Should you start your day at 4 in the morning? A lot people think you should because many of the world's most successful leaders do. Most notably, Apple CEO Tim Cook, who may have jump-started the whole discussion when he reported that he gets up at 3:45 a.m. to read through user comments and other such information. 

Of course, not everyone is a fan. For example, the wildly successful Harry Potter creator, J.K. Rowling.

And an Inc.com colleague, Chris Matyszczyk, decided to give it a try for a few days and reported that the experience was hellish

Proponents of the 4 a.m. wakeup say it helps them get a head start on the day, before emails and everything else start making demands on their time. They like the quiet and the lack of interruption. Rising early also gives them a chance to complete a workout, whereas if they wait until after work, the pressures of the day may scuttle those plans.

That all makes perfect sense. But here's the problem: Whatever the pluses of getting an ungodly early start to the day, they are far outweighed by the benefits of getting enough sleep. We can debate the pros and cons of waking up early, but the reasons for getting enough sleep, versus the harm done by not getting enough--those things aren't up for debate. There are all kinds of scientific evidence that make it clear: Not getting plenty of sleep every night is a bad, bad idea. It can make you feel lonely and hate your job. It can cause you to gain weight. It can increase your risk for Alzheimer's and even shorten your life.

How much sleep is enough? More than you probably think. Sleep researcher and PhD Dan Gartenberg recently explained that we actually need to spend eight and a half hours sleeping, or at least eight and a half hours in bed with the lights out, since even those of us who don't suffer from insomnia spend some amount of time falling asleep, and then some amount waking up in the morning. 

Do the math. If you're setting your alarm for 4 a.m., and you're going to spend eight and a half hours in bed, then you need to be turning out the lights at 7:30 p.m. 

Just think of all the things you'll have to say no to in order to make that happen. Dinner party with your friends? Nope, gotta go to bed. Concert, theater, or sporting events tickets? Give 'em away, you'll be busy sleeping. Wedding? Outing to the movies? Kid in a school play? You get the idea. Even if you decide you only need to spend eight hours in bed, that still means you have to go to bed at 8 o'clock, which requires getting home no later than 7:30. That'll still cut you out of many or most social activities.

Of course, many of those social events happen on weekend nights, so you might plan to stay up those nights and then sleep later than usual. The problem with that idea, a small Harvard study showed, is that it doesn't matter whether you get up early and go to bed early or get up late and go to bed late, but it does matter that you're consistent about whatever you do. Irregular sleep patterns turn out to cause all kind of problems. Incidentally, the same study found that people perform better if they sleep during "nighttime hours," which is to say between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m. If you're getting up at 4, only about six hours of your sleep time will be during nighttime hours. And, depending where you live, you may find yourself going to bed in summer two hours before sunset.

OK, so maybe you'll have to say no to some social events. You might not like it, but it's a sacrifice worth making for the workout and career-boosting benefits of getting up at 4, right? Not so much. Spending time with your friends and loved ones might seem like a luxury that you can sacrifice in the pursuit of self-improvement and career advancement, but in fact it's much, much more important than that. Neglecting your social life is associated with all kinds of ills. One study found that having friendships is a predictor of longevity. And consider the fact that when National Geographic writer Dan Buettner traveled the world studying the places where people routinely live to be older than 100, he found that all of them had tight-knit communities in common.

So--you may be willing to give up sleep in order to get up at 4 a.m., but you really shouldn't because that can take years off your life and make you miserable in the meantime. And you may be willing to give up your social life but you shouldn't for the exact same reason. There's only one thing left to give up: The absurd notion that rising at 4 a.m. is necessary to anyone's success.

Instead, look for ways to get the same benefits without setting your alarm for 4. 

1. Get up early, just not ridiculously so.

Depending on your commute and what time you have to be at work, rising at the considerably more logical hour of 6 a.m. might still give you time to get in a workout before work. I have a friend who gets up at 6 every day so she can meditate, go to the gym, and shower before arriving at work at 10 a.m. If that won't fit with your schedule, consider changing the schedule. A growing number of employers are offering flextime or adjusting their workday and work shifts to accommodate different people's body clocks. If you're the boss, consider making those changes both for your own benefit and that of your employees.

2. Put exercise on your calendar.

If you just can't get in a pre-work workout without waking up in the wee hours, then think about other options for making sure the workout happens. For example, make a date with a friend to go for a walk or a run or to the gym or to an exercise class at lunchtime or after work. The fact that you're meeting a friend makes it much harder for you to cancel if your work schedule gets overloaded. Plus, you're getting the benefits of social interaction at the same time.

If that won't work for you, try the next best thing: Write your workout on your calendar. For many of us, if something is written on our calendar, we tend to make sure to get there.

3. Block out some quiet time. 

The reason most people find 4 a.m. a productive time of day to work is that it's distraction-free. But--think about it--most of us are fully in control of how many distractions we are subjected to during the course of our day. This won't work if you're an emergency room doctor or dispatcher. But for most everyone else, pick an hour or so during the day as quiet time for you to catch up on news or other information, or to think through strategic planning, write in a journal, or simply daydream. There's plenty of evidence that this kind of uninterrupted thinking is important for innovation and creativity, and also for our general well-being and productivity. This could be anytime during the day. Turn off your phone or ringer. Close your email software and all social media. Maybe even disconnect from the internet altogether. Tell your colleagues not to disturb you until a time of your choosing. And--there you go--distraction-free quiet time.

If your colleagues don't get it and keep interrupting you, take your quiet time away from the office, at a café or library. And if you don't think they can get along without you for an hour a day, that suggests you have a problem with delegating and you should do something about it. 

Yes, there may be benefits to being awake at 4 a.m. when everyone you know is sleeping. But there are also big drawbacks, and they aren't worth it. Instead, figure out how getting up ultra-early might help you. And then find ways to get those benefits into your day while still getting up at a reasonable hour.

Published on: Jan 9, 2019
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