How To

What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast: An Interview with Laura Vanderkam

Too early

What’s the best time to follow your bliss? According to Laura Vanderkam, it’s the ungodly hour of 6am. Maybe 5:30. Maybe earlier.

Before you mumble, “I’m not a morning person,” and hit the snooze button, give her a chance.

In her new ebook, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, Vanderkam uses psychology, time management theory, and interviews with, yes, successful people to build a case for getting up before the rest of family, turning off social media, and working on that thing you’re always neglecting.

The book is short, easy to read, and costs three whole dollars. Vanderkam spoke recently with MintLife columnist Matthew Amster-Burton, who already gets up at 6:30am but now feels like an underachiever.

Why work early in the morning?

MintLife: I’m working on a personal project. It’s something I’m passionate about and could maybe make some money on, but it always gets shoved aside in favor of something else. According to your book, I should be working on this project early in the morning. Why?

Vanderkam: Mornings in general are a great time for getting things done. This is time you have for yourself before other people’s priorities invade. Because there will always be a good reason for you not to work on that project later in the day.

The day goes on and our ability to focus kind of falls apart. But people don’t usually schedule emergency 6am phone calls, right? That’s why early morning is a good time to focus on something important to you that life has a way of crowding out.

What about the Internet? It never stops!

MintLife: Is anything terrible going to happen if I work on my creative project for the first couple hours of the day and don’t check email, Twitter or Facebook during that time?

Vanderkam: Yes, earth will crash into the sun. You know, it’s a little known fact that not checking email for a few hours destroys the universe.

We take ourselves way too seriously, right? I recently wrote a column about bizarre out-of-office automatic email responses like, “I won’t be in the office until 10am.” Whoa, okay! Or, “I’m gone from 5pm Friday to 8am Monday.” Really? No kidding.

MintLife: Right.

Vanderkam: Now, I will admit that I often look at email first thing in the morning, which I know a lot of people do. The trick is to figure out a way to compartmentalize it so you can check email for fifteen minutes and then it’s off.

MintLife: I can tell myself that I’m just going to spend fifteen minutes, but I cannot actually hold myself to it and then an hour and fifteen minutes passes in the blink of an eye.

Vanderkam: Yeah, this is much of time management — knowing oneself. We always have to keep in mind that the tips that are absolutely vital for one person might be disastrous for someone else. So, it’s important take everything with a grain of salt.

I’m NOT a morning person.

MintLife: I think it is and it isn’t, in the sense that I think there are a lot of people who would say, “I’m just not a morning person. This sounds great for you, the author of this book, but me? I just can’t function at six a.m.” What’s the message for them?

Vanderkam: I can tell you that I’m not a morning person myself. I wrote this book in part because I am in awe of people who get up easily in the morning and get stuff done. There are logistical reasons why mornings are great for working on projects that you can’t find time for in your normal everyday life.

Although, if you truly are in the 10 percent of people who are most creative at night, that’s fine, if you can set up your life to honor that schedule.

MintLife: Right.

Vanderkam: I think most other people are somewhere in the middle. With the proper habits and enough motivation, you can turn yourself into a morning person and take advantage of the time you have for yourself before everyone else wants something from you.

Flexing your willpower muscle.

MintLife: What about the role of willpower? You talk about “willpower reserve” in the book. How does that affect how much we can get done in the morning versus later in the day?

Vanderkam: Yeah, there is some fascinating new research on this. Roy Baumeister at Florida State University has conducted experiments with willpower.

Willpower is like a muscle, in that it gets depleted over time as you use it. One of the things that uses it up is sheer decision-making. The question of what you want to eat for lunch is a decision, as is the question of do I go to this meeting or this meeting if they are scheduled at the same time? Those are decisions that use up willpower.

Over the course of the day, as you make decisions, your supply of willpower is used up. It is also used up when you hold your tongue after difficult people make comments or you keep thoughts to yourself, too.

But in the morning, you wake up with a fresh supply of willpower. Your willpower muscle is rested and ready to go. That’s the time of day when you have more ability to focus on things, rather than later in the day as you lose focus, which is also a function of willpower.

The phrase I always use is, “If It has to happen, it has to happen first.”

The value of time tracking.

MintLife: In this book and also in your previous time management book, 168 Hours, you talk about the value of time tracking. I am honestly terrified of what I might learn about myself if I kept a time log for a week.

Why should I do it, and what have you learned from studying people’s time logs?

Vanderkam: There is no need to post to things publicly, although you can, if you want.

MintLife: I don’t want to own up to how much time I’m wasting!

Vanderkam: I tell myself that the truth sets us free. You may find out you are spending four hours a day on Facebook, which would be an interesting thing to discover. One woman who wrote about her time tracking realized she spent three and a half hours a week hitting snooze.

MintLife: Wow.

Vanderkam: Yeah. What a miserable way to live, sleeping in 10-minute increments. You can choose to discover these things and once you know where your time is going, you can decide how you want to change it.

It’s likely you will discover all this extra time that can be used for something else more productive. I find time tracking to be enlightening instead of scary.

For example, I discovered that I am easily distracted. I can be focusing on a project and then things fall apart: I feel the urge to get up and get a snack or walk around the house in a meaningless fashion. I studied my time logs and discovered that I have longer periods of focus in the morning.

MintLife: Me too.

Vanderkam: If just you sit at your desk and go, it is a great time for knocking a project out. I can focus longer during that period of time than any other point during the day.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.