Early to Bed, Early to Rise: the good and the bad

 

The great American inventor and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, once said: “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” This statement serves as a guiding principle espoused by all sorts of people from self-help gurus, celebrities, entrepreneurs, millionaires and more. I am not here to tell you that the wake-up-early crowd is wrong, in fact there are many benefits which this post will discuss in detail. The one caveat to beating the sun up in the morning is that if you are going to wake-up at 5 am, you had better be going to sleep plenty early the night before, because the risk of insufficient sleep will have significant adverse effects and will quickly outweigh any progress one may glean through the act of waking early. This post will discuss the benefits of waking up early as well as caution against sacrificing sleep in the name of other pursuits. 

I have discussed the need for adequate sleep in my post here. I will again address the importance of sufficient sleep and caution against inadequate amounts later in this post. To begin with I want to talk about the wake-up early craze. A number of well-known figures have earned a reputation for their early rise out of bed. Among them are Apple CEO Tim Cook, motivational speaker, author and former SEAL trainer Jocko Willink, and a man who needs no introduction: Dwayne Johnson aka the Rock. Tim Cook wakes up around 3:45 to workout and get a start on his work day managing one of the world’s most successful companies. Jocko Willink has started the #0430 craze on the internet – 04:30 being the time he usually begins his grueling morning workouts before going on to do still more workouts, deliver motivational speeches, and train some of the worlds most sophisticated soldiers. Dwayne Johnson wakes up before the sun, so he can ensure that he gets in his morning workout and some time for meditation and reflection before his responsibilities of being a business owner and arguably Hollywood’s most sought after actor get in his way.   

By this time most days Jocko Willink has normally burned more calories
than most of us will consume all day. 

Based on the above we see a few traits in common between these three examples. Each of them is extremely busy. Their early wake up time is to ensure that they have time to do something important for themselves before their responsibilities pull them in other directions. If they were to wake up at 8am they would jump out of bed and immediately be required to give their time to others and it is very likely that their personal needs would be neglected. This is one of the key benefits of waking up early. It guarantees that you have an hour or two to do something important for you. Everyone has 24 hours in a day, but it is how we choose to use those 24 hours that sets us apart. 

Each of these three men also has the fact that they wake up early and include one common theme as part of their routine: they exercise. I have discussed the importance of exercise and its role in physical health and mental well-being many times. When we are busy and stressed, our physical health is one of the first things to go. If we are pressed for time we sacrifice the gym time so we can catch up at work. If we are stressed, we make poor eating choices. Cook, Willink, and Johnson are all extremely busy but they understand the importance of exercise on their overall wellbeing, thus they wake up early to make sure that whatever happens later that day, their physical needs are being met. 

It isn’t just exercise that we can enjoy when we wake up early. Think how stressed out you are when you wake up with barely enough time to get dressed and grab a breakfast to go on your way to work. Or in the case of remote work like many of us have done for the past year – you wake up 5 minutes before your zoom call, quickly fix your hair and throw on a dress shirt for that first zoom call while you still have your pajama bottoms on. From there on the next 8-10 hours, if not more are spent on our work, taking care of kids, being pulled in every which way. This leaves us utterly exhausted at the end of the day and whatever we might have done for ourselves that morning gets pushed to tomorrow and the cycle repeats. 

How much better would your morning be if you woke up just 60 minutes earlier, and instead of jumping straight on that budgeting call, you spent 15 minutes stretching your body to care for that aching back, then you spend 10 minutes meditating – preparing yourself for the day to come so that you can better handle the inevitable stress that is the work day, and then you take a few moments to prepare a healthy breakfast, making you more alert and energized throughout. These are just a couple examples of the benefits of waking up early. Whatever it is that you view as important, the best time to do it is usually the morning before anything else gets in the way. 

Those are some of the advantages to waking up early. Now, lets talk about some of the negative effects. The most obvious and significant adverse effect is the loss of sleep quality. I have written in the above linked post about the need for adequate sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends that anyone over the age of 18 years gets between 7-9 hours of sleep or more as needed. Additionally, population-based studies indicate that nearly 30% of American adults report sleeping an average of 6 or fewer hours per night (1), thus indicating that we have an epidemic of sleep deprivation on our hands. This is a bit of an assumption on my part, but I would imagine that similar if not more severe incidences of sleep deprivation would be seen in most developed nations, particularly those that seem to champion the employee who neglects every ounce of health and personal time all in the name of putting in 80 hours of work at the office to help boost stock shares and earn more money. This is extremely dangerous and unhealthy. Insufficient sleep leads to the derailment of body systems, leading to increased incidences of cardiovascular morbidity, increased chances of diabetes mellitus, obesity, derailment of cognitive functions, vehicular accidents, and increased accidents at workplaces, as well as depression and anxiety (2). 

Limit exposure to blue light to fall asleep faster and sleep better

With these adverse effects of sleep deprivation, there is a clear argument that if one is going to get out of bed at 5:30am to kick their day’s ass, then they had better be going to sleep no later than 10:30pm at the absolute latest to ensure they get their 7 hours. This is one of the most commonly omitted caveats to the host of motivational speakers who seem to think that simply waking up early will automatically make us a successful happy person. The issue isn’t in waking up early but in getting too little sleep. Most of us stay up too late and do the wrong things before bed such that it is either impossible to rouse ourselves from sleep in the morning or that if we do somehow muster the willpower to rise before the sun, we will soon experience a decline in our health. I would like to write a future post discussing healthy evening routines later, but for starters, two of the simplest things we can do now to make waking up early easier are: set a scheduled bed time that will ensure you get the necessary amount of sleep; and cut out blue light at least one hour before bed. Blue light is found in all of the screens that we use all day long and it disrupts our circadian rhythm: our body’s ability to regulate the sleep cycle. A helpful tip for getting to bed earlier and having higher quality sleep, thus allowing you to rise from bed earlier, is to cut out blue light. If you are like me, the idea of not watching tv or reading a book on my kindle for bed sounds ludicrous. That would be one option but if you simply cannot live without, I would suggest getting blue light filtering glasses or getting an app that will filter out blue light on your device. This may not give you the ability to bounce out of bed and whistle show tunes as you stroll around the house at 5 am but it will at least make it a little easier. 

I can’t really answer the question of where I stand on the wake-up early vs sleep in debate. That is because it simply depends on too many variables that vary from person to person. I will say that I personally feel my best, happiest, and most productive when I wake up early, after a night of sufficient quality sleep, and do my morning stretches, meditating, and reading before diving into my day. The key here is AFTER a night of good sleep. Without sufficient sleep I would do more harm than good and I have become quite attuned to assessing my body’s level of recovery and whether or not I have had sufficient sleep. I think that most people would see dramatic increases in their overall sense of well-being and happiness if they could wake up not necessarily early, but earlier at least, such that they could do something that enriches their own lives. This could be working out, meditating, working on a passion project like a website, small personal business, or studying a new language. Whatever the reason, the whole reason for waking up early is to ensure that you have time to tend to things that will bring you happiness. Simply setting the alarm at 5am with no real goal or plan in mind will do you absolutely no good. 

Even the most strong-minded and dedicated
among us will quickly crash if 
adequate sleep is not had

Maybe you are someone lucky enough to not be pulled in a million directions, and your schedule allows you to attend to all business, family, and personal needs without waking up extraordinarily early. For that kind of lucky soul there simply may be no reason to wake early. For the rest of us though, yes I think there are advantages to waking up early, provided that we have the ability to get adequate sleep. Just as effective would likely be the person who stayed up late and slept in late. Either way, I am of the opinion that waking early after a night of restful sleep to focus on things that will bring value and joy to your life is a strong step in the right direction towards happy living. 

Sources: 

1. Chattu et al. Insufficient Sleep Syndrome: is it time to classify it as a major noncommunicable disease. Sleep Science 2018, March-April. 

2. Chattu et al. The Global Problem of Insufficient Sleep and It’s Serious Public Health Implications. Healthcare-Basel, March 2019/ 

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