Hundreds of Interviews With Olympians, Hollywood Executives and Successful Entrepreneurs Reveal How to Have a Productive Morning
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
I used to wake up really late in college. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't up partying the night away (however much I may have wanted to be), but I would simply struggle to keep my eyes open in the morning, often not heaving myself out of bed until 9 or 10 a.m.
This continued after college as I began working as a freelance writer. I would stay up late, wake up late and I would generally struggle to get through the day. Fast-forward five years, and while my late mornings were long gone, my actual productivity once awake was haphazard at best. It was around this time that I was approached by my now co-author, Michael Xander. Intent on building something we knew we, and others, would benefit from, we worked together to create an interview series through which we would go on to speak with one successful person about their morning routine every week for the next five and a half years, and counting.
We were soon approached by a publisher looking to turn our website into a book, on the condition that we go out and interview even more successful and productive people exclusively for the book. So we did, and here are the three most important lessons we discovered about how successful people ensure they have a productive morning routine that helps them out throughout the rest of their day:
1. They're proactive, not reactive, in the morning.
So many of us wake up and immediately pick up our phones and start scrolling through our emails and other notifications that may have come in overnight. While there is a time and a place for this (sometimes you truly do need to check in on something the moment you wake up), these times are few and far between.
The successful people I spoke with for my book understand that they have to be proactive in the morning -- choosing to do what they want to do -- not reactive -- immediately focusing on the whims of others. This requires you to cut out early morning meetings and calls, and to not check your email the moment you wake up. It's a hard habit to break, but it can be done.
Sherry Lansing, the first woman to head a Hollywood movie studio, told me in an interview: "When I was running Paramount I had 8:30 a.m. breakfast meetings almost every single day. Two years after leaving Paramount, [I eliminated] daily breakfast meetings."
2. They break down big goals into small pieces.
You've probably heard the expression, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." This same expression rings true if you want to make the most of your mornings to get your most important work done.
It's easy for us to think that we simply don't have time in the mornings to make progress on our big and important goals, but this is far from the truth. I understand this reasoning, of course -- I used to feel this way myself. But from interviewing hundreds of successful people about their morning routines, it became clear that breaking down your big goals into small pieces, then scheduling these small pieces throughout your week (including first thing in the morning!) is the only way you're going to find the time to get to them.
Nick Bilton, an author and special correspondent for Vanity Fair, breaks down the writing and research elements of his work into separate pieces, a tactic that allows him the added benefit of not getting distracted by the internet when he sits down to write. Bilton told me in an interview: "When I'm writing a book or a big magazine feature, I tend to work with my Wi-Fi turned off and my phone in airplane mode ... If I need to look something up for a passage I'm writing, I can look it up later."
Don't have time to draft a whole article or presentation right now? Schedule in 10 minutes to just get the first paragraph down. Don't have time for a half-hour run this morning? Do some light stretching, followed by some jumping jacks, then get a shorter run in later in the day.
3. They do their most important work first.
One of the reasons that successful people -- whether in business, sports or any other field -- are head and tails above everyone else is because they strive to always do their most important work first.
For three-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist in swimming Rebecca Soni, this is working out. Soni wakes up at 5:30 a.m., does a couple of rounds of deep breathing to help her wake up, then follows a short meditation with a long workout. For author Ryan Holiday, this is writing. When I interviewed Holiday for my book, he noted that he always writes for one or two hours in the morning before he starts his day. "The way I see it," he told me, "after a productive morning in which I accomplish my big things, the rest of the day can be played by ear. It's all extra from there."
Doing your most important work means scheduling it in like anything else on your calendar, or at least not scheduling anything in its place. Productivity and time-management expert Laura Vanderkam told me in an interview: "When I'm scheduling my days well, I leave big open chunks of time in the morning so I can concentrate, and then I start phone calls after 10:30 a.m."