I was recently at an event featuring Patrick Campbell, founder of ProfitWell. The bootstrapped B2B SaaS company sold for a reported $200 million last year. Campbell, a keynote speaker, mentioned the question he is asked most often: What’s your morning routine? As if anyone can reverse-engineer his success, but only at dawn.
The morning habits of successful people has become an incredibly popular topic in the media and on social platforms. You can find the morning routines of just about any celebrity or CEO these days. There might be a list of things highly successful people do every morning. Or maybe a roundup of inspiring morning routines to help get yours in gear. If you’re feeling cynical, there are parody headlines like, Winners Wake Up Early. The 5 to 9 before my 9 to 5 has even been a big TikTok trend, with over 70 million views.
I am a psychologist for entrepreneurs. In my experience, the preferred morning routines of innovative people are varied, but many force themselves to try magic mornings at least once. A magic morning routine is the idea that doing specific things in the morning, like drinking some sort of special concoction first thing, eating healthy, journaling, exercising upon waking, taking cold showers, or waking up at 3 a.m. can be the key to a successful day—or life. Though I strongly encourage most of these habits generally (maybe not the 3 a.m. thing), magic mornings are a myth.
Stumbling out of bed too early is just one of the ways entrepreneurs lose touch with their bodies. They’re looking for life hacks instead of doing some inner reflection. Good quality sleep is crucial to physical health, and some entrepreneurs just aren’t morning people. Most would groan at 3 a.m. wakeup calls.
So, why are early risers seen as superior? Why are we trying to mimic their routines?
Morning hacks make an enticing promise about control
Linking mornings to company exits and early retirement is enticing, especially for entrepreneurs. Startup victories can feel random, an unknowable combination of luck and timing. It’s only natural to crave control and tie success to something simple, like an alarm clock. High-octane professionals with non-traditional schedules also benefit from consistent routines. Even when we can’t muster enthusiasm, muscle memory takes over and discipline drives motivation. But the secret isn’t mornings, it’s knowing your body.
Business owners and leaders are known to sacrifice sleep. A 2022 poll of Fortune 500 CEOs found that on average, they get 6.3 hours of shuteye per night, and early-stage startup founders might get even less (at least seven hours is optimal for adults). Skipping sleep—or poor sleep—impairs brain function. Entrepreneurs are already prone to mental health concerns that can disrupt sleep, including depression. Forcing yourself out of bed before your body is ready is hardly the key to productivity.
Apart from sleep, entrepreneurs often make unhealthy trade-offs for the sake of the business. They don’t eat well. They give up exercise and hobbies, thinking short-term sprints will pay off in the end, as in: I’ll rest when I’m successful. I work with clients to help them redevelop a relationship with their own bodies. Nutritious meals, meditation, and everything else on the morning life-hack checklist is great advice. Rather than regiment things upon waking, pay attention to the time of day in which you are naturally more productive or lethargic. Work with your body to incorporate healthier habits throughout the day.
All-day habits of highly successful people
If you feel more accomplished responding to emails first thing in the morning, do work first. Head to the gym mid-day and approximate the magic morning routine at noon. There’s also something to be said for variety. Some might get bored of the sunrise-journal-breakfast-workout cycle. Entrepreneurs especially crave stimulation, and experience creativity in fits and starts. You might feel inspired and energized to work late into the night, in which case sleeping in is warranted.
It’s both unhealthy and unsustainable to design every day around productivity. Sleeping from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. might be viable, or you might prefer an 8 p.m. dinner reservation. Evenings are often best for social activities and family time. Early mornings are lonely—and dark. Our bodies already have clocks, with circadian rhythm designed to respond to light as a signal to wake.
Finally, one morning routine won’t work for everyone. Research into chronotypes, or behavioral manifestations of circadian rhythm, suggest that some people are born either morning larks or night owls. “So, a night owl can’t just easily flip a switch to become a morning person,” Jessica Yu, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and senior director of patient experience at hims & hers, previously told Fortune.
My husband Rob and I are living anecdotes for opposing chronotypes. I get up early to make my protein shake. An ideal morning for my husband starts at 10 a.m. after staying up late, like a college student. We are both entrepreneurs, though Rob, the night owl, is the one with a few successful exits. As for Patrick Campbell, he told the audience he wakes up at his leisure and eats whatever is around. I admit I’ve taken selfish pleasure at the supposed superiority of morning people in the past, but my husband might be right.
Ultimately, our morning habits naturally vary. Staying in touch with your body to find a routine that works for you will leave you with more energy, moments of creativity, and maybe even success.