What the Most Productive People Do Before Breakfast Doesn’t Matter

Popular articles about how to enhance productivity often describe what the “most productive people” do before breakfast. There’s a clear fascination with starting the day right, getting a jump on the day’s work. The early bird catches the worm, right?

I typically brush off articles that aren’t backed by research, but there is a concept in research that might actually apply here. It’s called priming. What the most productive people do before breakfast might actually be to prime themselves to have a productive day.

Priming isn’t about eating a particular concoction of superfoods blended into a smoothie that will wake up your brain, and it isn’t about priming the body by getting the blood flowing with an early morning workout, although there may be something to that (Kashihara et al., 2009). Priming in this context is about putting yourself in a certain mindset.

It’s actually as simple as making yourself happy.

Candy-Before-Work Experiment

There’s an interesting experiment by two researchers from Cornell University and University of Iowa that tried to prime people in a subtle way to be in a good mood before asking them to complete two tasks (Isen and Reeve, 2005).

Sixty subjects, all intro psych students, are divided into three groups. They’re all given two tasks: a puzzle that’s enjoyable and a boring task that involves identifying whether strings of letters are in alphabetical order. They’re told they’ll get $2 for completing the boring task, but what they don’t know is the task is set up that it’s nearly impossible for them to earn the money. The researchers set up the experiment so that each subject also gets 8 minutes of free time during which they can become more familiar with either one of the tasks, as extra materials are left in the room, or they can browse magazines or do nothing at all. They’re observed through a one-way mirror, and the amount of time they spend on each task is recorded. At the end, the subjects fill out a questionnaire to rate how much they liked the two tasks.

Now here’s what was different about the three groups. One group does the experiment as I’ve explained it. The subjects in the other two groups are asked for their opinion before they go into the task-assignment room. The experimenter shows them two bags of candy and tells them that he’s “collecting pilot data for a professor” and needs to know which bag would make for a better gift. One group gets to keep the bag of candy that they choose, while the other group merely checks it out and returns it to the shelf.

In other words, two of the groups look at candy and make a decision about it before they do the tasks. Prior research shows that being in a good mood increases intrinsic motivation but only for tasks that are expected to be positive or at least moderately attractive. It does’t work for boring or tedious tasks. So in this experiment, the researchers believe that just looking at the candy primes the participants to be in a slightly better mood.

The group that got to keep the candy were more likely to use their free time working on the interesting task, and they spent more time on it than the other groups. Remember, solving the interesting tasks doesn’t pay anything, but solving the boring task nets the participant $2. In a survey at the end of the experiment, the people who got to keep the candy reported, on average, enjoying the puzzles more. They also performed “significantly faster,” solving a letter string (boring task) in 42.7 seconds on average whereas the other groups did it in 57 seconds.

The group that merely looked at the candy but didn’t keep it were more likely to pick up the boring task in their free time, and they spent more time on it than the group that didn’t see any candy at all.

The researchers’ analysis is that the people who got the candy were primed to have higher intrinsic motivation. The group that looked at the candy but didn’t keep it, and the group that skipped the candy bit altogether, had higher extrinsic motivation. They were motivated toward the potential $2 reward, not the task that would be more enjoyable. And remember: those who were primed by both looking at candy and keeping it were faster at the boring task, too. They were also just as accurate. In other words, they were more productive.

Prime for Work By Choosing Happiness

Two things come to mind here.

First, there are plenty of other examples of people being more productive when they’re first primed to be in a good mood. Free chocolate, standup comedy (Oswald et al., 2014), and looking at pictures of baby animals (Nittono et al., 2012) before doing tasks, for exampled, all increased productivity in various experiments. In general, being in a good mood makes us more productive.

Second, having agency over decisions seems to increase productivity and motivation, too. Being able to choose what activities we do in our free time helps us recover from work better (Eschleman et al., 2014), which allows us to be productive again and not burn out. We like feeling like we’re in control.

So the magic of “what the most productive people do before breakfast” probably has very little with their exact routines and much more to do with the fact that they’re priming themselves to be in a good mood. If someone likes running in the morning and it makes him feel good, he might be more motivated and productive at work as a result. If a CEO likes almond milk and kale smoothies or even simply likes that those smoothies make her feel as if she’s doing something good for herself (the true health benefit of such a drink is moot), then she is priming herself to be in a good mood.

It’s possible that these “most productive people” are making decisions and choosing things that make them happy, and that’s what bolsters their motivation and productivity once they start work, not the thing itself.


Eschleman, K. J., Madsen, J., Alarcon, G., & Barely, A. (2014) Benefiting from creative activity: The positive relationships between creative activity, recovery experiences, and performance-related outcomes. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Isen, A. M., & Reeve., J. (2005). The Influence of Positive Affect on Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Facilitating Enjoyment of Play, Responsible Work Behavior, and Self-Control Motivation and Emotion, 29 (4) doi: 10.1007/s11031-006-9019-8. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2015 from http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2005_IsenReeve_MO.pdf.

Kashihara, K., Maruyama, T., Murota, M., & Nakahara, Y. (2009) Positive effects of acute and moderate physical exercise on cognitive function. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 28: 155–164. PMID: 19652447.

Nittono, H., Fukushima, M, Yano, A., and Moriya, H. (2012). The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus. PLoS ONE 7(9): e46362. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046362

Oswald, A. J., Proto, E., and Sgroi, D. (2014). Happiness and productivity. Working paper. JOLE 3rd Version: 10 February 2014.

Image by Taidoh, CC.


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