Getting Ahead: For Some, a Pre-Work Ritual Helps

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Every workday morning, Marika Ujvari must fasten her seat belt, with the motor running, before her garage door opens completely. When she fails, "I almost get physically ill," she said, "and carbon monoxide has nothing to do with it."

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Ken Wall gets ready for work in a ritualized way. He puts on his right sock, then left, his shirt, then pants, right shoe, then left. Why? "If I don't put on my socks, right sock, left sock," he exaggerates, "I'm going to walk out of my house and get hit by a bus."

Scott McIntyre gets out of bed every workday at 5:58 a.m. Any later, "and it makes me feel like I've lost," he said.

These professionals shared their before-work quirks with a Wall Street Journal reporter, explaining that their regimented routines give them a sense of empowerment before the chaos of their workday begins.

"It's the one part of the day that I really feel like I can control," said McIntyre, a director at a hospital association. "After 8 o'clock, it's almost completely out of my hands."

Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, has an explanation for these strict morning routines. He said some people create emotional cause-and-effect relationships between the ritual and the outcome of the workday. As long as the ritual isn't dominating, it may help them cope, he said.

Of course, there are other ways to bring order to the bombardment of endless workday tasks. For some, it means taming the time-stealing interruptions that keep them distracted, unfocused and attending to the details instead of the big picture.

Surveys show that 20 percent of the workday is wasted on activities that aren't productive, Fortune magazine reported. Tasks that have nothing to do with the long-term objective should be eliminated or delegated.

Julie Morgenstern is an organization expert who authored, “Never Check E-Mail in the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work.” She told Fortune that she advises professionals to protect the first hour of every workday by making it e-mail-free. "There's nothing that can't wait 59 minutes in your in-box. Believe me, if it's serious, they'll call or come get you."

Prioritizing tasks and setting aside time for thinking and planning takes enormous self-discipline. "People respond to the thing that's screaming the loudest,” Morgenstern said. “It's reactive. And being reactive isn't smart."

Some other ideas for getting through the to-do list with some semblance of sanity, according to Fortune: Resist the urge to constantly check e-mail; schedule few meetings and keep them short; plan for your personal life instead of letting work overload your calendar; and cut out unnecessary tasks.

Karl Shmavonian, editorial director of Forbes Global, who wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about getting ahead on the job, would agree with those tips, especially the part about delegating, but he embraces e-mail as a tool to create a hard-working image.

He writes: “Make sure to send an e-mail from home late at night, very early in the morning, or any time on a weekend or a holiday. Your superiors will be impressed. Make sure to remind everybody what time it is: ‘Dick, it's getting close to midnight. I'm going to sign off. Keep me in the loop. I'll be looking for your e-mail when I wake up.' ”

If that doesn't work, maybe it's time to try the right sock, left sock routine.

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