Updated on 05.14.10

Finding the Fire: Nine Things I Do to Make Each Day Great

Trent Hamm

I have three kids under the age of five at home. I have a fairly demanding writing career, a marriage to maintain, a home to maintain, several community responsibilities, and a handful of personal hobbies that are very important to me.

Where do I find the time and energy?

Over the last few years, I’ve found that doing a handful of little things each day – usually early in the day – make a dramatic difference in how my day goes, from my physical energy level to my ability to focus, think, and cope with unexpected problems. When I made a list of them, I wound up with nine ideas that just simply work for me in terms of making each day simply work.

I found these ideas from a variety of sources – suggestions from friends, books, magazine articles, blogs. I don’t know where each one came from originally; I just know they work for me.

I don’t lounge in bed. When my eyes open up, I don’t stay in bed, no matter how much I might want to. Lounging in bed makes me very lethargic in the morning. Instead, I usually sit up, stretch, and immediately go do something.

I do a very short but very intense exercise routine. I do three sets of pushups and three sets of squats. For each exercise, I do as many as I can as quickly as I can until they become difficult – I’m breathing hard or my muscles are sore. I stop for thirty seconds, then I do a second set. Thirty seconds, then a third set. It takes eight to ten minutes, but I feel fantastic after a cooldown.

I read something challenging early in the morning. For me, some strong mental activity as early as possible in the day really gets my wheels spinning for the many things I’ll be tackling throughout the day. I usually read something really challenging; sometimes, I’ll do logic puzzles or crosswords as well.

When I take a mental break, I go on a walk of decent length. This literally gets my juices flowing. Getting up and moving around almost always causes my mind to start working faster as well and when I return to my desk, I’m ready to tackle something new.

I often jump to something completely different several times during the day. If I do the same exact task for hours and hours, my performance starts to drop at about the three hour mark. Because of that, I just switch tasks to something completely different a few times a day. I’ll stop writing and do some piano practice. I’ll spend an hour making an elegant meal in advance of supper. I’ll go to the library. These shifts in activity bring my mind back to focus.

I play with my children, not just watch them as I do other things. I spend at least an hour a day playing directly with my kids, down on the floor with them. Not only is this great for them and great for parent-child bonding, it’s also great for me because few things refresh my mental capacities than an hour spent building castles or playing hide and seek without any self-consciousness at all.

I consciously tell myself to be happy when I feel less than happy. If I start to feel down about myself or about something in my environment, I focus intensely on feeling happier about my life. I look at the positives, listen to happy music, and make myself put on the appearance of being happy for others. It almost always lifts my mood after a while.

I take a long shower and vigorously scrub. Few things genuinely make me feel better and more prepared for the world than a long shower in which I vigorously scrub myself down. I think this effect is strongly related to the known psychological responses to hand washing – it makes you more decisive and creates more of a “clean slate” for your decisions.

I unitask. Unless I’m doing something that really doesn’t require much focus at all (like playing a computer game while listening to NPR), multitasking is a net negative for me. The total time spent multitasking usually winds up being greater than the time spent doing each task individually and sequentially. Even more important, though, the results are much better if I single-task instead of multi-tasking. Shut off the distractions and win.

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  1. Brian says:

    So yeah, it’s probably not good that I woke up an hour ago but I’m still lying in bed and reading this on the laptop, right? :)

  2. Maureen says:

    I would suggest making a list of prioritized daily goals to insure that the day is productive and goes well.

    When I had newborns in the house just getting sleep and a shower seemed a luxury. I guess babies are less demanding than they used to be! It’s great that you can be at home so that your wife also has time to sleep, shower, do crosswords, visit the library, practice the piano (or work on some other hobby) and go on long walks.

  3. marta says:

    “a long shower in which I *vigorously* scrub myself down”

    Okay, Trent, no need to shout it to the internets.

    Have you done the math on that, though? Run the numbers about water usage vs the other benefits of having a long shower?

  4. cm says:

    Where do I find the time and energy?

    Perhaps you find it in the 16 hours a day every day in which you are not a subsistence farmer in a war-ravaged Third World country? You know, the life in which you write about your showering habits for money?

  5. DeeBee says:

    Thanks Trent. I have been struggling recently and this post hit the nail on the head. I agree with you on the multi-tasking and have been cutting it down, which has helped my focus.

    Getting more things accomplished is a net positive for me emotionally, which then becomes a net positive financially when I don’t spend money on take-out food or other luxuries that are not true needs.


  6. J. O. says:

    Good, helpful article for those of us who struggle to get things done and need some inside information on what works.

  7. Matt says:

    Trent do you do squats with weights or just by themselves?

  8. I have never even heard of the term Unitasking until I read this. I recently started to not take on so much at once while at my day job, I have learned that focusing on one thing at a time but efficiently managing my other tasks are what help my workday go smoother. I never even thought that there was a word for this! Duh on me :) Thank You.

  9. Like you, I have a lot of things on my plate at the moment and the one thing that seems to fall off the to do list each day is taking care of myself. This is a timely reminder for me to make time for the important things.

  10. They say that eating a great meal for your breakfast will give you a whole lot of energy for the rest of the day. It is the same thing with things that would make your day perfect. If you want each day to be great, you should always start your day with a great smile and a positive attitude. The tips shown in this article is really great. The tips mentioned are the reasons why you will have a great smile and a positive attitude to make your each day great.

    Thanks for sharing!


  11. Wow.. Very helpful post specially for people like me who works most of hours at home. All 9 things looks small but very important in day to day life. I m also doing some of them but still needs to work on.

    Thank You.

  12. J says:

    I totally agree on the unitasking. That has been the largest thing to allow me to get things done. I can multitask things like housework to some extent, but anything requiring more mental effort than that is really better done with full concentration on the task at hand.

  13. I have to intentionally start my day off well too in order to have a productive and great day. I think it’s a really good practice to start a morning routine and abide by it.

  14. jamie says:

    I’ve been in a mini funk lately and this post was the perfect call to action. Thanks!

  15. Daniel Fryar says:

    I think you should combine the pushups and squats into burpees. I do “morning pages” ala The Artist’s Way, but to keep from dozing off, I do a set of burpees after each page.

  16. Stephan says:

    great tips, im a huge fan of the long shower as well haha. the only one i cant really ever do is get out of bed as soon as i wake up. any tips for helping me with that? i love nothing more than lounging in bed for an hour on a sunday morning while listening to the radio.

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  17. Patty says:

    I read you every day, and have for many months now, and this is the first time I’ve commented. This post comes at a great time for me. As most everything you write in The Simple Dollar, these are forthright and simple steps. But brilliant in their simplicity — and just what I needed right now. I’m printing this list out and am going to make a concerted effort to do all the steps that apply to me and my life. Thank you.

  18. I’m a unitasker too. I just can’t seem to win when I try to multi-task. Some people can do it very effectively. I, however, produce much better quality and quantity when I work on one task at a time.

  19. cj says:

    As I age, the old muscles creak and a meditation/yoga is better than a tough workout…the clarity and focus it brings carries the day.
    And speaking of focus – Unitasking is my new mantra…I find that multi-tasking is not only less productive when I do it, it becomes a bad habit or way or “opting out” of harder tasks.

  20. BonzoGal says:

    @Stephan, #8: What I do is sort of a combo of Trent’s idea (jump out of bed and do something) and my way (savor every precious moment in bed as long as possible). As soon as I’m awake, I do some stretches and “muscle tension exercises,” and I think of 10 things for which I’m grateful. I try to make my list different every day, and even tailor it to that day’s activities.

    It can be as basic as “I have clean water in abundance to drink, I have a warm bed to sleep in, I have all the food I need, my parents are both alive and well,” etc. Other times it’s more specific and complex: “I live in a time in which technology is sufficiently advanced so I can read parts of ten different major newspapers every day!”

    Then I’m cheerful and ready to get up!

  21. Stella says:

    Ah–I wish I could just jump right out of bed! I love lounging in bed in the morning…

    I do warm-up and stretches in the morning–which is a great way to get going. And I’m totally with you on the vigorous scrubbing (although my showers aren’t all that long…).

  22. R. says:

    What kind of logic puzzles do you do, Trent? I’m a big fan of sudoku and kakuro (cross sum) puzzles.

  23. DDFD says:

    Personal organization and motivation is always a challenge. People need to find what works for them. I get up and going early, use to-do lists, and take reward breaks between successful completion of tasks . . .

  24. Mikele says:

    This is fantastic! I really needed this today…I often drag my feet if I really have nothing solid planned for the day but just a long list of things I should get done.

    Thanks so much Trent!

  25. Annie says:

    I think the author of this article is great! I love your comments and you sound like you live a very enriching life. Thank you and keep up with the good thoughts for life. I honestly can’t do anything in the morning but race to get that morning cup of coffee and after an hour of news and waking up slowly, i bath and get dressed for work with the dog walk to do before i leave. My dog however is widely alert and ready to start his day off with playing. I like your routine better, it sounds more energetic.

  26. Love the idea of a quick but intense workout. I’m a runner, so I love my leisurely 2-10 mile runs, but I’ve been looking for a way to get some of the toning and cross training in. I also like the idea of reading something challenging to get the brain going. And while we’re on the topic of showers: try running the water hot, then cold, then hot, then cold: you will be very alert by the time you’re done!

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