Take your cues from highly successful—and crazy busy—people

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Clock with eggs and whisk
Credit: MarcoMarchi/Getty Images

We all have the same 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week. But have you ever noticed that some people seem to get twice as much done as everyone else? Well chances are, they’re leveraging the power of the morning, said Laura Vanderkam, at a talk at South by Southwest’s 2016 Interactive conference in Austin on Monday. Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast ($8, amazon.com), has studied time journals of about 1,000 people. What sets apart the most successful ones, she says, is that they’re using their mornings for more than just getting ready for the rest of the day.

“Mornings are less likely to be taken away from you,” says Vanderkam. “There are fewer work emergencies at 5 a.m.” What’s more, research suggests that because people are fresh first thing in the morning, they are more likely to stick to a healthy plan or well-intentioned goal than they are at the end of a day when they’re depleted.

But don’t panic: you don’t necessarily have to get up at the crack of dawn (or skimp on sleep) to take advantage of your mornings. Here’s how to make over the first few hours of the day to set yourself up for success:

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Clock with eggs and whisk
Credit: MarcoMarchi/Getty Images

1 Track Your Time

Just like writing down food intake can help with weight loss, recording how you spend time can help you use it more wisely. Vanderkam advises people to log your time for one week—in an Excel sheet, on a piece of paper, or using an app. You might discover that you’re spending three hours watching television before bed or doing some other kind of “evening puttering,” as she calls it. Vanderkam suggests transforming “unproductive evening hours into meaningful morning hours.” Perhaps you can start going to bed earlier so you can wake up earlier. Or if that evening “me time” is really important to you, start it earlier and skip some of your nightly chores.“There is no 11 p.m. home inspection,” she quips. “Great morning routines tend to start the night before.”

2 Picture the Perfect Morning for You

What does it look like? Exercising? Eating a family breakfast? Working on your novel? Gardening? Trying a new recipe? Meditating? Playing with your kids? Let yourself dream about what activity (or activities) would be most gratifying. Don't get caught up in the logistics at this point (that comes next). Vanderkam says her dream morning would include going for a run outside and eating breakfast with her family.

3 Think Through the Logistics

When it comes to time management, people tend to underestimate how long it will take them to accomplish a task, Vanderkam says. But for the really meaningful things, they can overestimate it. They think: “I don’t have 90 minutes to exercise, so I’m off the hook.” When in reality, you could probably get a good workout in 20. Think through all of the excuses you can come up with, and then consider how legitimate they are and what you can do to solve them. Then work backward to build your routine.

4 Build the Habit

Most of us don’t stand in front of the mirror and argue with ourselves over whether we should brush our teeth each night—we just do it, Vanderkam says. For a new routine to become like that, people need three things: a cue, the habit, and a reward. A cue is something that signals it’s time to get going—maybe it’s a motivational song playing on your alarm or your workout clothes sitting out on a chair to prompt you to exercise. Maybe it’s setting your coffee to brew every morning at a certain time as a reminder to get downstairs and start writing.

Hopefully the habit you’ve chosen should come with its own intrinsic reward. Over time, for instance, exercising will mean you’ll feel better, have more energy, and sleep better. Writing that novel will make you feel more fulfilled. But in the short term, find a different reward: promising yourself you can drink coffee with the good cream or watch viral cat videos for five minutes when you’re done writing. And if those intrinsic rewards don’t kick in over time, it might be time to pick a new habit—after all, you won’t stick to doing Crossfit at 5 a.m. every day if you hate Crossfit.

5 Tune Up as Necessary

If you change a habit over time, it doesn’t mean you failed, she says. Sometimes life happens—your kids’ schedule changes, your partner gets a new job, or your running partner gets injured. Be willing to reevaluate and adapt your morning routines as necessary. Vanderkam says her own schedule changed after she had her third baby, for example, and again after her fourth.