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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)
  • Banksy

    People who get up early in the morning cause war, death and famine.”

    — Banksy

  • late riser

    I might have agreed with this article if I had read it a couple years ago. But based on my personal experiences anyway, I’d just like to point out one thing…

    Waking up early is not going to help you figure out what your goals are, and to be proactive about them. Neither does it mean that you will exercise the discipline necessary to bring projects to fruition.

    A mon avis, it’s a case of “correlation versus causation.”

  • Ocube

    I think there is a misconception that night owls are less discliplined. I actually work at night because I never get distracted and thus am more productive. Rising early is great fof some, maybe most, but I discovered from my university days I read, write, design and do almost evdrything better at night. I guess its a matter of knowing what works for you.

  • Antriksh Yadav

    Really. This is interesting. I’m sure I’ll find it useful sometime later.

  • Jonff

    ya number 3 is the killer. its a lot easier to type it than to do it

  • stripeyhorse

    I do my best to get up early. Its at winter time that its a real killer, getting up when its still dark outside and raining is never the best option.

  • Normhead

    OK, so there
    is anedotal evidence. Although having always been a night owl I have to say, I don’t agree with it. Show me the data. You can tell I don’t like the conclusions because I’ve already labelled the ariticle “anecdotal”. If I was younger I’d just day, you don’t know jack. Is this person a scientist or an editor? Because these kinds of articles can be the result of selective editing. So what I’m interested in is what are the odds. How many successful creative type out perform their late rising counterparts? Don’t even start telling me every one does, because I know successful late risers. I could tell the article was bogus right from the start. I started be mentioning “creative types” and then mentioned “corporatate hours.” There’s only one reason for getting up early. If you’re a nature photographer, getting up for sunrise gives you two prime shooting periods in the day instead of one. But it you do, take a nap. In my experience staying up late is as important as getting up early. The most productive are those who sleep less. And I wouldn’t recommned trying to change that, although this author comes dangerously close.

  • Mark McGuinness

    “A person who has not done one half his day’s work by ten o’clock, runs a
    chance of leaving the other half undone.” – Emily Brontë

    I trained myself to get up early a few years ago, and saw a big increase in productivity. Then kids came along and I grab any sleep I can. 🙂

    But I’m usually up by 7.30 at the latest, and mornings are definitely my most productive time.

  • Alex

    Great read!

  • Alex

    Great read!

  • jkglei

    I agree that the early rising has to be coupled with prioritization – otherwise, you’re probably just going to be trudging around in a bathrobe…

  • Theo

    Very well writen article! I for myself have days when i wake up really early, my whole body wants to and then have days when i could sleep and sleep…

  • Binita

    its interesting, as a mum of a 6 year old and a creative I have to get him ready and drop him at at school for 9am. it means I get a walk so am quite fresh when I start at 9.15. But I do still get up at 6am!

    I would if I could start at 8am. Maybe that’s why men have an upper hand historically – they get to do what they want ‘broadly speaking’ without having to worry about domestic issues.

    I am working on a life with options however!

  • K-eM

    I find that how productive I am has more to do with what I do at certain times of the day rather than how early I get up or how late I stay up. I also find that being well rested has a greater affect on productivity than the time line I keep.

    I do my best brainstorming at night. In fact, I often fall asleep gradually working through visual solutions for my brain storms. When I wake up, I’m best if I just get straight to work and refine and begin implementation of what I brain stormed and fell asleep puzzling out. Then I take my shower and get ready to go out. The middle of the day is my least creative time, so that’s when it’s best to do chores/admin work.

  • Jefton Sungkar

    “the most productive are those who sleep less.”

    …oh how wrong you are…

  • Guest

    Leonardo DaVinci slept 1 1/2 hours a day.

  • Susanpl13

    Please educator yourself before you dispense advice. Look up delayed sleep phase syndrome.

  • Delayed2sleep

    The author confuses productivity with creativity.

  • Reez

    True. How can you talk about creative people, artists etc. and corporate schedules in the same article like they’re strictly related? Sorry but this is BS. I’m always forced to wake up early for work, but whenever I get a chance to stay up late that’s when I give my best, creativity-wise (I’m a musician). If I had to sleep from 10:30PM to 6:00AM all I would do is work, eat and sleep. Bye bye creativity. Screw that.

  • theloniousme

    Leonardo DaVinci was a genius unlike any other whose productivity was a result of far more than a minimal sleep schedule. Who knows, maybe he would have been twice as productive had he slept 3 hours a day instead of just an alleged 1 1/2.

  • jkglei

    My goal was to focus on how we can be more productive IN our creative endeavors. For many people getting up early is one very simple way to find the time — and headspace — to move creative projects forward.

  • jkglei

    Unfortunately, corporate schedules (aka the 9-to-5) and making art are no longer mutually exclusive for many folks, particularly those who make their primary income off their creative wits. I live with a musician, and though “making music” is at the center of what she does, there’s a lot of other un-sexy mundane tasks that have to get done to be successful – booking tour dates, applying for grants, coordinating PR, and the list goes on. This piece is about how to carve out time for the important stuff – making music, or writing a novel, or designing, or whatever you do – while still taking care of the inevitable “admin” type stuff that usually has to happen during normal working hours. If you’re working another job as well, obviously you have to work twice as hard – and sometimes that means working at night.

    I’d be curious to see a study of the types of creatives that enjoy rising early vs staying up late. It seems like musicians are typically night owls, while writers usually like to get up early.

  • jkglei

    Interesting point. Thomas Edison used to use a technique that would help him harness the very creative state is often most accessible just as you wake up…

  • jkglei

    If you’re already productive on your creative projects with your current schedule, I wouldn’t say you should change it. This suggestion is more for folks who are not as productive as they’d like to be.

  • Dgreads02

    The nature rhythm, following the sun’s schedule, worked for thousands of years…rooster crows were the alarm clock for most of human existence.

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