The True Discipline of Getting Up Early Each Day

Recently, there seems to be a rash of people on social media sites like LinkedIn doing the “5am Challenge”. For 10 days or a month, a person agrees to wake up by 5am and get started with their day, often recording the result.

I have to admit, it’s amusing to watch people endeavor to accomplish the challenge. “Ah, man,” they say, “it’s amazing what I can accomplish.” Unfortunately, their skin often has a slightly greenish tint, and their eyes glaze over as they speak.

Waking up early is, in many respects, one of the most effective ways to be genuinely “productive.” At various times in my career, I’ve tried to establish multiple early morning wake-up times. However, none of these new schedules ever stuck.

It wasn’t as if I wasn’t motivated. However, I had a problem: motivation can only take you so far when you are always exhausted. During one 30-day challenge, when I was trying to wake-up at 4:30am each day, I would usually be a zombie before noon. Additionally, though I could congratulate myself on my early morning, I rarely was “actually” that productive. I would spend hours doing relatively minor tasks like organizing files or categorizing my email chains.

These challenges rarely lasted more than a few weeks. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to keep the process going, but the reality was that I was never getting enough sleep.

Up until recently, I believed that with enough willpower and motivation, I could force myself to sleep less. I saw Type A personalities and marveled at their schedules that somehow only allowed for a handful of hours of actual sleep each night. I just need to more disciplined, I would tell myself, and I too will be fine with a 19hr work day. Unfortunately, this scenario never worked for very long before I would crash.

In the last couple of years, there seems to have been a change in our culture’s perception of sleep. Cultural icons like Arianna Huffington have started to promote a more balanced approach to work and rest, with sleep is not seen as an enemy of productivity as much as a necessary partner to it.

Additionally, researchers like Matthew Walker (author of Why We Sleep) have shown more and more that the habit of getting too little sleep is actually quite destructive to our health. The vast majority of us need between 7 - 9 hours of sleep each day. I can attest that when I started focusing on getting proper rest, my actual productivity went up astronomically. Not only was I more effective at the various types of projects I was doing, but I could also think strategically about what I was trying to accomplish. I was better at planning out my day and not just responding to the things that were happening around me.

The difficulty for me, who is naturally a night-owl, getting enough sleep usually means waking up later. For the last several years, my schedule usually is to go to bed at 11pm and wake up around 7am. But, like many of those who do the 5am Challenge will attest, those early mornings really are incredibly productive. So, the challenge for me is not when to wake up, but when to go to bed. To get 8hrs of sleep, I need to be in bed by 9pm each night, which I haven’t done since the 6th grade.

It’s going to be hard to go to bed at a reasonable hour. But, as getting enough sleep is one of my consistent priorities, it is a challenge that I’m now willing to accept.