Bullish: Successful People Are Up at the Crack of Dawn (A Debate With Laura Vanderkam)

Jennifer Dziura writes Bullish, a career column, for The Grindstone on Fridays and Bullish Life, a life coaching column, for our sister site TheGloss on Tuesdays.

Is your morning a swiftly executed productivity plan? Or a five-mile run? Or a serene hour of meditation and herbal tea that brings you focus and clarity for the rest of the day?

Blech. My mornings involve a lot of communing with my espresso machine and then, at 10:45, wondering who will still deliver me a breakfast sandwich.

Laura Vanderkam, in her ebook What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, is telling us to get the hell out of bed a lot earlier. I’m ambivalent. Hence, this article, in which Laura and I hash it out.

If Vanderkam’s name looks familiar: I quoted her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (not to be confused with 147 Hours, in which James Franco saws his own arm off), in this article, in which I actually kept a time diary and discovered that I spent 3.25 hours per week hitting the snooze button. (Oh, glorious snooze button, privilege of the childless and self-employed!)

I also referenced 168 Hours in Bullish Life: Achieve Goals and Glory by Recreating Like a Total F*cking Badass, and Vanderkam’s article The Princess Problem in Bullish: How to Ask For More Money.

Bullish: Hi, Laura. So, we’re here today to talk about your new e-book, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. So … what do they do before breakfast?

LV: They tackle personal priorities that are tough to do at other times of the day — because life has a tendency to crowd them out. These are important but not urgent things like exercise, spiritual practices (meditation, prayer), nurturing relationships with family and friends, or long-term career planning. Later in the day, you’re more likely to get interrupted, and some research into the science of willpower finds that our supply of self-discipline gets depleted later in the day. Successful people know that if something has to happen, it has to happen first.

Bullish: In a survey of executives referenced in your book, the latest any of them got up was 6 a.m. You also cite research that “tasks that require self- discipline are simply easier to do while the day is young.” I have found this to be true myself, and have often recommended multi-tracked to-do lists (one list of things you can do when your brain still works, and another list of tedious or mindless tasks you can get out of the way when your brain is pretty much spent).

But isn’t this true regardless of when you start your day? If I got up at 11am and went to bed at 3am, would I really be sacrificing productivity?

LV: It wasn’t a very scientific survey, but yes, people who are running huge organizations spend their whole days dealing with other people’s priorities. In the morning, they can tackle their own.  If it works for you to go to bed at 3 a.m. and get up at 11 a.m., more power to you. But most organizations still keep core business hours, so people who go to bed at 3 a.m. soon find themselves falling asleep at 8 a.m. meetings. And people who try to work out at 5 p.m. soon find that urgent client requests or networking opportunities come up with startling regularity. That’s why they use their mornings.

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