Confessions of an Early-Morning Productivity Guru

In January 2018, I published an article on Medium called: The Secret to Becoming an Annoyingly Productive Early-Morning Person.

It went viral literally overnight.

Within 24 hours it had over 10,000 views, had been featured on the homepage of Medium, and I had a request from Business Insider to syndicate it on their website. I got hundreds of new email subscribers and Medium followers within a couple of days. And the boost to my confidence and motivation was incalculable.

Of course, I was more than a little shocked and terrified, too. I had just started writing a couple of months earlier and hadn’t had a Medium article with more than 10 views before this.

Looking back on this article and its success a year later, I have mixed feelings about it all. As I re-read the article, I think it’s actually pretty good and has some solid advice for people who do want to use their mornings to be more productive.

On the other hand, I feel like that article doesn’t tell the whole story…

This is my attempt to take a more holistic perspective on the idea of early morning productivity, specifically, and self-improvement generally.

I’m a Huge Procrastinator

It’s true that I’m pretty productive in the mornings. But that doesn’t mean I’m always operating at some mythical level of peak productivity.

In fact, I procrastinate all the time.

The trick is, I don’t get all tied up in knots about it. I get back on the wagon fairly soon after falling off and rarely beat myself up about lapses in focus and productivity. In fact, I can blow several days in a row of productivity and it doesn’t bother me.

I once got so excited about the design for my new website that, for an entire week, I plunged into mocking up and coding my website without doing any of the writing or other “productive” work I had planned for those mornings.

A few more examples of how this early morning productivity guru slacks off pretty regularly:

  • I probably skip my morning mindfulness meditation practice once or twice a week on average.
  • I frequently check my email or Slack in the middle of writing article even though I know I should be practicing focus and Deep Work, writing for long stretches of uninterrupted time.
  • I try to practice Digital Minimalism, but I frequently leave my phone on my desk next to me as I work (along with all its devious distractions) rather than putting it on airplane mode and in my drawer. Actually, it’s on the desk right in front of me as I write this — major digital minimalism no-no…

Procrastinating, slacking off, or just being lazy sometimes are not antithetical to productivity.

As my pal and fellow writer, Maarten van Doorn wrote in a recent piece:

I’m the laziest ambitious person I know.

I Prefer the Loose Interpretation of the Term “Productivity”

For a lot of people, the term productivity has a pretty intense, narrow connotation:

  • Gotta get my 2,000 words in before 8:00am!
  • Must produce my 15 widgets before the supervisor shows up!
  • Out of bed at 5:00 AM sharp and into a cold a shower with a kale smoothy for breakfast. And no snoozing!

And while I don’t begrudge these people their more strict interpretations of what it means to “be productive,” I’m a little more loosey-goosey about it.

Writing one article per week for my newsletter is an important productivity goal of mine, but so is re-reading Treasure Island, one of my favorite novels of all time. I love good literature — especially if it takes the form of a rip-roaring adventure story with peg-legged pirates — and taking time to immerse myself in it is an act of productivity for me because it moves me closer to being the person I want to be.

Waking up consistently early is a good productive routine that I typically adhere to. But sometimes sleeping in and cuddling with my wife on a Saturday morning is far more productive than researching a new article. One of the most important goals in my life is maintaining and growing my relationship with my wife. And little things like taking time to cuddle in the mornings can go a long way toward making progress and being productive toward that end.

For me, productivity is about moving toward our highest values and aspirations. So whether I’m writing weekly articles for my newsletter, reading a good adventure story, or sleeping in, it’s all productive in my eyes.

As my friend Niklas Göke said in a recent article on The True Meaning of Productivity:

You’ll still have your goals, your to-dos, your milestones, but you won’t throw a tantrum every time you fail to check every one of them off your many lists. You’ll have compassion for yourself. More for others, too. You’ll learn to flow with life, around life, through life, rather than compartmentalizing it.

I’m Incredibly Fortunate and Privileged to Be Able to Be Productive Early in the Morning

My capacity to be productive is only possible because it rests on a foundation of support from other people:

  • My wife. My wife has chosen to stay at home with our kids rather than working. Fortunately, we’re able to swing this financially. In terms of my productivity, this means I have the luxury of getting up at 5:00 AM most weekdays and going to the office to be productive with my writing before my day job starts. That wouldn’t be possible if, for instance, I was a single parent or had a wife who insisted that I be at home in the early morning to help with the kiddos. My wife is awesome 🙂
  • Education. My early morning productivity centers around writing. And I had the good fortune to already be a fairly decent writer, at least from a technical perspective, when I started out. I’ve had amazing educational opportunities from the time I was three years old. This makes being productive in writing far easier because I have decades of experience and formal education writing and then years of experience in graduate school gaining specific knowledge about the topics I write in (psychology, primarily). Being productive as a writer is never easy for me. But it’s far easier than it might be because I’ve been given a first-class education.
  • Job. A final area in which I’m super fortunate is that my bosses at my day job are totally fine with and supportive of my “extracurricular” activities. I get to the office early in the morning before seeing patients so I can have quiet time to write and read, I use the office gym to workout and shower in the mornings, I make myself fancy coffee, etc. Even my office itself is beautiful, clean, spacious, and serene, providing the perfect environment for writing productively. Privileged.

No matter how sexy and impressive someone’s description of their early morning productivity routine sounds, there’s often a lot of things behind the scenes that make that possible.

It’s not simply a matter of willpower or super-human discipline; behind most stories of epic productivity is a story of epic privilege.

Thinking Different About Self-Improvement

Like so many things in our culture today, the topic of self-improvement seems to swing to the extremes. We’re either blindly adherent to the latest personal growth hacks and prescriptions or ranting about how all self-improvement writers are snake oil salesmen and the whole project is a sham.

The truth, I suspect, is somewhere in the middle.

Whether you decide to wake up at 5:00 AM or just in time for lunch, remember that no one holds the perfect solution for you. The best we can do is take what advice or inspiration we can from others, test it out ourselves, keep what works, and toss the rest. Happy experimenting!

One Comment

Anne Eli March 4, 2019

My thoughts: Thank you for writing “most stories of epic productivity is a story of epic privilege.” I try to keep my focus on where I’ve come from, and mostly ignore what other people have achieved. It’s not easy keeping that focus, so that’s why I quoted your sentence, which resonated for me.
I have read several self help books and articles. What is always most truly helpful and memorable is when author honestly portrays her/his own struggles with the topic.

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