A Peek into the Morning Routines of Successful Leaders
How do you approach the beginning of your day? For many of us, our mornings feel more like a mad rush than an actual routine. We tapped into the habits of successful leaders—from Bill Gates to Marie Kondo—to find out whether these ambitious professionals all share a morning secret to success. What we found was that while sleep habits vary (some leaders prioritize sleep while others slumber four hours or less a night), and that breakfasts range from hearty to nonexistent, most successful leaders engage in the following morning habits to fuel the day ahead.
1. Time in Nature
- Media executive and philanthropist Oprah gets up around 7 a.m., opens her blackout shades, and observes nature at her home in Montecito, CA. After that, she brushes her teeth and walks the dogs.
- Long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad loves walking her dogs on the beach at dawn, while they’re “running and happy and free.”
- Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble, sleeps with the drapes open to rise with the sun. “Even if you don’t like to wake up early, your body does adjust.”
- Organizing consultant Marie Kondo, who says she rarely uses an alarm clock, wakes up naturally around 6 or 6:30 a.m. The first thing she does is open all the windows to let the breeze in and burn incense.
- Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, wakes to the sun streaming into his face around 5 a.m., and says he loves to pop out of bed and start the day right away.
- Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gets time outside before breakfast. “Even if it’s cold here in Seattle, I’ll get outside. I really like to go in the lake when it’s cold outside, or get my feet out in our yard, in our garden.”
2. Gratitude, Reflection, and Mindfulness
- Steve Jobs, who was the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple, famously asked himself the same question each morning in the mirror: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” If the answer was “no” too many days in a row, he knew he needed to change something in his life. (See Jobs’s 2005 Stanford commencement speech.)
- Marie Kondo prays for the health of her family and friends—“and also for myself to get done as much as possible what needs to be done. This is not a religious thing really at all. It’s just for me to take this time every morning to feel gratitude.”
- Oprah reads five cards from her “365 Gathered Truths” box to start her day with positive messages. Spiritual exercises and meditation are next, followed by a workout at 9 a.m. Then, she’s ready to take on her business dealings.
- Richard Branson says his “secret life hack” is always having a notebook on hand to write ideas down when they come to mind.
- Arianna Huffington, author and founder of The Huffington Post, stresses that she doesn’t start the day by looking at her smartphone. “Once I’m awake, I take a minute to breathe deeply, be grateful, and set my intention for the day. And I breathe!” She also practices yoga most mornings.
- Singer and songwriter Beyoncé says she takes time to practice gratitude every morning at 6 a.m., while “breathing out anxiety, breathing in positivity.”
- Melinda Gates says she wakes up around 6:30 a.m. and spends that first hour “in quiet time.” She does meditation, stretching, yoga and some kind of spiritual reading to begin her day on a positive note.
3. Exercise and Sustenance
- Apple CEO Tim Cook is up by 3:45 a.m. and, after going through emails and user comments for an hour, is exercising at the gym by 5 a.m. “I go to the gym and work out for an hour because it keeps my stress at bay,” he says.
- 52nd Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi takes a power walk at 9 a.m. along the Potomac or along the Presidio in San Francisco, which she says is like “noon” for her as she’s already been up for hours. During her 45-minute walk, her iPhone is instrumental as she “plans her day, touches base with her staff, makes thank-you calls to donors, and keeps up with overnight developments.”
- Richard Branson does some form of exercise first thing, whether it’s playing a hard game of tennis, going for a walk or run, biking, or kitesurfing. He says of exercise, “You have to keep going even when you don’t feel like it.” He once wrote in a blog post, “Keeping active is a huge part of my life. I seriously doubt that I would have been as successful in my career (and happy in my personal life), if I hadn’t always placed importance on my health and fitness.”
- Former First Lady Michelle Obama gets up and works out at 4:30 a.m., often alongside Barack, then eats a healthy breakfast like eggs, grapefruit and/or turkey sausage.
- Whitney Wolfe Herd keeps a yoga mat and a big bottle of water next to her bed and after she gets up she drinks water, stretches, and does some form of a morning workout.
- Former U.S. President Barack Obama starts his day two hours before his first event or commitment, with weight training, cardio, and breakfast (he avoids coffee and instead opts for green tea, orange juice, or water).
- After Oprah walks her dogs, “I make my favorite espresso. I mix caffeinated and decaffeinated espresso with milk and a little hazelnut.”
4. Reading and Learning
- Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, says he spends 80 percent of his day reading. Someone once asked Buffett the key to success, and he pointed to a stack of books and said, read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”
- Barack Obama likes reading the print versions of the morning newspaper, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.
- Nancy Pelosi gets up and reads several newspapers.
- Bill Gates, technologist and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, exercises for an hour on the treadmill while watching DVDs from Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series, and he estimates he reads 50 books per year. After working out, he catches up on the news through newspapers like The New York Times and The Economist.
5. Time with Family
- Author Maya Angelou would eat breakfast with her husband at 6 a.m. A half an hour later, he went off to work, and she retreated off to solitude to write for several hours, according to the book “Daily Rituals.”
- Melinda Gates, whenever possible, has breakfast with her youngest, high-school-age daughter.
- Richard Branson eats breakfast and spends some time with his family. “Exercise and family time put me in a great mind frame before getting down to business,” he says.
- Marie Kondo gets the kids ready, while her husband makes either a Japanese-style breakfast or something like toast and fruit for the family.
- Whitney Wolfe Herd says, “I do my best to avoid the direct-to-phone dive, because once that starts it’s nearly impossible to escape.” She instead spends the first 30 minutes of her day with her family and her dog.
- Barack Obama, during his time as President, usually ate breakfast with his daughters before helping get them off to school. Soon after he became President, he vowed to maintain dinners with his family at least five times a week.
What Can We Learn?
Despite the extremely hectic pace of their lives, all of these successful leaders make the time to slow down in the morning and pay attention to their physical and mental needs, even if it’s only for a short period of time. Remember, you have as many hours in the day as Beyoncé (minus the personal trainers and chefs, of course). Making time for your well-being is essential to feeling your best. Choosing to use your first morning hours with intention can give you the extra boost of motivation and inspiration you need to finish that nagging project or achieve your next big career goal.
So what are you waiting for? Do a five-minute meditation — then go run the world.
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