Hack Your Day: Morning to Nighttime Habits of Highly Successful People

Tip the odds for success in your favor by learning how successful people like Sheryl Sandberg and Richard Branson manage their days.
Freelance writer/editor/producer, Various online and print publications
July 29, 2014

What’s the big secret to success? We may never really know. But what we do know is that by investigating the habits and practices of successful people, we can see patterns in lifestyle choices that give us a glimpse into how these people manage their days for optimum success. With their extremely busy schedules, these high achievers prefer some kind of routine because they know what they're doing works, enabling them to tackle the world.

Below are the habits of some highly successful people—think Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and the President of the United States—that could help us all get a little closer to being the most productive and efficient versions of ourselves.

What They Do First Thing in the Morning

The time between waking up and facing the rest of the world is crucial to your mindset, as it helps organize the rest of your day. The most successful people know this and use their morning hours wisely. Whatever their routine is, it usually involves getting up quite early.

They check their email.

According to Laura Vanderkam in her book What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, Virgin Money’s Jayne-Anne Gadhia tells the Guardian that a normal morning for her starts at 6:30 a.m. (with no alarms). The first thing she does is answer any outstanding emails in her inbox, because she “can’t stand having any not done!” Gadhia then heads over to the BBC site and Twitter for any news in the world.

"I do it because I always like to be on top of work so I can enjoy the non-work stuff, like having breakfast with the family and talking to my daughter on the way to school, rather than being distracted by work,” she says. “So it sort of helps me have a normal life.”

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, uses the short hour between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.—when her family gets up—to clear her inbox, schedule the day and even squeeze in some time on social media.

They take time to reflect.

Right before facing the chaotic world, many of the busiest, most successful people try to take some time to clear their mind. Oprah Winfrey says she makes sure to sit in silence for 20 minutes twice a day, and Arianna Huffington describes the combination of early morning yoga and meditation as her "joy triggers.”

After Irwin Simon, CEO of Hain Celestial Group, gets through emails, business calls to Europe and Asia and his other morning routines, he prays before heading into Manhattan for his early morning meetings.

They exercise.

Most of these wildly successful people get their workouts in early in the morning, just in case they have to stay up late for work. Exercising in the morning also helps keep their productivity and energy levels up and better prepares them for the everyday struggle to greatness.

At about 5:30 a.m., Square CEO Jack Dorsey is jogging. At 6 a.m., Xerox CEO Ursula Burns is working out with her personal trainer, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is biking with his wife.

Exercise has made such an impact on President Barack Obama that he admits in his autobiography Dreams From My Father, that before he started running three miles a day, he was a casual drug user and underachiever.

Today Obama’s workout routine consists of a combination of strength and cardio. In an interview with Men's Health, Obama revealed that he works out for 45 minutes, six days a week, and is often seen playing basketball in courts around the federal buildings.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is so busy that she actually plans her day while she does her 45-minute morning power walks. In an interview with The New Yorker, Pelosi says she uses this time to speak with her staff, make thank you calls and plan out her to-do list.

"It could be anything from what’s happening in Libya to what’s happening on Capitol Hill in a very, shall we say, parochial way," she says.

Starwood Hotels' CEO Frits van Paasschen runs 10 miles every day at 6 a.m. "Van Paasschen credits running with much of his management style. Business, he says, is about conquering personal fears, setting high goals for yourself and breaking barriers, which in many ways meshes with Starwood's culture," according to USA Today.

When author Tim Ferriss asked Virgin's Richard Branson how he stays productive, Branson says he’s able to get four additional hours of productivity out of every day simply by keeping up with his physical activities, which includes swimming, Bikram yoga, rock climbing, running and weightlifting.

The bottom line here? It doesn’t matter how busy you are: If fitness is important to you, make the time to do it. And if you feel as though you don't have any time, take a cue from Pelosi and get your work done while you're working out.

What They Eat for Breakfast

The most productive people understand how important the first meal of the day is in determining their energy levels for the rest of the day. Most stick to the same light, daily breakfast because it works, it’s healthy for them and they know how the meal will make their mind and body feel.

Whole Foods founder John Mackey makes a breakfast smoothie consisting of almond, oat, rice or soy milk, fresh fruit and kale or spinach leaves. The Today Show's Al Roker has a protein smoothie typically between 7:40 and 8:15 a.m. that includes protein powder, fiber powder, eight ounces of almond milk, frozen berries, ginger and a little agave nectar. 

The "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher also kept her breakfast light, telling The Sun in 1979 that she tried to "eat little" for breakfast, which usually included coffee and half a grapefruit.

Even Richard Branson with his adventurous personality keeps it simple during breakfast with a fruit salad and muesli, a granola-like dish most popular in Germany and Switzerland.  

How They Handle Distractions

Distractions happen every day, no matter where you are. And they happen even more frequently if you're a person at the top. As everyone fights for a few minutes of their attention, how do these high achievers stay on track?

Katie Rae, managing director of TechStarsBoston and founder of Project 11, tells Fast Company that when she needs to think, she makes sure she’s on the move.

“My big way to tune out everything else is that I need to move,” she says. “I need things to move very fast so that I can think. So I ride my bike, go on a run, go in a car by myself and drive for hours. 

"I use a tape recorder to tape my thoughts," she continues. "Some people are naturally writers. I’m naturally a talker. In these moments, I just let things flow. I’ve got to get alone and moving.”

Rachel Sklar, co-founder of Change the Ratio and The Li.st, is someone else who attributes staying on the move to focusing: “When my brain can whirl without distraction, I can get some great stuff done. Shower, run, walk are my top places of inspiration,” she says. Sklar tells Fast Company that her best idea yet this year came from a walk around her downtown Manhattan neighborhood.

When Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, needs to block out the noise to concentrate, he starts working at 5 a.m. before he gets overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the day.

What They Read

Virgin America CEO David Cush tells the AP that after his morning emails and calls, he heads to the gym to use the exercise bike and read his daily papers, which include The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle and Financial Times. Dave Girouard, CEO of Upstart and former president of Google Enterprise, also reads the standard papers, but likes to fit in Winston Churchill's speeches whenever he can. BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti tells The Wire he typically reads the sports or business section of The New York Times during his commute into work. His wife takes the rest of the paper.

As for the evening readers, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong usually gets home from a long day at the office around 8 p.m. and settles down to read to his two young daughters. “They usually win and get two or three books,” he admits.

John Carney, writer and former CNBC editor, sticks to ancient philosophy—mostly Plato, Socrates and Xenophon—which he says he is “somewhat obsessed” with. 

Bill Gates tells The Seattle Times that he considers reading at night to be “part of falling asleep,” and he likes to read topics ranging from public health to the history of shipping containers. To read in bed, Arianna Huffington prefers old-fashioned, real books.

What They Do Before Bed

Fashion designer Vera Wang thinks conceptually about designs while in her bedroom and usually spends the evening reading whatever emails or messages her staff sends her.

Obama calls himself a "night owl" and likes to work late. He’s known to hold conference calls with staff members as late as 11 p.m. and typically reads or writes before going to bed. In an interview with Newsweek, Obama describes his typical evening:

"Have dinner with the family, hang out with the kids, and put them to bed about 8:30 p.m. And then I'll probably read briefing papers or do paperwork or write stuff until about 11:30 p.m., and then I usually have about a half hour to read before I go to bed ... about midnight, 12:30 a.m.—sometimes a little later."

Journalist Michael Lewis likes to write late into the night, telling author Robert Boynton in the book The New New Journalism that his ideal writing time is from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.

“That is the way I used to write. I liked to get ahead of everybody. I'd think to myself, 'I'm starting tomorrow's workday, tonight!'" says Lewis. "Late nights are wonderfully tranquil. No phone calls, no interruptions. I like the feeling of knowing that nobody is trying to reach me.”

Before calling it a day, Buffer CEO Joel Gascoigne takes a 20-minute walk every evening to allow himself to disconnect from work.

"This is a wind down period, and allows me to evaluate the day’s work, think about the greater challenges, gradually stop thinking about work, and reach a state of tiredness," he writes in a blog post.

To get the best night's sleep, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg turns off her phone at night, but does admit that it’s “painful” for her to do so. Sandberg’s actions would be approved by Arianna Huffington, who recommends keeping all electronics out of the bedroom to unwind. 

From start to finish, the daily lives of each successful person listed here is very much dictated by their family and job. But there are definitely some patterns that we can all incorporate into our own lives to achieve higher success and order.

Read more articles on productivity.

Photos: Pete Souza/The White House (2); Getty Images (4)