Stop Telling People They Need to Wake Up Earlier
I’m Talking to You, Self-Help Gurus
I have a major bone to pick with the self-improvement industry.
One of the most common pieces of advice self-help gurus love to tout is that we should all be waking up at an ungodly hour. Apparently, if you don’t spring out of bed by 4 or 5 am, you’re a lazy sack of shit.
I know they don’t say these exact words, but that’s often what it feels like.
And look, I get where they’re coming from. It’s important to have quiet, distraction-free time if you want to get anything done. And early mornings are often quiet and distraction-free because everyone is sleeping.
But I wish these “experts” would stop acting like this is good advice for everyone. Because it isn’t. And I think it’s actually dangerous for them to do so.
Before I tell you why I think “get up early AF” is dangerous advice, I’d like to talk a little about chronotypes.
What is a Chronotype?
Your chronotype is essentially your rhythm — the natural tendency for when you sleep during a 24-hour period.
According to Dr. Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkley, and author of Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, “about 40 percent of the population are morning people, 30 percent are evening people, and the remainder land somewhere in between.”
So, if you do the math, about 60% of us are not morning people by nature.
Additionally, your chronotype isn’t something you can choose or change. It’s genetic. In his book, Walker notes, “night owls are not owls by choice. They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hardwiring. It’s not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.”
Ok, so what? Can’t I just train myself to become a morning person?
Sure, there are some things you can do to make it easier to wake up earlier, if that’s what you want to do. For example, you can use a light box to mimic daylight, exercise in the morning, or consume caffeine. All of these things may alleviate the struggle of getting up earlier. But they won’t change your DNA and your natural tendency to sleep at a particular time.
As Dr. Michael Breus, clinical psychologist and diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine says:
“If you sleep when your chronotype dictates it, then your sleep will be of higher quality. You’ll fall asleep faster, have fewer awakenings throughout the night, and maybe even sleep more deeply.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to sleep or wake up at times that go against your chronotype, you may not sleep as well, and you might feel worse when you’re awake.”
So I guess my question is — unless there’s a reason why you have to be up at a certain hour, why not work with your natural rhythms so that you actually feel like a human being and not a zombie when you’re working throughout the day? Why fight that uphill battle if you don’t have to?
Speaking from my own experience, and after a rough 4 year period of chronic insomnia that I finally got under control, I discovered I’m an “in-betweener.” I’m not a night owl, but I’m not a morning person either. I naturally get tired around midnight and I prefer to wake up around 7:30–8 am.
But because I’ve been bombarded with countless articles telling me I need to wake up at 5 am, I’ve tried this many times. And it never lasts for long. And sure, when I wake up this early, I’m able to write or do whatever thing it is I want to do, but I always feel like shit while doing it. It’s a slog. And I never feel like I’m putting out my best work.
Part of the reason this never seems to work for me is because I almost always have more energy later in the day, regardless of what time I wake up. That’s just how my body works. This means that even when I do get up at 5 or 6, I still usually don’t fall asleep until about midnight. So I get less sleep as a whole, and I feel like garbage.
As a result of my consistent failure to wake up earlier, I’ve changed my schedule, and now I mostly do my important work (like writing) in the evenings, which is when I feel alert and have time. I carve out quiet time by sequestering myself at my desk, putting my phone away, and telling my husband I need space and quiet to do my work.
We should aim to get more and better sleep, not just to wake up early.
My biggest qualm with the self-help gurus telling us we all need to wake up early is that I think they’re essentially causing a lot of us to lose sleep.
I know this isn’t necessarily their intention. They’re not explicitly telling us to sleep less, they’re simply advocating that we wake up earlier.
But unless you plan to go to bed early as well, an unfortunate side effect of waking up earlier is that you’re going to get less sleep. And this is why I think it’s dangerous for self-help people to dole out this advice as gospel.
And maybe your response to this is — “well, just go to bed earlier.” And sure, that might work for some people. But again, as a former chronic insomniac, I can attest to the fact that this doesn’t always work. Like I said earlier, no matter how early I wake up, my body often doesn’t feel the need to sleep until around 12 am.
Also, I’ll refer you back to the earlier quote from Dr. Michael Breus. Even if you do manage to go against your chronotype, you may not sleep as well, and you might feel worse when you’re awake.
So, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get up early if it means you’re going to get less or worse quality sleep.
Is Getting Less Sleep Really That Big of a Deal?
According to the CDC, about 35% of adults are not getting the recommended 7 hours of sleep each night.
And before you say, “well I can survive on 6 hours of sleep,” — the truth is, the vast majority of people need more than that. In fact, operating on less than 7 hours of sleep increases your risk for heart attack, cancer, stroke, and makes you emotionally irrational.
So If you’re currently getting less than that, you should strive to get more.
Consider this interesting tidbit.
A University of Minnesota study looked at what happened when the Minneapolis Public School District changed school start times from 7:15 am to 8:40 am. After the change, students were essentially getting five to six more hours of sleep per week. And it showed.
And maybe you’re thinking, well, these are just teenagers, maybe adults can handle sleep deprivation better than they can. But in actuality, that’s not true.
Take for instance this one fascinating study, where researchers tracked the sleep of supervisors and then had their employees rate the supervisors’ performance. They didn’t tell the employees how their supervisors’ had slept. Perhaps not surprisingly, employees rated their supervisors’ performance as worse on days when the supervisors had underslept. Employees said the supervisors were more abusive, less charismatic, and had worse control on days following a poor night’s sleep — even though the employees didn’t know how well their bosses had slept the previous night.
So, if you think you can do fine on less sleep, you’re probably wrong and what’s worse is, other people may be able to tell, or may at least be impacted by your lack of sleep.
You can still be a successful person even if you’re not an early riser.
The most important message I want to convey here is that getting up at the ass crack of dawn isn’t the way to go for everyone.
I understand the need for quiet, productive time, but if you’re sacrificing sleep duration and quality for this quiet time, you may want to rethink this. Consider if there are other times that’d be better for you — times where you’d feel more alert due to your genetics.
And speaking of genetics, I also think it’s important for people not to feel bad about their chronotype. You shouldn’t feel lazy if you naturally crave sleep and wake up later than the typical self-help junkie. It doesn’t make you a bad person or mean you won’t be able to be successful. In fact, there are plenty of famous and successful night owls/non-morning people. Among them are Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso, Carl Jung, and Bob Dylan.
So, if you’re not a morning person, take heart. And don’t feel like you’ve got to buy into the myth that you’ll only thrive if you become one. In fact, doing so may harm your health — which I’d argue is one of the key ingredients for success anyway.
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