A morning is a terrible thing to waste.
But that's exactly what many people do, says time-management expert Laura Vanderkam.
The average middle-aged adult is up around 6 a.m. on weekdays, studies suggest. But by 9 a.m., many feel the "only thing they've done is shower and commute," she says. Some parents of young children may feel all they have done is to "get everyone out the door wearing pants."
Isn't that enough?
Not if you want to reach your most important health, relationship and work goals, Vanderkam says in a new e-book, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. She also is the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think and is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.
Here are some of things she says go-getters do before most people finish their first cup of coffee:
•Exercise. A dawn workout is common among CEOs and other high-powered types.
•Meditate or pray. Monks aren't the only ones who start the day on a spiritual note.
•Work, often on personal or long-term projects outside the scope of their daily duties.
•Fix a family breakfast- sometimes as a substitute for a family dinner - or play with their kids.
The idea, Vanderkam says, is "to do first things first," before the demands of the day intrude. Interruptions and emergencies tend to strike later in the day; motivation tends to wilt. And people who start the day with a win can build on the momentum all day long, she says.
Vanderkam points to plenty of examples, including the Rev. Al Sharpton's 6 a.m. treadmill sessions. But she also draws on science that shows there might be something special about mornings.
"Self-control, discipline and decision-making all depend on the body's basic energy supply," and for most people, that supply is highest in the morning, says Roy Baumeister, a research psychologist at Florida State University and co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
Willpower diminishes as the day goes on, he says. "You'll probably have less willpower at 5 o'clock because you've used it for other things early in the day."
When it comes to exercise, it's true that "people who get it done in the morning are more likely to stick with it," says Sabrena Merrill, a fitness consultant in Kansas City, Mo., and spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise. "I'm not saying people who work out later in the day are doomed to failure," she adds. But they generally face more obstacles - all the "commitments, responsibilities and tasks that build up during the day."
Morning movers also may get a day-long boost, says Merrill. "If I don't exercise in the morning, I often notice my mood is not as stellar."
A little quality family time also can be an all-day mood-lifter. That's one reason Rachel Meeks of Plano, Texas, gathers her family of four for breakfast at 7 a.m. each day. While they usually manage dinner together, too, she says breakfast is better. "That's when my little kids are easiest to talk with ... They are not spent out from an entire day of playing hard."
In the summer, Meeks also plays with her kids, ages 6 and 3, before she sits down to write for her blog (smallnotebook.org) or do other things. She insists she's not a natural morning person. To make it work, she says, she's given up staying up late, something she used to enjoy.
Vanderkam knows that tradeoff can be a deal-killer. "Going to bed early is not that easy for many people."
Baumeister says morning can be a bad time for people who are not well-rested or who have strong night-owl tendencies, which are especially common in young adults.
But for those who are up, rested and willing, but still not making the most of their mornings, Vanderkam recommends an a.m. makeover. First step: tracking your time use all day for a week to see what you can tweak. Then you can set some new morning goals and figure out the logistics, which might be as simple as taking shorter showers or as complex as finding a gym with child care or convincing your boss she doesn't need to see you before 10 a.m.
Take it one change at a time, she writes: "Once skipping a day feels like you've forgotten something - like forgetting to brush your teeth - you'll know you've got a habit."