Find yourself derailed by emails and fire-fighting all day long? Here’s how to make time for the things that really matter for your career.

You start the workday with great intentions. You plan to work on big projects—the important but not urgent things you know you need to do to advance your career. You want to build the career capital that will help you at this job and your next few jobs.

Then the first emails show up, and it’s go-go-go through a 10-hour firefight. By the time your last meeting has run 45 minutes late, you barely have the energy to walk to the subway, let alone plot world domination.

When are you supposed to find time to think?

Here’s what successful people know: You do have time. But you might have to get up earlier to make it happen.

The most productive time of your day

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people about their schedules over the years for my books on time management, and over time, I started to notice a pattern. Folks who’d moved beyond the tyranny of the urgent often woke up at times that most people prefer not to see.

It turns out that the early morning hours are great for getting stuff done.


First, you’re unlikely to be interrupted by an urgent meeting request or phone call at 6:00 a.m.

Second, research into the science of willpower finds that we’re best able to focus on difficult tasks while the day is young. Willpower is like a muscle, and over a long day of concentrating in boring meetings, dealing with difficult people or battling traffic, it’s simply used up.

In the morning, though, it’s fresh. So that makes the morning hours prime time for strategic thinking and work that you want to do, not have to do. Get up at 6:00 a.m. instead of 7:00 a.m., and you’ve got five hours of found time each week to bring your best self to the question of your professional development.

What would you do during that time?

Maybe you’d read the industry publications you never find time to concentrate on. Maybe you’d start contributing articles to those industry publications. Maybe you’d make lists of people in your organization or industry you’d like to meet.

You’d peruse alumni lists from your school and send emails to people you want to know. You’d brainstorm what you want your career to look like in a year or five years. You’d make a list of projects you’d like to pursue and practice asking your boss to give you a shot. You’d practice asking for your next raise until saying the number no longer makes you flinch.

If you wait until the rest of your work is done to do these things, there will never be enough time. But paying into your career capital account turns out to be much like paying into a retirement account. If you wait until the end of the month to save what’s left over, there will be nothing left over. Pay yourself first, and your wealth will grow.

Invest in your career first and everything else will fall into place. That’s worth skipping the snooze button for.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, Aug 27, 2013). She blogs at


  1. Simple Trick to Gain More Time in Your Work Day: Wake Up Earlier

    […] Brazen Careerist contributor Laura Vanderkam says there is time in your day to do more. “…You might have to get up earlier to make it happen,” she writes. […]

  2. Julia

    That’s great, but how do you recuperate the lost sleep? Going to bed at 9 P.M. or 10 P.M. is not a great option for any adult with a social life, not to mention kids, chores etc. And some people DO need 8 hours of sleep. Sleeping less just to get that extra working hour can result in chronic fatigue. And taking a power nap in the afternoon is also not something that anyone can do.

    I think that the best working hours depend on each person’s biorhythm. Maybe those successful people that were interviewed are naturally “early birds” and the direct correlation between their sleep pattern and their success is just a bias of the researchers that wanted very badly to establish that correlation. I really think that people who are really determined and organized can achieve anything they want at any time of the day and it’s best to follow your natural biorhythm instead of trying to fit into a model that doesn’t suit you.

    • Robin Cannon

      Yeah, this was a really disappointing article. Essentially equates to “just work more”, which is not necessarily sustainable and most research has demonstrated is long term less productive than a standard 8 hour day.

      As you correctly point out, it also doesn’t take into account lost sleep and the different options different people have. There certainly *are* “best hours” for different people to work, those best hours aren’t “an extra hour”.

  3. April Blake

    Agreed- this article is kind of lost on those of us who don’t have flexible hours. Once I am able to move into a position that offers that perk- I’d LOVE to come into the office at 7 a.m. so I can have an hour and a half of time to bust out things that I get done better without anyone around distracting me or piling on more tasks (which makes me incredibly anxious). But I refuse to come in early AND stay til 5 everyday, without extra compensation or comp time.

  4. The HBCU Career Center

    Bottom line is to set aside some time. I encourage doing three to five bigger things per year rather than small increments each day. eg. get certification, take a class one semester, go to a convention etc.

  5. Christine Steffensen

    Such a good post! #2 made me realize the things that you should consider doing your free time.The very first thing is spend time meditating, clearing your mind and free yourself from any negative thoughts and release any tension you may be holding.

  6. Thomas LaCosta

    Totally agree. I have been getting up 60-90 minutes earlier than the rest of my family to work on a book. The only bad part is having to stop writing to get ready for my day job.

  7. Jbflo

    I’m glad there’s comments mentioning a problem many people have. I need a certain amount of sleep to be productive the next day. Not everyone can focus with only 4 hours of sleep per night so those who can have a competitive advantage.

    The article does state people are more productive in the am so instead of being somewhat productive after work, this should be tested. Lose an hour after work but gain a more productive hour before work.

  8. Asal N

    I feel that there is a direct correlation between what time you get up and how productive you are that day… and maybe it is different for each person. I am personally most productive if I have at least 1.5 to 2 hours of free time before I get ready for work. Waking up at 5 is my ideal time to get out of bed and start my day. I know it is hard to do if you need your 8 hours of sleep and you can’t go to bed early enough.

    By the way I am not naturally an early morning person at all. I grew up in a culture where having dinner at 10 pm, going to bed at 1 or later and waking up at 7 is the norm. Of course they invented something called “Siesta” that is not feasible for the average office worker in the United States like Julia said. The point is that you just have to find peaceful time and clear mind to think about your day. I can only have that peaceful time early in the morning.

  9. Marion Kay Davis


  10. Aditya Dey

    I think it’s depend on the person itself…I heard a proverb in my child days i.e. “Time and Tide wait for none”…So to save one extra hour you will have to sacrifice something for sure…and it is important to boost your career up and take it to an another level..

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  11. aranyak

    Really it helped me to realize the value of Time…!!! Awesome article…!!

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