Many successful creatives and entrepreneurs thrive at night. But if burning the midnight oil isn’t yielding the results you want, perhaps it’s time to consider starting your days earlier.
Getting up early and diving into the business of the day has been touted as a miracle productivity hack by many business leaders – like Apple CEO Tim Cook, who says he gets out of bed each morning at 3:45 AM. While Cook’s alarm setting might be a tad extreme, adding an hour or two to your morning could still provide useful benefits.
Could early rising work for you? What is the science behind it?
Here’s how early morning wakeups could impact your productivity, creativity, and collaboration.
How Waking Up Early Impacts Productivity
Does waking up early make you more productive? There’s evidence to suggest that early risers may be more proactive and benefit from better mental health, both factors which have a significant impact on productivity. For example, a study by Christoph Randler of the University of Leipzig found that “morning people” (i.e., those with a specific circadian rhythm) had the “willingness and ability” to take proactive action to change their situations.
There’s also strong anecdotal evidence of many successful people being devoted early risers. The former FLOTUS, Michelle Obama, starts her day without fail at 4:30 AM. And Twitter Co-founder Jack Dorsey sets his alarm for pre-dawn.
There are certainly time-management-related advantages. With fewer distractions earlier in the day, it’s the perfect time to tackle work that requires focus. That way, you can schedule meetings later when they’re less likely to be disruptive.
Starting sooner can also help you make the most of your willpower. Opinions differ on whether willpower is a finite resource that gets eroded throughout the day or something which ebbs and flows according to circumstances like emotions. Either way, your willpower is likely to be at its strongest early on before it gets impacted by the events of the day.
You may also find you’re less stressed. Getting through tough tasks early on in your day means they won’t be hanging over you. Additionally, if you leave yourself more time for your morning routine and commute, you won’t be rushing and feeling as if you’re constantly playing catch-up.
Of course, there are also downsides. If your biological clock (also known as your chronotype) makes you more alert and energized in the afternoon, a morning schedule may keep you from making the most of your optimal periods. Doing more earlier in the day may also leave you with less energy later.
Overall though, it seems that “early to bed, early to rise” could well make you more productive.
How Early Rising Affects Creativity
The artist Joan Miro began painting religiously at 7 AM, while Ernest Hemingway started work as soon after daybreak as possible. They are just two of the many famous creatives who swore by an early start. But does that mean rising early can make you more creative?
There could be some neurological benefits to support that view. During dreams, the brain consolidates memories, forms new connections, and mulls over problems. The sooner you start creating after waking up, the more likely you are to remember (consciously or not) those ideas and solutions.
Writer Nicholson Baker praised early morning work because: “The mind is newly cleansed, but it’s also befuddled, and you’re still just plain sleepy.” Indeed, a study found that you may be at your most creative when you’re less conscious (such as immediately after you wake up) due to the freer association between thoughts.
Additionally, it’s long been established that well-oiled habits and routines hugely benefit creativity. Devoting time to creative work early in the day could make the practice much easier to maintain as it’s less likely to get squeezed out by other tasks and commitments. Writers Sylvia Plath and Frances Trollope both adopted a morning routine to fit creative work around caring for family.
As with productivity, you do risk creating a schedule that’s out of step with your natural rhythm and consequently missing out on your most creative periods. For every Hemingway, there’s a night owl like Franz Kafka (who didn’t start work until 11 PM).
How Getting Up Earlier Impacts Collaboration
Getting your solo work done earlier gives you time to devote to collaborative work later in the day.
The obvious benefit here is that your colleagues are likely to be available. You might also find that you have more energy and patience for group work without the pressure of knowing you still have solo tasks to complete.
However, shifting to a morning work schedule might mean you’re out of sync with colleagues when you need timely feedback or input. It could also lead to a sense of disconnection between you and your colleagues that could impact the quality of group work and relationships.
This lack of alignment on calendars and productive rhythms is a challenge for remote-first organizations, where asynchronous communication is the norm. That’s why feedback tools and transparency are essential.
Ultimately, collaboration is the greatest question mark when it comes to early rising. But these can be overcome with the correct collaboration tools.
How to Be a Morning Person: Tips for Getting Up Earlier
Before trying to change your routine, remember that your DNA has already predetermined your biological clock to some extent. Getting up at 5 AM every morning may work for some people but not you – that doesn’t mean you’re failing.
Focus on waking up earlier for you rather than someone else’s definition of “early”.
Balance is key. You need a certain amount of sleep to function healthily (usually 7 to 9 hours for most adults). So, if you’re waking up earlier, you need to go to bed earlier, too.
You should also focus on finding strategies that help you get out of bed and feel more alert sooner. That will mean you can make the most of the morning, whatever time you get up.
Establish a Routine
Waking up at the same time every day (even on weekends!) will help you regulate your circadian rhythms and ensure your body’s internal processes are running smoothly. It will also lessen the impact of sleep inertia (that foggy feeling after waking) and even make it easier to get to sleep at night.
Don’t rush into this, though. If your goal is to wake up an hour earlier, try 15 minutes at first and gradually increase it until you’re where you want to be.
A good night’s sleep is essential, and there are steps you can take to improve your sleep routine.
Reducing screen time in the hours before bed is a must. Not only does the digital world stimulate you when you should be winding down, but evidence also suggests that the blue light from screens may interrupt the production of melatonin (a chemical you need for sleep).
The caffeine in your afternoon cup of coffee might be blocking the production of adenosine, another chemical instrumental in sleep. Experts recommend avoiding caffeine for 6 hours before sleep.
Wake Up Well
How you get up is just as important as when.
As many as 6 in 10 people hit the snooze button in the morning. Those few extra minutes of sleep are so tempting, but they prolong your sleep inertia and make it much harder to get going. Instead, you should get up right away.
Try putting your alarm on the other side of the room, so you have to get up to turn it off. If you use your phone as your alarm, this has the added benefit of keeping you from scrolling the instant you wake up.
You should also expose yourself to natural light as soon as possible. Our circadian rhythms rely on light to regulate. By exposing yourself to light early in the morning, you send the signal to your brain that it’s time to get going.
Don’t just rely on your alarm. Give yourself something positive to focus on.
Goals work well for this. Why not put out your gym clothes to prompt you to go out for a run? Alternatively, tempt yourself with a reward. That could be planning a tasty breakfast or anticipating that first sip of coffee. Suddenly, getting up seems much more inviting.
Plan Your Morning
There’s no point in giving yourself extra time if you don’t know what to do with it.
Think strategically about the types of tasks that you can best achieve in the morning when you plan on getting up early. For you, it might be an ideal time for solo work or solitary pursuits like exercise or creative practice.
Does the Early Bird Always Get the Worm?
There are definite advantages to getting up early. Carving more space in your mornings will help manage your time more effectively and potentially allow you to get more done.
But at the end of the day (no pun intended), there’s no rewiring your biological clock.
You need to plan around how and when you work best, as well as accommodate the schedules of the people you work with. What you can do, though, is find out what a successful morning, afternoon, and evening look like for you and implement the strategies to help you get there.