I’m sure you’ve seen some of the many articles about all the successful people who wake up at 4 AM. I’ve seen them too and they bother me. Primarily because for the last six months, I’ve dragged myself out of bed at 4 AM every weekday and it hasn’t magically transformed my career into Tim Cook’s.
Changing my working hours didn’t supercharge my productivity, but it did teach me all the pitfalls of an early wake-up time. Before you commit to reconfiguring your schedule to match a business trend that’s not actually a one-size-fits-all solution, here’s what you should know.
Why People Choose to Wake Up So Early
When these articles started circulating right before New Year’s, I saw a lot of people posting about how they intended to set their alarms earlier this year to get more out of their days. It’s not a bad resolution. Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, says most people enjoy increased discipline, energy, and focus in the morning.
But the successful people cited in this genre of articles aren’t getting up at 4 AM to write their novels or work on their passion projects. Most are CEOs or high-ranking executives with incredible demands on their time. Some are getting up early to work without interruption or to align their schedules with associates working in different time zones. Others are rising early to exercise and spend additional time with their families because they know that if they don’t prioritize their personal lives, they won’t get to enjoy them at all.
The problem is that some of these articles seem to imply that what works for a small sampling of people will serve everyone.
The problem is that some of these articles seem to imply that what works for a small sampling of people will serve everyone. Some people are morning people or billionaires with empires to run, and some—like me—have jobs that require unorthodox start times. There’s nothing wrong with starting your mornings early, just make sure you’re doing it for a good reason.
Waking Up Early Only Helps if You Have a Reason and a Plan
Having more time is not the same thing as using that time. If it were, insomniacs would be the most productive people alive. I wake up at 4 AM for work, but if I didn’t have somewhere specific to be, I can bet you I’d waste those extra hours watching TV and feeling anxious about not using my time more effectively. As it stands, on days when I don’t have an explicit list of tasks to accomplish after work, I find myself wandering aimlessly around my apartment and wondering where all my extra time went.
Vanderkam says the key to optimizing your day has less to do with sticking to some predetermined wake-up time and more to do with tailoring your morning routine to prioritize tasks that are personally important to you.
“If you need to be at work at 9 AM, and you wake up at 7:20, run for 30 minutes, then shower and get in the car for work, you’ve got a good morning routine. If you’re a student whose first class is at 10 AM and you choose to wake up to study from 8-9:30 instead of sleeping in until 9:45, you also have a good morning routine,” she told me. “No 4 AM wake-up required.”
You Might Be Picking a Fight With Your Body Clock (and You’ll Probably Lose)
Body clocks are real, hard-wired, and different for everyone. Someone who’s designed to function best at night won’t be able to capitalize on the extra morning hours in the same way as someone who’s genetically predisposed to rise early.
Someone who’s designed to function best at night won’t be able to capitalize on the extra morning hours in the same way as someone who’s genetically predisposed to rise early.
Vanderkam acknowledges that night owls are already at a disadvantage when it comes to navigating most working environments, without trying to wake up even earlier. But there are ways for late-risers to hack the system and harness the power of their body clock. Vanderkam suggests looking for companies that offer flexible schedules or, if you live on the East Coast, looking for roles at West Coast-based firms so calls and meetings will start later.
People call 4 AM “the most productive hour” because it’s quiet and free from social media and technological interruptions. But if you’re a night owl looking to focus, why not take advantage of late hours, when you’re already alert and free from distractions? Staying up until 1 AM to work accomplishes the same thing as getting up early does, but this way you’re exploiting your body clock, rather than fighting against it.
You Might Actually Create More Stress for Yourself
Since starting my 4 AM routine, my afternoons have freed up and I have more time than I used to. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. I feel constant pressure to fill the post-work hours with more projects, which—for me—creates creative, mental, and physical exhaustion.
Vanderkam says she deals with burnout like this by making “very specific lists of things I need to do on any given day. Short lists! Then, when I’m done, I’m done. If I want to do more I can, but I don’t have to.”
I’ve worked to counteract my self-induced burnout by giving myself a hard cutoff—I have to stop working by 5 PM at the latest. I also created a “fun to-do list,” so that when I feel compelled to fill my time with a task, at least I can choose something I’ll actually enjoy doing.
If you’re someone who benefits from taking their time and working deliberately, then you might find the bonus hours freeing. But elongating your day can feel more crippling than constructive, especially if you’re like me and you work best under pressure.
As Vanderkam points out, “self-knowledge is an important part of productivity.” So consider how you, with your particular working style and personality, will benefit or suffer from giving yourself more time to waste. She also recommends looking “for small tweaks, rather than big changes. You are who you are. The question is how you can be the best version of yourself.”
You Might Lose More Than You Gain
It goes without saying, but if you’re bumping up your wake-up time and not changing your bedtime to reflect that, you’re going to lose sleep. “Many of these people rising at 4 AM also go to bed at 9 PM. Very few people get less than six to seven hours of sleep per day when averaged over the long haul,” Vanderkam says.
In other words, most people aren’t adding huge chunks to their workday—they’re just shifting when those working hours take place. If you struggle to wake up at 4 AM to work on your screenplay or finish a project, you can accomplish the same thing by continuing to work for an extra hour or two later in the day. As any successful person will tell you, it doesn’t matter when you do the work, as long as it gets done. But keep in mind that you’ll probably lose more than you gain in the long run if you simply cut down on sleep rather than move things around.
As someone who now considers staying out until 10 PM to be living on the edge, it’s important to acknowledge that lifestyle overhauls like these require an identity shift.
And there are other considerations. Getting up at 4 AM hasn’t completely derailed my life, but I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t rattled my world a little. As someone who now considers staying out until 10 PM to be living on the edge, it’s important to acknowledge that lifestyle overhauls like these require an identity shift. I was excited about my new job, so I was willing to take the plunge, but it didn’t come without sacrifices. I had to learn to be okay with falling asleep during movies—even ones I’ve paid for—and saying goodbye to impromptu weeknight social engagements. Being on a non-traditional schedule can be isolating, so make sure to be intentional with your choices before upending your life.
Tons of Successful People Wake Up Late
Late risers get a bad rap, but there are just as many successful night owls as there are early birds. President Obama, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a list of other creative, famous people too long to fit on this page have all professed to work best in the wee hours of the night. So if you’re working while the rest of the world is drifting off to sleep, fear not. You’re in good company.
I imagine many of the people who started this year hell-bent on implementing a 4 AM wake-up time have since had a change of heart. That’s okay. I’m sure there are others who made the switch and loved it. That’s okay too.
Everyone should feel free to start their day whenever works best for them. Because to imply that waking up at a specific time will somehow change your life or fast track your career is laughable. We all have different definitions of achievement, styles of working, and times of day when we’re best equipped to reach our goals. And for many—especially parents of young children—being able to sleep until 7 AM is a measure of success in and of itself.
This year, don’t feel compelled to change your schedule to reflect someone else’s reality. If waking up early helps you, then go for it. But if you’re expecting it to turn you into the next Bill Gates—then get in line, because I’m still waiting.
Photo of person working on a laptop at home courtesy of 10'000 Hours/Getty Images.
Ilana Gordon is a writer originally from Connecticut. She has lived in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles and currently resides in a state of continuous panic. She contributes work to sites like The A.V. Club, The Takeout, Atlas Obscura, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Reductress. You can visit her website here.More from this Author