Ep. 70 – Brain Bookends: Productivity Tips for the First & Last Hour of Your Day

The average adult spends around 16 to 18 hours awake each day. But as we have all experienced, not all hours are equal in terms of cognitive awakeness. That said, there are two important areas of your day that have the potential to boost both your energy and your focus. This episode will explore the importance of what I call the ‘brain bookends’ of your day, which are the first and last hour of when you’re awake. 

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that a few intentional efforts at the start and end of your day can have direct, lasting impact on the day – and days – ahead. 

Let’s start at the beginning of the day – the first hour from when your feet hit the floor and you’ve accepted that the day has begun. I say it that way on purpose as I just had an animated conversation with a group recently where the definition of “awake” was hotly debated. 

A few people who awoke with a device within reach said that the time they spent on their technology counted for them as being alert. Others wondered if they should count their first snooze on the alarm or a certain number of snoozes before they were actually awake (that question in itself has a lot to unpack!). And then a few were genuinely surprised to hear that people don’t immediately get out of bed as soon as their eyes open. 

For the sake of keeping this episode brief, I’ll let you decide when your clock starts so we can move into the ideas on how to boost your morning brain. 

As a reminder, these are all suggestions of things to try if and when they feel available to you. There are plenty of life variables that may not make any or all of these realistic for you on a regular basis, so the encouragement here is to see which ones speak to you in terms of what you find yourself most resisting or which feel doable. Both thoughts are important signals for your own personal roadmap to results. 

Episode 43 outlined three science-backed suggestions of actions to take in your first 30 minutes. I’ll recap those here and add on a couple.

Access to sunlight and/or fresh air is a key awakening ingredient for the brain and body. Sunlight can come from the actual sun (depending on your time zone) or from alternate means like a sunrise alarm clock or a sun therapy lamp. The most benefit comes from the real thing. Exposure to natural sunlight in the morning causes our bodies to produce serotonin, this not only helps later with our nighttime sleep, but it improves your mood at the start of the day and throughout.

Morning sunlight exposure will help regulate the body’s internal clock (which is also known as your circadian rhythm). Sunlight contains blue light, which signals to the brain and the eyes that it’s time to be awake and alert. 

Having regular exposure to blue light, either through the sun or other morning light sources, helps balance the body’s biological clock and the physiological processes. It’s establishing a healthy sleep and wake cycle, can help improve your mood and your memory, and it really enhances your mental readiness.

Fresh air is an important infusion for your brain right from the start, it improves blood circulation and provides high levels of oxygen, which you might not be finding inside. This oxygen helps boost energy through cellular respiration- it sounds very sciency.

Overall though, being outdoors also exposes you and your senses to a lot of stimuli, of course through natural light, but also the sounds of nature, the feel of the temperatures, etc. Whether you take fresh air time in the morning or evening or throughout the day, you might be feeling lower stress levels, receiving better digestion, and having extra room for creative thinking.

Moving on to other tips for the more-indoor enthusiasts:

First, drink a full glass of water. Yes, yes, I know there’s a debate about what counts as water here, and the specific brain boost here is from actual water. Add on all the other drinks you want afterwards, but starting the morning with 16-24 ounces of pure hydration provides a real boost to your mental battery. Research has also shown that it can boost your metabolism up to 30%  over the course of the day. 

Another tactic is to shower and get fully dressed before leaving the bedroom. Some people do this naturally already, but for those who have a tendency to start doing-the-things right away, the hours can slip together quickly and then you find yourself starting or finishing getting ready as the day goes on. If you’re the type of person who likes to try to fit in one-more-thing-in throughout the day, don’t leave your bedroom until you’re fully ready. It creates a psychological intention of starting the day head on. 

One final tip that applies any time of day is called the 20-20-20 rule. When you are in the middle of long periods of activity or concentration, your eyes get strained. When you feel that fatigue, or even before it hits, try to take a visual break every 20 minutes and look at something in the distance that’s at least 20 feet away and hold that for 20 seconds or more. This break helps reduce the eye strain, and minimizes the dryness (otherwise known as that sexy red-eye look when you see yourself in the mirror), and it can also help offset headaches and blurred vision. 

Now let’s turn to the last hour of the day. 

One of the bookend benefits from the morning also plays a key role in the final hour of your evening. Your brain starts to release melatonin into the bloodstream when the sun sets. It continues to release it until around 2 to 4 a.m. So any exposure to blue light after the sun has set can delay the release of the melatonin, so concentrate on having your final hour be free from as much blue light as possible. This includes phones, screens, computers, even fluorescent lights. If you haven’t already, consider enabling what’s known as Night Mode on your phone because then that will switch the lights automatically. 

Another tip is to get ready for bed early. Change your clothes, wash up, brush your teeth, and do any nighttime routine before that last hour. This physical act will disrupt your routine but it also serves as a boundary for the body to start shifting into relaxation mode. Plus it’s going to feel a little silly to go into the kitchen and start making something or sitting down at a computer while you’re wearing your pajamas-and that’s the point.

Another signal that you can try is using sound as a mental buffer such as ambient music or even white noise. There’s been a lot of studies about the auditory impact of certain sounds that can help calm our thought patterns. 

If you have comfortable earphones another thing you can try  is listening to binaural beats. This is a form of sound therapy. And binaural beats are actually a perception of sound that is created by your brain. This happens when you’re listening with headphones to two different tones, one in each ear and at different frequencies- your brain creates an additional tone in between and that is a binaural beat. This synchronizes your brain waves and listening to it  has been known to help with focus, creativity, reducing anxiety, and even helping with deeper sleep. 

Episode 29 explored the subject of sleep in depth and how even delaying bedtime by an hour can lead to much slower cognitive functions the next day. It also shares a 2017 study that found by having two consecutive nights of less than six hours of sleep can leave you sluggish for up to six days later. 

So however you choose to spend the final hour of your day, the most important decision will be to choose rest over all the rest. The ideas and insights outlined in this conversation are offered as support structures for the outline that fits your day. 

The goal isn’t to maximize all the minutes that we are awake, it’s to take care to not turn the days into a treadmill of passing time. “Time is what we want most, but alas! we use worst,” said religious scholar William Penn – and he said this in 1693. 

As you wander through your waking hours today, see where a few adjustments can help your bookends better secure the gift of time. It’s a practice worth practicing. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.