Waking up at 5 a.m. isn’t enough to make you a successful entrepreneur

It’s what you do with your hours — and how you identify your ‘prime time’ — that makes the difference.

Many business experts and life-hackers swear by their morning routines. They believe these habits are key to continuous learning and developing the kind of self-discipline it takes to achieve success. While each leader’s list varies a bit, more than a few tasks pop up again and again. Here’s a sampling.

  • Wake up at 5 a.m. (or earlier).
  • Meditate or pray.
  • Exercise.
  • Take a cold shower.
  • Brainstorm and journal.
  • Review your goals and set priorities for your day.
  • Read, watch or listen to inspiring content.
  • Sip a green smoothie or bulletproof coffee.

That’s a lot to accomplish before the work day begins. And if you have kids to get out the door or a dog that needs walking, your sunrise to-do list is even longer. I don’t know when morning routines became entrepreneurial dogma, but these virtuous, foot-long checklists have spread like wildfire — especially in the startup community.

Clearly, habits and routines can be effective, but science tells us there’s often a misplaced emphasis on morning. Research reveals we all have different peak hours. Whether you’re a lark (a naturally early riser), a night owl or some bird in-between, you can enhance your productivity and create habits that serve your goals. It’s better to know yourself instead of following “expert” advice to the letter.

“Your internal prime time is the time of day, according to your body clock, when you are the most alert and productive,” author and speaker Brian Tracy wrote. Leveraging those prime hours can supercharge your focus and derail procrastination.

I discovered my own natural rhythms through experimentation. Harnessing this resource has enabled me to navigate the ups and downs of a 12-year entrepreneurial journey. Every day is different, but tackling the most important, strategic work during my best hours helps me stay motivated and avoid feeling overwhelmed. Most importantly, when I use those peak hours, I’m excited to arrive at work each day.

Identify your peak hours.

For decades, scientists have studied the body’s natural cycles in a field called chronobiology. You’re probably familiar with circadian rhythms, which are 24-hour cycles that affect our sleep, hormones and body temperature, among other functions

The energetic peaks and valleys we feel in the average work day, however, are due to ultradian rhythms — a shorter cycle that repeats multiple times during a 24-hour day. It’s often useful to approach ultradian rhythms as 90- to 120-minute chunks of time that occur whether you’re asleep or awake: The body’s natural toggle between deep and REM sleep follows roughly this same schedule. Ultradian cycles also explain why you’re checking emails and rummaging for snacks just two hours after you’ve started a project feeling fresh and highly alert.

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You can’t outrun biology, and you can’t avoid these natural energy shifts. But you can track your own patterns and use them to your advantage. Author Chris Bailey outlines a three-week experiment to rate your energy levels, motivation and focus at the end of each hour. Bailey admits collecting hourly data from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. is “a pain.” Think of it this way: The more information you gather, the more clearly your own patterns will emerge.


Prioritize your wellbeing.

One-size-fits-all rarely fits anyone. It’s a mistake to treat someone else’s detailed routine as the universal path to productivity, even if it’s fascinating to learn how moguls and royalty prioritize their time.

  • Author Tim Ferriss makes his bed, meditates for 10 to 20 minutes, exercises for 30 minutes, drinks “titanium tea,” eats a protein-rich breakfast and writes in his journal.
  • Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour wakes at 5:45 a.m. and plays an hour of tennis before smoothing out her iconic bob and heading to the Condé Nast headquarters.
  • Queen Elizabeth II reportedly rises at 7:30 a.m. and sips Twinings English breakfast tea in a bone china cup and saucer. She has a bath, joins Prince Philip for cornflakes and catches up on the latest horse-racing news.

I have my own to-do list. I eat a light breakfast and then meet with my personal trainer, whether I’m feeling motivated or not. About 20 minutes into the workout, my blood is pumping and I’m wide awake. I shower, drive to the office, fill my mug with coffee and open a blank document. I write morning pages for at least 30 minutes. Sometimes this exercise stretches across an hour or two. It’s the most productive part of my day.

In the now nearly 30-year-old bestseller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,”  Stephen R. Covey wrote about activities that can help you sharpen the saw. “Sharpen the saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have — you,” Covey wrote. “It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.” He suggested free writing, reading and listening to music.

Prime hours are a great time to tackle projects that require creativity, clarity and focus, but they can also be a chance to renew and prepare yourself for the day (or evening) ahead.

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Own your schedule.

Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham in 2009 published an influential blog post about the difference between a manager’s schedule and a maker’s schedule. “The manager’s schedule is for bosses,” he wrote. “It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one-hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.”

The schedule is different for creative workers such as designers, writers, and programmers. They need a maker’s schedule, which splits their time into half-day units — at the very minimum. Focused, flow-based tasks (writing and coding, for example) demand undivided attention, and that can be difficult to manage in one-hour blocks. That hour quickly evaporates amidst meetings, phone calls, questions from colleagues and the occasional all-staff announcement or birthday cake in the conference room.

Ultimately, breaking time into small chunks can crush a maker’s day and kill productivity. “If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning,” Graham wrote.

There are distinct differences between a software developer (a maker) and an HR professional (a manager). But founders, entrepreneurs and CEOs are both makers and managers. These leaders must collaborate with employees, contractors, suppliers or board members. They also need to think strategically, which requires space to plan and then create.

Technology or content-based founders also might need large time blocks for their own hands-on work. In this case, the word “build” provides an important clue. When you’re building a team, a business or a strategy of any kind, you’re operating as a maker.

As a CEO, I break my day into two parts. My prime post-gym hours are dedicated to maker’s work. Later in the morning or after lunch, I schedule meetings, conduct interviews and operate as a manager. After much trial and error, I’ve found this approach works best for my natural energy cycles.

Take a time out.

A 2016 study by productivity expert Scott Barry Kaufman revealed 72 percent of people have their most creative ideas in the shower. Repetitive, relaxing activities and creativity go hand in hand, Kaufman believes. That explains why so many people get a spark of inspiration while scrubbing dishes or washing their hair. Nonlinear thinking and daydreams can be another kind of prime time.

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To foster shower-type thoughts at work, Kaufman recommends making time and room for solitude. “That can take a lot of forms, like taking a daily stroll to reconfigure your brain and get off the path that you have been working on the past hour or two. It could involve a daydreaming room that locks out internal noise.”

While you might not be ready to build a daydreaming room, providing ample (paid) time off can help your employees stay fresh and creative. And whether you’re a team member or a CEO, it’s important to actually use your downtime and vacation days. The respected Framingham Heart Study provides added incentive. It reveals men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack. That number rises to 50 percent for women. Even after controlling for factors such as cigarette smoking, income, diabetes and obesity, these numbers still hold true — and Framingham’s results have been backed up by similar studies.

“It shows how the body reacts to a lifestyle of stress,” study co-author Elaine Eaker told the New York Times. “This is real evidence that vacations are important to your physical health.”


Protect your peak hours.

Your personal prime time is a valuable currency. Create firm boundaries and protect it at all costs. Instead of letting those precious hours slip away with email, social media or other distractions, use that time for brain-intensive work. Don’t schedule meetings or let anyone interrupt you. Habits also can protect your prime time. I’m committed to Inbox Zero, but I don’t tackle those emails until the end of the day, when my creative juices typically have run dry.

Whether you feel sharpest at 6 a.m. or you don’t reach full speed until sunset, it’s worth taking some time to map your natural rhythms. After all, the 9-to-5, 40-hour workweek originated way back in 1817, with labor rights activist Robert Owens. He believed in “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” But in an increasingly more flexible work environment (especially for founders, solopreneurs or freelancers) that’s not always the best way to work.

Your prime time is your ultimate weapon in a highly competitive market. Use it wisely, and you might just see your productivity soar.

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