Early bird or night owl? How to win the morning either way

Your day can be won or lost in its early hours. Winning the morning is important, and here are tips to get you started.

Sleepy dog

Image: iStock/damedeeso

Most of us admire or at least acknowledge early risers--those people who seem to have a half dozen productive things accomplished while we're still waiting for our morning cup of coffee. We've all heard the bromide about the early bird getting the worm, or the famous figures from Benjamin Franklin to Oprah Winfrey who have cited an early rise as key to their success. Aside from dozens of anecdotes, scientific research bears out what we've intuited: The early bird really does get that worm.

Plan your victory

What's interesting, and often misunderstood, is that rising early doesn't necessarily mean arriving at your desk a couple hours early and extending your workday. For most early risers I've met, and in my own routine that I'll detail below, an early rise provides for contemplative time, extra time with the family, and a quiet moment to reflect and plan for the day. Just as technology projects that are thoughtfully planned and have a well-understood benefits case are more likely to be successful than a slapdash effort that's run by the seat of the pants, so, too, are individual days that are approached thoughtfully and with some key objectives already in mind.

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There's also something magical about being awake before most people. The world is calm and quiet, electronic devices are silent rather than awash in beeps and bloops with demands for your time and attention, and anything from a workout or walk, to a leisurely breakfast, or even a long shower or bath are options. You're likely not rushing to a meeting or activity, and you've made yourself captain of the day rather than a mere passenger on a ship that seems out of control from the moment the third snooze cycle of your alarm clock finally compels you out of bed.

Winning the day might seem less relevant if you're a remote worker, either by choice or due to societal circumstances, where you can quite easily roll out of bed to your computer in a matter of seconds. However, remote work can often unwittingly shift from working from home to living at work, and winning the morning provides a way to break that vicious cycle.

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Getting your first win

How can you start winning your mornings? I started with a simple reverse schedule in a spreadsheet with three columns:

  1. Start time
  2. Duration
  3. Activity

I listed each activity that I wanted to include in my day, assuming no other encumbrances, and then sequenced them in the order in which I wanted to engage. For me, my final list of activities with a brief description (in order) is:

  1. Wake up (this one is rather critical)
  2. Meditation—3-7 minutes of simple sitting in silence focusing on my breathing
  3. Yoga—A 12- to 15-minute video (I use the Sufferfest series as it's designed for cyclists and complete beginners) because I'm working on improving my core strength and flexibility
  4. Journal—A modified five-minute journal I keep on my phone/iPad using the Day One app
  5. Plan the day—Review my schedule and list of to-dos that I keep in Todoist on my computers and phone
  6. Get the kids ready for school—Make breakfast, chat, and get the kids ready and out for the school bus, assuming I'm at home
  7. Working block/email catch-up—A focused hour to clean up my inbox or work on another task that prepares me for the day
  8. Fitness and shower—60 to 90 minutes of running, cycling, or strength training
  9. Begin workday—The "official" opening of my calendar for meetings, etc.

With that complete, populate the duration column with the times that you expect each item to consume, add your current wake up time to the first start time, and then create a simple formula that adds each duration to get the next start time, ultimately ending up with a schedule similar to what's pictured, which is my actual daily schedule. I don't include dinner, and the addition of a one- to two-hour block of working time after my kids go to bed, but that allows me to largely maintain what amounts to a 10:30 start to my official workday where I start doing meetings.

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You'll likely find that you can accomplish all you want with the start time and durations, so go through a cycle of moving your wake-up time up as far as you're willing, and trimming the durations or dropping an activity or two. I'd suggest a start sometime in the 5 a.m. hour, as it's early enough to feel special and prevent interruption. I'd also suggest going cold turkey and setting your alarm for the same time tomorrow. There's no reason to wait for Monday, or a new month, or St. Crispin's Day, or whatever excuse you can concoct.

While there are no excuses for not starting tomorrow, assuming you do roll out of bed without any major encumbrances, take a few days to tweak your activities and be kind to yourself as you work out the kinks in your routing. You might not perform each activity you planned the first few days, or you may find one element takes more time than another and requires adjustment. You might even find that you need to move the alarm clock up a bit.

After your first week, reflect on how you feel at the end of each day. If you're like me and others who strive to win the morning, you'll likely feel like you've accomplished several personal and work-related goals, and that your mind and energy are more focused and productive. Assuming that's the case, continue to win and perhaps I'll see you on the roads enjoying those magical hours while most of the world is still sleeping.

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