How the World’s Most Successful People Start Their Days
“Lose an hour in the morning, chase it all day.” — a Yiddish saying, author unknown, taught to me by Jason Fried
If you win the morning, you win the day. I’m not the first person to say that, but I think it’s a good encapsulation of how to think about morning routines. It is setting up your entire day for positive momentum and fewer distractions.
Over the past decade, I’ve been able to ask hundreds of top performers about their morning habits and routines on my podcast and in private conversations. Personally, I’ve tried various routines throughout the years. These days, I try to do a few things: make my bed, meditate, hang upside down (that’s another story for another time), and a couple other things. But I know my morning routine isn’t done evolving and I’m not done learning how to set myself up for success by optimizing my morning routine. To that end, I decided to ask 100+ top-performing people across various industries about what they do when they wake up in the morning. The result of those interviews is my book, Tribe of Mentors. I was lucky to get answers from many personal heroes of mine. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Ben Stiller
Ben Stiller has written, starred in, directed, or produced more than 50 films, including The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Zoolander, The Cable Guy, There’s Something About Mary, the Meet the Parents trilogy, DodgeBall, Tropic Thunder, the Madagascar series, and the Night at the Museum trilogy. I was surprised when he told me this about his morning ritual:
“I like to dunk my head in a bucket of ice in the morning to wake me up. I don’t think it actually is therapeutic but it is definitely invigorating and probably absurd looking.”
2. Graham Duncan
Graham Duncan is the co-founder of East Rock Capital, an investment firm that manages $2 billion for a small number of families and their charitable foundations. Graham’s routine also involves water, though the activity itself is more conventional than Ben Stiller’s:
“I’ve begun swimming most mornings, and I find it often shifts my mindset for the rest of the day. Swimmers talk about the concept of ‘water feel,’ which is getting a grip in the water and pulling your body past that point instead of ripping your hand through the water, which moves you forward but is much less efficient, much less graceful. As David Foster Wallace points out in his speech, ‘This Is Water,’ much of life is water to us — we are swimming in it and can’t see it because we’re either in a hurry or not awake to our context. When I stop to really feel the water before I pull, it shifts my way of being from thrashing toward the other end of the pool to a more effortless flow of working with the reality of where I am.”
3. Steven Pressfield
Steven Pressfield has made a professional life in five different writing arenas — advertising, screenwriting, fiction, narrative nonfiction, and self-help. He is the best-selling author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, The Afghan Campaign, and The Lion’s Gate, as well as the cult classics on creativity, The War of Art, Turning Pro, and Do the Work. When I asked Steven about his morning routine, he filled me in:
“I’ve always been a gym person and an early morning person. But a few years ago I got invited to train with T. R. Goodman at a place called Pro Camp. There’s a ‘system,’ yeah, but basically what we do (and it’s definitely a group thing, with three or four of us training together) is just work hard. I hate it but it’s great. T. R. says, as we’re leaving after working out, ‘Nothing you face today will be harder than what you just did.’”
4. Tim O’Reilly
Tim O’Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media. Tim also exercises in the morning, but that’s not what’s most interesting about his routine:
“Every morning, on my run, I try to take a picture of a flower and share it on Instagram. I was inspired to do this by a passage I read many years ago in a book by C. S. Lewis (I think it was The Great Divorce), in which a character, after death, only sees the flowers as blobs of color, and his spirit guide tells him, ‘That’s because you never really looked at them when you were alive.’ As the line from Hamilton says, ‘Look around. Look around. How lucky we are to be alive right now!’”
5. Mathew Fraser
Mathew Fraser won first place at the 2016 and 2017 Reebok CrossFit Games, earning him the title of “Fittest Man on Earth.” He won the Rookie of the Year award at his first CrossFit Games in 2014 and placed second in 2014 and 2015. He’s been a CrossFit athlete since 2012, after retiring from a career in weightlifting during which he was an Olympic hopeful. Perhaps counterintuitively given the examples we’ve seen so far, this highly successful competitive athlete’s morning routine has nothing to do with working out:
“I usually make a list every morning while I’m drinking my coffee. I have a terrible habit of forgetting smaller things during the day, so I like to put them on paper before the day gets started and I become distracted. Having the list helps keep me calm and productive during the day.”
6. Tim Urban
Tim Urban is the author of the blog “Wait But Why” and has become one of the Internet’s most popular writers. Tim told me about what he does when he wakes up in the morning:
“I love waking up and working on the [New York Times crossword] puzzle in the morning — in bed, while eating breakfast, on the subway, while standing in line at a coffee place, etc. But I have to be careful — the later it gets in the week, the longer the puzzle takes me, and I often don’t have the discipline to put down a hard puzzle until I finish it, which can bleed badly into my planned workday and make me hate myself. Or sometimes I’ll open the app when I’m taking a five-minute work break, and then that turns it into an 82-minute work break and I again hate myself. So I now try to keep my puzzling to nighttime.”
7. Marc Benioff
Marc Benioff is a philanthropist and chairman and CEO of Salesforce. Currently, he is one of only four entrepreneurs in history to have built an enterprise software company with more than $10 billion in annual revenue (the other three being Bill Gates of Microsoft, Larry Ellison of Oracle, and Hasso Plattner of SAP). When I asked Marc about his morning routine, he touched on something I’ve been practicing myself for years:
“One of the best investments I ever made is in my meditation practice. I typically pray and meditate every morning for 30 to 60 minutes. I have also expanded my practice to teaching meditation at my synagogue. I’ve been meditating for more than 25 years, and I view it as a critical part of my success.
It’s a skill that I have used when things have gone wrong in my life. When there are life challenges — whether it was my father’s death, health challenges with family members, extreme stress in Salesforce, or worry about the state of the world — I could always find refuge and strength in my meditation and prayer practice. This is an investment that has paid off over and over again.”
8. Whitney Cummings
Whitney Cummings is a Los Angeles-based comedian, actor, writer, and producer. Whitney is the executive producer and, along with Michael Patrick King, co-creator of the Emmy-nominated CBS comedy 2 Broke Girls. She has headlined with comics including Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, and others. Her first one-hour standup special, Money Shot, premiered on Comedy Central in 2010 and was nominated for an American Comedy Award. Her second standup special, I Love You, debuted on Comedy Central in 2014, and her latest special, I’m Your Girlfriend, premiered on HBO in 2016. Whitney is the author of I’m Fine…And Other Lies. Here’s how she starts her morning:
“Every morning I make myself write a gratitude list, regardless of how busy I am, or how much I don’t want to. It can feel silly and redundant at times, but it’s atrophied my negative thinking. It’s built up the muscle that focuses on what’s going well and how fortunate I am, which helps me be more productive, creative, and focused. It yields a type of mental freedom that’s hard to explain. Negativity used to consume and exhaust me, so now I literally have more energy. It’s so easy for perfectionists to focus on what’s wrong, and finding flaws is a big part of my job, but in terms of the big picture, negative thinking was a serious obstacle to creativity. Also, white tattoos! I have little messages tattooed on my arms, but nobody can see them except me.”
The word “routine” may sound boring, but I like to keep in mind a quote from W. H. Auden who once said “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.” After looking at the routines of these brilliant, successful folks it’s clear that they all work on their mind, body, or spirit first thing in the morning, and we should all take note of that.
Want to Win Every Day?
If so, here are 5 things to do right after you roll out of bed. It’s a checklist that will help you win the morning — so you can win your day, and your life.