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By Bryan Lufkin
Being successful means waking up early – or so we’re constantly told.
It makes you more productive. Celebrities and CEOs do it. You’ll be healthier and happier. You’ll feel in control of your life.
But despite the deluge of such stories, waking up at an ungodly hour isn’t some sort of magic productivity hack that will solve your time-management problems. For some, it can even be counterproductive.
The trick is finding a routine that fits your situation. Here are some timeless tips that can help you cut through the noise and figure out a wake-up strategy that’s right for you.
What are the benefits of getting up early?
There can be lots – at least, according to all the people who get up at daybreak.
Many people cite fewer distractions during the early hours: kids or anyone else in your home are probably still asleep, for example, and you’ll probably be receiving fewer texts or emails at that time.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has said he rises at 03:45 to start checking email in California before his East Coast colleagues can (which, at 06:45, is still quite early in its own right). Oprah Winfrey says she gets up at 06:02 every day for reflection, meditation and exercise before starting work at 09:00. The most extreme case might be Mark Wahlberg, who wakes up at 02:30 to exercise, play golf, pray and recover in a -100C cryochamber.
You might be more alert and have better cognitive ability in the afternoon
Studies have also suggested early rising and success might be linked. People who wake up early are more in sync with the traditional corporate schedule and tend to have more proactive personalities, which might lead to better grades in school or higher wages on the job.
If getting up early doesn’t come naturally, there are some strategies you can try. Early exercise and exposing yourself to light as soon as possible can help stimulate metabolism and body temperature, which gets you going more quickly.
Yet the early alarm clock may not work for everyone – it turns out there are plenty of caveats around trying to become a morning person if it’s not an easy fit.
Is getting up early for everyone?
No. Whether or not waking up early actually makes you more productive could be in your genes.
There’s been lots of research about how some people are biologically more likely to feel more alert in the morning, while others are at their best at night. You might be more alert and have better cognitive ability in the afternoon, for instance.
In fact, a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications provided further evidence that this is the case. Looking at data from over 700,000 people, researchers found over 350 genetic factors that could influence whether people feel more naturally energised either in the morning or in the evening. The large sample size makes the study the biggest of its kind so far, though further research is needed to confirm the results.
So, if you don’t naturally feel alert in the morning but decide to wake up early anyway, you might be sabotaging your actual peak performance times.
Of course, people may have personal reasons for making an early start. “There may be other factors at play, such as enthusiasm and high job satisfaction, which facilitate eagerness to get up earlier and get to work,” says Marilyn Davidson, professor emerita of work psychology at the University of Manchester.
Parents with young children or workers with non-traditional hours may also have no choice about what time they start the day.
Getting up early doesn’t necessarily translate to instant success at the office
The main point: the mere fact of getting up early doesn’t necessarily translate to instant success at the office. In fact, depending on the person, it could end up having a negative effect.
Can getting up early ever be counterproductive?
Yes. Especially if you don’t normally wake up super early and are trying to hop on some kind of productivity bandwagon.
“People say: ‘Oh, this CEO is doing his 05:00 regimen, I’m going to hop on and do this on Mondays and Fridays,’” says Rachel Salas, an associate professor of neurology who specialises in sleep medicine and sleep disorders at Johns Hopkins University in the US. “But that’s not consistent [sleep]. You’re messing with your system.”
Salas says that getting a full night’s sleep and getting the same amount of sleep at the same time each night are both important. An even worse scenario? If you’re actually reducing sleep to become an early riser.
Sacrificing sleep means you may be hit by the many negative effects of sleep deprivation, including moodiness, poor concentration, potential weight gain, anxiety, increased risk of heart disease and higher blood pressure.
So if early rising means cutting sleep, don’t do it. Salas says she’s had patients come into her clinic who got by on reduced sleep in their 20s and 30s, but struggled as they got older, their lifestyles changed and they had kids.
“If you start early, you will need to stop work earlier too, so there may be no real benefits,” points out Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire in Luton, England. She thinks that high-profile businesspeople who follow up an early start with long hours in the office or a late-night presence on email have a damaging effect.
There’s something particularly pernicious about the bragging of a CEO chronicling their early starts. The New York Times recently coined the term ‘performative workaholism’, referring to workaholics flaunting early wake-ups and long hours as a badge of honour, which can end up setting a bad example.
“CEOs are important role models for staff,” Kinman says. “And seeing this behaviour as desirable is just irresponsible.”
What should you do?
Experts say to experiment. Don’t listen to vocal thought-leaders or LinkedIn influencers – figure out what works best for you. And, hey, maybe that does mean waking up super early after all.
Pay attention to when you feel most tired and most awake. When on holiday, make a note of the times you fall asleep and wake up naturally. Try to sync your schedule to those times, as that’s how you’ll tap into most of your natural energy for the day ahead.
When it comes to the workplace, experts suggest an approach that accommodates everyone’s habits to bring out the best in them. Susan Stehlik, director of New York University’s management communications programme, suggests offices and teams use a technique called “appreciative inquiry”.
Pay attention to when you feel most tired and most awake.
This means that the team sits down at the very initial stages of a project and brings up their individual needs, schedules and preferences right out of the gate to the group – ideally, so that the group can adjust accordingly.
“That way you bring up things [like]: ‘I have kids, I have to be up at 05:00 every day and have to get them to day-care and can’t stay late’,” Stehlik says. “‘Here are my vulnerabilities right now, and here are my strengths right now.’ It’s mostly teamwork.”
If team leaders are flexible, you could agree to have an early riser start checking email or working earlier, and then allow them to knock off earlier in the afternoon. That way, workers can enjoy the benefits of early rising, but avoid burnout.
You’re also applying the practices of early rising to those to whom it’s applicable or useful, instead of arbitrarily getting everyone up early to chase the illusion of increased productivity.
In the end, though, it’s all about taking sleep advice from non-experts with a grain of salt. It’s about knowing your unique sleep preferences and the times of the day (or night) that you feel at your peak. And above all, it’s getting adequate – and consistent – amounts of sleep.
For some people, forcing yourself to wake up before the chickens because that’s what your business idol does may not be the smartest or healthiest way to start the day.
“Don’t do it,” Kinman says. “Unless you are a true morning person.”
Bryan Lufkin is BBC Capital’s features writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin.
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