The self-help world seems to have an obsession with waking up early. Sometimes it feels like I can’t go a single day without seeing a new article listing one hundred and one benefits of waking up two hours before sunrise. When it comes to productivity, waking up early is treated as the golden rule.
For those of us who like to sleep late, all this talk of getting up early can be demoralizing. Is our sleeping in a sign of sloth? Laziness? Moral failure?
Fortunately, we can relax, because waking up early isn’t nearly so essential to productivity as the self-help gurus would have us believe. The truth is, you can sleep in as late as you like and still get just as much done as the early risers.
The importance of time allocation
No matter when you wake up, there are only 24 hours in a day. Waking up early doesn’t magically add another few hours to your day, it just takes those hours from somewhere else. In the best case, waking up early means going to sleep early as well. In the worst case, it means cutting down on your nightly sleep.
Cutting down on your nightly sleep is a bad idea for several reasons. Insufficient sleep has been connected with poor health, poor work performance, and poor mental states. If you want to increase your productivity long-term, getting a full night of sleep is essential.
Going to sleep early sounds like the obvious solution, but it doesn’t work for all of us. One problem is that many people simply can’t fall asleep early, no matter how hard they try. Another problem is that many of us do our best work late at night and going to bed early cuts this crucial time from our schedule.
It all comes down to time allocation. If you treat the nighttime hours as nothing more than a time to binge Netflix, then it makes sense to cut them in favor of waking up early for a run. On the other hand, if your nights are used for work, then you can be getting just as much done by staying up late as you would have if you got up early. It isn’t that waking up early is bad — just that it’s not inherently better.
The rigidness of the rest of your schedule can also play a role. If you are in a 9–5 office job, then waking up early might be the only way for you to get a run in before work. These days though, more and more of us are working jobs with flexible hours. This means that we can still start the day with a run even when we sleep later, by pushing back work instead.
My year of early rising
A couple of years ago, I was working a job that required me to be in the office at eight each morning. For many people, this is a completely normal schedule, but for me, it felt like absolute torture. I had to wake up at around six in order to get to work in time, and my body just couldn’t get used to it.
I tried going to sleep early each night, but I’d normally end up lying in bed feeling completely restless. Even though I spent most days feeling completely exhausted, I still couldn’t get myself to fall asleep when I needed to.
The result was that my work suffered, I got less done, and my mood was terrible. I kept thinking that I just needed more time to adjust, but month after month passed without any change. I stayed at the job for about one year, and my exhaustion never got any better. I continued to wake up early out of necessity, but it was always a struggle just to get out of bed.
As I stayed at the job, I tried pushing back my wake-up time later and later in order to get more sleep. It helped with my fatigue, but the trade-off was that I was becoming more rushed in the morning and couldn’t get done everything that I’d like to do before work.
When I finally left, I took a new job that allowed me to work mostly on my own hours. At last, I could sleep as late as I wanted, and I noticed the difference immediately. I was more focused at work, happier during the day, and getting way more done.
Now, instead of working on someone else’s schedule, I can work in the afternoons and at night. This is when I’m focused and when my mind is working at its best, and it’s reflected in the quality of my work. I’m not spending my hours differently than the early-risers, I’m just doing things at the time of day that work best for me. Instead of forcing my body to adapt to my work schedule, I built a work schedule around my body’s needs.
For many people, the early hours really are their most productive. For them, waking up early makes sense and can help them get a positive start to the day. For the rest of us, waking up early is just unnecessary punishment. The real secret is to listen to your own body and follow what works best for you. You can rest easy knowing that your productivity isn’t going to suffer as a result.