As a morning person, I have rarely ever needed to set alarms. I tend to wake up naturally between 6 and 7 a.m. most mornings, and that’s usually early enough for most purposes. However, I’m always interested in experimenting with time management and productivity, and I noticed that most of the people I look up to in this regard, the people who are where I want to be in terms of personal organisation and efficiency, wake up much, much earlier.
So I thought why not, let’s give it a shot. One evening last July, I set an alarm and woke up at 4.30 the following morning. The goal was to do this six days a week for a year (with Saturdays set aside as a ‘lazy day’) and see what happened.
Well, a year has now passed, and here’s what I’ve learned.
Waking up earlier does indeed boost productivity. It’s counterintuitive, because a day has 24 hours regardless, so what does it matter which hours you’re awake for, right? Well in my experience (and I’m certainly not the first to discover this, it’s well-documented), there’s a significant advantage to getting a chunk of your daily to-do list done before the rest of the world wakes up.
Part of it is psychological, for sure, because there’s nothing like the smug feeling of heading into breakfast knowing that you’re almost done with your obligations for the day while everyone else is still groggy and grasping for consciousness. But there are also practical reasons. Being up early means you can concentrate in peace while the rest of the world is still asleep. Sure, you could have that quiet time very late at night instead, but doing it early means you’re starting fresh off a good night’s sleep, rather than trying to force yourself to be productive after the events of the day have taken their toll and you’re tired and ready to relax.
My bedtime did not have to change by very much. Initially I thought I was going to have to go to bed ridiculously early to make up for the sleep I was ‘losing’ in the morning, but that turned out not to be the case. Instead, I noticed that getting things done and out of the way early in the morning freed me up both mentally and physically to relax a little more the rest of the day, which meant I wasn’t as wrecked in the evenings as I had been previously. So when I went to bed, there was no longer that exhausted desperation to hit the pillow. My quality of sleep skyrocketed, which seemed to make a lot more difference than getting a greater quantity of sleep.
It makes the day feel more open and less cluttered. When I started getting up earlier, all of a sudden there was ample time for everything I wanted to do, especially when it came to fitness. I no longer struggled to cram a workout or a run into my day; there was plenty of time to do those things before breakfast. Meditation sessions had a nice margin around them instead of being tightly sandwiched between practical obligations. It was nice to feel like I was controlling my schedule, instead of it controlling me.
When you wake up early, people take it personally. This was one of the more interesting side effects of the experiment. I was surprised at how many people reacted to my early wake-up time as if it were something I had done to them, as if it were hurting them. Some were very intense and repetitive with their pointed questioning of why followed by but WHY followed by but I still don’t understand WHY, regardless of how many times I had already explained it. A couple of people were downright angry, as if my waking up early was a negative judgement of their own, less-strict morning habits. One person even said they didn’t know if they could continue to spend time with, me and threatened to cut me off because of my ‘strange schedule’, even though my wake-up time had zero effect on our regular meeting times, which were almost always in the afternoon.
Personally, I think it was just a case of people bristling at the thought of someone trying to do anything different from what most people perceive as the norm. As the Japanese say, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. People like you just the way they are. Luckily I did not let this affect my resolve, and continued enjoying my early mornings, since it wasn’t actually hurting anyone and was benefitting me greatly.
When you tell people you wake up at 4.30, they often don’t believe you. I spent a week staying with a friend in Germany who warned me that she had to be up at 4.45 for work, and promised me that she’d try to get ready quietly, so as not to disturb my sleep. ‘It doesn’t matter’, I replied, ‘I wake up at 4.30 anyway, so I’ll already be up’. ‘Oh, okay, that works out perfectly, then’, she said.
When she woke up the following morning and came out of her bedroom to find me sitting in the lounge, my presence startled her. ‘Sorry, I thought I mentioned that I wake up at 4.30’, I said. ‘You did mention it’, she replied, ‘but I didn’t think you meant actual 4.30′. I’m not sure what else ‘I wake up at 4.30’ could mean, but I did have several experiences in which people were shocked to see me up early in the morning, even though I’d already told them about my schedule.
Anything can become the new normal. Waking up at 4.30 on a regular basis is not as difficult as people imagine it to be. All you have to do is set an alarm, make it non-negotiable in your thought patterns, and get up when the alarm goes off. Everything else sorts itself out accordingly— your sleep schedule, your productivity, your social life, all of it. After the first couple of weeks, what initially seemed like it was going to be a big chore turns out to be a comfortable routine. And if the new routine proves to be beneficial in other ways, then it can even become a joy.
So now that the year-long experiment is over, the question is, will I continue to wake up at 4.30 every morning? The answer to that is… mostly yes, but in a slightly more relaxed framework. For the experiment, I was brutal in my insistence that 4.30 meant 4.30, no matter what. I set the alarm and kept to it even when I was up until past midnight, and even when I had the flu and getting out of bed was not advisable.
From now on, I’m going to be a little less militant and a little more reasonable, since the whole point of this schedule is to make my life better. If I’m ill and need rest, I’ll rest. If I get invited out for the evening and don’t get to bed until the middle of the night, I won’t hobble through the next day on one hour of sleep just to prove a point.
Would I recommend waking up earlier to others? Absolutely! Give it a try, even if just for a few weeks, and see if it doesn’t transform your life in many unexpected and positive ways. If you do try it, let me know how it goes.