On one of my recent flights via Chicago, I ended up buying Laura van der Kam‘s (Or Vanderkam, whichever way she prefers it spelled) recent three-in-one paperback titled What the Most Successful People do Before Breakfast. I haven’t read anything on the topic of business, ever, and I thought it would be a good change. Turns out this little book that I found in the business section isn’t quite about business but about lifestyle – thus, not exactly what I was looking for, and yet a few pages in, I felt that I had struck gold. Reading a physical printed book in the sunlight was reminiscent of the time when I was a child growing up in a computer-less era in India. I liked the book and its message, and also the emphatic and lucid style in which it was written. I followed Laura on Twitter and came across some more articles from her, one of them being on writing and how to move beyond deadlines and to get more, quality stuff written. That was when it hit me, I’ve actually always wanted to write, although lately my public writing has mostly been limited to technology, and tiny informational posts at that. So here goes something that would try to deduce a single message out of two slightly different yet related ideas.
Steven Covey, in his famous book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, talks about the four quadrants of activity that most of our daily work can be classified into. Quadrant 1 is pressing matters, crises, things at work that have to be done here and now. Quadrant 2 is about things that do not have to urgently get done, and yet are very important over the long term – namely relationship building, planning, prevention, learning, developing, making strategies. Quadrant 3 is for tasks that we think are important but are actually really not – interruptions, some emails, some calls, busy work etc. Finally, Quadrant 4 refers to tasks that are trivial and a pure waste of time. Essentially, you could look at these quadrants as being tuples of the form (urgency, importance) – and the basic idea Covey is trying to convey is to spend most of our time and energy in the Quadrant 2, i.e. the quadrant representing tasks that are not urgent, but important.
Coming back to the book I picked up at the airport, what do the most successful people do early morning, before breakfast? The book claims, through anecdotal evidence and scientific argument, that they do what they consider important. It could be daily physical exercise, prayer, meditation, learning, breakfast, dates with loved ones and family, reading, some exercise in creativity (a la Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages from The Artist’s Way), or taking care of a side business. The author claims (and I concede) that there is always a reason to skip a 4pm workout, but there’s mostly none to skip a 5am workout unless you are being plain lazy. Our willpower is stronger in the mornings, we are fresh, relaxed and refreshed, and before the day has had the opportunity to get to us and bog us down with a multitude of worries and tasks, mornings are the ideal time to get the important stuff done and out of the way. Besides, what’s better than knowing that it’s 10am and you are essentially done with all important things, and have nothing else to do for the rest of the day but just go to work, come home, and relax in the evening? I personally find that I am able to ‘stay calm and be productive’ late into the evening if I follow this practice, because I know I am done for the day and have nothing else on my mind.
After work, we are all tired and have a lack of energy and enthusiasm. Your mileage may vary, but it works for me to get stuff done early morning. I am new to this practice, having been a night owl most of my life, but I guess life changes as you grow older and a lot of things that made sense before don’t any more. The elderly people used to say ‘get up early to study’ or something like that, but then the student life somehow turned that lifestyle around on its head. Getting up early and going to bed early is not a revolutionary new concept. Ben Franklin did it and talked about it. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his autobiography Total Recall, talks about how Reg Park taught him to do it, to get done with the workout for the day before the day had even started. Several other productive people I personally know claim the same thing. This approach also makes sense when you have a family. Besides, going to bed early is also good for your hormone balance and overall health. Recent fitness professionals know that staying up late hinders the production of the human growth hormone, and promotes excessive production of the hormone cortisol, and this combination can actually contribute to obesity. Besides, working out early morning also precludes having to shower twice in the day. An all-around simple, elegant, and efficient approach to handling our busy days – wake up early, and get those Quadrant 2 activities done and over with first thing in the morning! As Laura would say, if it doesn’t get done first thing in the morning, it is not going to get done. So if it’s important to you, prioritize it, not just in your mind, but also in your day.