No, You Don’t Have to Wake Up at 5 AM in Order to Be Wildly Successful
It’s easy to get caught up in the toxic hustle-culture notion that only those who live in a chronic state of sleep deprivation and cat-nap on the Tesla factory floor can ever be truly successful, but the truth is that waking up at 5 AM is extremely overrated, and is probably dangerous for your health.
While the average American sleeps less than seven hours per night, the world belongs to those who sleep quite a bit above average (8–12 hours/night), and by those who do so on a customized schedule that best suits their individual bodies:
- CEOs: Jeff Bezos. Warren Buffett. Bill Gates. Sheryl Sandberg.
- Thought leaders: The Dalai Lama. Arianna Huffington.
- Athletes: Lebron James. Roger Federer. Michelle Wei.
- Entertainers: Jennifer Lopez. Matthew McConaughey. Halley Berry.
Rather unfortunately, Medium’s back catalog is rife with articles outlining the “8 Things Everyone Should Do Before 8AM,” insisting “You Make Or Break Your Day Before 6AM,” and outlining “How to Become an Early Riser Even If You’re Not an Early Riser.”
I’m here to tell you that 85+% of the population should completely ignore stories of this nature.
Let me start by saying that sleep is one of my three core priorities: I unapologetically and unashamedly get nine hours of sleep every night and I rarely wake up before 9:00 AM.
And I swear I’m not (overly) lazy: I’ve published three books, produced four films, spoken at 500+ live events, written for Esquire/Smithsonian/The Guardian/TIME Magazine, and traveled to forty countries including North Korea and the Vatican. I don’t work any fewer hours per week than most of my friends (about sixty over six days), I just do it at the time that works best for my individuated body.
I’ve convinced a number of my friends and family to start sleeping more hours per night, but I never push them to specifically sleep for nine hours like me, or to get up at nine AM. My encouragement is simply this:
Learn how much sleep your body needs, then get it when your body needs it.
Sleep is foundational to health. Wealth and fame and success and achievement literally mean nothing without health. Think: Steve Jobs. It just doesn’t matter — no amount of money or acclaim can save you from poor health. And it all starts with sleep.
Let’s Talk Chronotypes
Chrono = the Latinized form of the Greek word χρόνος (khrónos), meaning “time.” (It’s the root of words like chronology and chronometer.)
For those of us who grew up in the eighties and nineties, the only two categories were “early bird” and “night owl” and never the twain did meet.
(Well, most of the time. In my college years, my roommate was an extreme early bird and I was an extreme night owl: each morning at 5 AM, I’d say “good morning” to him and he’d say “good night” to me, as he went to work and I went to bed!)
More than owls and other birds
According to Dr. Michael J. Breus, there are actually four sleep types. Before we break them down, here’s a quick bio on the self-styled “Sleep Doctor”:
- Ph.D Clinical Psychologist
- Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine
- Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine
- Clinical Advisor for The Dr. Oz Show (with nearly 40 appearances)
- Just 168 psychologists in the world have his credentials (by comparison, there are twice as many players in the NBA.)
In his book The Power of When, Dr. Breus suggests everyone falls into one of four sleep categories:
~50% of the population
Famous bears: Ellen Degeneres and Stephen King
Bears hunt during the day.
“Bears like to get their seven to eight hours, but they’ll hit snooze a few times in the morning.” — Dr. Breus
Bear-sleepers need eight-ish hours per night and get up shortly after sunrise because they’re the lucky ones who are attuned to the sun. Dr. Breus thinks about half of the population are bear-sleepers; that’s why we all live in a 9–5 work world, whether it works for us or not.
~10–15% of the population
Famous lions: Benjamin Franklin and Maya Angelou
Lions hunt in the morning.
“They’re optimistic goal-setters and get-it-done people.” — Dr. Breus
Lions are up before the sun and ready to hustle/hunt at full capacity before most of us have even hit the first of several snooze buttons.
We all wish we were lions and feel guilty that we’re not. More than a few of them make a point of rubbing this in.
~10–15% of the population
Famous wolves: Bill Gates and Barack Obama
Wolves hunt at night.
“Although they’re never hungry in the morning, they become ravenous after dark.” — Dr. Breus
We wolves love to burn the midnight oil. We do our very best work when the rest of the world is sound asleep. But wake us early and we’ll growl like White Fang.
~10% of the population
Famous dolphins: Richard Branson and Charles Dickens
Poor dolphins. To stay alert against predators, real dolphins only half-sleep. (As in, they sleep with half their brain awake, and the other half asleep.) For dolphin-sleeper humans, they sleep sporadically and rarely feel rested. Their days aren’t much more reliable:
“They tend to wake up feeling unrefreshed and feeling tired until the late evening when suddenly they feel more alert. They have productivity spurts throughout the day.” — Dr. Breus
A re-cap for the visual learners among us*
*I should note that the only reason we late-wolves ever wake during daylight is to make a living. If we had our druthers, we’d sleep all day and party all night.
Don’t Worry Wolves and Dolphins: It Gets Worse
Not only does everyone have an individual chronotype, we also have a unique sleep drive.
It’s like sex. Everyone has a different sex drive. Libido levels vary from person to person. Heck, libido levels fluctuate from day to day within each individual — and it’s the same with sleep.
I’m an extreme wolf with a high sleep drive. I need 9+ hours per night, and I rarely fall asleep before midnight, even if I get in bed and turn out the lights at nine.
In contrast, my film producing partner is an extreme lion with a low sleep drive. (As a child, he used to get up at 6 AM to watch Saturday cartoons.) He’s easily the happiest person I know, even at 4 AM on 4 hours of sleep.
Needless to say, I am absolutely miserable when we’re on film shoots because I need twice as much sleep as he gets. Thankfully, I’ve managed to convince him to start sleeping a little more, and he’s kind enough to give me some of the extra hours I need. When the two of us are together, we both flex our schedules to make it work.
But here’s the major problem:
There are 7.7 billion of us.
Some of us are wolves.
Some of us are bears.
Some of us are dolphins.
Some of us have medium sleep drives.
Some of us have high sleep drives.
But we’re all told that only lions with low sleep drives will succeed in life.
Enough with this bull$#it.
We shouldn’t cater to the lowest common denominator. Sure, it’s great for low-sleep drive lions to sleep five hours and rise by five, but it’s incredibly harmful for the rest of us.
By struggling against your nature chronotype, you can develop a rest deficit that can result in severe health conditions including heart disease, stress, diabetes, and obesity.
To acquiesce to the notion that you’ll achieve your best life by sleeping half as much as your body needs, at a time you don’t best utilize it, is to deny science, biology, and reason.
Don’t fight your genes. Don’t cave to culture. Don’t ruin your health.
“But getting up early is about self-discipline!”
No, it’s not.
Many people have an outdated fixed-hour scheduling mindset. They assume that they should wake up at the same time each day, go to work at the same time each day, and go to bed at the same time each day. It’s just not realistic… or natural.
Think about it: The sleep patterns of pre-historic civilizations were based on nature, not time clocks. They changed every single day, depending on the season, temperature, and amount of sunlight. We may be several steps removed from that natural way of living, but the planet still affects us. Heck, full moons wreak absolute havoc on our sleep cycles. (It’s where we get the word lunatic.)
Consider a new paradigm instead: fixed-order scheduling.
All hours are not created equal
Rather than giving yourself strict military hours, give yourself a generous range as often as possible. For me, I try to work 9–10 hours per day, read 1 hour, walk 1 hour, sleep 9 hours, and spend the rest of my time with friends and family. My start and end time for each activity is entirely flexible.
Notice that my time allocation is completely independent of when I begin each of my five daily tasks. Whether I wake at 5 AM or 10 AM doesn’t matter; the order and number of hours are the same. The big difference? The later the start, the higher my energy is on the chart.
Not all calories are created equal. We understand this intuitively. If you drank 2000 calories of Coca-Cola each day, versus eating 2000 calories of broccoli, you would see drastically different results. It’s the exact same for hours of time.
As a wolf, if I sleep from 9 PM until 5 AM, my sleep quality’s about a 5/10. But on the rare occasion my (bear) wife’s away and I get to sleep from 5 AM until noon, my sleep quality skyrockets to 8/10 even on two hours less sleep.
If an early-rising lion was forced to work evening shifts, their productivity would plummet through the floor. If a bear had to work a nightshift, they’d soon be run-down and sick of life, because not all hours are created equal. The early science already backs it up, and hopefully it will improve in time.
Thankfully, many workplaces are now offering flexible start times. If you’re a lion, get in there early. If you’re a wolf, come in as late as possible. You’ll both to better work that way.
No matter your chronotype or sleep drive, I promise you’ll get better work done, and feel much better doing it, when you switch from fixed-hour scheduling to fixed-order scheduling.
Let’s call “get up at 5 AM” what it really is: Ego.
There is nothing noble about sleeping too little or waking too early if it negatively impacts your mood, health, creativity, productivity, relationships, and energy levels.
Let it go. Be you. Own your chronotype and sleep drive.
If you still feel the compulsion to practice self-discipline with your time, don’t sacrifice your sleep to scratch the itch — instead, ditch Netflix and social media and politics and porn.
[Quick pause for a prediction:]
As toxic hustle-culture continues to sell us the lie that we all have to get up before the sun — and screen tech fully colonizes our lives and keeps us awake longer than ever before in human history — expect to see a rise in the number of highly-specialized sleep professionals, particularly chronotherapists and chrononutritionists.
As stated at the top, I didn’t write this article to convince you to sleep nine hours per night or to sleep ’til noon. But I do really hope you’ll reject the toxic hustle-culture notion that we all need to “rise and grind” at 5 AM if we stand any chance of being successful in this world. It’s just not true.
The reality is that every single body on planet Earth is beautifully, deliciously, utterly unique, and only you have the ability to learn and listen to what yours has to say.
If you feel amazing on six hours and the best time to wake is 4 AM: Great!
If you need twelve hours to recover and 10 AM’s best: Equally great!
By taking the time to understand your sleep needs, and your sleep style, you can then begin to restructure your life in such a way that makes rest work for you, not against you.
Give yourself permission to get all the sleep you need, at the time you need it. While you may end up “losing” a few more hours to sleep each day, real rest will give you a great gift in return: it will add more life to your days, and more years to your life.
Now get out there and work on your sleep hustle.
Download Jared’s free ebook → Level Up: 50 Rules and Tools for a Healthier, Wealthier, Wiser Life
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