Why the First Hours of Your Day Are the Most Important
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
There’s no question that Benjamin Franklin was a highly productive guy, with a CV that included writer, politician, entrepreneur, scientist, inventor, diplomat, printer and postmaster. In his autobiography, the polymath shared the details of his morning routine, which included waking up around 5 a.m. and asking himself, “What good shall I do this day?” He then set aside a couple of hours to “wash and address Powerful Goodness! Contrive days’ business, and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study; and breakfast.”
Later in life, he amended his schedule to include a refreshing “air bath,” which he found preferable to the cold water bath considered healthful at the time.
“With this view I rise early almost every morning, and sit in my chamber without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing,” he wrote. “This practice is not in the least painful, but on the contrary, agreeable; and if I return to bed afterwards, before I dress myself, as sometimes happens, I make a supplement to my night’s rest, of one or two hours of the most pleasing sleep that can be imagined.”
The air bath might not have been Franklin’s most notable contribution to society, and adopting it as a practice likely won’t lead you to invent the next lightning rod. But it does illustrate the importance of finding your own rhythm in the first hours of your day. Productivity gurus have all sorts of advice on how to organize your morning routine, which include but are not limited to exercising, meditating, journaling, reading a book and setting intentions — all before your day even officially begins.
Such an action-packed morning might be right for some people, but it isn’t for everyone. Here’s how to create a morning routine that works for you — regardless of whether you prefer your baths in water or air.
Waking up doesn’t have to hurt
If you do want to train yourself to begin your day earlier, start slow. Laura Vanderkam, a time-management expert and author of What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, says that suddenly trying to wake up at 5 a.m. instead of your regular 7:30 is a recipe for hitting the “snooze” button.
Instead, work in increments, setting the alarm 10 minutes earlier each day, and going to bed 10 minutes earlier each night. Calibrating your bedtime is crucial — if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not going to want to wake up.
There’s also the matter of the alarm itself. Unless you absolutely can’t wake up any other way, use a soothing alarm that eases you gently out of sleep, rather than terrifies you into consciousness with a cacophony of beeps. There are innumerable options out there, from sunrise alarm clocks to those that optimize your wake-up time based on your sleep rhythms. As Vanderkam says, "[Getting up earlier] isn't about punishing yourself.”
Clear your mind
The word “meditate” conjures images of sitting cross-legged on a pillow, hands resting on knees and eyes lightly closed. It’s a popular practice for a reason — it helps you keep emotions from controlling you by developing a non-reactive mind.
I practice 20 minutes of Transcendental Meditation each morning, but I also do morning pages, which allow me to spill my unfiltered thoughts over the course of three blank pages before I get to work each day. I consider these pages a sort of mental cleanse, whether it’s working through a problem or spouting off about something totally banal. Whatever I come up with is fine — research has shown that releasing your subconscious mind makes you more likely to make creative connections before your mental processes hit their peak.
Not ready to jump headfirst into an hour-long mindfulness practice? It’s okay to start small. Deep Patel has a great 10-minute routine for clearing out the cobwebs in your mind, recommending first drinking some water, followed by spending one or two minutes deep-breathing. Next, stretch your back, neck and shoulders, and spend a few minutes feeling grateful for what you have. Finally, take a minute or so to visualize yourself achieving your major goals for the day. It sounds like a lot, but in the end, it’s only one “snooze” button’s worth of time, and you’ll be amazed by how well it sets you up for success.
Work with your natural rhythms
Maybe you’ve found that no matter how early you get to sleep or how gently your alarm, you simply can’t prod yourself to wakefulness until 9 a.m. It’s not a failure on your part. Research shows that everyone has different peak hours; defined as the period of time each day when you’re at your sharpest mentally.
Finding your own peak time can take some trial and error. Learning about mine has helped me tackle the most important strategic work during my best hours, which has been instrumental in helping me run my business. If you’re still finding yours, I recommend following this three-week experiment from author Chris Bailey, which asks you to rate your energy, focus and motivation at the end of every hour. It can seem daunting, but the patterns that emerge will help you capitalize on your prime times.
If you feel guilty about working non-standard hours, think about this: Evan Williams, the hyper-successful co-founder of Twitter, Medium and Blogger, traded going to the gym first thing in the morning for the middle of the day. "My focus is usually great first thing in the morning, so going to the gym first is a trade-off of very productive time,” he says. He acknowledges that "it feels weird (at first) to leave the office in the middle of the day," but finds that "total time spent is nearly the same with higher energy and focus across the board."
Everyone is different — Franklin has his air baths; Williams, his midday gym time. What works for one person might not work for you, and that’s okay. What matters is beginning every day by giving yourself the best chance for success.
Related: What Your Morning Routine Is Missing