Type the phrase ‘daily habits of successful people’ into any search engine, and you will be inundated with results bearing snappy titles like ’15 Daily Habits That Will Make You Happy and Successful’, ‘Hack Your Day’, ’10 Habits of Ultra Successful People: The Secret Sauce to Success’ and more.
Just from skimming through, it gives you the distinct impression that there’s some coveted recipe that people like Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington and Barack Obama all have access to; all you have to do is click, read and you, normal person, have it too!
But no matter how many articles we write or interviews we conduct or thought pieces we put together, there’s no one formula for success because we’re human therefore we’re all different. Some of us thrive on four hours’ sleep; some need a full eight just to feel like themselves. Some of us are tech-all-day-every-day types, constantly keeping up with email and social media; some need to create structured timeframes to unplug. It’s actually the most fascinating part about our obsession with success and what we deem ‘successful behaviour’. When you delve into their differences, that’s when things get interesting: do all these individuals’ different rituals have something in common? What’s different? What speaks to you personally and the habits you’ve adopted in your own life?
Let’s examine 25 influential figures – entrepreneurs, CEOs, authors, actresses, founders, billionaires and more – and compare their daily habits to see what makes these icons tick.
Our Chosen Humans
Here are the 25 men and women we’ve selected to study – all influential figures in their field.
Sir Richard Branson –entrepreneur and founder of Virgin Group (worth $5.4 billion)
Victoria Beckham – businesswomen, fashion designer and singer (worth $300 million)
Mark Zuckerberg– co-founder and CEO of Facebook (worth $51.2 billion)
Deborah Meaden – businesswomen and star of the BBC’s Dragons’ Den (worth £40 million)
Jack Dorsey– co-founder and CEO of Twitter, and founder and CEO of Square (worth $1.02 billion)
Marilyn Monroe – actress and model (worth $27 million)
Bill Gates– entrepreneur, philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft (worth $76 billion)
Martha Stewart – businesswomen, writer, publisher and television personality (worth $638 million)
Howard Schultz – CEO of Starbucks (worth $2.9 billion)
Arianna Huffington – co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post (worth $50 million)
Lord Sugar – business magnate and star of the BBC’s The Apprentice (worth £1.4 billion)
IndraNooyi – CEO of Pepsi Co. (worth $144 million)
Steve Jobs– entrepreneur, inventor and co-founder of Apple (worth $10.2 billion)
Karen Blackett – chairwoman of MediaCom UK, one of the world’s leading media agencies
Tim Cook – CEO of Apple (worth $400 million)
J.K. Rowling – best-selling author of the Harry Potter franchise (worth $1 billion)
Giorgio Armani – fashion designer (worth $6.3 billion)
Jayne-Anne Gadhia – CEO of Virgin Money
Warren Buffett– business magnate, investor and philanthropist (worth $66.8 billion)
Oprah Winfrey – actress, talk show host, producer and philanthropist (worth $3.1 billion)
Jamie Oliver – celebrity chef and restauranteur (worth $400 million)
Anna Wintour – editor-in-chief of American Vogue (worth $35 million)
Barack Obama– President of the United States (worth $12.2 million)
Gloria Steinem – journalist, author, political activist and feminist
Jeff Bezos – founder and CEO of Amazon (worth $59.1 billion)
Let’s start our examination where we all start each and every day – by waking up.
Very generally speaking, we seem to be divided by two kinds of people: slow starters and eager beavers. Those people that can wake up without an alarm clock, who can get out of bed soon after waking, who are invigorated and ready to greet the day.
Then there are those who need to take their time: those who need to ease into their day with a lie-in (relatively speaking, of course), a leisurely cup of something warm and a moment’s reflection before starting their life.
On the whole though, it looks like most of our successful humans are early risers:
Average Wake-Up Time: 6:22 AM
Arianna Huffington: no screens, eight hours of sleep
Back in 2007, a mere two years after launching The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington collapsed on the floor of her office from sheer exhaustion. Ever since that (literal) wake-up call, she’s been an advocate for ‘sleeping your way to the top’, which she writes about in her book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom and Wonder. She personally sleeps a full eight hours each night, and implores us all to keep devices out of our bedroom to help us get more satisfying sleep:
‘“I personally have made my bedroom a device-free zone…I only have real books by my bed. Not even Kindle editions. No iPad. Nothing. It’s incontrovertible. The problems that people have sleeping, a lot of them are connected to screens. People are just on their screens up until the last moment. They wake up to go to the bathroom, and they immediately turn to their data, as if something major is going to happen… Do you keep devices by your bed when you go to sleep? I ask you, please, to never do that again.”’ (excerpt from The Atlantic)
Jamie Oliver: no more three-hour sleeps
The famous Naked Chef admitted in an interview with the Daily Mail that he was ‘addicted to not sleeping’:
‘“For the past decade I’ve been averaging about three-and-a-half hours a night. It got to a point this summer where I had to do something. I knew there was something wrong with me. On a fundamental level I wasn’t functioning like a normal person. I’d sit down in the office, fall asleep and start dribbling. Not pretty. Not good. I feel like I should be admitting to being an alcoholic – people get that. But my thing is not sleeping.”’
However, he’s apparently going to bed much earlier these days (10 pm) and is wearing a Jawbone to help track his sleep cycle.
Bill Gates: seven hours’ rest = a creative day ahead
Bill Gates is also all for getting a good night’s rest. In an interview from the Seattle Times, Gates comments on his sleeping habits:
‘“I like to get seven hours of sleep. Even though it’s fun to stay up all night, maybe taking a red-eye flight, if I have to be creative I need seven hours. I can give a speech without much sleep, I can do parts of my job that way, but in thinking creatively, I’m not much good without seven hours.”’
Mark Zuckerberg: the stay-up-’til-6-am type
The Facebook founder is a rather famous night owl: in an exclusive interview with Current Magazine, Zuckerberg responds to the question ‘What time do you wake up in the morning?’ with this:
‘“That depends. There are two modes. I keep programmer time sometimes. When you’re at your computer you can get distracted by other people, so programmers tend to stay up really late and work when everyone else is asleep. So it’s not really uncommon for me to stay up until 6 or 8 in the morning. The other mode is when I have a meeting. The business world does not operate between 5 pm and 8 am, so that requires some waking up for. The two kind of go together well because sometimes I’m waking up at 8 am and sometimes I’m going to bed at 8 am. So I’ll go for three days without sleeping, which is really sweet.”’
Admittedly, that interview is now over 10 years’ old (back when Facebook was The Facebook) and his routine has undoubtedly changed (having an 8-month old daughter will do that to a parent). But we don’t doubt that sometimes he still gets sucked into ‘programmer time’, which is why we’ve labelled him as an erratic sleeper.
Tim Cook: the earliest riser
Apple’s CEO is another famous erratic sleeper: the man gets up at the ungodly hour of 3:45am each morning (he has been known to start sending company emails as early as 4:30 am) and goes to bed around 10 pm, averaging about 5-6 hours of sleep per night.
‘“I miss the late night shows,”’ Cook jokes in an article about Apple Watch published on the Telegraph last year, ‘but adds that he “loves the quiet” and the sense of “control” at that time in the morning. As he points out, the world doesn’t stop during Californian night-time for a global giant such as Apple.’
Martha Stewart: no time for sleep
A pretty universally-recognised name in television (among other things), Martha Stewart has written bestsellers, hosted two syndicated TV shows and continues to publish Martha Stewart Living – reportedly all on about four hours of sleep per night.In an interview on WebMD, she says that sleep is probably the one thing she neglects:
‘“It’s an exhausting lifestyle, and I always say sleep can go. It’s not important to me right now…I never stay in bed late — I can’t! In my house, the first people arrive at about 6:30, and I have to be up well before that.’”
We aren’t machines and if we push ourselves too far on too little sleep, it can take a toll on our mental and physical health; however, there’s no prescriptive formula for how much sleep you need to be your best.
Breakfast of champions:
The next logical place to go after you wake up is the kitchen – what to have for breakfast? Let’s peek into our successful humans’ kitchens and see what they eat for breakfast.
Buffett, Zuckerberg and Gates: breakfast rebels
Overall, our successful people eat healthy (surprise, surprise). Ironically, the three richest people on our little list are probably the unhealthiest of the bunch: Warren Buffett apparently enjoys chocolate chip ice cream in the AM, Mark Zuckerberg eats whatever he wants and Bill Gates doesn’t usually eat breakfast (but when he does he’s partial to Cocoa Puffs – see for yourself:).
At the other end of the spectrum, our two most powerful lady tycoons on this list are very healthy: Oprah and Martha Stewart both get the day started with a nutritious green smoothie made of fresh fruit and veg.
Reflecting the current resurgence of eggs in our breakfast diet, they seem to be a favourite meal of the wildly prosperous as well: Jack Dorsey, Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Steinem and Barack Obama all reportedly have eggs for breakfast – but how they eat them is quite different:
Barack Obama – poached
Gloria Steinem – scrambled
Jack Dorsey – 2 hard-boiled eggs with soy sauce
Marilyn Monroe – 2 raw eggs whipped in a cup of warm milk
(Marilyn, we love you but that sounds positively awful.)
Another popular way to start the day is with fruit: Richard Branson, Victoria Beckham and Arianna Huffington all make a point to start their day with fresh fruit. Steve Jobs also spent a significant portion of his life as a ‘fruitarianism’ – a hardcore subset of veganism where you mainly eat fruit – and so it’s safe to assume that he probably indulged in a fruity breakfast too.
Schultz, Beckham, Armani and Wintour: coffee, then life
Howard Schultz starts his day with a lovely cup of coffee(which should come as no surprise),along with the fashion set: Victoria Beckham, Giorgio Armani and Anna Wintour all begin the day with a cup of coffee.
And for some, breakfast is less about the food and more about the company: Jayne-Anne Gadhia, Jeff Bezos and Karen Blackett all make time for the family before heading off to another busy day.
‘I always like to be on top of work so I can enjoy the non-work stuff, like having breakfast with the family and talking to my daughter on the way to school, rather than being distracted by work.’ – Jayne-Anne Gadhia, The Guardian
You can’t go wrong with a healthy breakfast of eggs and fruit – and, if you feel like indulging in the occasional sweet treat in the AM, channel your inner Warren Buffett and go for it.
Health, both mental and physical
Keeping healthy in both mind and body is incredibly important, especially when you are responsible for an entire enterprise. Our successful humans are a rather active bunch (considering how busy they are).
Jogging, biking and yoga seem to be the preferred way to get active: Jack Dorsey, Victoria Beckham, Bill Gates and Jayne-Anne Gadhia prefer running, while Lord Sugar and Howard Schultz prefer the bike. Yoga is the favourite work-out method of powerful ladies like J.K. Rowling, Arianna Huffington and Martha Stewart.
(Work out with Martha: check out this video where she chats to yoga instructors all about the yoga lifestyle and demos some moves you can try for yourself – watch here)
Exercise like the POTUS
Barack Obama puts us all to shame: he exercises 6 days a week for at least 45 minutes, alternating between strength and cardio training. He also loves to play basketball, and he’s pretty good:
Although she claims to exercise every morning, Marilyn took a less energetic approach to fitness in general. In a 1952 feature with Pageant Magazine all about how she maintains her appearance, she says she ‘couldn’t stand exercise if I had to feel regimented about it.’ She also ‘never cared especially for outdoor sports, and [had] no desire to excel at tennis, swimming, or golf.’
A less physically-strenuous way to keep the mind healthy, our successful humans are big fans of meditation. Although this kind of personal, internal experience can be different for each of us, there’s no doubt that taking the time to pause and reflect can benefit everyone.
Oprah meditates for 20 minutes each day, Arianna Huffington does 30 minutes and Steve Jobs did his own version every morning. He used to start each day by asking himself a question in the mirror:
‘If today was the last day of my life, would I be happy with what I’m about to do today?’
If he found himself answering ‘no’ too frequently, he knew it was time for something to change.
A combination of yoga, jogging and biking ought to whip you into shape physically, and taking at least 20 minutes out of your day (preferably in the morning) to clear your mind will help keep you steady, focused and healthy.
But routines are meant to be adapted and you shouldn’t force yourself to do something purely for the sake of it. Find what works for you and your schedule, and don’t forget to enjoy yourself.
What’s on the bookshelf?
From news to novels, you are what you read. It’s incredible that a simple act of reading (you’re doing it now!) can have the potential power to affect your behaviour, your decisions and even your overall outlook on life.
Now that we’ve peeked into our successful humans’ bedrooms and breakfast nooks, let’s see what they’ve got on their bookshelves, and how their reading habits reflect who they are.
News in print for Gates, Buffett, Obama and Schultz
In general, our list like to read in the AM. Many have built it into their morning routine like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Barack Obama and Howard Schultz, who all start their days with The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Collectively, they also regularly read publications like The Economist, The Seattle Times, The Financial Times, USA Today, Omaha World-Herald, The American Banker, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The New Yorker.
Richard Branson, Jayne-Anne Gadhia and Karen Blackett prefer to do a different kind of morning reading: going through emails. Although to most of us, this probably isn’t the most pleasant thing to do after waking, it is a useful way to prep for the on-coming day. (And, depending on the volume and length of each email, checking your inbox could feel like reading a small novel).
But what kind of fiction do the incredibly successful read for fun? What are their favourite novels?
Beckham, Oprah and Rowling: Harper Lee, Jane Austen and Roddy Doyle
Oprah and Victoria Beckham are both big fans of the Pulitzer Prize winning classic To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, Victoria loved that book so much she named her daughter Harper after the novel’s author Harper Lee (causing sales of the book to skyrocket after Harper’s birth in 2011).
As the most famous author on this list – and undoubtedly in the world – it comes as no surprise that J.K. Rowling has impeccable taste in literature. Her favourite novel is Emma by Jane Austen: in a feature on Oprah.com, she comments on Austen’s technique:
‘Virginia Woolf said of Austen, “For a great writer, she was the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness,” which is a fantastic line. You’re drawn into the story, and you come out the other end, and you know you’ve seen something great in action. But you can’t see the pyrotechnics; there’s nothing flashy.’
Ancient texts and murderous intrigue: read like Dorsey, Meaden and Zuckerberg
If you’re looking to be inspired like Jack Dorsey, read Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Deborah Meaden is partial to The Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears – you can listen to her chat about this book on BBC’s A Good Read program (skip to 09.43 to get to the good part!).
Or take a page out of Zuckerberg’s book (please forgive us; it was too easy) and read The Aeneid. Apparently the Facebook CEO has a thing for Greek odysseys and epic poems – he studied Latin in high school and even claimed on his application to Harvard that he could read and write in French, Hebrew, Latin and ancient Greek).
Conclusion: Start regularly reading a national newspaper, or an ancient Greek classic (bonus points to whoever tries their hand at translating into English…).
So after our cross examinations, we’ve concluded that our successful humans are – in many ways – a lot like us. We’re all trying to be healthy, get enough sleep, stay informed and keep our bodies in shape – if anything, this goes to show that these successful individuals aren’t super-humans or perfect productivity machines. Like us, sometimes they’re perfectly imperfect – sometimes they just want chocolate ice cream or Cocoa Puffs for breakfast.