Do morning people have a professional edge?

August 25, 2011: 10:23 AM ET

Night owls may have a reputation for creativity, but recently published research suggests that early risers are more likely to make headway on their long-term goals.

By Laura Vanderkam, contributor

FORTUNE -- You know the type: As you're groping around the office kitchen looking for coffee, your perky colleague bounds in to tell you that her bike ride this morning was "awesome." Plus, she finished the presentation you two have to give next week. It's in your inbox (time-stamped 7:45 a.m.) should you ever make it to your desk.

Sure, she's energetic (if annoying). But do morning people have a professional advantage over others?

The answer may be yes. As part of research published last year by Harvard Business Review, biologist Christoph Randler found that people who were most energetic in the mornings were more likely to identify long-range goals for themselves and feel in charge of making things happen. Other research has shown that such people get better grades in school.

While night owls may be more creative, "they're out of sync with the typical corporate schedule," Randler told HBR. "When it comes to business success, morning people hold the important cards."

Here's why:

Building momentum

Accomplishing things in the morning sets off a "cascade of success," says Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, and a "night owl" who "consciously changed my morning habits so I could get up earlier." He now starts his days by writing down three things he's grateful for, exercising, and sending a quick email to reconnect with a family member or friend. He says he enjoys all these activities, and finds that "if you're thinking about things you're looking forward to, that makes it easy to get out of bed." Then, "once your brain records a victory, it's more likely to take the next step and the next step." If your first major victory comes at 10 p.m. but your boss expects you to be at an 8 a.m. meeting, there's just not much time for getting things done.

'Pay yourself first'

Financial advisors tell people to transfer money to savings as soon as they get paid, because there will always be a reason why you can't put $500 toward your emergency fund at the end of the month. Likewise, there will always be a reason not to exercise at 5 p.m. A growing body of research suggests that will power functions like a muscle. It fails when used too much. By putting important-but-not-urgent activities like exercise, religious practices, or strategic thinking early in the day, you can knock these tasks off your list before your will power is exhausted by boring meetings or the siren song of the office vending machine.

Minimizing distractions

Randeep Rekhi has an 8 to 5 job and also runs an online wine store called WineDelight.com. "The physical location for the business is in California and I'm in Colorado, so the easiest way to communicate with other employees is via G-Talk, thus I'm always on it in case I'm needed," he says. "This can get distracting at times, but working very early in the morning is great because all the other employees are asleep." Even if your colleagues are all early risers, they likely want to use this time to focus, too -- and may feel sheepish putting a conference call on someone's calendar at 6:30 a.m.

Clearing the way for family time

If you start work earlier, you may get done earlier, giving you a chance to spend the early evenings with your kids before they go to bed. Particularly for families with school-aged children who have to get on the bus early in the morning, evenings may be the only time everyone can be together.

These advantages are fairly straightforward, though that doesn't mean seizing them is easy. Amy Pietrasanta, who's worked in the publishing industry, notes that "I have successfully impersonated a morning person three times: when I was a swimmer in high school and college and had to go to morning practice, when I moved to California and (sort of) worked East Coast hours, and when I had babies who woke up early." Each time, "I have generally enjoyed the early morning, marveled at how much I could get done before I would normally get up, etc., etc., etc." But it never stuck. "I always go back to my true, vampire-ish nature."

If that sounds like you, don't despair. "I know people who are high energy in the afternoon, evening, and late night who are very successful in business," says Laura Stack, a time management expert and author of SuperCompetent: The Six Keys to Perform at Your Productive Best.  "The key is to be aware of what time you're at your highest energy level, because your brain is capable of doing higher-level activities in that range compared to other times during the day."

Whenever you're at your best, that's the time to focus on critical decisions, problem-solving or brainstorming activities, or anything requiring complex or detailed thought. Whatever you do, "Resist the urge to do fun, easy, trivial things or talk to your friends during your prime times," says Stack. "The trick is self-discipline," just as with rolling out of bed at 6 a.m.

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