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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)
  • Christine

    I’m sure waking up early doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me. I was the traditional night owl, trying to move my creative projects forward after taking care of my kid all day. I switched to mornings and my work is taking off. When I get up at 5am, I can work for hours without distraction. I also feel my mind is clearer, and when the evening rolls around, I can relax with my family, knowing my work is done. Evening becomes a no-pressure zone.
    I think it’s a great suggestion that SOME people will find very helpful. If your night schedule works, stick with it…..i always say don’t fix what aint broke.

  • Cortney

    When kids are down for a nap, they cannot WAIT to get up. They want to know how much time is left before they can get up and enjoy life! I want to have that mindset in relation to my day – not “Oh, how much more can I sleep?” but “WHEN can I get up???”

    Obviously, we need to be smart about times when we physically just need more rest – sickness, stress, and insane work weeks require recovery. But once we’re recovered, let’s get up and get into it! Time is short.

  • Parin Patel

    Great read. I think it really depends on the individual as to whether waking up early works for them or not.

    Personally, I like waking up early (aim for 6-7hrs a day – but I admin, I have slept in longer on more than one occasion ;)) and sometimes even take an afternoon nap to re-energize. I find waking up early just “feels right” to me … there’s a certain calmness in the morning, which I love! It brings a fresh start to my day.

    I have friends (who are musicians) who don’t wake up early, but rather stay up late (in the early am) working on their music, because, like you wrote, that’s when they find there most creative time to be.

    You’re daily routine and lifestyle will determine how much sleep you really “need”. For example, I find regular exercise allows for sounder sleep and also gives me more energy. When I’m not in my exercise routine, I can feel the impact.

    I think it really comes down to 3 things:

    1) The quality of your sleep, not the quantity
    2) Find out what times you are most productive
    3) Do some self-reflection to understand what works and what doesn’t, then adjust accordingly

    Thanks for this sharing this Great article!


  • Soulenergy

    I’m a definite night owl, and would have preferred to stay that way forever.

    However, my older daughter is now in first grade, and I’m forced to keep more traditional hours.

    Productivity wise, yes. I very much agree that when I get up early, I am more productive. I can get more of the “business” side taken care of.

    Creativity wise, I just can’t seem to motivate. I find it very hard to waken that side of my brain.

    Unfortunately, that means that I tend to get way less sleep than I need, and I end up crashing at some point during the week. I definitely need to find a balance that works for me!

  • Abadeu Madyun

    I love that article, and My day one begins tmmrw. See you in thirty days, most likely in the morning!!! Enjoy..

  • Wayne

    An inspiring article. I’m definately a night owl by nature (prefering to work until it starts to get light outside) but I don’t generally need much sleep so I’m going to try getting to bed before midnight and see if I can be up at 6 AM from now on. Cheers!

  • Matt MacIntyre

    A great article indeed. Like most things, I tend to do this in cycles, depending on work schedule. Now having a 10-6 job, I find myself getting up at 8:30 and not having enough time in the morning. I used to be able to get up early with ease, but now hopefully these tips will help get me to a solid 7:30 or 8.

  • maan

    My father is right all along.. 🙂

  • Kent @ HR Uncovered

    Could not agree more. As far as I see it, if you love what you do, how can you not be excited to get to it every morning? If you can’t bear the thought of getting out of bed, then you just may not be doing the right thing (night owls excluded!).

  • Jaime

    I’m sure motivated to wake up early tomorrow, let’s see what if it actually happens. 🙂 I included this and other links about procrastination and productivity in my weekly web crawl this week for those that are interested.

  • Brian Gorman

    I start my day at 5:00 (sleeping in until 7:00 on weekends). I have a ritual of yin yoga and prayer to begin. I find this centering, opening my body and mind to the day ahead. Showering, breakfast, and by 7:15 I am ready to sit down and read. I arrive at my desk (in my home office) when my clients are starting to send their 8:00 AM emails. I have set my pace–and my place–for the day in quiet, measured, centered progress.

  • Brian

    I’m an in house creative director. 3 times out of the week I’m in at 5:30am, 60 miles from where I live. –Starbucks just after they open. No phones blaring. …silence and productivity on my own terms.

  • Michelle D'Avella

    It’s so difficult for me to wake up in the morning, but I know how important it is in productivity. I have also read some of the best leaders always woke up early. The snooze button is the killer, and when I was waking up the first time my alarm went off there was no problem. Thanks for this article. It’s inspired me to get back to my early mornings and increase my productivity!

  • Draftsman

    Anyone who suggests “expose yourself to sunlight” has never spent a winter in the UK.

  • Gabemac

    Or in Holland 🙂 I think a growlamp may help that one.

  • MauraZ

    I used to be a night owl, but over the past decade I’ve shifted to early bird. Early or late, the creative space is the same; time when my brain is not occupied with the day-to-day, and is free to wander around.

  • Sascha

    Professor Randler has found that “morningness,” or the tendency to naturally get up early, is associated with proactivity, not that getting up early causes productivity.

    Scientists believe that a person’s chronotype (tendency to get up early/stay up late) is about 50% genetic. And the temperamental qualities associated with chronotype may also be genetic, meaning a night owl might be able to drag themselves out of bed at 5 am every day for the rest of their lives without experiencing any increase in proactivity.

    But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the traits associated with chronotype can be brought about through our behavior (i.e. that getting up early really can make you more proactive). Then what about the research showing that night owls are smarter, more creative, with more mental stamina and a better sense of humor? Where’s the article about how staying up late can make you a funny, creative, hardworking brainiac?

  • porl

    For the majority of my life I have DETESTED getting up early, until my commitments demanded a 5.30am wake up for an ugly hour commute. Recently however, I have added an hour of physical exercise and for the first time-despite getting up at 4am 5 days a week-I am focused and energetic throughout the whole day. I am finding I still have energy in the evenings for family and art and house projects. It is really amazing. The exercise makes all the difference.

  • Fundingstartups

    I never use an alarm clock and I never oversleep. It’s not that’s I’ve always been this way either. I workout, eat and work.. and the key is going to bed on time. I think TV is a huge problem for most people. If they’d turn off the TV around 8 or so, they could go down sooner.

    I’m looking forward to the convention in May! I’ll be the one up at daylight eagerly waiting to meet everyone.


  • RB

    While I do not have a struggle sleeping in on any given day off…I am not by nature an early riser…however, I force myself to get up early because the benefits of my productivity far out weigh dozing for a couple more hours..I can get more done in those early hours than sometimes I get done in an entire day.

  • Nik

    Although I agree with Delayed2Sleep in sentiment, and was about to deliver a broadside on the chasm between creativity and production… until I took another sip of coffee and returned to the top of the screen. The TITLE of the article suggests it’s about productivity, not creativity. It’s full of helpful tips for getting a production edge on the 9-5 schedule. But as any good creative knows, routines and deadlines are guillotines for our concepts. Unfortunately, we have to stick our necks out if we want to earn a buck from being creative. Any advice which helps us straighten up our infamously blurry edges and work within the cogs of the corporate machine, might be worth listening to. The only tip I have for increasing creativity is – spend more time in water. Pool, lake, river, ocean, shower or bath – they all have the strange effect of making our mind wander freely… often to that unsignposted place where original solutions live. I’d love to see an article on how many great ideas have emerged from water.

  • Beth

    Good article. Whenever I have to write something, read something or understand something that’s difficult, I do it in the morning. That’s when my brain can best handle it.

    I love the tip “just get up!” That’s the only way I can get up early. If I stretch and roll over, forget it.

  • jkglei

    M- Good to hear you’ll be joining us for the 99% Conference! We’re really excited about 2011… : )

  • jkglei

    I was thinking about my friends in Portland, OR – and the lack of sunlight – after I wrote this for the same reason. As Gabemac advises, I think – alas – you have to go with a little artificial sunlight. I’m thinking about going this route myself this January/February…

  • christianius

    What if you’re a parent with small kids that need taking care of every morning from, say 7 a.m. and 1½ hours forward?
    My effectiveness has taken a distinct nosedive since becoming a father, and I don’t see an obvious workaround – aside from waiting 10 years til they can get themselves out the house and off to school…

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