What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast

What the Most Succesful People Do Before Breakfast
Category: Skills
Mornings are a madcap time for many of us. We wake up in a haze—often after hitting snooze a few times. Then we rush around to get ready and out the door so we can officially start the day. Before we know it, hours have slipped by without us accomplishing anything beyond downing a cup of coffee, dashing off a few emails, and dishing with our coworkers around the water cooler.

Book Summary - What the Most Successful People do Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam

Who Should Read This


  • Entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs.
  • Anyone looking to get the most out of their day.
  • People who feel they have little time to achieve their dreams or work on personal projects.


What You’ll Learn


  • How early mornings can make your entire week more productive.
  • How to time manage all your activities and keep a log of how you’re spending your day.
  • How to get more done on the weekend and at work.


Key Insights

Time-management expert Laura Vanderkam knows the importance of a good morning routine. Vanderkam argues that although days may feel short, we aren’t capitalizing enough on the best-kept secret of some of the most successful people: the hours before breakfast. This is where you can find time to work on a dream project, get ahead on your career, and stay on top of your relationships. In this book, Vanderkam reveals how hyper-productive people use this time and how you can too.

Key Points

Mornings can be hectic for most households so it can be easy to fill them with small chores or inconsequential tasks.

The author explains how in her household, mornings can get pretty hectic. After her 7 AM wake-up time, she has to run around making sure her children get out the door and to school on time before getting herself ready for work. Oftentimes, she’s tempted to spend the rest of the morning online, checking e-mails and decompressing.

But having studied how the most productive people use their time, Vanderkam knows that this isn’t the only way. The most productive people know that mornings can be sacred: a time square away the things that are most important to us so they don’t get pushed down the to-do list during the rest of the day.

Think of the things that you value that get lost in the hustle and bustle of day to day life. It could be exercise and stretching, reading and working on writing a book, or writing an annual report for work. These precious tasks are important to do the first thing because otherwise, the day can wear us out before we’ve had a chance to get to them. This makes morning the perfect time to fit these things in, while we’re still fresh-brained and energetic.

James Citrin, the leader of a headhunting agency called Spencer Stuart’s North American Board and CEO Practice, interviewed executives about morning routines and unsurprisingly found that 18 of 20 woke up before 6 A.M. every day.

Steve Reinemund, the former CEO of PepsiCo and dean of the School of Business at Wake Forest University is another example. He starts his day at 5 a.m. and goes for a four-mile run. After that, he either reads or prays. Only then is it time for breakfast and morning-time with the kids.

How do you know which “important things” to do in the morning? Choose the hard but rewarding things.

The author notes that it may be difficult to distinguish the things that are important to you from the things that will get done anyway. But this distinction is crucial—the best morning routines are those that fit in projects that require extra willpower that we always find excuses not to do.

Vanderkam explains that research has shown that tasks requiring self-discipline are easier to do when the day is young, and our energy reserves aren’t depleted. It’s in these hours that impulse control is easiest, and we can put our entire selves into whatever we chose.

Things that require willpower are things that take time to build, don’t have immediate pay-off, but can make a huge difference in your life once completed or attempted. The best morning routines, Vanderkam writes, are those that when practiced regularly, result in long-term benefits. She describes these sorts of projects as nurturing one of three categories: your career (strategizing and focused work), your relationship (giving family and friends your best), or yourself (exercise, spiritual, and creative practices).

Consider Debbie Moysychyn, a health care executive who is helping Brand University grow their health-care education department. Wanting to build a better relationship with her co-workers, she kept an open-door policy on her office, letting anyone stop in for a conversation at any time. However, the constant short meetings started to cut into her working time.

Moysychyn noticed that she spent her mornings, in the time between dropping her daughter off at water polo at 7 AM and when the workday started, cleaning out her inbox. Moysychyn decided to replace this brainless task with a period of time to get work projects done. It was an excellent time for focused work on the top priority of the day. This way, she could keep both the constant conversations, creating a positive office culture at work, and her own projects. By putting in the extra discipline in the morning, her entire day became a lot easier.

Lack of interruptions is a key reason people sight early mornings as a good time for focused work. Novelist Anthony Trollip wrote for a few hours each morning. Charlotte Walker Sayeed, a history post-doc, uses the hours to work on a book about the history of religious politics in West Africa. She can read journal articles and write uninterrupted before her teaching duties start. These hours are key to managing her stress in a difficult job market. “In the day I have a job,” she says, “but in the morning, I feel I have a career”.

Gretchen Rubin wakes up at 6 AM, the author of the best-selling book The Happiness Project, so she can have an hour to write for herself, but she uses this focused time differently. She realized that she found it much easier to write after getting logistical things—e-mail, social media posts, and scheduling—before she can soundly write for the day. Ultimately, though, these focused hours help her be a more productive writer throughout the rest of the day.

You can use mornings to spend time with family or consider your relationships.

Making quality time for family or friends can be difficult. After work, we may feel too drained to play with our kids or invite friends over, instead opting to get online or collapse in front of the TV. That’s why Vanderkam recommends mornings as the ideal time to make time for relationships.

What could this relationship time look like? Maybe it could mean getting up at dawn with your partner for some early morning intimacy and conversation or breakfast with the entire family. It could mean drafting special letters to your friends or planning some future activities with people you love but don’t get to see enough.

Vanderkam gives the example of Kathryn Beaumont Murphy, a corporate lawyer who works long hours and sometimes nights. She decided to take advantage of the morning when she noticed she was able to spend less and less time with her daughter, a great source of frustration and anxiety in her life. She noticed, upon tracking her time, that she spent a large amount of time puttering around at night and then getting up relatively late in the morning.

Murphy knew she needed a change. To kickstart the change, she planned things to do in the morning so she could wake up looking forward to it. Murphy started going to bed early in order to start earlier in the morning, and over the next few months, her mornings were spent making breakfast with her daughter, cuddling, and reading stories to each other before the nanny arrived. It was a nice day to give her daughter her best. When Vanderkam checked in two years later, her husband started doing these special morning bonding times too with their newly born son. Breakfast became a large production in their house and an opportunity for everyone to eat together before the day.

Vanderkam found a disturbing statistic that said that most dual-income couples can only find 12 minutes a week to talk with each other. Certainly, there should be more time in the week for this connection. In fact, some couples manage to get plenty of quality time.

She gives the example of Ovine McKinsey, Managing Director at Blackrock, who drives to the city together from Englewood, New Jersey together. This gives them ample time to discuss anything and everything (the news, finances, or the family) and keeps them connected throughout the day.

The morning is an opportunity for self-care.

With family and work-life filling up our hours, “me time” is easily sacrificed in our day-to-day. The morning can be an excellent time to nurture yourself and your needs.

Vanderkam asks us to consider what really matters to us that gets brushed away. Is it writing, painting, spirituality, reading poetry, paying attention to our bodies, or meditating?

What about exercise? Fritz Van Passion, then president and CEO of the Coors Brewing Company, aimed to be running at 5:50 AM and home by 6:30. Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, scheduled an hour of personal training starting at 6 AM. Steve Murphy, CEO of Epicor, blocked out 90 minutes of yoga 3 days a week.

Some research has suggested that morning exercise has more beneficial effects than an exercise in the evening. One explanation is that the body releases stress hormones in the morning and working out in the morning counteracts these effects instead of letting them take their effect in the body throughout the day. Additionally, people who work out in the morning are more likely to stick out, likely for the willpower and impulse control reasons covered above. To be sure, a lifetime commitment to running a little bit every day can transform your health over your lifetime.

Of course, exercise isn’t the only thing you can do. Spiritual practices like praying or meditating are all popular too among CEOs. Christine Gilead, who worked at Morgan Stanley but now works at Boys Latin in inner-city Philadelphia wakes up at 5 AM. She does a few bicep curls and planks and then reads a bible verse. This ritual makes her days teaching more manageable.

Wendy Kay, whose work involved turning around pharmaceutical firms, said her morning ritual of spiritual connection and meditation has been the key to her professional success. She would wake up hours before having to leave her house talking to God, expressing gratitude, asking for guidance, and being open to inspiration. Then, she would write down ideas. At work, her vision and goals were clear and she was able to clearly communicate them to her staff in a clear plan of action.

To transform your mornings, start logging your time.

So now that you know what successful mornings can look like how do you go about building them into your life? Vanderkam writes that the first step is to track your time. The solution to resolving a hectic morning often lies at other times in the day.

Vanderkam notes that late nights can especially affect our mornings. Whether we spend that time scrolling through social media or writing emails, you’re likely not doing anything urgent or particularly enjoyable.

Ultimately, it makes it difficult to get the early start that we need.

After you start recording your time, you may notice that you spend a few hours of your day unproductively and move those activities there instead. So, start writing down what you’re doing as often as you can in as much detail as you think would be helpful. Try tracking a whole week: 168 hours in total.

Spend a particular time on your mornings and question your assumptions. What absolutely has to happen and what does not? For example, you may believe that only good mothers pack their kids lunches, but you’ll find many exceptional mothers who give their kids lunch money instead. Are you over-doing it on personal care and make-up? Are your kids demanding you do things that they are old enough to do on their own? Part of making the most in the morning is by starting with really evaluating what things are top priorities and choosing.

Picture your ideal morning.

After you have a better sense of where you’re spending your time, imagine what a great morning would look like. It could start with a run followed by a nutritious breakfast and coffee. Then, focused work on a long-term project.

Vanderkam offers other ideas to consider: painting, sketching, photography, scrap-booking, meditation, a gratitude list, crafts, poetry writing, practicing a musical instrument, reading a religious text, prayer, yoga, walking, biking, gardening, strategic career thinking, having family breakfast, reading together with the family, swimming, and working out. Ultimately, the possibilities for mornings are endless and up to you, so pick from your wildest aspirations and the things you personally find most nurturing.

Have patience with your ideal morning routine and consider the logistics in adopting it.

The third step to creating the ideal morning is considering logistics. Calculate how much time you’d need to accomplish your ideal morning. Can you make changes to accommodate these new plans? This could involve taking a shorter shower or getting up 30 minutes earlier. You may notice that you have to get to bed earlier than you did before.

Don’t assume you have to add your ritual on the top of the hours you already spend doing things. Vanderkam writes that you can take this opportunity of filling the morning with the important things is that you can crowd out the unimportant things that aren’t bringing you pleasure or taking too long.

Find ways to make your ritual easier. Maybe set your painting easel next to your bed or a calmer alarm clock. Maybe meal prep your breakfast or lay out your exercise gear.

But whatever you do, Vanderkam warns, don’t label your vision as impossible. It may be easy to tell yourself that you can’t use your mornings this way because of the constraints. When you did down, however, you will find that there are always cost-effective solutions that just take a little bit of planning.

Next, it’s time to build the habit itself. This is the most important step. Turning a desire into a ritual requires a lot of initial willpower, so be patient with yourself. It may take weeks or months to get into the groove of a new routine. Take your time and ease off when you feel yourself getting burnt out.

Vanderkam recommends not taking on too much at once. If you’ve decided you want to fit in exercise, writing, meditating, and time with your spouse in the mornings, start with just one. The others can get added in later.

The author suggests rewarding yourself after you’ve finished the habit. This can help you stick to the plan and look forward to it every day. Maybe you get to have an iced coffee from your favorite coffee shop after your run or buy yourself opera tickets after sticking to it for a week.

The final step of incorporating your habit is fine-tuning your routine as you go. If you want the routine to stick, you have to be willing to adapt and adjust it.

For example, the author used to be a regular morning runner when she was pregnant with her daughter. As running became impossible as her pregnancy progressed, she switched this time to self-care time, spending this time meditating and doing self-nurturing activities. Now that her daughter is older, she’s switched back to running again.

Weekends are a unique time for doing special and exciting things. Make your weekends something to look forward to by planning dream activities in advance.

After explaining how the most productive people spend their morning, the author includes another guide called How the Most Successful People Spend their Weekends. In this guide, she writes that weekends are an excellent opportunity to rest and recharge, but also another easy period of time to waste doing random inconsequential activities.

So how can we make the most of your weekends? The answer, Vanderkam writes, is planning ahead. Instead of choosing which activities to do randomly when the day arrives, make a list of three to five activities a few days beforehand.

This way, instead of spending this time glued to various media hoping to fill the time, you have a plan to cut out these activities and do something pleasurable and stimulating.

By planning out-of-the-ordinary activities, you build anticipation for the weekend by the end of the week. The author suggests choosing something that you wouldn’t have time to do on any of the other days. This sort of choosing requires some forethought. To plan, make a list off the top of your head of all the things you wish you had time to do in your life.

These could involve spendy travel destinations, but as you keep listing and getting towards one-hundred you may find that there are many affordable activities you could do in the span of any weekend. This could involve things like drinking a milkshake while your kids are on a playdate. Maybe involve your partner or other family members to come up with exciting ideas you can coordinate together.

Next, start planning these things into your coming weekends. The author recommends taking into account weekends and times to rejuvenate, so make sure to factor this time in too. Plan some time to nap and let the family know so that you can find a way to keep the kids from bothering you during this time.

Soon enough, you’ll be having the restful and pleasurable weekends of your dreams.

Keep a time-tracking log in your office to boost work productivity.

Vanderkam also includes a guide called What the Most Successful People Do at Work. In this guide, she reviews some techniques to become more productive during the workday.

She starts by noting that many people over or underestimate the amount of time they spend on certain activities. To understand how you’re really spending your time, you should pay careful attention to the time allotted to each task at work. You might realize that you’re actually working a 50-hour workweek instead of a 60-hour one. Vanderkamp writes that we tend to overestimate the time it takes to do things we don’t like and underestimate the time it takes to do things we do like.

This is why it may seem like e-mails consume all our time, but we never get enough sleep. No one likes writing e-mails, but everyone loves a good night’s sleep.

After you’ve started keeping a time log, you’ll get a real understanding of how you spend your time. Now, you can plan your workweek more wisely. Lay the groundwork for your week by planning your priorities for the day. What do you need to finish today that you couldn’t finish later?

To meet larger, loftier goals make sure to set smaller and achievable daily goals. Take it from Charlene Johnson, a fitness entrepreneur who sold two of her fitness companies to Beachbody. She managed to do this by setting small goals every day. For example, she’d arrange a teleconference with a CEO to talk marketing on one day and set up a meeting with a project partner to discuss the strategy the next day. She knew that reaching her goals involved pacing herself and being able to focus on one important thing a day.

Next, make sure you’re staying accountable. Vanderkam suggests finding an “accountability partner” who will check in with you every day to see if you’ve met your daily and weekly target goals.

Finally, after evaluating your workweek, cut out the tasks that feel like work but aren’t actually producing results. For example, think of all the time you spend writing and answer e-mails. Vanderkam suggests allotting a small amount of the day to this, but leaving your inbox closed the rest of the day. Your time could be better spent building things for the long-term rather than managing little tasks like this.

Once you cut out distractions, you’ll find the important tasks take less time than you originally thought.

Success at work is all about practice, increasing career capital, and finding pleasure.

In her guide, Vanderkam emphasizes that changing your habits won’t happen overnight. In order to get better at increasing your productive time, you have to practice for quite some time too, but practice with intent. If you want to improve, you have to spend time out of autopilot mode and doing the hard thing.

Consider writers. They can keep writing and writing prose but if they don’t take the hard step to get their work critiqued so they can improve, they won’t be practicing the difficult skill of getting feedback and writing better the next time.

Next, the author suggests that in order to progress in our careers, we have to build and nurture our career capital. Career capital is many things: our experience, professional network, skills, and personality. By keeping this part of our life healthy, we’ll be able to progress later on.

One way to maintain this is by nurturing our network and work relationships. Make sure you’re checking in to see if your colleagues, bosses, and network know that you’re trustworthy. When people know you’re reliable, they’re more likely to recommend you around.

Finally, make sure you’re taking care of your happiness. Developmental psychologist Steven Kramer and professor Teressa Amabile found in their book The Progress Principle that 76% of the days on which employees were happy were also days they made a breakthrough at work. Stay attentive to signs of success in your work life, whether some positive feedback or finishing a thesis. When you notice these signs, you’re more likely to be happy on a regular basis.

The Main Take-away

The ideal morning is within reach. Start by tracking your time and noticing where you can cut down in order to accommodate a morning routine. Visualize what your ideal morning would be and make sure you have enough time for everything you’d like to do. Consider logistics and slowly integrate the habits you wish to adopt. Keep it adaptable to outside forces until it’s just as you’d like it. To have a more productive weekend, plan ahead, and make a list of activities that will keep you excited and looking forward. Schedule in rest time too. To be productive at work, notice when you’re actually working on your time tracking sheet. Plan your priorities, cut out distractions, and nurture your career capital. Finally, make sure you’re noticing your wins and improvements to make for a happy day-to-day life.

About the Author

Laura Vanderkam is a time-management expert and author of best-selling productivity books including Juliet’s School of Possibilities, Off the Clock, I Know How She Does It, and 168 Hours. Her work has appeared in publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, City Journal, Fortune, and Fast Company. She has appeared on numerous TV programs including The Today Show and CBS This Morning. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and five children.


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