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The modern worker has a quiver full of productivity tools. You can choose from umpteen task list apps like Remember the Milk or Wunderlist. You can talk to your phone to arrange a meeting or reply to a text message. If you have a cluttered email inbox, there are apps likeMailbox that help you sort, archive, and curate your messages in seconds.
Yet, why is it that it’s still so hard to get things done? You start out with good intentions—get to inbox zero, prep for a meeting, and check off at least five of the tasks on your to-do list. When the clock finally hits 5 p.m., you’ve failed to do any of the above and wonder what, in fact, you did do for the past eight hours.
The problem might not have anything to do with the tools. It might be how you use them. There are a few hallmarks of highly ineffective people. Here are seven.
1. You always finish your task list.
Apps like Remember the Milk encourage you to finish your tasks for the day. That’s why the apps exist. Yet, as Marissa Mayer explained in a talk with Salesforce.com last year, checking every item off your list is a sure sign you are being unproductive. (It might also imply you just enjoy completing your task list.) Truly productive people prioritize tasks and let things slide if they are not that important. They are not completists—they are productivists.
2. You always answer the phone.
I know a few colleagues who seem to always pick up the phone. One friend who runs an insurance agency tells me his theory: Letting a call go to voice mail tells the customer he or she is not that important. Callers want to reach a live human. In some ways, it seems effective—especially if you are the one taking the sales orders. But it’s not. In truth, research indicates it is much more effective to focus on what you are doing at the time. A call is an interruption in most cases—it means you are suddenly multitasking, and that means you are slowing down. Finish your task, then call back.
3. You use the “touch once” principle.
Here’s one I learned many years ago. Apparently, when it comes to document management or your email or social networking, it is more effective to deal with an issue as soon as it arrives. Someone hands you a contract, it’s best to sign it then and there. Otherwise, the time invested in receiving the document, filing it, signing it, and handing it back in will multiply. But is that always true? With email and my social feeds, I don’t always “touch” once. In fact, I rarely do. Most incoming messages are not that important—and neither are most paper documents.
4. You see communication as a one-way street.
This is a huge problem for ineffective people. You wonder why you can’t get anything done or why you can’t motivate people. Look in the mirror. In most cases, those who have the most trouble communicating are the ones doing all of the talking. You can’t really understand what people want if you never shut up and listen to them. Worse, being a one-way communicator means people are less likely to give you a hand. Listen more, and you might gain a productivity ally.
5. You block all interruptions.
I mentioned how taking every phone call is bad for your productivity. It means you are not finishing the task at hand. Yet, having a strict rule about no interruptions is also ineffective. Why is that? As you probably know, interruptions can work like fuel for your brain. You are finishing up a task and then—wham!—someone barges into your office. Those serendipitous moments of the day can inspire new ideas. Also, being effective sometimes means letting interruptions steer you in a different, possibly better, direction. Just make sure you’re selective about which interruptions you let dictate your next move.
6. You’re in it to win it.
Ineffective people are looking for the “win” in everything they do. In the book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, by Adam Grant, the idea of always “taking” for yourself turns out to be counterproductive, because you fail to realize the role other people play in order for you to succeed. Highly effective people direct their efforts toward a group win; they are part of an overall team effort. It takes a village to be productive.
7. You are solely focused on being effective.
Yes, there is great irony in this one. The more you focus on being effective, the less effective you will be. In my job as a writer, I often think the goal is to be as efficient as possible. In the very act of focusing on my own efficiency and knocking things off my list, I complete tasks prematurely, before I have enough information. It’s a kind of tunnel vision that hampers my ability to see the bigger picture. In many ways, it is better to focus on relationships with co-workers, or on whether your company is offering a better service to the world, or even if you are getting home in time for supper. That more holistic view, in the end, can give you perspective on what’s really important.
If it has to happen, then it has to happen first, writes Laura Vanderkam, time management expert and author of “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.”
Those among us who have managed to find professional success and eke out a life actively embrace this philosophy. They must set aside their first hours of the day to invest in their top-priority activities before other people’s priorities come rushing in.
Science supports this strategy. Vanderkam cites Florida State University psychology professor Roy Baumeister’s famous finding that willpower is like a muscle that becomes fatigued from overuse. Diets, he says, come undone in the evening, just as poor self-control and lapses in decision-making often come later in the day. On the other hand, early mornings offer a fresh supply of willpower, and people tend to be more optimistic and ready to tackle challenging tasks.
So what do successful executives and entrepreneurs do when they are rested and fresh? From Vanderkam’s study of morning rituals, we outline the following 12 things that the most successful people do before breakfast.
1. They wake up early.
Successful people know that time is a precious commodity. And while theirs is easily eaten up by phone calls, meetings, and sudden crises once they’ve gotten to the office, the morning hours are under their control. That’s why many of them rise before the sun, squeezing out as much time as they can to do with as they please.
In a poll of 20 executives cited by Vanderkam, 90% said they wake up before 6 a.m. on weekdays. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, for example, wakes at 4 a.m. and is in the office no later than 7 a.m. Meanwhile, Disney CEO Bob Iger gets up at 4:30 to read, and Square CEO Jack Dorsey is up at 5:30 to jog.
The bottom line: Productive mornings start with early wake-up calls.
2. They exercise before it falls off the to-do list.
The top morning activity of the rich and powerful seems to be exercise, be it lifting weights at home or going to the gym. According to Vanderkam, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns schedules an hour-long personal training session starting at 6 a.m. twice a week; Christies CEO Steve Murphy uses the mornings to do yoga; and Starwood Hotels CEO Frits van Paasschen runs for an hour every morning starting at 5:30.
"These are incredibly busy people," says Vanderkam. “If they make time to exercise, it must be important."
Beyond the fact that exercising in the morning means they can’t later run out of time, Vanderkam says a pre-breakfast workout helps reduce stress later in the day, counteracts the effects of high-fat diet, and improves sleep.
3. They work on a top-priority business project.
The quiet hours of the morning can be the ideal time to focus on an important work project without being interrupted. What’s more, spending time on it at the beginning of the day ensures that it gets your attention before others (kids, employees, bosses) use it all up.
Vanderkam uses the example of business strategist Debbie Moysychyn, who dealt with so many ad hoc meetings and interruptions throughout the day that she felt she couldn’t get anything done. She started thinking of the early mornings as project time, and chose a top-priority project each day to focus on. Sure enough, not a single colleague dropped in on her at 6:30 a.m. She could finally concentrate.
4. They work on a personal passion project.
Novel-writing and art-making is easy to skip when you’ve been in meetings all day, are tired and hungry, and have to figure out what’s for dinner. That’s why many successful people put in an hour or so on their personal projects before they officially start their days.
History teacher Charlotte Walker-Said told Vanderkam she spends the hours between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. working on a book about the religious politics of West Africa. She can read journal articles and write several pages before dealing with her teaching responsibilities at the University of Chicago.
Carving out the time in the morning to write, and making it a habit, meant she would actually follow through. Vanderkam cites one study of young professors that showed writing a little bit every day rather than in intense bursts made them more likely to get tenure.
5. They spend quality time with family.
We may exalt the family dinner, but there’s nothing that says you have to have a big family meal at night, says Vanderkam. Some successful people use the mornings to invest in family time, whether reading stories to the kids or cooking a big breakfast together.
Judi Rosenthal, a financial planner in New York, told Vanderkam that unless she’s traveling mornings are her special time with her young daughter. She helps her get dressed, make the bed, and occasionally they work on art projects together. They also make breakfast and sit at around the table and chat about what’s going on. She calls those 45 minutes “the most precious time I have in a day.”
6. They connect with their spouses.
In the evening, it’s more likely you’ll be tired from the day’s activities, and time can easily be wasted with dinner preparations and zoning out in front of the TV. That’s why many successful people make connecting with their partners a morning ritual.
Even if they’re not getting frisky every morning, many couples use the early hours to talk. For instance, BlackRock Managing Director Obie McKenzie and his wife commute from the suburbs into New York City every morning. They spend the hour-plus trip discussing their lives, finances, household to-do lists, and plans for the week.
7. They network over coffee.
Especially if you like to make it home for dinner, the mornings can be a great time to meet with people for coffee or breakfast. Plus, networking breakfasts are less disruptive than midday lunches and more work-oriented than boozy cocktail parties, Vanderkam notes.
Christopher Colvin, a New York-based lawyer and entrepreneur, started a networking group for Ivy League alums called IvyLife. Most days he wakes at 5:30 a.m. to walk his dog and read, but every Wednesday he attends an IvyLife networking breakfast. “I feel I’m fresher and more creative in the mornings,” he told Vanderkam. “By the end of the day my mind is more cluttered.”
8. They meditate to clear their minds.
Type-A personalities typically demand as much from others as they do from themselves, so it can be difficult for them to disconnect from their mental to-do lists and calm their minds. Before they head out the door, many successful people devote themselves to a spiritual practice such as meditation or prayer to center themselves for the rush of the day.
Manisha Thakor, a former corporate executive who founded and now runs MoneyZen Wealth Management, practices transcendental meditation to clear her mind. She does two 20-minute sessions a day, the first before breakfast and the second in the evening, and focuses on breathing and repeating a mantra in her head. She’s found it to be “one of the most life-enhancing practices” she’s ever experienced, she told Vanderkam.
9. They write down things they’re grateful for.
Expressing gratitude is another great way to center yourself and get the proper perspective before heading to the office. Writing down the people, places, and opportunities that you’re grateful for takes just a few minutes but can make a real difference in your outlook.
Pharmaceutical exec Wendy Kay told Vanderkam she spends a good chunk of her morning “expressing gratitude, asking for guidance, and being open to inspiration.” When she gets to work, she always has a clear vision for herself and her staff.
10. They plan and strategize while they’re fresh.
Planning the day, week, or month ahead is an important time management tool to keep you on track when you’re in the thick of it. Using the mornings to do big-picture thinking helps you prioritize and set the trajectory of the day.
Banking exec turned teacher Christine Galib wakes at 5 a.m. on weekdays, exercises, reads a few Bible verses, and reviews her tasks for the day before making breakfast. She told Vanderkam this ritual makes her days more manageable and effective.
11. They check their email.
While time management gurus may suggest putting off email as long as possible, many successful people start the day with email. They may quickly scan their inboxes for urgent messages that need an immediate response or craft a few important emails that they can better focus on while their minds are fresh.
For instance, Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project,” wakes at 6 every morning before her family’s up at 7. She uses the time to clear her inbox, schedule the day, and read social media. Getting these tasks out of the way from the start helps her concentrate better when she moves on to more challenging projects, she told Vanderkam.
12. They read the news.
Whether it’s sitting in the corner diner and reading the papers or checking the blogs and Twitter from their phones, most successful people have a pre-breakfast ritual for getting the latest headlines.
For example, GE CEO Jeff Immelt starts his days with a cardio workout and then reads the paper and watches CNBC. Meanwhile, Virgin America CEO David Cush uses his mornings to listen to sports radio and read the papers while hitting the stationary bike at the gym.
By the time they get to work, they have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the world. Then, they can get down to the business of changing it.
Each morning, small business owners awake with a fresh determination to continue growing their companies, developing their employees, and keeping their customers happy.
This unique intimacy with both staff and clients requires a high level of effective time management that starts as soon as they get out of bed.
We spoke with 15 successful entrepreneurs who have developed morning routines that clear their minds, energize their bodies, and prepare them for the day ahead.
Jeffrey Zurofsky, CEO and co-founder of ‘wichcraft, Riverpark, and Riverpark Farm, is ‘an animal’ about his rituals.
Zurofsky is a co-founder of the gourmet sandwich chain ‘wichcraft, which started in New York City in 2003 and grew to 15 locations spread over New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. He and his two business partners, Tom Colicchio and Sisha Ortuzar, also opened the restaurant Riverpark and its accompanying urban farm.
Zurofsky is so passionate about his morning ritual that he prepares the night before, when he writes out his to-do list and organizes emails. Before he goes to sleep sometime between midnight and 2 a.m., he eats two scoops of almond butter because he says it helps build energy for the following morning.
After he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. (he makes up for the limited sleep with a nap later in the day), he walks his dog and does some kind of exercise, whether it’s running, a workout, or squash. He follows it up with some meditation, and then he’s ready for an intense meal. “I have an enormous breakfast: 1,000 calories, 30 grams of protein,” he says. “It changes cuisines, but it’s always eggs, a cup of legumes, veggies, and typically some meats—whether it’s chicken breast or leftover something.” He washes it all down with a glass of green juice with ginger.
Jeffrey ‘jeffstaple’ Ng, founder and owner of Staple Design, starts his day with a Japanese pour-over coffee.
Ng, who goes by jeffstaple, started his cutting edge design brand in New York City with a single T-shirt back in 1997. Staple Design has worked with international clients such as Nike, HBO, Puma, and Uniqlo, and his signature pigeon logo has made Staple Clothing an instantly recognizable brand in streetwear.
Ng brings the same energy to his mornings as he does to his business. He wakes at 8 every day and scans his phone for urgent emails or messages while still in bed. And rather than settling for a cup of Folgers, he hand grinds quality coffee beans and then does a Japanese pour-over, a style of drip brewing that takes five to 10 minutes for a single cup.
In the shower, he uses AquaNotes, a waterproof notepad, to jot down ideas as his mind wanders. Three times a week, he’ll work out with his personal trainer after coffee.
And of course, his outfit is a top priority, which he said he starts from the bottom up: “I get dressed by choosing my footwear first, then build my outfit based on which shoes I’m going to be wearing. Luckily, my wardrobe is mostly clothing I’ve designed…so it’s pretty straightforward.”
Jamie Walker, co-founder and CEO of Fit Approach and SweatGuru, starts her day with a ‘good sweat session.
Walker and her cousin Alyse Mason-Brill started Fit Approach in 2010 as a San Francisco-based fitness “boot camp” that has grown to a network of over 4,000 “ambassadors” throughout the country. The two then launched SweatGuru last year as a tool to set up workouts with friends and colleagues. Walker says that over 1,500 businesses are using SweatGuru’s services.
Taking a dose of her own medicine, Walker gets up at 5:30 a.m. each morning to get in a “good sweat session,” which can mean running, working out, or yoga. It helps her begin her day “on a refreshed and calm note,” and making exercise her first priority ensures that it doesn’t fall off the to-do list later, “since things tend to come up throughout the day when you own two businesses.”
Dave Gilboa, co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, gets going by riding his bike to work.
Gilboa founded the innovative eyewear companyWarby Parker with Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, and Jeffrey Raider back in 2010. Since that time, the brand has sold over half a million frames, a healthy number for an online startup competing against the near-monopolistic Luxottica prescription eyewear corporation.
Gilboa’s not really a morning person, but he thinks he’s found a solution: “I’m usually a little groggy in the morning, but I find that anytime I exercise to get the blood flowing, I have more energy throughout the day. So I’ve been riding my bike to work, even in the winter.” He usually makes it to the office by 8 a.m., with his brain “woken up” by the bike ride.
Geoff McQueen, CEO of AffinityLive, holds stand-up meetings each morning in the office.
AffinityLive is a growing small business in Silicon Valley that creates business automation software. It doubled its business last year and the team made significant software upgrades.
McQueen hates meetings that serve only as status updates, because he finds that they waste time and lower efficiency. But he also knows the importance of checking in with his team. His solution is a stand-up meeting to start each day.
"We all gather in the middle of our office and stand while bringing up any urgent updates that need to be discussed," McQueen says. "Standing enforces a sense of urgency, so these meetings are quick and efficient, and I’m still able to get a sense of exactly what’s going on with my business."
Elle Kaplan, founding partner and CEO of LexION Capital Management, draws inspirations from watching the sun rise over New York.
Kaplan started LexION in 2010, making it one of the few American asset management firms owned by a woman. Within her first month, she achieved $1 million in assets, due to the network she established at firms she had previously worked for.
Kaplan wakes up some time before dawn to make coffee and give her dog Magic a bone. She then gets to reading the news and sifting through emails.
"Although I have technically begun working, the dog at my feet and the rising orange sun evoke a time before the work day begins," she says. "I look out over the park at Lincoln Center and see New York waking up, the energy invigorating me, too, and I get excited for the day. And I am ready to work."
Dave Shula, president of Shula’s Steak House, starts each day with a full-blown ‘Iron Man’ workout.
A former professional football coach and player, Shula left the NFL in 1996 to join his family’s restaurant business, which he helped expand internationally.
While he may no longer be on the gridiron on Sundays, Shula has not given up his intense training. Every day, he wakes up between 5 and 6 a.m. and does a 60 to 90 minute workout that is a combination of swimming, cycling, running, and/or lifting. He follows this up with a big breakfast of eggs, yogurt, granola, an English muffin, and fresh fruit, washed down with a glass of V8 Fusion juice.
Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, does yoga to focus his mind.
Poon Tip started G Adventures from his Toronto apartment back in 1990, and today it is a global tourism enterprise. His new book “Looptail" chronicles the way he created an "adventure tourism" industry and developed a work culture that has won his company several Best Workplace Awards.
Poon Tip says most of his employees think he never sleeps, but he tries to go to bed at 1 a.m. and wake up at 8 a.m. He’s constantly adjusting his schedule to meet responsibilities to markets from a time zone that could be anywhere in the world. He would not be able to handle this workload if he didn’t take some time to collect himself each morning.
"Business moves at the speed of light right now, but at some point every day it is important to step off the machine and find your purpose and refocus your motivation," he says. "I have become a big fan of yoga, and to be honest I don’t think I could do what I do right now without it."
Dan Tully, executive VP and partial-owner of Conduit Systems, dedicates the start of his morning to his son and to walking his dogs.
Conduit Systems is an information technologies firm based in Rhode Island that’s had a large presence in Boston for the past 30 years.
Tully gets up every weekday morning before dawn to drive his son to high school, which is a bit of a drive.
"This gives me a good 45 minutes of one-on-one time with him and an opportunity to enjoy a Starbucks coffee and an egg-white sandwich on the way home," he says.
After the ride, it’s time to walk his two Irish Terriers on the beach for a few miles. This extensive period without work clears his head and prepares him for the day: “By the time I get in front of my computer, I’ve already been up a few hours and am ready to go.”
Mark Stevens, CEO of MSCO, goes on a hike with his Golden Retriever.
Stevens uses the morning to gather ideas to share with his team later in the day, and the best way for him to kick this off is by walking—and chatting—with his dog.
His morning ritual gives him an opportunity to think. His regimen is to “get out of bed rain or shine and hike with my Golden Retriever, Sky. We talk. I think.”
Stevens continues brainstorming through 50 laps in the pool, and he does some work on strategic projects before having breakfast.
Donna David, president of Donna David Company, determines three specific things she would like to accomplish that day.
David took her executive experience from Burberry and Saks Fifth Avenue and applied it to her ownprofessional organizing business, which helps clients around New York and New Jersey de-clutter their homes, move, and clear out estates.
She gets up at 5 a.m. each morning with the sound and smell of coffee brewing as her alarm clock, and gets to answering emails and reading the news on her iPad.
"Then my favorite part of the morning is setting aside 15 minutes to organize my thoughts," she says. "I always ask myself what are the three new things I would like to accomplish today—meet a new connection, download a new app to help streamline my current workflow, percolate ideas on improving current business plan, etc."
Marc Spector, owner of the Spector Group, writes dozens of emails before most people wake up.
The Spector Group is a New York-based architecture and design firm that has won over 100 awards from the American Institute of Architects over the past 40 years.
Spector gets up each morning at 4:30 a.m., at which point he says his “brain activates” and he gets to checking emails. He said that by 5:15, he has already written 25 to 50 emails to his staff and clients.
As soon as that’s done, it’s time to do 45 minutes of weight training, followed by 45 minutes of cardio on a stationary bike. After a protein-based breakfast and a shower, he’s out the door by 7:20 a.m. to drive his daughter to school.
Andrew Yang, founder and CEO of Venture for America, tries to fit in some quality time with his 15-month-old son.
Venture for America provides fellowships to high-achieving college graduates to work with startups in some of the country’s poorest cities, like Detroit and Baltimore. Yang passionately believes that more talented young people need to create and help grow small businesses rather than entering finance or law, which he outlines in his new book, “Smart People Should Build Things.”
Yang wakes up around 7 each morning and loves to start his day with some exercise; although his morning routine has recently been at the discretion of his 15-month-old son. But that’s not a bad thing, he says: “I still try to sneak away to exercise periodically, but now, if I have a half hour to spend with my son in the morning, then that’s a good use of time, because he might be asleep by the time I get home.”
Peter Tourian, founder of SYNERGY HomeCare and Araya Clean, eats the same big breakfast every morning.
Before becoming an entrepreneur, Tourian served as a deputy in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, and that’s where he developed an appreciation for a strict morning regimen. Every day he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and spends 30 minutes checking his email and industry news before a 30-minute workout. Then he very specifically has two cups of tea, each loaded with 60 mg of caffeine, three tablespoons of sugar, one spoon of honey, and some lemon juice—the intense sugar rush is to help with his exercise recovery.
After a shower, he’s ready for his daily breakfast of three or four eggs, two chocolate chip pancakes, three strips of bacon, and a couple of glasses of orange juice.
Patricia Vaccarino, owner of Xanthus Communications and PR For People, takes morning ballet classes to stay fit.
She wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and after some strong tea and breakfast gets to work, getting the bulk of her writing done by 9 a.m. Then sometime after 9:30 she heads to an exercise class—four days a week it’s ballet, and two days a week it’s Pilates. She’ll sometimes opt for a jog and upper-body workout if she has an early meeting.
"My physical regimen keeps me healthy, strong, and very focused," Vaccarino says. She also writes about the benefits of dance on her blog.