Don’t Get Up At 5am
Getting up early almost certainly won’t have the effect that you want it to.
It’s hard to know whether it’s just videos that are recommended to me or if they’re recommended to everyone. But since I don’t look at very many videos or articles of changing sleep habits to improve productivity, I can’t imagine that it’s my own personal content curation that is pushing these videos and articles to me. I think it’s safe to assume that I’m not the only one seeing a ton of online content titled “How Waking Up at 5am Changed my Life”. The reality is that this can be dangerous and even have the opposite effect.
The reality of these stories is that they’re anecdotal. Because of the universality of sleeping, everyone has a story to tell about how changing their sleeping cycle has helped or hurt them. There’s something enticing about being able to make a simple change to a sleep schedule that will have lasting impacts throughout all other aspects of one’s life. But like anything in life, it just isn’t that simple.
The reality is that everyone has different times of the day where they are most effective. Some people are best in the morning, others operate more effectively at night. Among personal factors that are determined by occupation and other outside forces, a person’s time where they are most effective is partially predestined by genetics. With this, according to the Harvard Business Review, those who naturally rise early are typically more proactive and tend to have more concrete goals that they reach toward. However, those that are active in the evening tend to be smarter, more creative, have a better sense of humor, and be more outgoing.
These results could be due to the reality of the world in which we live where those who are able to get a head-start on the corporate day (morning people) are more likely to be able to make a change in the day before their peers have a chance to make an impact. With that, evening people might have more of a likelihood to be more outgoing and humorous because of the greater number of social events that occur in the evenings in modern society.
There are, obviously, exceptions to these rules and HBR admits that they could be oversimplifications, but it does begin to explain why rising early in the morning is so enticing.
Those who make the conscious change in their lives to rise earlier in order to improve their productivity could be benefiting from simply being able to work when others are still asleep. If you answer emails at 6am rather than 11pm, you will inherently get a head-start on the day. Being able to get some work done in the office before everyone else shows up might be good for you. But for others, it could be just as effective to do the same thing at night. Perhaps our predisposition to stop working at a certain point at night prevents us from having a significant impact on work after hours whereas not having that same barrier in the morning might give people more of a reason to start working as soon as they wake up and begin their day.
But to answer the question everyone wants to know, will waking up earlier in the morning improve your productivity? And the answer is a firm maybe. As previously mentioned, genetic predisposition to early rising will probably turn that maybe into a yes. If for whatever reason you are an early-riser but you aren’t waking up early now, it could certainly help. But odds are if you prefer your mornings, you’re already waking up early. However, if you find it hard to motivate yourself in the morning as compared to the evening, waking up early will probably have the opposite effect. Your productivity might improve for a couple of days as you begin your new regimen, but will quickly dip to below standards as your quality of sleep continues to get worse. The same goes for those who are sacrificing sleep in the pursuit of rising early. Sleeping for less than your own personal optimal amount of sleep will result in long-term damage in efficiency. While some people may be able to get away with 5 hours of sleep, most people need more. Glorifying a damaging sleep schedule is something modern humans love to do for some reason. Being tired is a sign of hard work and a marker for success. It seems that when anyone gets busy, the first sacrifice they make is their sleep when, in reality, it is one of the most important things humans need to operate. Getting a reasonable amount of sleep is essential in maintaining productivity and mental health.
Sleep schedules change as we age as well. Those who are younger tend to be more active in the evenings. Then those in their 30s and 40s tend to begin the transition to being more active in the mornings. And finally, the older we get, the more active we tend to be in the morning.
So if we all have varying effectiveness based on the time of day, why do we revere those with an earlier schedule and scoff at folks who have a hard time waking up in the morning? Much of this way of thinking is deeply ingrained in our culture. One can imagine a farm that disparages the son of the family who wakes up later than everyone and isn’t able to help with the livestock. Unless you still live and work on a farm, this is very clearly outdated bias.
This heavy preference towards those with a strong work ethic actually only began around 500 years ago during the Protestant Reformation. Up until that point, many ancient cultures including the Greeks and the Hebrews actually had the opposite view; finding that work was more of a curse than a point of pride. This prejudice that favors long, hard working hours is actually based in a religious change and has simply stuck ever since.
Those who evangelize waking up earlier are a part of the same camp that wants to maximize their time, likely by trying to minimize their sleeping as much as possible. However, the perils of losing out on sleep are not to be taken lightly. The Washington Post reports, “The growing consensus is that casual disregard for sleep is wrongheaded — even downright dangerous.”
The most effective way to manipulate your sleep schedule is to listen to your body. If you find that you’re most effective in the morning, get some work done in the morning. If you’re a night owl, don’t try to change that, lean into it. And if you’re someone who does their best work in the middle of the day, don’t be fooled into thinking that getting up earlier will help you. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule and understand that manipulating a natural sleeping cycle is a recent change; humans have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to operate best at certain times, there isn’t a brute-force change that can be applied to that.
Don’t let eye-catching news stories convince you that sleeping for 4 hours a day is a good idea or waking up at 2:30am is a good idea because Mark Wahlberg does it. For every person society deems as successful that wakes up early, there are several that wake up much later. The founder of Reddit, CEO of Box, and CEO of Buzzfeed wake up at 10am, 8:30am, and 10am respectively. Before his days on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah would wake up at 6pm.
Don’t watch those videos of people evangelizing a restrictive sleep schedule. Improvements to the lives of these people are far more personal than what they report or realize. A personalized and consistent sleeping schedule is the best recipe for success and happiness. Everyone’s optimal time of effectiveness and sleep amount is completely unique to themselves. Although there are apparent connections with sleep schedules and personality traits, it’s clear that trying to make a change to this by altering a sleep schedule is not effective and can even be dangerous. Changing a sleep schedule can seem like an enticing way to fix all of one’s problems, but in reality it’s not that simple. Don’t listen to those videos. Don’t read those articles. Sleep in a way that’s comfortable to you personally and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
I’ll leave you with a quote published by the Washington Post. Although it focuses on the length of sleep, it can be applied to the vital importance of sleep itself in its length, quality, and timing. ‘“When you are asleep, it’s the most idiotic of all things: You’re not finding food, not finding a mate. Worse still, you’re vulnerable to predation,” said Matthew Walker, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “If there was a chance to shave even 10 percent to 20 percent of that time, Mother Nature would have weeded it out through the process of evolution millions of years ago.”’
The following are some articles that I used for inspiration and research. I recommend them all for anyone interested in further reading, but I recommend the Washington Post article for those who don’t have the time to read them all.