The 1-Step Plan for Super-Productivity

When I interview creatives, I often ask them what advice they would give to the next generation, the up-and-comers. Curiously, there’s one incredibly important habit that nearly all of them possess that is almost never mentioned. So what is the secret ingredient in their productivity regime? It’s simple: They get up early.

To take a (very) random sample of creative luminaries from the wonderful Daily Routines blog, Charles Darwin, Toni Morrison, Le Corbusier, Stefan Sagmeister, Benjamin Franklin, Emily Post, Gerhard Richter, and William Wegman all make (or made) a habit of getting up early.A recent study conducted by Christoph Randler, a biology professor at the University of Education at Heidelberg, backs up the theory that early risers tend to have a more proactive – and thus productive – mindset:

[Randler] surveyed 367 university students, asking them when they were most energetic and willing to change a situation. It was the morning people who were more likely to agree with statements such as “I feel in charge of making things happen” and “I spend time identifying long-range goals for myself.”

The data makes sense: If you’re getting up early, you probably already have a good idea of what you want to accomplish that day – otherwise it would be hard to motivate to get up in the first place. Being an early riser also indicates a natural affinity for ritual and discipline – both key traits of especially productive people.Here’s none other than Ernest Hemingway on the merits of getting up early:

When I am working on a book or story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write… You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and you know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Aside from lending some sex appeal to the early riser, Hemingway also makes an important point about the wonderful side effects of getting up early: You accomplish tons of meaningful work before most people even get started – allowing you to coast through the rest of your day with a sense of achievement and significantly less anxiety.

What if you’re not naturally an early riser? Or just hate the idea of it?

I’ve talked to loads of folks who insist that their most productive time is late at night – their creative energy naturally peaks when everyone else is asleep. And, to a certain degree, our ingrained biorhythms are a factor. Some of us are predisposed to late-night creation, while others naturally wake with the sun. Age is also a factor. (How many elderly people do you know that sleep in?)

That said, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably: 1) working as a creative professional, which means you are in the business of being creative, and 2) looking to get an edge. As Randler argues in the Harvard Business Review post on his research: “Though evening people do have some advantages… they’re out of sync with the typical corporate schedule. When it comes to business success, morning people hold the important cards.”

Like it or not, most of the world works on a 9-to-5 schedule, which naturally provides the early riser with a certain advantage. In a great piece Cal Newport wrote on the habits of successful professional writers, he notes that they all get up early, adding: “Several [writers] did mention that they might also be efficient working very late at night (and sleeping through the day), but that this seems incompatible with being a productive member of society.”

Certainly you can be a productive night owl, but when it comes to the business details we all have to attend to – the emails, the scheduling, the negotiations – there are definitely benefits to being on a daytime schedule.

In a recent conversation with energy management guru Tony Schwartz, he argued that less than 10% of the general population possess the unchangeable biorhythms of the die-hard night owl. In short, most of us can re-train ourselves to become early risers if we’re motivated.

So how can you become an early riser?

Getting up early is like most any habit that makes you a more productive creative: It’s hard at first. Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Set an exact time to get out of bed. If you normally get up at 11am, it’s unrealistic to start abruptly getting up at 6am. Think about what time you’d like to be getting up in the morning, and work up to it. Try to wake up 30 minutes earlier every week, until you get to the desired time.

2. Move up your bedtime in sync with the time you plan to get up. Seven to eight hours of sleep is the recommended dosage for maximal productivity (with a few super-human exceptions). So if you’re getting up at 6am, you’ll want to go to bed by 11pm at the latest. If you try to go to bed at midnight and get up at 5am, you’re eventually going to run into some problems.

3. Get out of bed immediately. The moment that you start procrastinating – read: hit the snooze button – it’s very easy to convince yourself of a multiplicity of reasons why you wouldn’t want to get out of bed yet. Don’t even allow those thoughts to kick in – just get up!

4. Expose yourself to sunlight. Sunlight is key to adapting your circadian rhythms. If you’re having trouble getting up, don’t close your blinds all the way, so you have some natural light as your wake-up call. Once you’re up, a short walk (or run) outside helps reinforce the message with your body.

5. Develop a routine for your morning. Whether it’s taking in the sunrise, brewing a cup of tea and reading the paper, or walking to the café down the street for a cup of joe, you’re more likely to continue to get up early if you develop a brief routine that is, in itself, a reward.

6. Stick with it. Know going in that it’s going to take some time to adapt to waking up early – probably about 30 days. Don’t expect to feel bright-eyed and bushy-tailed from Day 1. But if you stick with it, getting up early is likely to become one of your favorite rituals.

***

It’s a lot better to sail into your business day feeling like you’ve already crossed a finish line, than to put off your vital creative work until after you’ve devoted your best energy to other people’s demands. As designer and early riser James Victore said in a recent 99U interview, “I get more work done by 9am than most people do in a full day.”

What Your Experience?

When is your most productive time during the day?

Have you tried getting up early – did it work for you?

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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