Getting more done by waking up early

Morning Worker

One of my greatest challenges as a part-time freelancer is managing my time. Between my family, my full-time job, and my freelance projects, finding enough time to do each of these things well can be tough. But it’s not impossible.

As the saying goes, we all have the same amount of time in a day. It’s how we use it that matters.

The problem with staying up late

I used to try to get more done by staying up late to work. Usually this meant starting around 8 or 9pm, after my son was asleep and the dishes and other evening chores were done. I would sit at the computer until after midnight hammering away on a client project, working on admin stuff, or personal projects.

Working late at night can work fine for a short period of time, but inevitably it leads to problems.

For one thing, since the day is mostly behind me it can feel like I have more hours to work at night than I really do. This makes it really easy to get distracted by social media and other shiny internet things before starting any actual work.

But the longer it takes me to get going on work, the later it gets, and the more tired I get. When I’m tired, the quality of my work suffers. And I end up feeling exhausted the next day. That affects the quality of the work I produce in my day job, and it keeps me from being fully present for my family.

Sometimes staying up late to meet a deadline is necessary. But doing it every night is not sustainable.

You hear a lot of entrepreneurs bragging about how little they sleep, which is about the stupidest thing you can do. Like I’m bragging about how incompetent my performance is going to be when I can’t stay awake tomorrow…. (Or) how many bugs I’m going to introduce in the system tomorrow …. When you’re not well rested, your mind is not working at peak performance.
- David Heinemeier Hansson.

So instead of staying up late to get work done, I’m trying the opposite: go to sleep early, and wake up an hour or two early, before my wife and son need to be up to get ready for work and daycare. So far, it’s been great.

The benefits of getting up early

The time constraint keeps me focused. Jen and Nate depend on me to wake them up by 6:30, which keeps me very aware of the limited time and helps me concentrate on the task(s) at hand. I don’t even look at Twitter, Facebook, or email until later.

The limited time also forces me to break projects into manageable chunks. I only do what I know I can get done within the amount of time I have. I follow the pomodoro technique and divide my tasks into 25 minute intervals. This has been really effective.

Another benefit of working first thing in the morning is that my mind is fresh. As long as I’ve had at least 6 hours of sleep, I’m able to approach the work with a clear and rested mind. I think more quickly and make better decisions, and fewer mistakes.

Ultimately, I am finding that I’m actually more productive in the 1 or 2 hours of work first thing in the morning than I am during the 3 or 4 hours I try to work late at night.

Setting a schedule

This week I took it a step further and set a schedule for the type of work I’ll do each morning.

Monday is for learning. I’ll get through some training videos on Lynda.com, work on some Codecademy exercises, or do an online tutorial. This is a great way to start the week.

Tuesday and Thursday mornings are for client projects.

Wednesday and Friday mornings are for admin stuff.

Weekends are a little more flexible, but it’s still important to stay on a schedule.

On Friday evenings I have manual backups scheduled for a few of my retainer clients. I’m obligated to do this by contract, so this won’t change unless the contract does.

After the backups are complete I spend an hour or two working on a personal project. (Right now I’m developing a starter WordPress theme.)

Saturday mornings are for writing blog posts. I keep notes and rough drafts in Evernote throughout the week, so my plan is to sit down on Saturdays with a cup of coffee and come up with something comprehensible that I can post on the blog (and hopefully not have a month between posts, like this one).

Saturday afternoons are for client work. I also try to schedule phone and Skype calls on Saturdays whenever possible.

Sunday mornings are for client work. I try to take the rest of Sunday off to be with my family.

Staying flexible

Obviously nothing here is set in stone. There are times when I find I have down time outside of these hours, so I’ll knock off some work.

There are also days when getting up early just isn’t feasible, like when my 3 year old son gets up at 3am and decides to be wide awake for a couple of hours (as he’s prone to do). Getting up at 5am isn’t going to happen after that.

Overall though, waking up early has proven to be an effective strategy for getting more work done. When you add up all of this time, that’s around 10 – 15 hours per week I’m able to devote to my freelance business, without interfering with my family or my day job. Not bad.


I’ve been thinking about time management a lot lately. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing some more strategies and resources for managing time more effectively.

I’d love to hear about yours, too. Do you have any tips or tools of your own for managing your time and being more productive? Leave a comment below!