Oprah Winfrey. Former President George Bush (both of them). Robert Iger. They're just a handful of the successful people who challenge the sun to the starting line and get up at a ridiculously early hour (often before 5:00 a.m.). Some executives even push "morning" back further--Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, for example, reportedly gets up at 3:45 every day just to ensure he can stay on top of his email.
Now, I'm no Tim Cook. Not even close. But I do consider myself competitive and hardworking, and I make Yoda's catchphrase--"Do or do not, there is no try"--my motto of life. So when my work and home responsibilities increased in conjunction with scheduling changes, I had no intention of backing away. Because of logistical considerations, though, to address those responsibilities, like Cook, I had to set my phone alarm at 3:45 a.m. for a year. My typical bedtime was around 11:00 p.m.
The results of waking with the stars
For a while, I was golden. But after a few weeks, I didn't just slide downhill. I rolled, headfirst. I started waking up about an hour ahead of the alarm in a resentment-filled panic knowing it was going to go off. I mentally threw hundreds of pillows at my husband knowing he still had a good three hours until he had to be up. (What the hades?!) Workouts started to feel like walking through sludge. And let's just say it's a good thing I don't keep donuts in my kitchen. By lunch, the word "buffet" had become synonymous with "heaven".
And as the months went on, it didn't get any better. I got only crabbier, had to mentally pump myself up just to do exercise, gained some weight and, by Tuesday, would spend some of my shower minutes reminding myself I only had three more days left before I'd be able to "sleep in" on Saturday until 7:00 a.m. I might even have cried. (Yeah, I did.) And while I got my work done, I also became an expert in spacing out. Thinking was supposed to be easy. But it. Was. So. Hard.
And relationships? People would ask me to do stuff. But saying yes seemed gross. I didn't have any fuel left to think, let alone engage with people in meaningful ways. They got upset with me, not understanding that I needed to recharge before I could even consider what they invited me to do. My internal response became a meme of Office Space's Bill Lumbergh: "If you could just stop assuming I want to do anything but sleep when I have a minute, that would be great."
It's not surprising, given science
Lack of sleep increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which affects not only mood, but also a host of metabolic processes and the ability to manage pounds. It also increases the levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, which ups your appetite, and makes it harder to resist high-calorie junk food. Your body basically thinks it has to take in more and stock up to get through the period of stress it's experiencing.
Exhaustion is also associated with mental problems, including reduced focus, difficulty with logical thought and judgment, lowered reaction time and memory trouble. Researchers know that the brain can't flush waste sufficiently with low snooze time, and that sleep deprivation even causes the brain to "eat" itself. And the presence of light (or lack thereof) affects the production of the "darkness" hormone melatonin, which regulates your sleep cycles. Getting up before the sun confuses your body about whether it's time to sleep or be awake on the chemical level.
And that was probably the worst part of the whole experience. Knowing scientifically that I was messing myself up and not having a good way to fix the logistics sucked.
Can early mornings ever be a good thing?
All this said, it is possible to get up early and have it benefit you. If you can throw open your curtains to get some light and give your brain time to cognitively come on board (this can take a good 30 to 60 minutes), mindfully eat and get your blood flow going with a light walk, Yoga or other exercise you enjoy, it can be good for your brain and body to toss back your sheet and blanket a little sooner.
But this isn't what many people do. They don't get up early to ease into the day. They get up early because the day is slamming them in the face before their cheeks even are off the pillow, because they feel such enormous pressure to do and have too little help. They're just trying to keep their heads above water.
Everyone has their own sleep requirements based on their unique physiology. Some people legitimately can get by on fewer hours than others. But when culture continuously pushes even these individuals to test their limits, when the fear of failure or missing out causes us to disregard what decades of research has revealed to us and deny the requirements of optimal function, that's a problem. Working hard and suffering are not the same thing, and I, for one, plan never to confuse the two again.
Are you with me?