Hardly a day goes by that some article doesn't go viral touting the fabulous wonders of rising at 4:30 AM or some other gawd-awful hour. We're told that early birds are happier, more successful, more self-disciplined, and all-around better human beings than the rest of us sluggards who linger abed.

These articles aren't just junk science; they're downright dangerous--in same category as anti-vax misinformation and claims you can cure cancer with crystals. Bad and innacurate health advice has real-life consequences, namely real-world sickness and deaths.

So in the interest of keeping everyone healthier (and alive), here are the scientific facts about sleeping schedules, according to multiple peer-reviewed studies:

"Although humans are diurnal (meaning they prefer to be awake during daylight hours), there is significant variation in this preference (often termed chronotype). Early chronotypes are considered 'larks' and naturally prefer to wake up early, while late chronotypes or 'night owls' tend to stay up late. Clearly, not everyone is the same, and it turns out that the difference from one extreme chronotype to another spans over as much as 18 hours."

Translation: Genetically you're either a lark, a night owl or something in between. Here's the kicker:

"Even though people can choose when to go to bed or wake up, simply 'over-riding' the body's natural rhythm does not come without a price. This price ranges from alertness/sleepiness and neurological disorders, to weight gain, dyslipidemia, altherosclerosis, and even death."

Translation: Trying to be a lark (or night owl) when that's not your natural chronotype makes you fat and ineffective and then can kill you.

These "early bird gets the worm" articles typically fail to mention that all human beings need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. Therefore, if you're actually rising at 4:30 AM, you must be in bed and asleep by 9:30 PM at the latest and even as early as 7:30 PM, which is before sunset for much of the year in much of the US.

But nobody (again except for natural larks) actually does that. Instead, they set their alarm for 2 hours earlier than when they'd normally rise and then go to bed maybe 30 minutes earlier and then read or watch TV until they fall asleep. So rather than becoming larks (which is impossible), they become sleep-deprived zombies.

And lack of sleep is insanely toxic, not just to overall health but to productivity. So, yeah, you might get a jump on your colleagues by pretending you're a lark and getting into work early, but unless you actually ARE a lark, your work will be for crap and you'll be out sick more often. So much for being more successful.

Here's Your Alternative Action Plan

Rather than fruitlessly and dangerously trying to change your chronotype to match your job, it makes much more sense to work towards adapting your job to suit your chronotype. Here's what I did:

  1. Discover your natural rhythm. Take a staycation with absolutely nothing scheduled. Watch TV, read, go for walks, but don't do anything that's timed to other people's internal clocks. Also, no alcohol, drugs, or sleep aids. Within few days, you will be going to bed and rising at times that are natural to you, and getting the optimum amount of sleep.
  2. Find a job that suits your genetics. Once you've discovered your chronotype, your #1 health goal is to secure a job that allows you to keep your natural sleep schedule. If you're in the middle of the bell curve, that shouldn't be a problem. If you're a natural night owl, find a job that allows you to work from home or set your own schedule. Or get your boss to let you work from home most days.

Look, we are in the middle of a huge health crisis: a literal epidemic of insomnia that's growing larger every year. Encouraging the myth that everyone could and should be a morning lark just adds fuel to the fire. People who promote this potentially lethal advice should be called out loudly and publicly. Enough is enough.

Published on: Sep 4, 2019
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