One of the big differences between the most successful people we’ve met and others is how they use their morning. Used well, the time before breakfast dramatically increases your productivity.
Mornings are an under-utilized tool to aid productivity.
Let me explain.
We’re often at our peak in the mornings. This is why Mark McGuinness suggests the single most important change you can make to your workday is to move your creative time to mornings. We’re more mentally alert and our mental batteries are charged.
Where do we spend all of this energy? Email. Meetings. We fragment our time. This, however, isn’t the path to success. There is another way.
“Before the rest of the world is eating breakfast,” writes Laura Vanderkam in What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast “the most successful people have already scored daily victories that are advancing them toward the lives they want.”
Vanderkam studied successful people and she discovered that early mornings were when they had the most control over their own schedules. They used this time to work on their priorities.
Taking control of your mornings is very much like investing in yourself. This is how Billionaire Charlie Munger got so smart: he set aside an hour in the mornings every day just to learn.
While there are 168 hours in the week not all of them are created equally. Vanderkam writes:
People who were serious about exercise did it in the mornings. At that point, emergencies had yet to form, and they would only have to shower once. As Gordo Byrn, a triathlon coach, once told me, “There’s always a reason to skip a four o’clock workout, and it’s going to be a good reason, too.”
Most people find doing anything that requires self-discipline easier to do in the morning. The same can be said for focus.
Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has spent more time studying willpower and self-discipline than most. In his book he highlights one famous experiment where students were asked to fast before coming into the lab. They were then put into a room with food. Specifically, radishes, chocolate chip cookies, and candy. Some of the students could eat whatever they wanted while others could only eat the radishes. After the food, they were supposed to work on “unsolvable” geometry puzzles.
The students who’d been allowed to eat chocolate chip cookies and candy typically worked on the puzzles for about twenty minutes, as did a control group of students who were also hungry but hadn’t been offered food of any kind. The sorely tempted radish eaters, though, gave up in just eight minutes— a huge difference by the standards of laboratory experiments. They’d successfully resisted the temptation of the cookies and the chocolates, but the effort left them with less energy to tackle the puzzles.
“Willpower,” Baumeister and co-author John Tierney write, “like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse.”
This is a problem because you don’t just have one willpower battery for work and another one for home. They are the same battery. And this bucket is used to control your thought processes and emotions. As Baumeister said in an interview:
You have one energy resource that is used for all kinds of acts (of) self-control. That includes not just resisting food temptations, but also controlling your thought processes, controlling your emotions, all forms of impulse control, and trying to perform well at your job or other tasks. Even more surprisingly, it is used for decision making, so when you make choices you are (temporarily) using up some of what you need for self-control. Hard thinking, like logical reasoning, also uses it.
Most self-control failures happen in the evening after a long day of traffic, bickering kids, pointless meetings, and other things that zap our self-control.
“Diets are broken in the evening, not the morning. The majority of impulsive crimes are committed after 11: 00 p.m. Lapses in drug use, alcohol abuse, sexual misbehavior, gambling excesses, and the like tend to come about late in the day.”
After a good night’s sleep, your battery is charged and ready to go.
In What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, Vanderkam writes:
In these early hours, we have enough willpower and energy to tackle things that require internal motivation, things the outside world does not immediately demand or reward.
That’s the argument for scheduling important priorities first. But there’s more to the muscle metaphor. Muscles can be strengthened over time. A bodybuilder must work hard to develop huge biceps, but then he can go into maintenance mode and still look pretty buff. Paradoxically, with willpower, research has found that people who score high on measures of self-discipline tend not to employ this discipline when they do regular activities that would seem to require it, such as homework or getting to class or work on time. For successful people, these are no longer choices but habits.
“Getting things down to routines and habits takes willpower at first but in the long run conserves willpower,” says Baumeister. “Once things become habitual, they operate as automatic processes, which consume less willpower.”
If we learned anything from Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, it was that routines and habits played an important role in success.
In 1887 William James wrote on Habit:
Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results. … The great thing, then, in all education, is to make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and to guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.
As Tierney and Baumeister write in Willpower, “Ultimately, self-control lets you relax because it removes stress and enables you to conserve willpower for the important challenges.”
So what are the best morning habits?
Vanderkam writes in What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast:
The best morning rituals are activities that don’t have to happen and certainly don’t have to happen at a specific hour. These are activities that require internal motivation. The payoff isn’t as immediate as the easy pleasure of watching television or answering an email that doesn’t require an immediate response, but there are still payoffs. The best morning rituals are activities that, when practiced regularly, result in long-term benefits. The most successful people use their mornings for these things:
1. Nurturing their careers—strategizing and focused work
2. Nurturing their relationships—giving their families and friends their best
3. Nurturing themselves—exercise and spiritual and creative practices
The reason people do work requiring focus early in the day is the lack of interruptions. Once the day gets going, everyone wants a slice of your time.
You can crank things out; novelist Anthony Trollope famously wrote, without fail, for a few hours each morning. Charlotte Walker-Said, a history postdoc at the University of Chicago, uses the hours between 6: 00 and 9: 00 a.m. each day to work on a book on the history of religious politics in West Africa. She can read journal articles and write pages before dealing with her teaching responsibilities. “Once you start looking at email, the whole day cascades into email responses and replying back and forth,” she says. These early-morning hours are key to managing her stress in a suboptimal academic job market. “Every day I have a job,” she says. But “in the morning, I think I have a career.” She’s on to something; one study of young professors found that those who wrote a little bit every day were more likely to make tenure than those who wrote in bursts of intense energy (and put it off the rest of the time).
One of the secrets to happy families is that mealtime with family matters.
This idea of using mornings as positive family time really stuck with me as I looked at my own life. While my kids tend to get up later, many small children wake up at the crack of dawn. So if you work outside the home and don’t see your kids during the day, why not take advantage of this? You can keep your eyes constantly focused on the clock, as I have a tendency to do, or you can set an alarm to give yourself a fifteen -minute warning, and then just relax. People always pontificate about how important family dinner is, but this is just not a reality in families with young kids who want to eat at 5: 30 or 6: 00 p.m., especially if one or both parents works later hours. But there’s nothing magical about dinner. Indeed, if the research on willpower is to be believed, we’re more crabby at dinner than we are at breakfast. Family breakfasts —when treated as relaxed, fun affairs— are a great substitute for the evening meal.
The general sentiment here is that everyone else is sleeping so you’re not missing out on something important and you can spend time taking care of yourself, which generally leads to a positive impact on your productivity throughout the day.
In What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast Vanderkam suggests making over your mornings by tracking your time, picturing the perfect morning, thinking through the logistics, building a habit, developing a feedback loop and tuning up as necessary.
Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage and a self-proclaimed night owl, taught himself to appreciate mornings by thinking about the positive.
“The reason we stay in bed in the morning is because our brains get fatigued by thinking about all the things we have to do that day. We’re thinking about tasks rather than things that are making us happy,” he says. But the reverse of that is also true. “If you’re thinking about things you’re looking forward to, that makes it easy to get out of bed. What your brain focuses on becomes your reality.”
[2019 Update: Recent research has called the concept of willpower depletion into question. Studies suggest it may be limited to a small number of specific contexts, as opposed to being a general concept. Willpower depletion may even only be a problem if you believe that it is a real thing. So your self control may wane throughout the day, but the extent may vary depending on what you’re doing and your beliefs.]