Three things leaders do before work

High achievers make the most of the quiet early hours to read, reflect, and exercise

By the time most of us wake up (around 6.40am, according to a 2010 study on average sleep times by technology company Philips), many highly successful people have already responded to dozens of emails, calls, and started planning out the day. Newton Investment Management chief executive Helena Morrissey told the Guardian she rises at 5am and works until 6.30am, at which point she starts getting her nine children ready for school. George Bush Senior, meanwhile, was known to wake up at 4am, go running, and be at his desk ready for a sharp 6am start.

But not all high achievers use the early hours just to get ahead with the day’s workload. Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, says the best morning rituals involve activities that are important, but not especially urgent. Unlike emails and calls (which rumble on throughout the day), they are long-term tasks without immediate payoffs, and would tend to be relegated below the everyday chaos of office life if not completed in the very early morning, free from the distractions of colleagues and clients. Here are three of them.

1 ME TIME: READ AND REFLECT

“I cherish my mornings, my personal time,” former PepsiCo chief Steve Reinemund told Vanderkam. In a hyperconnected world, it’s easy for the priorities of colleagues, partners, children and friends to encroach on our time as the day progresses. As a result, Vanderkam says that many executives seize the quiet hours before breakfast to read the paper or a book, and think about longer-term ideas and ambitions that they won’t have the time to focus on later in the day.

Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan had an interesting early morning ritual for shutting out distractions. He would bathe for up to two hours, pouring over economic data from across the US and reflecting on economic themes. “Immersed in my bath, I’m as happy as Archimedes as I contemplate the world,” he wrote in his memoir. To this day, Greenspan says the tub is where he gets his best ideas.

2 GET SOME EXERCISE

According to fitness expert Jennifer Cohen, 90 per cent of those who exercise regularly do so in the morning. And it seems to be no different among business leaders. The chief executives of Vodafone, Ericsson, Disney, Xerox and Citigroup all reportedly rise early to work out. And doing so can bring benefits throughout the day.

Working up a sweat helps to increase the concentration of norepinephrine, a chemical that helps moderate the brain’s response to stress, as well as kickstarting your metabolism with a bang and helping you to wake up faster. Moreover, a recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that physical activity undertaken before breakfast burnt 20 per cent more fat.

3 TOP HEAVY: PLAN THE DAY

Mapping out the crucial tasks that need doing when you get to the office can give your whole day added focus. Christie’s chief executive Steven Murphy jots down his key thoughts for the day on a yellow pad, which he says makes him more strategic and proactive when he arrives at the office.

And Tara Robinson of Morgan McKinley has written that making your daily plan as top-heavy as possible can boost productivity. That one big, dreaded task on your to-do list should be tackled head-on, before too many distractions can build up. Having taken on your white whale, the rest of the day should feel like a breeze.

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