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How to change your life before breakfast

(MoneyWatch) About a year ago, I wrote a post for this blog called "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast." The idea was that mornings are a great time for tackling personal priorities that life has a way of crowding out. Whether they're exercising, doing spiritual practices, doing some strategic thinking or enjoying quality family time, successful people know that if something has to happen, it has to happen first.

The post soon took on a life of its own. It got hundreds of thousands of views and continues to be one of my most read pieces every month. Lots of people, it seems, would like to use their mornings better. I know I would.

The days I do something meaningful with my early morning hours, I feel like I can conquer the world. The days I'm less strategic soon feel like they're slipping away. Realizing that, I've tried to be better about exercising in the early mornings, particularly in the summer months when it's light and the still-pleasant temperatures make each day seem full of possibilities.

I also decided to do more serious research into how and why people use their mornings (the result, an ebook from Portfolio called "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast," is being published today). I've learned that making over one's mornings to be more effective and productive is a 5-step process:

1. Track your time. Seizing your mornings means getting up at a reasonable hour. Getting up on time means getting to bed on time. But many of us putter around in the evening, surfing the web or watching meaningless TV. Figure out your weak spots, then set a bedtime and stick with it. I'll be writing another post this week about a woman whose evenings were getting away from her, and what she decided to do about it.

2. Picture the perfect morning. You need a reason to get out of bed. What would you enjoy so much that the snooze button wouldn't be so tempting? Your ideal morning could involve anything from painting to biking to taking an online class. But be clear on why you're trying to make over your mornings and you'll be more likely to do it.

3. Figure out the logistics. What time do you need to get up? What equipment do you need? Do you need anyone's help (like a partner who will trade off early morning shifts if you've got young kids at home)? What could go wrong? Identify potential obstacles and develop a plan to deal with them.

4. Build the habit. Start slow. Try getting up a little earlier each week until the new time feels normal. Surround yourself with positive people who want to see you succeed. Practice blatant bribery. Silly as it may seem to reward yourself for a morning run with a doughnut, better to build the exercise habit and switch out the doughnut for a healthier breakfast later than never start exercising in the first place.

5. Tune up as necessary. Life changes. Morning rituals can change, too. Much as I like to run in the mornings, it doesn't always work for me for both work and family reasons. But I do it when I can, and on the mornings when I can't, I'm trying to do something else purposeful in the mornings that starts the day off right.

The reason? As I learned from interviewing scores of successful people about their mornings, a small victory scored early sets off a cascade of success. You believe that your actions matter. And that makes you want to take the next step forward. Believing that your actions matter is how the brain learns optimism or, to use a better word, hope. When you make over your mornings, you can make over your life. That's what successful people know.

What do you do before breakfast? Photo courtesy of Flickr user chichacha
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