This morning I read yet another article about how getting up early is essentially the key to success in life.  This article came complete with references to the fact that Tim Cook gets up at 3:45 am and Michelle Obama works out at 4:30 am and Richard Branson is doing something by 5:30 am.  As a card carrying night owl, articles like this annoy me ceaselessly (and yes, I do question why I continue to read them, but more on that later).  They bug me because essentially morning people have been telling me for years and I just need to try getting up earlier and my body will adjust and I will then just find it awesome.  They tell me this as if I haven’t already tried it.  My body doesn’t adjust.  I get more and more tired as time goes on to the point where I can’t function and I go back to my usual behaviour of getting up as late as I possibly can to get to deal with my morning commitments, and generally making as few morning commitments as I can.

Fairly early in my career, I had a colleague who came into the office relatively early — around 7 am.  I would usually get in around 9 am.  Every morning when I walked by her desk on my way in, she would say to me “finally getting in?” in that semi-joking and smug way that some people like to use to take a jab at you and then claim they were “just kidding”.  And then I’d see her leave for the day at 3 or so, and every day I’d bite my tongue and not say “leaving already?”  Until the day I said it because I was fed up and boy did she get mad.  We both worked the same number of hours, as far as I knew.  But somehow, she was more virtuous because she worked her hours early in the day.  I’ve never really understood it.

I think that articles that focus on the getting up early as a key habit of successful people kind of miss the mark.  The trouble I have is that no matter who you are — Richard Branson or me, there are 24 hours in any given day and we can’t make more of them.  So when we choose to get up early, we trade the hours somewhere else.  We either sleep less or go to bed earlier or we choose not to do something that we might have done otherwise.  Either way, the same number of hours go by.  And I’d further argue that someone like Tim Cook, who I’m sure is enormously busy, doesn’t spend his hours the same way that I do.  My guess (and I could be wrong) is that Tim Cook pays someone to make his meals and clean his house and do his grocery shopping and take care of his laundry.  This allows him a little more flexibility in how he spends his waking hours.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that it matters that these successful people get up early, or rather, that getting up early is necessarily a key factor in their success.  It’s a correlation, but not necessarily a causation.

So here’s some alternatives.  Want to be successful?  Do these things.

  1. Decide that maybe you already are successful.  You’re here, you’re still functioning.  Nicely done!  And of course, define what success actually means to you.  What does success feel like?  You don’t have to be Tim Cook or Richard Branson to be successful.  And recognize that what success feels like is going to change over time.  For quite a while, I defined success for my oldest kid as just going to school.  Hey, you went to school today and stayed there the whole day?  Awesome!  Success is iterative and incremental.  Celebrate it every day and build on it.
  2. Decide that you actually already know enough.  This goes back to why I continue to read articles about how you need to be a morning person to be successful even though those articles always annoy me and I never learn anything new from them.  I continue to read them because I am ever hopeful that finally there will be some magical piece of advice that will change everything.  Truth is, I’m 45 years old, I’m not a morning person, I’m probably never going to be one, and still, I’m pretty successful.  So I should probably accept what I know about myself and stop trying to find the magic bullet.  Important note — I’m not saying not to continue learning.  I read stuff all the time, and lots of the time I learn some really cool stuff that I can apply to my life.  But sometimes we get into the analysis paralysis cycle where we feel like we just don’t know enough and we have to keep reading until we find the right answer.  You know enough.  Go do what you know.
  3. Stop doing things that annoy you.  I need to stop reading articles about why getting up early is the best thing ever.  And I recently decided that I need to not use Facebook much.  By and large, the stuff people post on Facebook drives me around the bend and raises my blood pressure to the point where I can actually feel the blood pounding in my head.  So I had to take a serious look at why I was continually investing in annoying myself.
  4. Consider whether you really need to do everything you’re doing.  I read a really excellent article last week about how there are a whole bunch of things that we thing we need to do that we don’t really need to do at all.  This is especially true at work, but also at home I think.
  5. Ask why.  All the time.  Those of you with kids might remember that fascinating and irritating phase little kids go through where they ask “why” about everything.  Or in the case of my son — that lifelong phase of asking “why” about everything.  Knowing why is actually really important.  Ask yourself “why am I doing this?” all the time.  It applies equally to work and home.  If you don’t know why you’re doing something, ask.  If you’re a manager or a leader or a parent, make it very clear why the expectations are what they are.  Check out Simon Sinek’s TEDTalk on why you should start with why.  Having a compelling why gives people a sense of purpose.  And having a sense of purpose usually leads to success.

There you have it — 5 keys to success, and you don’t have to get out of bed at 4 am to do any of them if you don’t want to!


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How to be successful
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