October 15, 2012
Want A Personal Life? Get Up Early

Sometimes when you’re running an organization, things fall by the wayside. You know, things like exercise. Playing with your kids. Talking with your spouse. Meditating. You’d like to do them, but even when you schedule a run on your calendar for 5:30 p.m., you’ll get a call from your biggest client at 5:15 p.m. lamenting a problem with the last order — and next thing you know it’s 7 p.m. and you’ll barely make it home to tuck your kids in, let alone exercise.

Is this just the price of being in charge?

Not really. You can have a personal life. You just have to get up early to enjoy it.

At least that’s what I’ve discovered from studying hundreds of time logs and interviewing leaders about how they spend their time. Steve Reinemund, for instance, now the Dean of the Schools of Business at Wake Forest University, and the former CEO of PepsiCo, has run 4 miles most days of his life. Pepsi had many crises at 5 p.m., but that didn’t matter for Reinemund’s running. He ran his 4 miles at 5 a.m. instead. It turns out that there are very few crises at 5 a.m. So that makes it a perfect time for getting things done.

Indeed, there’s even some research finding that mornings are prime productivity time. Florida State psychology professor Roy Baumeister has done intriguing studies into the science of willpower, and has found that self-discipline is like a muscle. It gets fatigued from decision making and attempting to focus in a distracting world. Over the course of the day, one’s supply of willpower is simply used up — which is why diets are broken in the evening, not the morning. In the morning, however, after a good breakfast, willpower is at its peak. So you can deploy this strength to tackle tasks that are important to you — those tasks that nurture your career, your family or yourself — but that life has a way of crowding out.

In short, if it has to happen, it has to happen first.

So how can you make the most of your mornings?

First, figure out how you’re currently spending your mornings — and nights. You may think you can’t get up earlier because you’re too tired. But when you look at how you’re spending your late nights, you see that you’re either responding to emails that could wait until the next day or you’re watching TV. Sleep is much more relaxing than TV, so go to sleep instead. That way getting up earlier isn’t such a sacrifice.

Second, picture your perfect morning. You want a morning ritual that makes you excited to get out of bed. Maybe it’s a quick run around the neighborhood followed by breakfast with your family. Maybe it’s lifting weights, then having a cup of coffee with your spouse on the back porch. Whatever it is, figure out the logistics (like blocking your calendar before 8 a.m.) and then build the habit. Feel free to bribe yourself. Silly as it sounds to celebrate a morning run with a doughnut, better to switch out the doughnut for a different breakfast in the future than never building the exercise habit in the first place.

Finally, tune up as necessary. You won’t be having morning coffee with your spouse if you’re traveling, but maybe you can do a quick Skype chat instead. Maybe you’ll have to start staying in hotels with treadmills and packing your shoes. But making time in the morning for a personal life at least a few days a week beats never having time for what matters most to you. That’s definitely worth waking up for.

Laura Vanderkam
Laura Vanderkam is the author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2012) and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She writes the 168 Hours blog for CBS MoneyWatch, is a member of USA Today's Board of Contributors, and speaks frequently about time management and leadership topics. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children.

Other Articles by Laura Vanderkam:

How To Give Regular Feedback And Still Get Work Done

Why And How Managers Should Help Workers Set Boundaries

Work-Life Balance Is Dead—Why That Might Be A Good Thing

It’s Time To Stop Asking CEOs How They 'Balance'

How To Figure Out Your Optimal Workload

7 Common Mistakes New Managers Make

The Right Way To Use Company Perks

How To Figure Out Your Most Productive Time Of Day

Why You Should Rethink That Morning Meeting

5 Ways To Keep Your Best Employees From Quitting