You’ve probably heard that the most productive people get up early.
And while there are always outliers who do their best work well into the night, it generally holds true that if you want to be more productive, starting first thing in the morning is the way to go.
But this is where early-morning productivity advice often hits a wall. Sure, you’re up before most of the world. But now what?
Over the past five years I interviewed over 300 successful individuals about their morning routines (and just released a book along the same lines full of exclusive interviews and advice).
Over this time, and while writing the book, my co-author and I began to notice some clear trends about how the most productive people spend their first hours.
Benjamin Spall is the co-author of My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired, and the founding editor of mymorningroutine.com.
They give their first few morning hours to their most creative and fulfilling projects
Highly productive people give their first few morning hours to projects that make them feel alive, or that they believe the world deserves to see (or both). They know that if they don’t give time to these projects first thing, they likely won’t happen later in the day.
They do this before checking email, social media, or any other dopamine-producing but productivity-draining bad habits. As Farnam Street’s Shane Parrish told me in an interview:
“If I got up in the morning and the first thing I did was check email, I’d be allowing others to dictate my priorities for the day.”
If you’re traditionally employed, try scheduling your most important work first and avoid beginning your day with email or meetings. You can also use RescueTime to block distracting sites for 30 minutes at the start of your day to make sure you’re not getting distracted.
They make to-do lists or block items into their calendar
It sounds simple, but one of the key reasons highly productive people are as efficient as they are is because they schedule in time for what they need to do. And besides urgent events that genuinely can’t be helped, they stick to it.
Most of the people I spoke with while writing my book advocated making a to-do list or blocking out time in your calendar the night before, ideally before you finish work for the day, instead of from your phone just before you go to sleep.
If it’s hard for you to fit this in the evening before, you’re welcome to shift this task to the beginning of your morning instead.
When you keep a to-do list, or schedule your work out on a calendar, you will quickly become conscious of how you’re spending your time, as there’s nowhere to hide.
Not as productive as you thought you were? That’s okay; just aim to beat it the next day.
RescueTime tells you exactly where your time is going so you can build productive routines and habits. Sign up for your free account today.
They don’t hit the snooze button. Ever.
Highly productive people don’t hit the snooze button. They just don’t.
This has been the most consistent theme that’s come up in my over five years of interviewing people about their mornings. They do, however, set an alarm to hedge against oversleeping, even if they end up waking up and turning it off before it has a chance to sound.
With that said, they don’t skimp on sleep. While you should build in the time to get enough sleep for you (between 7-9 hours) every night, you should also choose to prioritize your sleep in favor of your routine when necessary.
You’re unlikely to have a productive morning if you’re overly tired anyway. So you may as well put this time to good use and sleep.
They schedule in time to relax
Highly productive people aren’t all-go, all the time. In fact, one of the keys to their productivity is knowing when to schedule in time away from work.
In the words of journalist and author Tony Schwartz:
“Human beings aren’t meant to operate like computers—at high speeds, continuously, for long periods. Instead, we’re physiologically designed to pulse, to move rhythmically between spending and renewing energy.”
When I spoke with the Chairman of the Vanguard Group, Bill McNabb, about how he winds down in the evening, he noted that he reads something that has absolutely nothing to do with work to relax his mind.
Similarly, Arianna Huffington told me that she jumps on her exercise bike every morning and follows it with a short meditation to allow herself some calm before her day begins.
They take their early morning productivity with them into the rest of the day
Highly productive people work hard in the morning so they have a sense of accomplishment and some early wins they can take with them into the rest of the day.
As entrepreneur Gregg Carey told me, his general goal is to always be able to answer yes to this question:
“If the day were to end after my routine, would it have been a successful and fulfilling day?”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that they waste their afternoons getting little-to-nothing done. What it means is they recognize that the more they get done in the morning, the better they’ll feel about their afternoon, and the less likely they are to feel like they’re playing catch up.
Having a productive morning is about more than just getting up early. It’s about using those precious first hours to their full potential. So take a page from the people I spoke to. When you follow the habits of highly productive people in the morning you’ll begin to notice your own productivity skyrocket.