Don’t listen to those productivity gurus: why waking up at 6am won’t make you successful
If you want to be successful, many experts and life-hackers say you should:
- Wake up at 6 am
- Take a cold shower
- Journal and brainstorm
- Review and set goals
- Read news and industry sites
- Consume inspiring content
- Eat a protein-rich breakfast
Whew. That’s a lot to accomplish before 8 am.
I’m not sure when the dogma of morning routines began to spread, but suddenly, these mile-long checklists are everywhere — especially in the startup world.
Routines can be great, but I think there’s a misplaced emphasis on morning.
Everyone has different peak hours. If you want to enhance your productivity, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, or if you go for a run at 6 am or 6 pm.
Instead, it’s up to you to make the most of your day, and to learn when you work and feel your best. Brian Tracy calls this your prime time:
“Your internal prime time is the time of day, according to your body clock, when you are the most alert and productive.”
Harnessing your prime time can supercharge your productivity. You’ll be more effective and avoid wasting precious time and energy.
I’ve spent 12 years growing JotForm from a small idea to a company with over 100 employees and 3.5 million users. Working with my natural rhythms (which I discovered through trial and error) has been the cornerstone of that growth.
Tackling the most important, most strategic work during my prime time enables me to stay motivated, make steady progress, and avoid feeling overwhelmed.
Most importantly, I still love what I do.
When I harness my peak hours, I’m excited to go to the office every day — and I want the same for you.
How to map your magic hours
Scientists have long studied the body’s natural cycles, or chronobiology.
You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythms, which affect our sleep and waking cycles, body temperature, and hormone levels.
In the average workday, however, we’re dealing with the peaks and valleys of ultradian rhythms, which run in 90–120-minute cycles. Ultradian rhythms explain why you can start a task feeling excited and alert, then two hours later, you’re checking Instagram and hunting for snacks.
Energy peaks and dips are normal (and unavoidable), so it’s important to map your own rhythms and work with them, instead of against them.
Author Yulia Yaganova suggests a three-week experiment where you rate your energy, focus and motivation at the end of every hour, using a scale from one to 10.
Filling in productivity spreadsheets and energy maps might sound tedious, but you’ll quickly see patterns.
You can throw out anomalies, like a sleepless night or a nasty cold, but you’ll soon know your cycles — and how to capitalize on your prime time.
Engage your body and your brain
A morning routine that works for a productivity guru won’t always work for you.
Take me as an example. Every morning, I eat a light breakfast and meet with my personal trainer. It doesn’t matter whether I’m feeling motivated or not; I show up and follow his orders.
About 20 minutes into the workout, I get a surge of energy. My blood is pumping and I’m working hard not to drop the kettle bell on my foot. I’m awake.
When my hour of benevolent torture is complete, I shower and drive to the office. I grab some coffee and get down to work.
Honestly, it’s one of my favorite moments of the day. I feel so fresh and alert. I’m happy to be in the office, and my creativity is at its peak.
This is my prime time, so here’s what I do next:
I open a blank document and start writing about a problem I want to tackle that day or something that’s on my mind. It often begins as an incoherent stream-of-consciousness, but after about five minutes, I start to develop new ideas. I find clarity in the chaos.
I write for as long as I can, then transform the document into a usable format. It could be an email draft, meeting notes, discussion points, slideshow or a presentation for our team. I work this way for about two hours — and it’s the most productive part of my day.
According to Stephen Covey, this kind of intentional writing is one way to sharpen the saw. Instead of struggling with dull tools, Covey says we should spend more time sharpening the saw. When it’s time to cut, you’ll finish the task with efficiency and precision.
My prime time happens to be in the morning, but yours might be at noon or 7 pm. And maybe you renew your energy with a coffee date or an afternoon yoga class.
Do whatever you can to seize that prime time and make the most of it.
Master your schedule
Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham say most positions require one of two different working styles: the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule.
“The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one-hour intervals.
You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.”
Writers, programmers, designers, and other creatives need a maker’s schedule, which divides time into half-day units, at minimum.
As you’ve probably experienced, it’s tough to write or code or think in a one-hour block — especially if you have meetings on either side of that hour.
Overscheduling a maker can crush their entire day. It breaks time into unusable chunks and, as Graham explains, that kills productivity:
“If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning.
I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case.
Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t.”
I’ve given this a lot of thought. Founders, entrepreneurs and CEOs are both makers and managers. You need to meet and collaborate with employees, contractors or suppliers, and you need to think strategically.
If you’re a technology or content-based founder, you may also need time for hands-on work.
It comes down to the word “build.” When you’re “building a business” or “building a team,” you’re operating as a maker.
That’s why I split my day in two. During those early hours after the gym, I work like a maker. By later morning or after lunch, I’m back to having meetings and working like a manager.
Seize your downtime
I’m a huge proponent of rest. I wrote about its importance in “How to get more done with less work”.
I take the weekends off and I believe in regular, relaxing vacations. Once a year, I go back home to pick olives with my family. It’s amazing how this time away from the office re-energizes my body and spirit. My downtime is essential.
In 2016, productivity expert Scott Barry Kaufman did a study that revealed 72% of people get creative ideas in the shower. I’m definitely part of that group.
On Sundays, for example, I spend time with my wife and kids. We go to the playground, have lunch, or do something fun and active. By the time the kids are tucked into bed and I’m resting on the couch, new ideas inevitably pop into my head.
Relaxation promotes creative thinking, which is why we often have brain waves while soaping up or, in my case, after tackling the jungle gym with my son.
Letting your mind wander freely can inspire daydreams and non-linear thinking. It’s another kind of prime time.
And for anyone who’s wondering how to foster those shower-type brain waves at work, Kaufman says:
“You want to make sure that you make time and room for solitude. That can take a lot of forms, like taking a daily stroll to reconfigure your brain and get off the path that you have been working on the past hour or two.
It could involve a daydreaming room that locks out internal noise.”
While we’ve yet to build a daydreaming room at JotForm, we do believe in giving our employees paid time off. We put some healthy pressure on our staff to actually use their vacation days, too.
We also encourage people to work with their peak hours. Our flex time policy allows everyone to come in early or start later.
As long as they spend most of the day with their team, tackling projects and building momentum together, they can honor their own rhythms.
Protect your prime time
Your peak hours area a priceless currency. Draw clear boundaries and protect them however you can.
Use that time for your toughest, most creative, or most brain-intensive tasks.
Don’t book meetings or let people disrupt you.
Consistent habits can also safeguard your prime time. I’ve written before about my commitment to Inbox Zero, but I don’t tackle those emails until the end of the day.
My team knows I won’t respond to their messages immediately, but I will reply (fully and thoughtfully) within one business day.
Clear expectations give me more control over my time.
So, whether you’re laser-focused at 7 a.m. or hitting high gear as the sun sets, it’s worth taking the time to understand yourself better. Track your natural rhythms and make a plan that works for you.
After all, prime time is your secret weapon. Use it wisely and I suspect your productivity will soar.
Please let me know how you use your prime time. I’d love to hear more.