You have grand ambitions: to start a business, to write a book. But chances are you work long hours, or household responsibilities consume your days. By the time you finish all you have to do, you have no energy for anything you want to do beyond turning on the TV.
Yet some busy people do make time for their priorities. What's their secret?
They do them first. They get up early. Earlier than they have to. They use the time before work for something other than just getting ready for work. Morning by morning, they make progress on what matters, and often achieve as much before breakfast as other people do in a day.
It’s not exactly fun to forego the snooze button, but these early hours are often the best time to do things for yourself, before everyone else demands attention. With a little schedule reorganization, becoming a morning person is more doable than you think.
I first learned that mornings could be transformational years ago, when I was studying a busy lawyer’s schedule. She wanted to spend more time with her daughter, but she had little control over when she left work. This state of affairs made her sad, until we looked at her schedule and saw that she and her daughter were both awake relatively early. With everyone focused on getting out the door, though, no one was really aware of how much time was passing, and how it might otherwise be used. After thinking it through, the lawyer decided to get up earlier and get ready before her daughter rose. Then she used this morning time to play, make great breakfasts or snuggle and read stories. As a result, she got the quality time she wanted, no matter what happened the rest of the day.
Once I realized the potential of mornings, I started to notice morning routines in many successful people’s schedules. It’s a great time for anything that’s important that life has a way of crowding out. Like exercise. As an athlete once told me, there will always be a reason to skip a 4 p.m. workout—and it’s going to be a good reason, too. There are fewer reasons to cancel a 5:30 a.m. workout. It’s convenient: you only have to shower once! You’re also more likely to make a habit of it. One study of fitness tracker data found that people who exercise consistently are more likely to be morning exercisers. People tend to follow routines in the morning—they wake up at the same time and leave for work at the same time—so if you build exercise into your morning routine, it will happen.
Mornings are also great for focused thinking. Maybe you manage lots of people in your daily life, and you want to be available for them, but you have other things you need to accomplish. Get up an hour earlier, and you can knock out your most important task of the day. Then you can relax when your employees come with questions and concerns. You’re no longer trying to race back to what you were doing before you were interrupted.
Or you could use this time to tap those creative impulses that are hard to nurture when jobs, kids and bills clamor for attention. Get up an hour earlier and write 500 words, four days a week, and you’d have a full-length novel in less than a year.
The time is there, but when I suggest people get up earlier than they need to, I know what many will exclaim: I’m not a morning person! It is true that some people function best at night, but not as many as claim night owl status. Here’s how to tell if you’re a true night person: are you writing the Great American Novel at night? Are you coming up with and executing your best business ideas at 11 p.m.? If so, great. But when most people take an honest look at how they’re spending the hours before bed, the answer is that there’s a lot of TV they didn’t mean to watch, scrolling through photos on social media of people they didn’t like in high school anyway and puttering around the house.
A better approach is to cut off the puttering, go to bed earlier, wake up earlier and turn unproductive evening hours into productive morning hours.
I know this is easier said than done. It might help to set up a reward system while you build the habit: good coffee with real cream, for instance, or 10 minutes reading something inspirational before you go for that run. I also know some phases of life don’t lend themselves to all kinds of morning productivity. My toddler likes to do great things before breakfast, but unfortunately, he can’t do them by himself. So one of us is up with him every day around 5:30 a.m., meaning not all mornings are available for quality time on the treadmill.
But children do grow up, and until then there’s quality morning time with him. Ultimately, making the most of mornings is about recognizing that they set the tone for the whole day. A win scored early creates momentum. Momentum creates results. That’s definitely worth waking up for.
Laura Vanderkam is the author of I Know How She Does It (June 9, 2015), 168 Hours and What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, a paperback compilation of the bestselling ebook series, all from Portfolio/Penguin. Find her at lauravanderkam.com.