretching, or just drinking a cup of coffee in silence. The important thing to remember is that any morning routine you implement needs to be one that works well for you, according to how your mind and body function.

It’s no surprise that many successful leaders take an intentional approach to how they start their day. According to Virgin Group chair Richard Branson, waking up early is a key to focus and productivity: “Like keeping a positive outlook, or keeping fit, waking up early is a habit, which you must work on to maintain…” he wrote in a blog. “I have learned that if I rise early I can achieve so much more in a day, and therefore in life.”

For Oprah, the day starts with gratitude. “I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I say is ‘thank you.’ Even before I’m awake, even before my eyes are fully open. I say ‘thank you.’ I can feel the gratitude, like, ‘I’m still here. I’m in a body. Thank you for that.’”

Once you’ve invested some time into nurturing your well-being, you can move on to thinking about your goals for the day. Here’s one Microstep to try: simply write down your priorities for the day. Taking even a small amount of time to decide what’s important and what’s not can be key in reducing stress and improving productivity throughout the day. Early morning is also a good time for writing down your intentions that will support you in focusing on more ambitious, long-term projects as well.

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