Want a More Productive Morning Routine? “Pay” Yourself First

Apply this personal finance advice to put your personal “non-negotiables” before work obligations

Pay Yourself First banner
Illustration by Vicente Niro

Last year marked my one-decade anniversary of working remotely. Throughout most of that time, my days followed a rhythm that many working from home right now might recognize:

Roll out of bed, start working, take a quick midday lunch break if I remembered, and finish up late into the evening, mentally depleted, without a clear end to the workday.

The flexibility of remote work blurred the lines between work and life. I ended up prioritizing the needs of my clients, teammates, and bosses, without giving much thought to what I needed to feel my best. After years of the same work-first routine, I could feel myself starting to burn out.

That’s when I decided to apply one of my favorite pieces of personal finance advice to my morning routine: I started paying myself first.

What does it mean to pay yourself first?

The idea comes from David Bach’s personal finance bestseller The Automatic Millionaire. I first read Bach’s book when I was a 14-year old earning my first paycheck cleaning tables at a local deli. Those three words have stuck with me ever since.

Most people go through the month paying all of their fixed expenses first – rent to their landlord, mortgage to the bank, and bills to their utility companies. Only then do they look to see what’s left over for savings. Generally, it’s not much if any at all.
It’s only natural to focus on our external obligations first. After all, there are real and immediate consequences for not paying your rent. You won’t feel the consequences of not saving until years, or even decades, later.

I’ve applied Bach’s advice to my finances since I was 14, but it took until I turned 30 to realize I was still paying others first, not with money but with my time and energy.

Bach argues that we need to take our obligations to our future selves just as seriously as our obligations to our landlords, banks, utility companies, Netflix, and everyone else we give our money to. He recommends setting up an automated system to set money aside for your investments or other savings goals first — then come back to pay everyone else.

I’ve applied Bach’s advice to my finances since I was 14, but it took until I turned 30 to realize I was still paying others first, not with money but with my time and energy. I was giving my highest energy hours of the day to my external obligations, only seeing what was left over at the end of the day for myself. Usually, it wasn’t much.

It’s only natural to focus on work first. After all, there are real and immediate consequences to missing a project deadline. You won’t feel the immediate effects of not exercising, reading, journaling, eating a home cooked breakfast, working on a side project, [insert whatever activity feeds your soul and makes you feel your best here], but the consequences compound over time.

In our daily lives, we prioritize work and then try to squeeze life in between the cracks. Or even worse, we “pay” Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with our time and attention before we pay ourselves.

I’m not saying you should miss your work deadlines (or not pay your rent), but those obligations have external mechanisms built in to make sure they get done. You need to set up your own systems to make sure you pay yourself. No one else is going to do it for you.

What are your non-negotiables?

Once I started thinking about Bach’s advice in a broader way, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What if I “paid” myself just 5% of my time before paying anyone else?

I started out with a quick audit of my usual morning routine:

  1. Scroll through Instagram from bed
  2. Check email still from bed, mark things as unread to come back to later
  3. Scroll through Twist to see if there were any “urgent” conversations to reply to, still from bed
  4. Finally get out of bed, hastily suck down a cup of coffee and grab something quick for breakfast
  5. Take early morning calls with customers, partners, or coworkers in outlying time zones
  6. Look for household chores to check off my list (aka procrastination)

What’s worse, when my day started like this – haphazard and reactive – it usually continued in the same way. I’d get to Friday without having paid myself almost anything.

I then wrote out my personal “non-negotiables”: the things I must make time for before checking off tasks for everybody else. I do them not because I feel like I should do them, but because they bring me genuine joy and clarity. They’re little daily commitments I make to myself, for myself.

My non-negotiables right now are:

  1. Read or listen to something for pleasure
  2. Enjoy making and sipping a cup of coffee (before starting work, not with work)
  3. Take my dog for a leisurely walk around my neighborhood

An hour into my day and I’ve already relaxed my mind by consuming something I find interesting, enjoyed the process of preparing and sipping on something delicious, and moved my legs while appreciating some time outside.

Now I put my personal non-negotiables first before I start work.

Now I start (nearly) every day by paying myself, even when I have a busy workday ahead. I am ruthless about protecting this time. My wife and I talked about it and agreed to give each other space for our own non-negotiables in the morning. I stopped accepting early morning meeting requests and blocked off my Calendly so others can’t intrude on this time. I gave up caring about “clocking in” early so my team knew I was working, and cut out toxic morning habits (e.g., “working” from my phone in bed).

I schedule my non-negotiables as a recurring task for “every weekday at 8am” in Todoist.

Instead of diving head first into Instagram and work emails, I start my work day relaxed with a clear head (and a happy pup). Far from taking away from my work hours, paying myself first sets me up for a calmer, more productive workday. Plus, it’s easier to get out of bed in the morning when you have your non-negotiables to look forward to.

Tips for paying yourself first

Paying yourself first is more about a shift in mindset than anything else, but there are a few things that helped me prioritize my non-negotiables:

  • Limit your non-negotiables to 2 or 3 things.
  • Choose relatively small items – don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
  • Opt for things you genuinely enjoy doing.
  • Write them down somewhere you’ll look each day. I keep track of mine as a recurring “non-negotiables” task in Todoist due “every weekday at 8am” so it’s the first thing I see on my to-do list.
  • Avoid non-negotiables that are dependent on anyone else. You should have complete control over whether or not you do these activities, so there are no excuses for not doing them.
  • Define them clearly (i.e., Did I do this, yes or no?)
  • Resist attaching these to work –– that’s cheating. Writing an article for the company blog because I like to write doesn’t count as an early morning non-negotiable!
  • Abandon or change your non-negotiables over time. If it’s not contributing to a better day, don’t be afraid to switch it up.

In case you need some inspiration, here are a few examples of other non-negotiables I’ve seen:

  • Meditating
  • Stretching
  • Exercising
  • Writing or journaling
  • Reading
  • Playing with your kids (or pup)
  • Doing sudoku, the crossword, or other mental puzzles
  • Going for a walk
  • Cooking, eating, and actually enjoying breakfast
  • Gardening or tending to your indoor plants

You may think you don’t have the time to pay yourself first, but I recommend giving it a try for a week. If you push your non-negotiables off to a “better time of the day”, it’s likely you’ll never actually do them.

Millions of people following Bach’s advice have found that when they started automatically saving the first 5% of their income each month, their spending naturally adjusted. After a couple of months, they barely even noticed it was gone.

You might be surprised to find the same is true when you set aside the first 5% of your time for yourself – work won’t miss it.