Apr 2, 2018 · 9 min read

We’ve all heard about that perfect routine.

We’re supposed to wake up with the sunrise, meditate, squeeze in a workout, eat a balanced breakfast, and then get to work before everyone else. This will set intention for our day — we’ll methodically work through our to-do lists while staying on top of our messages (without letting them distract us from deep work, of course).

Hustle, grind, repeat. ‘The One Change You Absolutely Must Make to Your Morning Routine Now’. That whole ‘early bird getting the worm’ thing.

No matter how it’s presented, there’s a lot of advice out there on exactly what you should be doing to nail your routine, but you’ve got to wade through all of these tips and hacks, some of which contradict each other. It all can be pretty overwhelming.

And putting it into practice is easier said than done. Usually, I sleep in until the last possible second, lay in bed for too long catching up on the news, and convince myself that my large cup of coffee passes for an acceptable breakfast as I run out the door. It’s certainly not a morning that’s magazine profile worthy. Then work is a blur of meetings, emails, and to-dos, scrambling to find the time to actually do work. Often, any semblance of a routine that I try to cobble together crumbles by 10 AM.

When the hectic pace of modern-day life makes you feel like you don’t have it together, it’s tempting to take inspiration from those who’ve made it big. Successful people know all the secrets, right?

With that thinking in mind, we’ve rounded up insights from the habits and routines of the most successful individuals. You’ll see some common threads in these routines, but also examples of unconventional approaches.

Our advice? Don’t try to change everything at once. It’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll implement all these tips and your days will be magically transformed. Try one tweak for a few weeks to see if it makes a difference, slowly working up to a routine that fits you.

Waking yourself up:

“I always get up and make a cup of coffee and watch the light come…It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives.” — Toni Morrison

Unsurprisingly, many successful individuals swear by an early morning start. Ben Franklin was obviously a fan. Apple CEO Tim Cook wakes up at 3:45 AM everyday while Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi starts her days at 4 AM. Richard Branson has detailed why he wakes up at 5 AM everyday and famed Vogue editor Anna Wintour reportedly plays tennis every morning at 5:45 AM sharp.

Ernest Hemingway recommended writing every morning “as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you.” Toni Morrison rose before the sun with a cup of coffee to catch the first light of morning, explaining: “For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”

It’s that relative solitude that’s so appealing about an early start; without distractions from family or coworkers, we can get things done in peace. However, that approach doesn’t work for everyone. Jeff Bezos leaves his mornings open and flexible, waking up without an alarm. He doesn’t schedule morning meetings, preferring to spend quality time with his family.

Starting off with motivation and reflection:

Aside from adjusting the time you wake up, there are other habits to consider adding to your mornings.

You could set aside time to reflect on your life and your days to ensure you remain motivated, energized, and fulfilled. Steve Jobs famously asked himself one question every morning:

“If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? If the answer is ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Or you could focus on gratitude and positivity. Oprah keeps a gratitude journal while Ben Franklin asked himself “What good shall I do this day?” and “What good have I done this day?” at the start and end of his days, bringing a sense of accountability and purpose to his routine.

If you’d like to explore a more aggressive start, you could take a page from motivational speaker Tony Robbins. He plops into a chilly 56 degree cold plunge pool every morning, explaining that it helps “as a discipline to make my mind know that when I say I’m going to do something, I do it now — no matter how difficult it may seem.” No plunge pool? Try a cold shower — some studies suggest there can be health benefits as well.

Building consistency and making time for what matters:

When it comes to routines, it makes sense that consistency is a hallmark of the habits of many successful individuals.

Author Stephen King maintains quite a specific routine in order to signal his brain that it’s time to start writing. “I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning,” he explained.

“I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places…The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”

This routine enables King to crank out at least six pages, every day. And he’s not alone. Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey has also mentioned his consistent routine, stating that he does “the same thing everyday” so he can get into a more effective, steady state.

Consistency is also about making sure you have time for what matters. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg has shared that she leaves work every day at 5:30 PM in order to have dinner with her kids. While working on her first novel, Toni Morrison was a single mother, but she woke up at 4 AM every morning to fit in writing time before heading to her day job.

However, Mark Twain eschewed this wisdom, taking a more flexible approach that allowed him to design his days according to how he felt. He worked “sporadically” in fits of “inspiration,” sometimes working straight through for days, other times not working at all.

Maintaining your focus:

Designing your days is also a function of how you do your best work. Jeff Bezos is an advocate of single-tasking, or focusing on one thing at a time to give it his full attention. “I don’t like to multi-task,” he explained. “If I’m reading my email I want to be reading my email.” But Elon Musk is a fan of “batching,” and he caught a bit of criticism for stating that he catches up on emails while simultaneously squeezing in time with his five kids. Elon also schedules his time in five-minute blocks, allowing him to pack even more into his days.

Taking a break:

Taking time to recharge and regroup is critical to your effectiveness. Research shows that breaks should be built into your workday, and that not taking them can actually make you less productive.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to take a break:

  • Take a walk. Charles Dickens, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Charles Darwin all took long walks — something that a Stanford study has shown can boost creativity (in addition to other health benefits).
  • Tap into your creative side. Albert Einstein took breaks to play the violin or the piano for brainstorming and inspiration while developing his theories.
  • Take a nap. Research has shown that a quick nap is actually more of a boost than a cup of coffee. (Author Daniel Pink suggests combining the two with a ‘nappuccino’). And famous figures have found this to be true as well. Margaret Thatcher, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, and John D. Rockefeller all broke up their days with a regularly scheduled nap. For some more unconventional inspiration: Leonardo Da Vinci and Thomas Edison relied almost solely on many short naps, while Salvador Dali and Edgar Allan Poe believed drifting through a sleep-like state was key to their creativity.
  • Make time for reading. Studies have shown that reading everyday can reduce stress, boost empathy, and keep your brain sharp. And many successful individuals are voracious readers. Theodore Roosevelt read one book a day when he was busy — he could knock out two or three on a lighter day. Warren Buffet estimates that he spends five to six hours a day reading newspapers, reports, and biographies, while Mark Cuban reads three hours every day.

Creating space for your work:

It’s not just about how you do your work, but also the environment you do it in. There’s something about having a dedicated space that just puts you in the right frame of mind.

Maya Angelou took this to an extreme, renting a hotel room everyday to write in. She described it as “lonely and marvelous,” noting that it allowed for a separation between her life at home with her husband and her work. And while Stephen King prefers a tidy space with everything in the right place, others have kept a cluttered workspace (which research shows can improve creativity). Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Mark Twain kept things messy, with Einstein summarized it best by saying:

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Fitting sleep in:

We all need sleep, and most of us probably feel as though we don’t get enough. But successful individuals differ pretty dramatically in their approach.

After collapsing from exhaustion, Arianna Huffington advocated so strongly for the importance of a good night’s sleep that she launched a new media startup focused on health and wellness. Jeff Bezos tries to get in a full eight hours, sharing that’s the amount he needs “to feel energized and excited.”

But while the National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours, some successful individuals have touted their ability to get by on much less. Margaret Thatcher only got four hours a night, while Mozart got five. Elon Musk gets about six hours of sleep after “cutting back” to 80–90 hour weeks while running two companies. He has even brought a sleeping bag to Tesla’s factories to maximize his time on the job.

Making it work for you:

Routines are deeply personal. After all, how you spend your days adds up to how you spend your life. Ultimately, it’s best to take these tidbits for what they are: inspiration and examples of how you could go about structuring your time.

One thing you probably should start? Tinkering with your routine. You won’t know for sure if something boosts your productivity and makes your days better unless you try.

Taking Note

"Taking Note" features insights and encouragement to help you regain control of your days, lead a more satisfying life, and focus on what matters most.


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You have something to accomplish. We publish stories, tips, and tricks to help you do it.

Taking Note

"Taking Note" features insights and encouragement to help you regain control of your days, lead a more satisfying life, and focus on what matters most.

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