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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)
  • Mandi

    I put my alarm clock on the other side of the room to avoid the snooze.

  • Keir64

    completely agree, ive always been more of a night owl especially with my creativity but i do go thru a spell of managing to go to sleep at a decent time and find myself springing awake at 6am, feeling great and having an amazing productive day, but yeah often i will relapse and stay up all night..getting creative with some ‘breaks’ for bouts of super mario and before i know it its 4am… haha, brilliant article though couldnt agree more!

  • Tweberfree

    Thank you for replying this way! I’m older, a single mom of 2 born 20 years apart and I can’t even imagine EVER having had the chance to sleep until 11! Who does this? Most people with a family are up by 6:30 every day, being productive non-stop…

  • tweberfree

    I am jealous and want to know who, EVER, gets to sleep past 6:30 or 7:00 am? Most jobs start around 8 or 9 — even if you are self-employed or freelance, if you are sleeping until mid-morning then conceivably you’d begin work at noon… HUH? If that’s you, then you need more than this article to become a productive member of society. (Or, if you’ve found a way to squeeze a full day into the hours between noon and night, earning a livable income and keeping the home front going at the same time, please email and let me know how you do it! I want in!)

  • Purrfectfire

    Agree! Holland is particually Grey around this time ofYear, and the house is cold and the ice on your car is Waiting for You! l tried since my schooltime to fit in with societies dag rythem,but tough l am standig up at 6 since 10 years ir doeSh’t Yet any easier. And in the eaVeniug when the World turns dark aud the office quiet I feel tired and powered out but have the best ideas

  • Dpac

    This world is really indeed quite cruel to us night owls. Like the article says, unfortunately, most of the world works on a nine to five basis.
    The most effect method I found to waking up early was being around people who are early risers. It’s almost as if the more time you spend with them, the more your internal clock sync up. You will see that the more you spend time with early risers, the more you will find it easier to wake up early.
    Of course, you do need to put some effort on your part, but it really helps.

  • Justina Sanchis

    I find this article really sad, life is not only about productiveness, it is mainly about living and life is not only work. The idea of waking up at five in the morning means going to bed at 9- 10? I work from 9.30 to 20.30, i usually meet some friends after work for a drink and snack, go to bed around 12-12.30. I do not need to be told that I would be more productive waking up at 5 am. I would also be more productive if I worked every single day of the week and had no holidays….

  • Steve

    I’m up every morning at 6:30 AM (when it’s still dark during the late fall/winter months). First thing is to walk the (2) dogs – which takes about 15 minutes. After that I spend about 10 minutes eating a fruit and some oatmeal. I’m out the door again to accompany our 5 and 7-years kids to the bus stop. Back home, I finish my breakfast while spending about 15 minutes scanning through the paper. By 8 AM I drive my older son to the train station. Once home, I spend another 15 minutes or so finishing up the paper. I generally start the business day (I work at home) by going through my e-mail, checking some RSS feeds, and completing some online training. I suppose if I were to get up at 4 AM I could get some work in before the day begins, but I’d rather sleep. Oh wait, here’s an idea… maybe I could get one of my two teenage kids to walk the dogs, make their own lunches and escort their younger siblings to the bus stop. Even better, my own son could walk the 10 minutes it takes to get to the train station. Problem solved!

  • Steve

    Don’t count on it christianius. You better start laying down the law now, or they’ll have you at their back and call until they move out, and even then …!

  • Karims76

    I used to be a night owl myself, convinced that I can be more productive when the world is asleep. But recently I have changed my habits and starting getting up early. I totally agree that there are plenty of benefits for early risers. You can finish early, stress free!

  • TomG

    The transition from Night Owl to Morning Guy falls on ONE habit more than any other: putting yourself to bed early enough.

    My multi-stage nighttime ritual works to train your body and mind that ‘now is sleep time’.
    1) 9:00PM all electronic stimulation is stopped: no TV, no phones, laptops, MP3 players, etc. Soft background music (without lyrics or spoken voice) or other whitenoise generator (my ceiling fan works) to block out possibly disturbing sounds like traffic or other people in the house is fine. I’ll typically read a book at this point.
    2) 9:30PM I begin turning off lights around the house, dimming some others, and I’ll turn down the music as well.
    3) 9:45PM Brush my teeth and wash my face. Besides being a healthy idea it is just another habit that tells me, consciously and subconsciously, that sleeping time is almost here.
    4)10:00PM I am in bed with ALL lights out, not even a nightlight. Many studies have shown better sleep results from complete darkness.

    Seven hours later at 5:00AM I jump immediately out of bed (which is very important), turn on lights or open the shades (sunshine is best but you don’t get much at 5:00 except in the summer monts) and I am absolutely well-rested and ready to face the world!

    Altering the bedtime ritual OR the time I get up each day just sets me back, breaks the habit and guarantees that I will have to spend more days getting back into the habit where it is effortless.

  • marfi

    My colleague at wakes up at 4 and sometimes ends up in the office with a 16 hour work day, leaving at 20.

    Start UPs you know.

    I try to wake up that early and I still can’t. I can manage with small effort 7, with big 6 🙂 But it is all a matter of practice 🙂

  • Cheri

    Definitely used to get up by 8:00 am every day and did most of my productive work during the morning. I’m fresh-minded and ready, and I actually love the mornings! In the afternoons/evenings I tend to feel rushed and pressured to get things done faster, and that just stresses me out.. I’ve been noticing lately as well that since I’ve been sleeping in I’m more anxious and much less productive! Defintiely going to start going to bed earlier and waking up earlier again!

  • Jhogyu

    This is one that almost everyone knows. But the hard truth is that not everyone can keep up with this idea. I should try this step by step.
    Hope this time my trying to be paid off with changed life style and better productivity.

  • Minxdragon

    I find that if I can sleep then I am productive and get more done with my day. I’m also generally happier and more fulfilled. the trick is getting to sleep. as a chronic insomniac I’m lucky if I get to sleep at a decent time, then to be up and productive after that, often after a very restless sleep, is a real difficulty. I used to struggle with it constantly when I worked a desk job (and I did all the tricks- the people who tell you it’s a simple matter of resetting your internal clock don’t have real sleep issues!) now that I work from home I do have more flexibility to fit around my schedule, and medication helps, but I’m afraid it will never be that simple for me. it’s a pity, I know it works and I live in hope that things will turn around. I keep working at it in any case 🙂

  • Remigijus

    I don’t think it’s sad, only more applying to freelance type of creatives. If you work 9.30 to 20.30 in office of course it will force you to be a night owl. And this can be good for you. I’m a family guy so my creativity starts usually at 11 p.m. Then I sleep until 11 a.m. But recently I’ve noticed that from 8 to 10 a.m I’ll do more than from 0-4 a.m (after sleeping half of the day). And there is no substitute for seeing rising sun with cup of coffee 🙂

  • Murray Mitchell

    Great article, I find points 1, 3 and 4 are most important. Just the motivation I needed to get back into my early morning schedule 🙂

  • Raptor Videos

    read this article last night at twelve, figured why not start today? I just woke up at 6:30, I’m loving it already! Hopefully I can stick to it even though most of my friends are night owls staying up till 3 or 4am quite regularly and not waking till 11am in most cases

  • jkglei

    Nice one!

  • Allan White

    I’ve never been a morning person, but I’ve come to this conclusion independently. The early-risers get more done.

    It’s all about going to bed earlier, in my opinion. That’s the key, for me at least. My wife likes to stay up late also, so that’s an issue. Discipline is hard for us, well, undisciplined night owls.

  • Stache

    Foolishness. The only distinction between Early risers and late risers that I’ve found is that early risers want everyone to wake up when they do, while later risers don’t really care so much about what other people do. This article is a typical early-riser approach. In fact, after 20 years in advertising, many of them in studio management, I’ll take late risers over early risers anytime. People whose lives are run by the clock tend to be inflexible and have fewer stress-coming skills. In a job where you can walk into the office at 9 am and not know if you’ll be going home in the next 24 hours, a clock-watcher just isn’t going to make it (in fact I had a great deal of difficulty with an employee who used to come in an hour early and then insist he didn’t have to stay late, like everybody else). You can come up with any number of celebs to back up early or late rising–Picasso, for example felt that an artist HAD to work late at night in order to get in contact with his subconscious. Studies have shown that “night people” are more creative and have higher IQs.
    If there was one single cultural ritual that I’d like to see eradicated that would increase American productivity and decrease stress-related illnesses, it would be starting work at 9am.

  • Donnabill

    My personal opinion is that if your job requires you to be in at a certain time, you should train yourself to what ever that schedule may be. If you go to work in the afternoon, say 4 p.m., and you normaly sleep til 2 p.m., then getting up at 1 p.m. would be an early riser for you. Same with night work. I don’t think the article is pushing strictly getting up in the early morning unless you have to do business with the rest of the world as the article stated. What if you do business in say Asia who is 12-13 hours ahead. Then you would work on a totaly differnt schedule. Blah,blah, blah. Point is, whatever your schedule, a few extra minutes to wakeup, clear your head, prepare you mind for the day/night ahead can make you more productive. My pet peeve is employees who show up at the job right at start time. Then they take 15-20 minutes of company time to put away their things, get coffee, go to the restroom, talk to co-workers, etc. Those who show up early and take care of all those things are ready to work and are more productive at the start time. Same for quitting time. Those who show up just in the nick of time will take the last 15-20 minutes to get ready to go home instead of working for the time they are being paid to work while early arrivers most often work until the agreed upon quiting time THEN prepare to go home. Just some observations over the past 29 years.

  • Contemplativeartist

    I am reading this at 5 am………I’m getting ready to work on my book for the next two hours. A few pages a day, gets one to the end of the book writing. I am the most productive at this time. And like, the other people you have quoted…after I write my pages, I’ve coasting the rest of the day, luxuriating in continuing to create for the rest of the daylight hours, but with less pressure, since I finished my work by 7 am….in time for the weather report of TV.

  • Carolyn

    I have always been an early riser and try to be at work before the activity starts, 15 to 30 minutes at the least. Morning is my most productive time of the day. If I have a project that requires focus and creativity, I always keep it until the morning. I have found that this rhythm eliminates stress over interruptions or unexpected demands during the day.

  • Mark

    How can you go to sleep with all those great ideas rolling around in your head? Besides, I figure my bed time is just getting later and later every year, so pretty soon I’ll be a morning person anyways, just a day behind everyone else. Maybe I can control time!

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