Book Review: What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, Laura Vanderkam

Successful PeopleWhat the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast

I am a morning person. Most days, I am up just before 5 am without setting any alarm. On weekends, I never get up after 7 am. As a child, I used to be up between 4:30 am and 5 am so I could do my homework. I liked it because nobody else, not even our cat, was up at that time and I felt like I could do whatever I wanted. By the time my parents and sister were rushing to the bathroom, I could read my book. Mornings were also a great time to bond with my grandfather, a lifelong early-riser. In the summer, we would jump on our bicycles to buy fresh bread at 6:30 am, when the bakery was opening.

So I rolled my eyes when Sarah Bailey, editor-in-chief of Red magazine, started the networking breakfast Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast How To Achieve More at Work and At Home, was speaking at by joking she wasn’t a morning person. Not because it was an expected opening but because I don’t believe there are morning and evening people, just people who go to bed early and people who don’t.

When I say I get up by 5 am, most people assume I sleep less than them. I don’t. I am in bed by 9 pm most nights, and a few nights a month before 8 pm. This requires some evening tricks, like a rather hefty cab bill, watching my favourite TV series first thing in the morning on iPlayer rather than live, or going to theatre matinées rather than evening shows.

Vanderkam explains it is easier to be productive in the morning because before breakfast, your willpower is intact. Whereas at night it is tempting to just check one more website or watch one more episode from a box set, in the morning, the leaving-the-house deadline limits the amount of time you can waste.

Her theory is that the early hours are perfect for three self-focused activities enabling you to develop your personal life and your career: plan, practice and pay in.

Studying CEO time logs, Vanderkam realised thehours that mattered most in terms of return oninvestment were spent planning. Take advantage of mornings to plan your day, your weekend, your life or your career. At the networking breakfast,

Vanderkam asked the room to start a list of 100 Dreams we wanted to achieve and then see which ones could be planned or worked on in the morning. Develop this blog was one of my big ones so here I am, blogging at 5:35 am.

Practice can stem from these 100 Dreams. For instance, if you want to win a marathon, use the morning hours to go for a run. Vanderkam defines practicing as “actively trying to get better at skills”, including skills identified as necessary to move forward in your career, such as writing or negotiating. This is Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours Theory applied to the hours before dawn. Vanderkam also highlights how important it is to get immediate feedback on the practice, so you can continuously improve the skill.

Paying in is the third P, meant to help you remain employable. Vanderkam suggests that before getting to work, you already start paying in your career capital account. She uses the suggestion of a female race car driver she interviewed who said it was all about “increasing exposure and broadening scope”. Among possible activities amounting to paying in, Vanderkam suggests sending thank you emails or organising meetings to build loyalty. To keep you motivated, since paying in can be a long-term and sometimes invisible investment, her idea is to keep an actual deposit list.

For all Vanderkam’s good suggestions, the world isn’t that well set-up for morning people. Most early yoga classes I have found so far in London start around 7:30 am, too late to make it to work on time. People would rather have dinner than breakfast. In the workplace, late meetings happen more often than early ones. The first person to take down their trench coat in the evening is often considered to be less committed than the last one to, even if they arrive at 7:30 am every day.

Although I love Vanderkam’s theory that mornings are the perfect time to make things happen, her book isn’t without limits. She never explains what would happen if everybody started to use their mornings. Mornings are effective because few people are up and running at this time. I can send emails without getting immediate answers and launching into a time-consuming back and forth, clearly this advantage would disappear if everyone were up.

Like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Vanderkam’s book is heavily skewed towards married mothers. She does give some suggestions for people who might be single, or single parents, but mostly it’s about professionals fitting in a very normative view of family life, with a skew towards religious people. She is however pretty balanced between employed and self-employed people and how each category can best use its time.

Indeed, don’t be tricked by the title: this isn’t a book about mornings. Instead, it is about how you have more time than you think. Mornings are only one aspect of this. Vanderkam added up all the waking hours between when you leave work on Friday night and when you return on Monday morning: in total, that’s 36 hours that are entirely yours. Longer than the legal French working week.

This blog post has of course been written over the course of several mornings. Aside from heightened productivity, there is a less acknowledgeable reason why I love mornings: it makes me feel smug. I like the fact that by the time most of my colleagues arrive at work, I will have written on my blog, posted a few links on my other Tumblrs, gotten dressed, taken a 20 minutes walk around London and studied some international law on Coursera.

The morning and evening people divide isn’t a popular management theory, at least not in the way managers build teams across right brain/left brain, Briggs Myers results or introversion/extroversion, yet I think these are also a complementary skills and personality types.

Just after publishing this blog post, I have two days when I am scheduled to start work between 5 and 6 am ahead of a fashion show. The information that I need to deliver by 8 am will actually be available halfway through the night; staying up until the early hours to do a dozen Vlook-ups across languages I don’t understand seems to me the height of misery. But in the morning? Bring it on.


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