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Why Productive People Get Up Insanely Early

If you want to do your best work, distraction is your enemy. So wake before it rises.

Editor's Note: This story is part of 5 Habits Changes You Can Actually Make In 2015. Check out the full list here.

I am not a successful entrepreneur. I do not know the secret to life. I know that I love what I do but struggle with feeling content and balanced.

I'd ask other entrepreneurs about their advice and they would say within seconds you need to unplug or take a vacation, but applying that is difficult for me—I don't want to figure out the right way to take a break, I want to figure out how to appreciate the present moment.

I'm not an aspiring buddhist or a zen master either. I want to win, I want to be the best, I want to make some people feel stupid for not believing in us, and I love being at the front of the eternal fight that is a startup. But the counterbalance of the fight was difficult to find.

For me, 4 a.m. yielded reprieve.


From all the research done about suicide and depression, the greatest predictor may be one simple thing: weather. There are higher suicide rates in places that have the least sunlight. So getting the most sunlight possible seemed like an optimal step for increasing my daily happiness.

The first time I woke up at 4 a.m. to try this, my mind was in a completely different place with a completely foreign feeling. I had a completely different initiative: To make the World’s Best Omelette. Like actually take my time with it and take pride in it. This was something I could have never done before.

If I had to boil this down to why I felt focused and unhurried at this time: Not one person is expecting anything from you in the next 4 hours. So the ability to appreciate the task at hand and thinking creatively seemed natural.

A fun surprise: discovering your deprivation

What I was depriving myself from was time in the day where there was no pressure and no expectations. For the same reasons that I felt most creative on Saturday mornings and on planes, 4 a.m. has become a place of productive peace. That feeling is why I love what I do. I don't need a vacation. I don't need to step away. I just need a couple hours a day before anyone else is up.

I can't quantify this feeling. Ben Huh of openly talks about his suicidal thoughts when his first startup didn’t work from the pressure he put on himself. When I asked him about what makes him happy now, he cited a book called Flow: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to the "optimal experience" and what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of skill-expanding consciousness appropriately enough called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.

And when I asked our Philosophy PhD-turned-VC why I felt most productive on a plane, he opened his Moleskine to the opening cover where he had this quote from Pascal pasted: "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." In other words, not being able to go anywhere cuts away the need to think about new stimuli—and finally allows us to focus.

Making an omelette, coffee, playing guitar, exercising, listening to the Dan Patrick Show, learning a language, and getting some exercise all felt like optimal experiences when not in completion for mental bandwidth slated for the company. And by 6:45, I'm working on the biggest items on my plate that I can focus on without the threat of new stimuli for the next couple of hours. The second you check email or LinkedIn, an internal clock of new items immediately starts in our minds—a vicious cycle. Planning your day the night before allows you to feel on top of your day and even look forward to it. Attacking the hardest thing first and all the stuff I didn't want to do before 9 a.m. leaves the rest of the day to be very fulfilling.

I can only point to a book written by someone else and a quote from a philosopher to explain why a 4 a.m. start time has allowed me to enjoy each day to the fullest. In a competitive landscape where being relentlessly proactive and creative each day are minimum standards, the biggest threat to your business is if you stop loving what you do. Whether by waking up before dawn or truly vacating your vacation, building a schedule that protects your love for what you do is critical to optimizing the quality of your life—and your work.

Paul DeJoe is cofounder of Ecquire, a sales productivity tool, based in Vancouver. Check out their blog or follow them on Twitter at @ecquire.

[Image: Flickr user Anthony_lui]

Related: 7 Super-Efficient Ways To Jump-Start Your Morning

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  • LaTanya Orr

    I'm up and working around 5:30am most mornings. I've rested, I'm inspired- its when my creative vision/strategy is at its highest. I get the majority of my heavy projects completed by 9am.

  • Butty

    I AM THE WINNER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I hold the world record for early rising: 12:00 am every day, and I go to bed every night at 11:59pm, While lazy people sleep at babyish hours such as 8pm, I am closing miillion dollar business deals and working out. I work out at the gym at 12:10 am in the morning every day for 6 hours, building my huge strong butt muscles.

  • I woke up at 4am every day for a long so I could code and develop my app. I think I was truly happier during that time. By the time noon came around, I had already accomplished so much.

    My wife and I now have a baby though and waking up at 4am is basically insanity because I'll take any sleep I can get!

    But I sure do miss the tranquility, the clarity of thought and the shear productivity of a day that started at 4am.

  • chrisnemeth06

    I completely agree that waking up before the rest of the house is the best feeling. There is a sense of peace and gives you the chance to get a head of the day instead of feeling behind. Even though I know this, I still struggle to wake up. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that my kids are early risers (between 5:30am and 6:30am) and Monday through Friday I commute about 2 hours to work, leaving my house at 5:15am. I'm always looking for advice on how I can get my butt up. If I can consistently get up at 4am than at least I could have 30 - 45 minutes to myself for whatever I want, exercise, emails, coffee, etc.

    Anyway, thank you for reconfirming why I really need to wake up. I guess I should just stop thinking and get out of bed. If anyone has any secrets that help them, I'm all ears.

  • Stephen Post

    I've found that there's a different "sweet-spot" for everyone. I kept trying to wake up somewhere between 5 and 5:30 and had the hardest time getting out of bed. I would just end up going back to sleep until my 7am alarm woke up me. But from the first time I set my alarm for 4:15, I could get up without a problem - I wasn't groggy or tired at all. So experiment with different times - everyone's biological clock is different. Maybe it's earlier than 4, or maybe it's later. But finding that sweet spot will make it super-easy for you to be an early riser.

  • Learned this lesson at my first management retreat yrs ago. Our guest speaker asked ~500 of us to stand. We then had us sit if we weren't awake by certain times. As he stated earlier and earlier times, more of us sat until he finally got to 3:30 am when the last 2 standing were 2 of the top 3 leaders in the company. Interesting...

    Craig Hohnberger

  • I go to bed at 8:30 and wake at 4:30. I am in the gym at 5:00. 30 minutes on the elliptical, reading news, emails and generalized BS from WAPO sports. I knock out 45 minutes of lifting. I go home, shower, eat, conduct conference calls with clients in Europe, Africa and elsewhere. I roll into work at 8 -9AM. I leave at 5.

    My mind is clear. My focus is sharp. My body isn't clogged with the effluent of Dunkin Doughnuts. And like my days in the Army, I have done more by 9AM then 3/4 of Amazon's "Bar Raisers" have even thought about doing before they jam their thigh on the corner of a crappy door desk trying to get to a crowded bathroom.

    You want to run a company or flip a business model on its ass? Get up. Get moving and don't be a doughnut eating "yes" man. Or a thigh bruising sycophant.

  • Aaron Jaeger

    When do you fall asleep? Waking up at 4 A.M. is all well and good if you get to bed by 8 P.M. or so. If you are up until 10-Midnight, I cannot believe you are sleeping enough.

  • Sheresse C. Myers

    I sure hope you looked beyond wikipedia for that information (like some scholarly research). Sadly, I don't think you did.

  • I don't know why everyone always knocks Wikipedia so much. Articles like that always have tons of references for the information they provide. They've essentially done the research for you.

  • First time commenting on a blog post like this, but really enjoyed this article. So very true… As one of my New Years resolutions, think I'll try setting the alarm a little earlier…. can't help to try!

    I often wake up out of a sleep, think of a brilliant idea (at around 4am, funny enough), then go back to sleep and often forget what the heck I thought of in the morning , then you're in to the "go-go-go" of another day . You find yourself forcing ideas, because you have to in media/creative industries… these forced ideas aren't nearly as good as ones that come naturally. So, thanks once again! Really enjoyed the article.

  • Ryan Gibson

    Great article. I've always been an early riser but I think 4am would be a step too far for me but we do what works don't we? Productivity and the 'optimum' time to work varies between individuals. Some are night Owls whereas some love the 'morning glory'. I personally wake around 6am most days which allows me to exercise, get to work and fulfil my commitments. If I have extra work to do then I may stretch this out to 5am.

    I like your enthusiasm and will to stay productive. I'd be keen to know how this works with your partner and how you integrate such a lifestyle when you have children too.



  • StrongerRunner

    I wake up at 4:35 everyday and would not trade this time for anything. It allows me take in some coffee, read and study, run and just take my time doing things that I love to do. Thanks for the great article.

  • Dmitriy Tarasov

    I personally think these "early/late rising" debates are initiated by the wrong assumption that everybody wants to be productive. Productivity is not what people realy want. Everybody wants to be succesfull, not productive. That's how you manage your goals is what makes you happy, not when you get up. Great post though, as Paul wrote you have to find time to do things you love to run a startup and don't get suicidal.

  • ncus

    I knew it! This is! The Night owls vs The Early birds. The battle for the true most productive birds.