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How to be successful before breakfast

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Laura Vanderkam is a nationally recognized writer whose focus is on helping her readers rediscover their true passions and beliefs in pursuit of more meaningful lives. She is the author of the new book What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast . Vanderkam spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service's Center for Government Leadership.

Can you share some of your favorite anecdotes about how successful people use their mornings to accomplish tasks?

I learned that successful people know that mornings are a great time for getting things done. They are the high-impact activities that are important but aren’t urgent—like exercise, strategic career thinking, creative work and even focused time with your family.

One of my favorite anecdotes came from a university administrator who had trouble getting things done because of her open-door policy. People would come in her office every few minutes. She figured out a way to fix this. Her daughter played water polo, so she had to be at the pool before 7 a.m. Rather than just bring her daughter to practice and then go home, she decided to go to work.

She would use that early morning quiet time to do focused, big tasks she had to get done because no one was interrupting her at 7 a.m., and then later in the day she would deal with email. She joked that she was doing more before breakfast than she used to get done in a week.

What tips do you have for federal employees who may not have a daughter playing water polo?

Often times, we are not aware of how much time is passing between when we wake up and when we actually start work. I tell people to picture what the perfect morning would look like. What are things you’re not doing in your life that you’d like to be doing more of? And are there ways that you can make those things happen in the morning? Work through the logistics and map out a morning schedule. The harder part, of course, is turning it into a habit.

What obstacles do leaders face in implementing this sort of morning plan?

I think the biggest problem is that people wake up in the morning and don’t want to get out of bed, and often that is because they’ve gone to bed too late. The solution to morning problems lies in the night before. The evenings can get away from you. We get distracted on the Internet, watching television or puttering around the house. It is better to give yourself a bed time and then you can reclaim some of those morning hours for something that really would move your life forward and help you achieve your goals.

From your experience, why do so many people struggle with time management?

Since the hours will be filled by something no matter what we do, sometimes it’s easier to just go with it and let life happen to you. A lot of problems with time management stem from not thinking about how we’d like to use our time. We just accept that our time is what it is, as opposed to viewing it as a result of the various decisions that we’ve made over the years.

To quote the late Stephen Covey and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People , begin with the end in mind. People don’t think about how they spend their time and what their big goals are. The biggest time management problems are not spending too much time on Facebook or running errands. People often ask things like “How can I spend less time emptying the dishwasher?” That’s not what time management is about. It’s about getting the big things right and making sure that you’re investing the right number of hours in things that are important to you. 

What keys to success can federal managers learn from highly productive people?

Keep a time log so you can see where the time really goes. From looking at the time logs of extremely successful people, I’ve learned that they focus on three categories: nurturing their career, nurturing their family and nurturing themselves. As much as possible, they ignore, minimize or outsource everything else. It’s not that these people are racing around from one thing to the next. Instead, they are choosing to do things in their down-time that are meaningful and important to them.

Who do you consider to be your role models?

She’s not a household name, but I’ve gotten to know an entrepreneur named Amanda Steinberg. She runs an email financial newsletter called DailyWorth. What I find so fascinating is that she started the company basically the same week she gave birth to her second child. She has shown how you can build a successful small business while also spending a lot of time with your children. Just seeing how people make time for everything that really matters to them has helped me to realize there is nothing incompatible with achieving great things in your personal and professional lives at the same time.

More from On Leadership:

Three lessons from NASA’s Mars landing

The best places to work in government

Stephen Covey’s seven habits of effective people

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