Getting up Earlier: Productivity Hack or Health Hazard?

Without proper recognition of the power of rest, the narrative of getting up earlier to get more done can be dangerous and self-defeating. With a properly adjusted sleeping routine, on the other hand, the benefits of early mornings can be lifechanging.
Benefits of getting up earlier

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to get up early in the morning. Whilst I’ve longed to find extra time to get more done, my body and mind have simply said no.

Of course, driven by necessity, I’ve occasionally managed it. When I’ve needed to arrive at an early meeting or get to an airport, that internal feeling of necessity has delivered. But without that bit of extra motivation, for all my good intentions, I’ve pushed the snooze button, time and time again.

This struggle to wake up early is not just a question of mindset and motivation. That would be a personal disservice. Our chronobiology (that’s how our genes affect our body clock) plays a crucial role too. Some of us are just innately early birds or night owls. So once you add a drop or two of motivation deficit to a natural night owl, you’ve got ourselves a snoozer.

But there was a more fundamental problem here. My desire to get more done was pinned on the idea of simply adding hours to my day. I considered my lack of output a symptom of a lack of hours. And naturally, I thought the solution would be more hours in my day. It’s a pattern of thinking seen across the modern world. And it’s wrong – and even potentially dangerous.

The myth of more waking hours

Long working hours are worn like a badge of honour in the corporate world. Top CEOs set the example of a 4AM wake-up time to optimise their working days. And these stories are championed like folklore throughout organisations.

Meanwhile, many self-declared productivity gurus put forward a lifechanging ‘productivity hack’ to get more done. The answer is simple, they say. All you have to do is get up earlier to create more time in your day. More hours mean more stuff done. Simple.

But ironically this ‘productivity hack’ is a suggestion which, by definition, does not address how productive we are with our time. It simply adds more time. It all serves to perpetuate the idea that less sleep means more work. And this narrative gets particularly dangerous if it drives our time asleep below healthy levels.

The National Sleep Foundation suggests the average working age adult needs between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Similarly, the world’s largest sleep study, conducted in 2018 using a sample of over 10,000 people, found that cognitive performance was impaired for people reporting sleeping less, or more, than 7-8 hours per night. A self-reported typical sleep duration of 4 hours was equivalent to aging 8 years in terms of cognitive performance.

What’s more, it’s not just cognitive performance at stake in the long run. Research has shown that sleep deprivation can be associated with numerous health problems, like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety and mood problems.

In other words, when this ‘productivity hack’ drives down our sleep below a healthy range (typically 7-9 hours), this can be dangerous for our wellbeing – and even paradoxically undermine our productivity. Unless we’re currently oversleeping, we can’t afford to compromise on sleep. Work and rest function in tandem. One impacts the quality of another.

The power of early mornings

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

Benjamin Franklin

We can’t compromise on our number of hours of sleep, but I was still fascinated by the idea of getting up earlier. Hundreds of the greatest creative minds extolled the benefits of early mornings for their creativity and productivity levels. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang captures this brilliantly in his book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, providing a plethora of anecdotal examples of people taking advantage of the power of early mornings.

Oliver Sacks, John Milton, Ludwig van Beethoven, Benjamin Franklin. They’d all focus their most intensive creative efforts to the mornings, when they considered their brains to be most adept to creative thinking. Later, after expending mental effort, they would tackle their less mentally intensive activities.

They couldn’t all be wrong. There was something in the magic of mornings.

But to give our bodies the rest they need for our brains to perform at their optimal levels, we also need to get the optimal amount of sleep. One can’t do that by simply getting up earlier. So in order to experience the full power of early mornings, we need to adjust our bedtime too.

The science-backed benefits of getting up (and going to bed) earlier

It turns out that the purported benefits of getting up earlier aren’t just anecdotal. In fact, they are well-supported by science. Research from around the world has demonstrated a number of key benefits worth looking at in more detail.

#1: Improved quality of sleep

Early birds sleep better than night owls. That huge study of 10,000 people mentioned earlier found about 20% of self-identified morning people suffered from insomnia, compared to nearly 40% of night owls.

And the science is clear on how sleep quality affects us. Improved sleep quality benefits our alertness and cognitive performance, and therefore helps to enhance our productivity levels. Good quality sleep also helps full brain recovery and memory consolidation, as well as mitigating against additional risks to physical health that result from sleep deprivation.

#2: Higher proactivity

Morning people are also more proactive. That’s according to research by Christoph Randler published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, which also found that proactivity was stronger among those who maintained a stable sleeping routine, even during weekends.

Higher proactivity is probably driven by an eagerness to get a morning head start once we’ve woken up early. It all again suggests an impetus for a more productive mindset through an early morning routine.

And that’s not all. The same researcher has also cited better problem solving and improved academic performance as research-backed benefits of early rising.

#3: Less procrastination

Studies have also shown that morning people are less prone to procrastination. Research published in the European Journal of Personality found that individuals who carried out more activities in the evening than the morning are significantly more prone to behavioural procrastination.

Distractions are far lower in the mornings. It’s a head start before the rest of the world wakes. And there’s more opportunity to focus on work and find your creative flow, without unnecessary breaks in concentration from your external environment.

It seems the increased flow that comes from early mornings also has dramatic effects on our productivity throughout the day. By reducing the propensity to procrastinate, morning people benefit from a further productivity boost.

#4: Avoiding sleep fragmentation

Getting up earlier means beating the snooze problem – and stopping this unhealthy habit can have lasting health benefits. When we push the snooze button, we create fragmented sleep. In short, this is where we break cycles of deep sleep.

General advice is that by trying to get back to sleep after our alarm, we’re making the problem much worse. This is put into full view in research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which demonstrated that sleep fragmentation can increase exhaustion and sleepiness during the day and even contribute to obesity.

When we get into a habit of getting up earlier, we push that snooze button less. That means less sleep fragmentation and consequently higher energy levels during the day.

#5: Higher levels of reported happiness and wellbeing

And if the above benefits aren’t enough to motivate you, then perhaps research on the happiness levels of early birds might be. Research by Renée Biss and Lynn Hasher found that adult morning types reported higher levels of positivity and well-being than later risers.

So changing your sleep routine to an early bird not only offers potential physical health and productivity benefits, but may well improve your wellbeing and overall happiness. What’s not to like?

The upshot

There are a wide range of benefits in early mornings, but there’s also an obvious balance to be found. To take advantage of these science-backed benefits, we cannot compromise our amount of sleep. Don’t try to cheat your sleep to gain some time. Your health will suffer. Instead, an adjustment to morning routine requires a commensurate adjustment to bedtime routine.

With healthy adjustments to sleep routines, the evidence suggests early mornings benefit our physical health, mental health and productivity levels. And it’s hard not be enthused by this proposition.

So switch off your mobile, get to sleep earlier, and wake up bright and early, ready to take advantage of the magic of mornings. I’ll certainly be giving it a shot.

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