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I Tried Tim Cook’s Zen Habit. Here’s What I Learned

Can waking up at 4 a.m. make one more productive?

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BY Vernon Velasco - 11 Jan 2019

tim cook's zen habit

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Apple CEO Tim Cook is an early riser. He religiously wakes up at ungodly hours to read consumer feedback, and hit the gym shortly thereafter—at 4 in the morning!

Richard Branson, according to this Inc. article, wakes up at 5 a.m. to exercise and spend time with family.

It's a habit I once tried to emulate. For a month.

It's not like it's something to put on a T-shirt, but successful people talk about rolling out of bed ridiculously early as if it were an achievement. Then again, The Wall Street Journal once reported that 4 a.m. is the most productive hour.   

What tycoons and geniuses do between 3 a.m. and 10 a.m. is anybody's guess, but, as for me, I woke up at 4 a.m. with an intent to be smothered in thoughts.

Perhaps being a weirdo is the key to success. And, apparently, the bizarre habits of highly successful people are not limited to being up at the crack of dawn. Some are up all night arguing with God, too. Voltaire drank 50 cups of coffee. Steve Jobs cried sans provocation. Bill Gates memorized his employees' car license plates.

Save for a healthy day job, I had nary a motivation, i.e. a stiff schedule to keep or a method to madness. But I thought that if I woke up early enough, I might have enough time and peace of mind to, once and for all, complete my to-do list (like insulate my crawl space) or stumble upon a breakthrough idea that would earn me a stature that could equal the success Cook has come to represent.

Beforehand, I made it clear that these ideas had to be grand and inspiring. Before breakfast, I would have developed a thesis that would make me a multi-billionaire. It could be along the lines of some boss piece of device that can solve world hunger. A psychedelic drug that confers the user the power to bend space and time. Asteroids as refueling stations. An app that gets a peso apiece from every person in the world.

As it turned out, the more I had all the time in the world, the more I had every reason to procrastinate. So I rolled around the house singing at a moving electric fan, talking to myself over the phone, playing with the hair curler. I went to the john and flushed the thing over and over (I don't know about you, but the cutest thing about toilet bowls is that they burp).

There were days I killed the extra time by buffing my shoes to a high mirror shine, days I smoked a pipe, and days I wallowed in Frank Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning."

"In the wee small hours of the morning," Sinatra sang. "While the whole world is fast asleep/ You lie awake and think about the girl/ And never ever think of counting sheep."

Listening to Sinatra, being up for no apparent reason, it occurred to me that I was missing the point. The 4 a.m. mystery is a difficult theory to discount: Time and again the productivity method has been proven to be an indispensable trump card by those who have made a go of their careers.

I learned that more than debunking the myths of waking up early, there's a world of difference between waking up at 4 in the morning to generate a noble idea, and waking up at 4 in the morning only when there's an idea noble enough to keep me up at night. It's the kind of idea you think about in the shower, in your solitary walks, in any time of day when you can finally afford to be alone with your thoughts.


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