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 contains one of our 11 New Years resolutions you can actually keep in 2014. For the full list, click 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.

Why?

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 Cheezeburger.com 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]

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94 Comments

  • 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.

    Thanks,

    Ryan

  • 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.

  • Simon David Antoniou

    I agree about the distractions; as I also find myself more
    productive after 5:30PM when all my staff have gone home....

    However I feel it's also about breaking from your usual cycle that gets the brain creative and productive. Whether that's getting up or 4AM , going to a park or starting work after 12AM .

  • Carpet Cleaner

    This is interesting as I sit reading this at 9PM. Hoping my kids stay in bed so they don't distract me from what I'm working on. I feel a little tense because I just "know" they are going to come out of their rooms any minute now.
    Maybe waking up a lot earlier would allow my mind to be completely open and not have any anxiety. Thanks!

  • The Beaverhousen

    We are kindred spirits on this. Nothing is more satisfying than the first few hours of time alone. Some of my best moments were doing absolutely nothing. It really sets the tone for the day.

  • Franca Condo

    i stay up till 5am many days.  its 3am now.  plenty quiet :)
    the bad part is that i often wake up at 10am or earlier...  so i am exhausted.
    but they say being exhausted leads to creative breakthrus.... so who knows.

  • Dhpnet

    I think the most important thing is to find time for yourself - balance your energy. I hate morning people. They have always seemed more stressed out to me. I go to bed at 1AM and wake up at 8AM. After about 9:30 or 10PM the world gets quiet. I meditate, sit in my massage chair, and read, relax. When I get to work around 10AM most of the morning people have burned themselves out and the whole environment seems more conducive to getting things done.