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The 1-Step Plan for Super-Productivity

Ready to super-charge your productivity? All you have to do is get up early. Here’s why you should, and how you can…

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?

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (163)
  • Maurenleet

    Good read, but from my experience (night owl), while trying to change I started to procrastinate all tasks till in the evening, and then I started being creative and doing what I should have done all day long…

    It’s really hard to change the habit.

    Something else: when you work with people from all over the world like me, it doesn’t matter when I wake up…. Does getting up early matter then..?



    Lovely article and I totally agree with this. I’ve started the habit all the way back when I was at school and it has helped me to stay on top of projects.

    The earlier I get in the office, the more productive the day becomes, usually a lot more gets accomplished.

  • Deskthoughts On...

    I remember reading an article that it’s easier for “night owls” to switch their routine and start the day early than switch to evening type of jobs for early birds. I am personally a night owl (and envy for those who get up early) and from my experience I could mention two things.

    First of all, I think we – night owls – have less highly productive hours (me for example, 7-8 to 11 pm) and sooner or later we get sleepy.

    Second, the early birds just have it – thay get up and that’s natural. I (and probably the rest of “the owls”) need an extra motivator, even if I know I want to do things that day.

  • Molly

    I was not impressed with the statement ““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.”
    Being a productive member of society is accomplished in too many ways to distinguish by what hours a person keeps – the most productive members of society, aka parents, have must have fluid schedules, night owls have just as much peace and quiet for focusing as do those working early, and may even benefit from the lack of interruption from phones and external communcations ( except for those like Maurenlett). After trying all sorts of methods to change to being an early morning person, I am content with the productivity that comes with my afternoon/night production schedule. Happy to be part of the <10%.

  • Matt Lee

    3. Get out of bed immediately –> Easier said than done. Move your alarm clock across the room for added incentive.

  • Zoya Pivovarova

    there is a very good proverb in russia – Who gets up early, to that god submits.
    very useful article.thxs!

  • Chad Keck

    More related to IQ and not productivity, but an interesting follow-up study none the less.

    Night Owls Boast Higher IQs

  • Gabe

    Along the lines of being “compatible with society” the early risers will always be predisposed to think of the people getting up, or getting to work, late as lazy. Adding yet another obstacle to winning people over.

  • Ts Kejiou

    100 % true…..

  • snakeophelia

    My one-step plan for switching from night owl to early bird has been to switch cat feeding times to the morning. Sleeping past 7 am is now an utter impossibility. However, I’d like to move my wakeup time to 6, in order to get in some extra hours in at work, to try to move my workouts to the morning, and to improve the quality of my sleep in the morning (until the cats reset their waking hours as well).

  • 99U

    Always a good idea, Matt, especially when it’s cold out. Or, you could get the evil “Clocky”… – the alarm clock that literally runs away. -Jocelyn

  • 99U

    I’m definitely not arguing that night owls can’t be as productive as early risers. And a lot depends on your job: If you don’t have to be online & responding to clients or others during regular business hours, more power to you. However, for those of us that do have to be available during those hours, being a night owl can come at a loss of sleep, which can eventually deplete your energy (and thus productivity) over all. -Jocelyn

  • 99U

    The international point is a good one, Maureen. During an interview with illustrator Christoph Niemann –… – we talked about how he naturally had “quiet time” to work in the morning, without getting up early, because he lives in Berlin, but works largely with folks in the States. If it’s a luxury you have, it’s wonderful. Otherwise, I guess moving to Berlin could be a good alternative to getting up early. ; ) -Jocelyn

  • Scott Belsky

    As more of a night-owl, I obviously have lots of conflicting reactions to this wonderfully written article. A hidden theme among the early-risers I know is discipline.

    I wonder if the correlation has more to do with self-leadership than time of day?

  • Katie

    As a self-professed “night owl”, I thought getting up early was out of the cards for me, no matter how good an idea it seemed. But then last month, with the help of my girlfriend (who is an early riser), I reset my wake-up time to 6:15 so I could be at work by 8 — I used to start around 10. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I expected it to be, and not only am I more productive at work, but because I get home so much earlier, my evenings seem much longer and are more productive as well. So as much as I hate to admit it, getting up early has its perks. It’s not easy, and I don’t think it will ever be, but the rewards defeintely outweigh the minor discomfort of waking up earlier.

  • Brett

    “Managers of one” – true self-leaders – have tons of discipline and usually do what it takes to get the job done.

    Not to throw links all over the place, but Tim Ferriss has a pretty cool article about changing your sleep habits here:

    Though, to be honest, Scott, you shouldn’t have to tweak your habits if you’re most productive at night. Utilizing your flow states is huge to get more done in less time, and some people are just more productive at some times than at others.

  • 99U

    Definitely agreed on that. Self-leadership is certainly a factor. I think the added advantage of the early rise is: 1) STARTING your day by accomplishing your most important tasks – if you’re not doing that you’re not getting much out of it – and 2) then having time to take care of other matters during regular business hours. -Jocelyn

  • 99U

    I think Scott’s secret is that he gets into the “flow” late AND gets up early. ; ) -Jocelyn

  • Scott Belsky

    Good point. I admit that I do tend to get up on the earlier side…and the productivity at night is of the creative kind…probably made possible by the fact that I can take care of other matters earlier in the day.

  • Matthew

    I think you may be onto something with the idea of ‘self-leadership’, which probably does have much more to do with success than the time of day one wakes up. Although if 9:00 am rolls around, and I’m not sharply prepared for the rest of the day, productivity….starts….to….

  • Matthew

    Thanks for this article and the six “How to” points. I’ve recently been trying to determine the right time for myself. I recently read that The Dalai Lama gets up at 3:30 – very impressive, but I think that might be a bit ambitions for myself. Main takeaway for me here – No more snooze. Thanks again.

  • Dave_Stein

    I just started waking up earlier this week – only 3 days in but I’m diggin it. I suppose I’ll have to blog about it more when the week is up to compare prior weeks of late-waking.

  • Oranges

    How would one suggest waking up early when the sun doesn’t come up until 8am and you have to be up and out of bed at 6?

  • Mark Myles

    Very awesome.

  • Matt Lee

    That is hilarious. Thanks for posting!

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