Why the most productive people start their day at 4 a.m. (yes, we're serious)

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How Does Lack of Sleep Affect Productivity At Work?

Apple CEO Tim Cook starts his day at 3:45 a.m. Here's why you shouldn't miss the boat on this new trend.

A few days ago, I shared my thoughts on what billionaire entrepreneurs do to stay productive in their spare time.

What I didn't know is that there's a recent productivity trend on the rise. A number of successful leaders and entrepreneurs, I have found, are declaring that they are most productive while the majority of us are still under the covers in a deep sleep.

The 4 a.m. productivity shift.

A new report published in the Wall Street Journal says that 4 a.m. may be the most productive time of the day. The reasons behind the increased productivity at such an ungodly hour include:

  • Minimal distractions (like kids or work) before the sun rises.
  • No one is emailing or texting you.
  • There's less to see on social media.

Productivity in this context may not necessarily be work-related. The trend seems to be pointing toward reserving this "sacred time" for things that will energize you and set you up for success the rest of the day -- self-care, exercise, family time, personal growth, and spiritual connection.

Among the most famous executives who are coming out to say 4 a.m. is the way to go:

  • Tim Cook: The Apple CEO actually starts his morning routine at 3:45 a.m.
  • Sallie Krawcheck: The chief executive of Ellevest has written, "I'm never more productive than at 4 a.m."
  • Richard Branson: The billionaire entrepreneur actually wakes up a tad later, at 5 a.m., to exercise and spend time with family. He says it "puts me in a great mind frame before getting down to business."
  • Michelle Gass: The former president of Starbucks EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Russia, Africa) and now chief merchandising and customer officer at Kohl's department stores, sets her alarm for 4:30 a.m. to go running.
  • David Cush: The Virgin America CEO wakes up at 4:15 a.m to call business associates on the East Coast, then he'll listen to sports radio, read the paper and hit the gym.

There is a tradeoff. Getting up before the crack of dawn means falling asleep earlier--much earlier. That could mean less social time with friends or downtime to catch that important playoff night game.

Peter Shankman, a 44-year-old entrepreneur and speaker based in New York City says in the Wall Street Journal article, "I'm exhausted, but in a good way, which means I won't have the energy to do something stupid like eat two gallons of Ben & Jerry's at 10:30 p.m."

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10 smart hacks that will encourage your new morning shift.

If you're wondering what to do with your early-morning time that will get your day off to a productive start, I suggest these 10 things.

1. Meditate.

Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington both start their morning with 20 to 30 minutes of meditation. Oprah says, "only from that space can you create your best work and your best life." Setting aside this little morning ritual can make the rest of your day seem manageable. You'll notice a weight come off your shoulders.

2. Start with an early workout.

Exercise is an obvious running theme (no pun intended) here. Entrepreneur Russ Perry jumps on the first gym class of the day, at 5 a.m. "I've actually made some friends with similar schedules and lifestyles," Perry told Journal.

3. Do this breathing exercise.

Shawn Achor, Harvard-trained happiness researcher and best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage, tells us to breathe and watch our breath go in and out for two minutes. He says do this every day. This allows your brain to focus on one thing at a time and, Achor says, it will improve levels of happiness and drop stress levels.

4. Sleep in your workout gear.

Shankman also told Journal he sleeps in his gym clothes and puts his sneakers on within 10 seconds of waking up. "It's very hard to go back to sleep once your shoes are on."

5. Find a reason to get up.

It sounds like a clich but: What gets you up in the morning? Really, I'm asking. Don't get up at 4 a.m. for the heck of it. Have a plan--something you want to do for yourself, preferably something fun or stimulating that will bring excitement to your day.

6. Change the location of your alarm clock.

Having your alarm clock (or smartphone) next to your bed and within arm's length is the number one reason most people can't get up in the morning. How many times have you turned off your alarm without being alert enough to know that you turned it off? Exactly. Best place for it is in the bathroom since you're headed there anyway to shower and do your morning "business."

7. Imagine what you could do with an extra hour.

This is a creativity exercise, so picture in your mind: what would you do if you had an extra hour in the day? Would you use it to exercise? Read more? Cook breakfast for the kids? Water your garden? Take the dog for that long walk you know it will love?

8. Whatever you do, don't skip a healthy breakfast.

Trade your bowl of sugary cereal for something healthy like oatmeal or a protein berry smoothie (have all the parts cut up the night before and ready to be blended). You'll avoid being tired and hungry later when the sugar jolt wears off. Try fiber-rich fruits and vegetables and lean protein options that will keep you going until lunch time. The Beachbody Blog offers these excellent meal choices to fuel your morning.

9. Set three goals for the day.

Again, don't think daily tasks on your work to-do list. The most successful people start the day by putting their mental focus on something that will make them better. What will grow you, give you more energy, make you happier, and set the stage for an epic productive day?

10. Clear your inbox.

If you choose to use this time slot for work-related tasks, you could plan to answer all your emails and messages from the previous day or week. If you're that hardcore, more power to you: Challenge yourself to having a "zero inbox policy" by 6 a.m.

Closing thoughts.

Need a boost to make it happen? Try following #21earlydays, where early-risers challenge themselves by waking up 21 consecutive workdays at 4:30 a.m.--something started by entrepreneur and Prodsmart marketing manager Filipe Castro Matos. He even documents what he learned along his 21-day journey and passes on 12 tips on this Medium blog.

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