What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast

UPDATED: September 11, 2023
PUBLISHED: March 18, 2013

According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America poll, the average 30- to 45-year-old claims to get out of bed at 5:59 a.m. on a typical weekday morning, with 46- to 64-year-olds rousting themselves at 5:57. Yet many people don’t start work until 8 or 9 a.m. And by “start work” I mean “show up at the workplace.” When people are frazzled from wrangling small children, battling traffic or even standing in line for 20 minutes at Starbucks, it’s easy to seize that first quiet stint at the office as unconsciously chosen “me time.” We read through personal emails and peruse Facebook and headlines totally unrelated to our jobs until a meeting or phone call forces us to stop.

But mornings don’t have to be like this. They can be productive times. Joyous times. Times for habits that help one grow into a better person. Indeed, before the rest of the world is eating breakfast, the most successful people have already scored daily victories that are advancing them toward the lives they want.

At least that’s my conclusion from studying time logs and profiles in which high-achieving people talk about their schedules. James Citrin, who co-leads the North American Board & CEO Practice at the headhunting firm Spencer Stuart, is often exercising by 6 a.m. He uses that early-morning quiet to reflect on his most important priorities of the day. One day a few years ago, he decided to ask various executives he admired about their morning routines for a Yahoo! Finance piece. Of the 18 (of 20) who responded, the latest any of them was up regularly was 6 a.m. For instance, according to the interview notes Citrin later shared with me, Steve Reinemund, the former chairman and CEO of Pepsi, was up at 5 a.m. and running four miles on the treadmill. Then he had some quiet time, praying and reading and catching up on the news, before eating breakfast with his then-teenage twins.

As I’ve been talking with people about their mornings, the phrase I hear repeated is that “this is the time I have for myself.” As Reinemund told me, “I look forward to my mornings. I cherish my mornings, my personal time.” Seizing your mornings is the equivalent of that sound financial advice to pay yourself before you pay your bills. If you wait until the end of the month to save what you have left, there will be nothing left over. Likewise, if you wait until the end of the day to do meaningful but not urgent things like exercise, pray, read, ponder how to advance your career or grow your organization, or truly give your family your best, it probably won’t happen.

If it has to happen, then it has to happen first.

A Matter of Willpower

We all have 168 hours a week, but not all hours are equally suited to all things. I certainly noticed this when I started tracking my time for my book on time management, 168 Hours. As I kept time logs, writing down what I was doing as often as I remembered, I noticed patterns. Namely, during normal business hours I would have one really good burst of productivity in the morning, when I could focus for 90 minutes or more on a single project. Later in the day I became more easily distracted. Not only was I tempted to click over to email or surf the web, but things started piling up that I had to answer. I saw this on the time logs other people kept for me as well. As the day went on, the time spent on each individual task began to shrink.

I wondered if there were reasons beyond logistics that mornings seemed to be made for getting things done.

It turns out there are. New research into that old-fashioned concept of willpower is showing that tasks that require self-discipline are simply easier to do while the day is young.

Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, has spent his career studying this topic of self-discipline. In one famous experiment he asked students to fast before coming into the lab. Then they were put in a room, alone, with radishes, chocolate chip cookies and candy. As Baumeister and science journalist John Tierney write in their 2011 book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, some students could eat what they wanted, and some were assigned to eat only the radishes. Afterward, the participants had 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 20 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.”

What Baumeister and his colleagues took from this experiment is that “willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse.” This is a problem because, while we think of our lives in categories like “work” and “home,” the reality is that, as Baumeister told me, “You have one energy resource that is used for all kinds of acts for 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.” Over the course of a day, dealing with traffic, frustrating bosses and bickering children, plus—more insidiously—electronic temptations that are as alluring as fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, a person’s supply of willpower is simply used up.

“There seems to be a general pattern that major self-control failures and other bad decisions occur late in the day,” Baumeister says. “Diets are broken in the evening, not the morning.”

In the morning, though, after a decent night’s sleep, the supply of willpower is fresh. We’re more inclined to be optimistic; one analysis of Twitter feeds from around the world found that people are more likely to use words like “awesome” and “super” between 6 and 9 a.m. than at other times of the day. That’s the argument for scheduling important priorities first. But there’s more to the “willpower muscle” metaphor. A bodybuilder must work hard to develop huge biceps, but then he can go into maintenance mode and still look pretty buff. Similarly, “Getting things down to routines and habits takes willpower at first but in the long run conserves willpower,” Baumeister says.

Take, for instance, brushing your teeth. Most of us don’t stand there arguing with ourselves every morning about whether we want to brush or not. It’s simply a morning ritual. Likewise, successful people turn high-value tasks into morning rituals, conserving their energy for later battles—those annoying colleagues, traffic and other willpower sappers. Through these daily habits, you make slow, steady progress—laying the foundation for happiness, health and wealth.

How to Make Over Your Mornings

From studying people’s morning habits, I’ve learned that getting the most out of this time involves a five-step process.

1. Track your time.

Part of spending your time better is by knowing exactly how you’re spending it now. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you know that nutritionists tell you to keep a food journal because it keeps you from eating mindlessly. It’s the same thing with time. Write down what you’re doing as often as you can and in as much detail as you think will be helpful. There’s a spreadsheet you can download from LauraVanderkam.com/books/168-hours or you can just use a little notebook or Word document on your computer.

Related: “Why Every Schedule Needs a Little Slack

While you may be thinking specifically about your mornings, try tracking a whole week (168 hours). The reason to do this is that the solution to morning dilemmas often lies at other times of the day. You may be too tired in the mornings because you’re staying up late. But if you look at how you’re spending your nights, you’ll notice that you’re not doing anything urgent or particularly enjoyable. Jon Stewart’s show can be recorded and watched later—possibly while you’re on the treadmill at 6:30 a.m. Most of your colleagues wouldn’t expect an immediate response to any emails sent between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. anyway, so why bother checking your inbox? If you’re spending time tidying the house, keep in mind that it will just get dirty again the next day, but you’ll never get that time back. If you can’t sleep in a mess, try just cleaning your bedroom, and close the doors to the rest of your home.

2. Picture the perfect morning.

After you know how you’re spending your time, ask yourself what a great morning would look like for you. For me, it would start with a run (or perhaps “sex at dawn,” as a reader of my blog suggested), followed by a hearty family breakfast with good coffee; then, after getting people out the door, focusing on a long-term project such as a book, plus writing on my personal blog.

3. Think through the logistics.

The good thing about filling the morning hours with important activities is that you’ll crowd out things that are more time-intensive than they need to be. Give yourself 15 minutes for a shower and you’ll take 15 minutes; give yourself five and you’ll be out in five. Unless, of course, your ideal morning ritual is a contemplative shower, in which case stay in there as long as you can. Map out a morning schedule.

What would have to happen to make this schedule work? What time would you have to get up and (most important) what time do you need to go to bed in order to get enough sleep? Can you get to bed by that time? People who are used to staying up late may find that counting back eight hours from the time they’d like to get up suggests an improbably early bedtime, but there are plenty of ways to wind down so you won’t toss and turn. Stop watching TV or checking email an hour before bed (there’s evidence that screen light can interfere with sleep patterns). Make sure your room is dark and a little cool. Wear earplugs if others are still up and about.

What would make your ritual easier? Do you need to set your easel or your running clothes, sneakers and iPod next to your bed?

Come up with a plan and assemble what you need, but whatever you do, don’t label this vision as impossible. It’s easy to believe our own excuses, particularly if they’re good ones. For instance, maybe you’re telling yourself that you can’t use your mornings to exercise because you’re a single parent of small children (or a single parent during the week, a challenge I sometimes face). But, for a moment, forget financial constraints. Pretend you had all the money in the world and list as many options as you can think of, which you’ll soon see involve varying costs and degrees of difficulty. You could, for instance, hire a live-in nanny or au pair, or bribe a relative to move in with you. You could hire an early-morning sitter on the mornings you planned to exercise, or ask a relative or friend to come over on those mornings. You could find a day-care or before-school program with early hours, or a gym with child care. You could buy a treadmill (new or used) and put it in your basement in front of a television and run before the kids get up. You could buy a double jog stroller and take the kids with you.

4. Build the habit.

This is the most important step. Turning a desire into a ritual requires a lot of initial willpower, and not just for the first few days. The first few days you have enough motivation to move mountains at 5:30 a.m., but then, around day 13, you begin to waver, and your bed will start to seem pretty enticing. What should you do?

One answer is to start slowly. Go to bed 15 minutes earlier and wake up 15 minutes earlier for a few days until this new schedule seems doable.

Monitor your energy. Building a new habit takes effort, so you want to take care of yourself while you’re trying. Eat right and eat enough, take breaks during your workday, and surround yourself with supportive people who want to see you succeed.

Choose one new habit at a time to introduce. If you want to run, pray and write in a journal each morning, choose one of these and put all your energy into making that activity a habit before you try something else.

Chart your progress. Habits take several weeks to establish, so keep track of how you’re doing for at least 30 days. In his writings, Ben Franklin described how he scored himself for practicing various virtues (temperance, modesty and the like). It’s an idea Gretchen Rubin ran with in The Happiness Project, noting victories on her Resolutions Chart when she made progress toward her goals. Once skipping a day feels like you forgot something—like forgetting to brush your teeth—you’ll know you’ve got a habit and can take your ritual up a notch.

Also, feel free to use bribery at first. Eventually daily exercise will produce its own motivation as you start to look better and have more energy. But until then, external motivations, like promising yourself tickets to a concert or a massage, can keep you moving forward.

5. Tune up as necessary.

Life changes. Rituals can change, too. But that’s OK, because ultimately the amazing thing about mornings is that they always feel like a new chance to do things right. A win scored then creates a “cascade of success,” says Shawn Achor, the author of Happiness Advantage and a SUCCESS contributing editor. “Once your brain records a victory, it’s more likely to take the next step and the next step.” Believing that your actions matter is how the human mind learns optimism—or to use a better word, hope.

The most successful people know that the hopeful hours before most people eat breakfast are far too precious to be blown on semiconscious activities. You can do a lot with those hours. Randeep Rekhi of Colorado works full time in a financial services firm. But by the time he shows up at his office at 8 a.m., he has already worked out and managed a side business, the website of his family’s wine store, WineDelight.com. I cringe to think about getting up at 5 a.m., but the reality is I’m rarely doing much of consequence after 10 p.m. Whenever I’m tempted to say I don’t have time for something, I remind myself that if I wanted to get up early, I could. These hours are available to all of us if we choose to use them.

So how would you like to use your mornings? As with any other important question, this one repays careful thinking—spending time figuring out what is truly meaningful to you. But once you decide, small rituals can accomplish great things.

When you make over your mornings, you can make over your life. That is what the most successful people know.

Find Laura Vanderkam’s What the Most Successful People Do Trilogy in the SUCCESS Store.