What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast

Mornings are a great time for getting things done. You’re less likely to be interrupted than you are later in the day. Your supply of willpower is fresh after a good night’s sleep. That makes it possible to turn personal priorities like exercise or strategic thinking into reality.

But if you’ve got big goals—and a chaotic a.m. schedule—how can you make over your mornings to make these goals happen?

Because I write about time management frequently, I’ve gotten to see hundreds of calendars and schedules over the years. From studying people’s morning habits, I’ve learned that getting the most out of this time is a five-part process. Follow these steps, though, and you’re on your way to building morning habits that stick.

1. Track Your Time

Part of spending your time better is knowing 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 with time. Write down what you’re doing as often as you can. Use my spreadsheet, a Word document, or a pad and pen.

While measuring your mornings, try tracking your whole week. The reason? The solution to morning dilemmas often lies at other times of the day. You may be too tired 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. The Daily Show can be recorded and watched earlier—possibly while you’re on the treadmill at 6:30 a.m.

As for the mornings themselves, you can be organized but still not be spending them well. Question your assumptions. You may believe that "a man who wants to keep his job gets into the office before his boss" because that’s what your father did, but your boss may be disappointed that he doesn’t get the place to himself for an hour first! If you decide that something is a top priority, do it, but understand that we have to do few things in life.

2. Picture the Perfect Morning

After you know how you’re spending your time, ask yourself what a great morning would look like. For me, it would start with a run, followed by a hearty family breakfast. After getting people out the door, I’d focus on long-term projects like my books. Here are some other ideas for morning enrichment:

For personal growth:

  • Read through a religious text: Sacred texts can teach us about human nature and history, even if they’re not from a religion you subscribe to. If they are, pray or meditate and get to know your beliefs in a deeper way.
  • Train for something big: Aiming to complete a half-marathon, a triathlon, or a long bike ride will keep you inspired as you take your fitness to the next level.
  • Do art projects with your kids:. Mornings don’t have to be a death march out the door. Enjoy your time with your little ones at a time of day when you all have more patience.

For professional growth:

  • Strategize: In an age of constant connectivity, people complain of having no time to think. Use your mornings to picture what you want your career and organization to look like in the future.
  • Read articles in professional journals: Benefit from other people’s research and strategic thinking, and gain new insights into your field.
  • Take an online class: If a job or career change is in your future, a self-paced class can keep your skills sharp.

3. Think Through the Logistics

How could this vision mesh with the life you have? Don’t assume you have to add it on top of the hours you already spend getting ready or that you’ll have to get to work earlier. If you fill the morning hours with important activities you’ll crowd out things that are more time intensive than they need to be. Map out a morning schedule. What time would you have to get up and what time do you need to go to bed to get enough sleep? As for the mornings themselves, what would make your ritual easier? Do you need to set your easel next to your bed? Can you find a more cheerful alarm clock or one you can’t turn off so easily?

It’s easy to believe our own excuses, particularly if they’re good ones. Come up with a plan and assemble what you need, but whatever you do, don’t label this vision as impossible

4. Build the Habit

This is the most important step. Turning a desire into a ritual requires willpower. Use these fives steps to optimize your routine:

  • Start slowly: Go to bed and wake up fifteen minutes earlier for a few days until this new schedule seems doable.
  • Monitor your energy: Building a new habit takes effort, so take care of yourself while you’re trying. Eat right, eat enough, 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, choose one of these and make it a habit before adding another.
  • Chart your progress: Habits take weeks to establish, so keep track of how you’re doing for at least thirty days. Once skipping a session feels like you forgot something—like forgetting to brush your teeth—you can take your ritual up a notch.
  • Feel free to use bribery: Eventually habits produce their own motivation, but until then, external motivations like promising yourself concert tickets can keep you moving forward. And keep in mind that your morning rituals shouldn’t be of the self-flagellation variety. Choose things you enjoy: your before-breakfast ritual has the potential to become your favorite part of the day.

5. Tune Up as Necessary

Life changes. Sometimes we have to regroup, but the goal is to replace any rituals that no longer work with new ones that make you feel like every day is full of possibility.

That is ultimately the amazing thing about mornings—they always feel like a new chance to do things right. A win scored then creates a cascade of success. The hopeful hours before most people eat breakfast are too precious to be blown on semiconscious activities. You can do a lot with those hours. 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? This important question requires careful thinking. 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.

Excerpted from What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam by arrangement with Portfolio Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Laura Vanderkam. Follow her on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Arvind Grover]

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  • Lonnie Bailey

    I do all the same brush strokes as Picasso but for some reason I can't paint a masterpiece? Oh yeah...I'm not Picasso! Doing what someone else does will not give you their IQ, talent, knowledge, or capabilities. Behavior patterns might make you more efficient at what you do, but it wont make you a genius painter. Tip: There is no specific behavior that makes someone successful other than hard work, dedication, and ability creating opportunities for themselves.

    Following someones else's behavioral patterns is more likely to make you a successful stalker than a successful business person. Something to think about.

  • michael

    Excellent post Laura. The morning routine is tricky because of the days where something happens the night before either preventing good sleep or causing good sleep due to indiscretions :-) It's those days that prevent the habit from forming because I think all in all, people intend to succeed in life.

    For me I wanted to write daily. For years this was my goal. But it wasn't until I started a fiction blog, www.5amwriter.com, a place where I got up early to write. At first it was hard, but I didn't want to let down my family and friends, (the first subscribers). But now, seven months later, I haven't missed a post. My dream of daily writing is a reality.

    I don't think everyone has to do a blog, but in order to be successful at this early morning thing, I think everyone MUST have something that will get them out of bed when sleep is at a premium or indiscretions take over an otherwise good intentioned evening the night before.

    Good luck!

    Michael Spinali www.5amwriter.com

  • Suzanne Elizabeth Miller

    Its veggie bacon; I bought some to accommodate a vegetarian dinner guest a while back. Its actually pretty tasty!

  • Dr. Edward Knab

    It would seem like this is part of my daily habit. I've been doing this for routine for years and it pays off both on a personal and professional routine. I thInk personal and professional should not be separated but really personal and professional things should be combined into a holistic vision of the single entity we are. Why do we compartmentize our personal life and professional life, a life is a life. We are the composite of everything we do and rather than separate compartments we should look at life has one holistic vision of who and what we are and what we want to become.

  • Superstar Gym

    this is more robot like life. No beauty in organic development of life. Every person is different. What works for one will not work for others. Maybe this will work for someone like robot like society. 

  • Albert_Maruggi

    The common ground here is defining your own "success" Laura follows her path to her goals.  She writes from the position that seems like a bubble of individualism.  Laura you mentioned kids once and in the context of something to fulfill your agenda.  I'm not telling people how to live in this response.  I can only overlay the context of my vision of the world, neither you or I are right or wrong, it's just a perspective.    

    What seems to be missing from this outline of time management is the prioritization of relationships in a person's life be they by choice, e.g. I choose to be with my yoga friends, or urgency  barking dog to crying kids need to be cared for.  I love the family breakfast idea. Sounds like you have kids, then you know of the sacrifices of parenting.  No criticism here, but each parent prioritizes their children's care in their own way.   Time is finite and if others choose to be at the office their reward is likely more money better retirement, education etc etc.   Others choose more time with their kids, that's time management.  

    All this time management stuff is fine, I am a long time believer in Stephen Covey.  The rub is when life gets in the way of your planned time management.  I find it can create conflict, frustration, and depression.   Ok at age specific milestones everyone realizes they are not going to do something from play in the NBA to be a rock guitarist, it's the sorting through of a lifetime of changing priorities, personal moral obligations (I'm talking sandwich generation of 50 somethings who might be changing diapers for grandkids and parents) and enjoying the beauty that is around you.  

    Sure,I've been on the corporate ride, still am as a consultant.  I understand the monthly eye candy charts, the ROI, the do more with less.   It's all good and probably necessary in one of the most productive societies in the history of the world.  The spectrum is Laura's article and Deborah Nixon's comment.   Even the world is based on time management; the sun, the seasons, the life cycle.  The irony of time management is none of us knows how much time we really have. 

  • NRLourenco

    I've just ruined my day because it forgot to schedule this reading... What now? :-/

  • Siddhi Sehgal

    If you believe you can than you will!!!The spirit comes from within...so keep trying..

  • Bee

    I think that we all have different approaches to life, but that whoever this resonates with should ADOPT ADOPT ADOPT!!!!! Thanks Laura!

  • SoniaMartinez

    Inspiring article for people like me that feel they don't have time for daily, quality, personal time.  Whether you're a morning person or night owl, just becoming aware of the benefits of prioritizing and managing your daily or nightly routine will ignite inspired action.

  • Senthil

    Agreed Deborah. That's living for self, as like you and me, I think, everyone in this world would certainly want to live their own life but when that really will become possible varies person to person. Probably you are lucky enough to get that early might be. Otherwise we are all here to live by rule , at least, half of the life time.

  • Senthil.

    Really very good and valuable points. Making them as habits by practice is the key; I am still learning to make that happen though.

  • Iain Scott

    Who are these "most successful people"? What is the sample size and demographic? How is their success measured? Was there a control group? Are they all Americans? Or is the author simply writing about herself with a few assumptions about a selection of people she knows. Perhaps I am wrong and the rest of the book contains extraordinary revelations, but on the evidence of this extract it seems terribly lazy and absolutely nothing that we all haven't heard a gazillion times over the course of our lives. 

  • Tara Dunn

    I always think this when I read one of these articles. I feel like there are lots of assumptions made when it comes to "most successful people." Also, they must have a lot of things in order already, because I don't know about you, but my morning time is fought feverishly for by my dogs needing walks, my dishes needing washed, my laundry to be folded, appointments to make for household repairs, and those of the medical variety, dry cleaning (gotta pick it up sometime), coffee, shower, breakfast, exercise, news & so on. Especially if the idea is to go to bed early (if I'm not really off of the computer until 6 or so, then yoga, errands, dinner, clean up, & perhaps a movie or time with friends), then the morning is rarely a time that can be so well organized, at least at my place. But that's the beauty of it- that is my take and my life, so I make it my goal to work around that, and keep it organic. Time management is a balance and, while it may rely on a schedule, flexibility is key.