Tim Powell isn’t a morning person. Which is surprising, because most days he gets up before 6am.
On weekdays, while most of us are still asleep, he wakes up at 5.45am, exercises at his home gym, gets ready for work and drives into the office. Before setting foot in the building, he takes a short walk around a local park to collect his thoughts before sitting down to work around 9am. On Thursdays, a particularly early start at 5.20am gives him time to squeeze in a pre-work German lesson.
Tim Powell manages 30 minutes of high-intensity exercise, has a sit-down breakfast, takes a leisurely walk and has German language lessons – all before starting work at 9am. Click the video above to see how he does it.
Powell works 70 hours a week as a patent lawyer in Nottingham in the UK. The demands of the job have forced him to have a highly structured, organised morning routine. The discipline of his mornings help him get more done during the day, he said.
Still, rising early didn't come naturally to Powell and without an alarm, he said he's likely to sleep in later. The routine was “kind of built of over time,” he said. “You don’t set out on day one to appear to be some sort of superhero office warrior.”
You don’t set out on day one to appear to be some sort of superhero office warrior
Powell is not alone. Many busy, successful people are early risers who wake at dawn to get things done without distractions. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour famously starts her day at 5:45am and gets in an hour of tennis before work. And, experts agree that the period between when people wake up and when they get to the office is ideal for accomplishing activities that are personally meaningful or require discipline, but are not necessarily related to their jobs. For some that’s exercise and for others it’s spending time with family or working on a novel. But, how do you create an early-bird habit?
Creating healthy habits
“Routines are very much linked to habits,” said Martin Hagger, a professor in the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. Hagger studies self-regulation – in other words, how people control their behaviour. His research has shown that a creating a routine can be an effective way to create healthy habits, because it decreases the effort that comes with decision-making.
With a routine, even an evening person can get into the habit of waking up early.
“With a routine, even an evening person can get into the habit of waking up early and doing difficult things in the morning.”
Hagger has applied his research in his own daily life. He gets up most days by 6am to exercise and eat a healthy breakfast before arriving at work at 8am. He said that if he leaves exercising until after his work day ends, he knows he will be too tired or be tempted by other distractions to fit it in. So, before he goes to bed, he lays out his workout gear and sets his alarm for the morning.
But, there are no hard and fast rules. Experts say there is no one ideal time to start your day – every person has different goals, schedules and life situations – they key is to set aside time for a morning routine that works for you. And, if you're struggling to get up, set your alarm slightly earlier each day until you're in the habit of waking up early enough.
Scheduling morning activities makes it easier to get to bed earlier and ditch unproductive time in the evenings
“It’s time that can’t as easily be taken away from you,” said Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. “The rest of the world will get what they need during the day. The morning is your time.”
Vanderkam chronicled the lives of people with demanding jobs and found that they used mornings to tackle personal priorities and activities that require a lot of discipline. “If there is something you want to do, but you’re not finding enough space in the rest of your life, I would suggest trying a morning routine,” she said. Scheduling morning activities, she said, makes it easier to get to bed earlier and ditch unproductive time in the evenings spent surfing the web or watching TV.
The people she describes in her book spend their mornings exercising, meditating or devoting time to their partner or kids. One woman she spoke to spent her time studying to get into a field she wanted to pursue. “She explained that ‘during the day I have a job, in the morning I have a career’,” said Vanderkam.
Night owls can get as much out of a morning routine as early birds
And, night owls can get as much out of a morning routine as early birds, according to Mareike Wieth, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Science at Albion College in Michigan, who researches how time of the day can affect problem solving. She found that people performed better on creative tasks during their non-optimal time of day – so night owls should work on these pursuits in the mornings, and vice versa.
She explained that during people’s optimal time of day they were more focused and better at screening out distractions. “But for creativity you do need those random thoughts,” she said. “You may end up making connections you wouldn’t otherwise.”
Getting into a morning routine can also help people meet the challenges of their job, said Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister’s research suggests that willpower is a limited resource that gets depleted during the course of the day.
“Willpower is important for resisting temptation, adapting to external demands and making decisions – all things you need to do to be successful,” said Baumeister.
Running on autopilot in the mornings allows people to preserve willpower for more complicated work tasks. Not having to decide between doughnuts and oatmeal for breakfast or to spend energy figuring out whether and how to exercise, saves up willpower for bigger decisions during the day, he said.
“The efficient thing to do is to have your morning be well organised.”
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.