Why You Probably Shouldn’t Get Up At 5am
Getting up at 5am and working before most people are awake is a popular piece of advice for a lot of aspiring creatives and entrepreneurs. But is it really a good suggestion?
The idea is simple. In order to get more out of life, you need more distraction-free hours in your day. So, you should wake up early. Not just 6 or 7 early, but 5 – or even earlier!
It’s a wonderful notion: wake while the rest of the world still sleeps, then exercise, meditate, enjoy a big slice of uninterrupted work, and feel like you’ve set the direction for your day before anyone else can set it for you. People I deeply admire, like Twyla Tharp, are dedicated early risers, and the early rising habit is popular in the corporate world and among writers as well.
However, while this might be a good strategy for some people, for most of us, it’s a terrible idea.
Above All Get Enough Sleep
Far more important than what time we wake is how much sleep we get. The evidence is overwhelmingly in and trying to get by without enough sleep is stupid. Needing to sleep isn’t a weakness. Good sleep patterns are, like good nutrition and regular exercise, an essential part of healthy living. And sleep helps develop our creativity.
Whatever benefits early rising might have, you can only be sustained if you are getting enough sleep. Most of us need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, so waking at 5am means consistently getting to sleep before 10pm, often by 9pm. So, that’s a night-time switch-off and wind-down routine that probably starts around 8pm and means eating dinner at 5 or 6 in the afternoon.
Does that work for you?
This might suit parents of young children, as it synchronises with the eating and bedtimes of their kids, who tend to go to bed early and usually want 10 or so hours of sleep a night. You get a little time to yourself in the evening, then a few solid hours in the morning before the kids wake up or need to go to school.
Of course, the cost is you lose evenings, which might be the time for films, concerts, reading, socialising, or just feeling like you are still a grown-up—all of which can be hugely important to parents who work from home, carry most or all the load of parenting, or simply need the creative fuel that comes from being out in, and inspired by, the adult world.
And, most important of all, getting up very early simply might not work for you. This isn’t just a question of personality, but also biology, your ‘wiring’, your natural rhythms.
Not everyone is an early bird. Most of us couldn’t become one even if we tried.
“The phase of an individual’s body clock in relationship to a zeitgeber [natural rhythm] is a biological phenomenon and not a matter of discipline.”
– Till Roenneberg
There’s Probably No Point Fighting Your Chronotype
Each of us has a pair of clocks in our body: two glands – one in the brain, one in the liver – that form a pathway that communicates to other parts of our body and regulates our relationship to time, like when to sleep or when to eat. The clocks are regulated by the light we see, including the time we rise, the hours we spend outdoors and the food we eat.
When these clocks get messed up, after a long flight across time zones, when we get sick, or if we go without sleep, then these clocks being out of sync creates jet lag, or sudden urges to sleep outside our normal bedtime.
The way these internal clocks work determines our relationship to time. We say some people are early birds and others are late owls, the way we describe quirks of personality. Or we see them as markers of disciple or character, as if early risers were also inherently harder workers or better people. But it’s got little to do with any of that. Each of us has what scientists call a chronotype.
And it’s hardwired into us.
Think of the sunrise. There’s the light before the sunrise, then the sunrise itself, then the strong light as the sun clears everything on the horizon. It’s the same with people waking up. All other things being equal, some rise early, some in the middle, some later.
Our chronotype is a built-in part of who we are (to read more on this, check out Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired, by Till Roenneberg). While our chronotype might change three or four times in our lifetime as a result of different stages of life (most young kids rise early, teenagers rise late, then gradually we rise earlier through young to mid-adulthood), it’s almost impossible to change it.
And why should we?
There’s no point fighting your chronotype. The best thing you can do is find out what it is, then work with it, fitting your most important tasks into the best times of the day for you. At least that’s how it should be.
Do Our Clocks Even Work?
Waking up at 5am doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere in the world because the sun doesn’t rise at the same time everywhere.
Here in Tokyo, during July, my alarm was set for the usual 6.50am. But I was awake 20 to 25 minutes before the alarm every day. A few weeks later, on holiday in Adelaide, 6.50 felt hard, and I needed the alarm.
Of course, in Tokyo, I was waking about two hours after Tokyo’s blisteringly early 4.30am summer sunrises, whereas in Adelaide I was trying to force myself to wake half an hour before Adelaide’s soft late-winter dawn. Relative to the sun, waking at 6.30am in Tokyo’s summer was like was waking at 9.15am in Adelaide’s winter.
If only we could set our sleep times to the movements of the sun, rather than arbitrary clocks and office hours!
If you are naturally an early riser, then it makes sense to build your life around that. Getting up at 5am with a good assortment of things you want to achieve before the world awakes is smart. It will suit you and help you get the most out of your life.
For the rest of us, it makes no sense to groggily fight through an early rise because it works for someone else, putting our most important creative or personal work into the hours when we are still not fully dynamic.
But there might be a lesson for all of us in the 5am idea.
There’s a benefit from getting up at the earlier end of the time window that suits our chronotype and then building our life around that as a regular sleep pattern. And getting up purposefully is smart. Even if the first hours are not your best, you can still create a morning routine that helps you have a good day.
This is what I’ve done with my 6.50am rise. It feels early, given my night-owlish past, when I used to regularly fight with my alarm and sleep past lunchtime on weekends. But then again, it’s well after sunrise here, even in winter. And, most important of all, it’s built on a solid sleep routine. I fill a lot of my first hours of the morning with chores and tidying, stuff that helps me be organised and at peace with my environment but doesn’t tax my decision making. I get to the computer about 8.30am and start to write, early enough to have clear thoughts, but late enough to feel fully awake.
Working to Your Chronotype
Ideally, we would find our chronotype and build a life around that – early to bed and early to rise for all those who are suited to getting most of their work done before lunchtime; later to bed and later to rise with most of the work later in the day for the night owls. And something in-between for the rest of us.
Unfortunately, for most of us, this isn’t in our control. School and workplaces start at fixed times regardless of what our chronotype might be, with many countries – especially those influenced by the ‘Protestant work ethic’ – choosing starting times that suit really only a small percentage of the population. Eighty-five per cent of adults need an alarm clock to wake up and, depending what country you are in, work start times could be too early for as many as 60 per cent of people.
Whatever your chronotype, the important thing is to protect the best hours in your day. Don’t waste them on trivial chores or meaningless activities. Fill them with your most important work and the deepest relationships you have, whether it’s the first hours of your day, the late morning, sometime around sunset, or the quiet hours of the night. Probably a couple of hours every day are consistently bathed in golden rays of clarity, focus and creativity. Make the most of them, whenever they happen for you.
And, of course, get a good night’s sleep.