Should You Be an Early Riser, or Just Get Enough Sleep?

A common piece of productivity advice is to wake up early. This can make sense. Waking up early lets you capture more of the quiet morning hours. There’s fewer social distractions. Combined with starting work right away, it can be a powerful ritual to get stuff done.

However, waking up early also has its downsides. The main one being that it can sometimes come at the cost of sleep.

People have different biological rhythms which can make waking up earlier harder or easier. Teenagers, for instance, are known to have sleep cycles shifted later in the day, which can mean early classes result in worse academic performance.

Individuals too often fall into “night owl” or “early bird” camps, with some people being naturally suited to getting up at six every day and others struggling to wake up by nine.

Given this potential tradeoff, which should you focus on: getting enough sleep or waking up earlier?

The Case for Early Rising

I’d like to explore both sides of this, but I’ll start with early rising.

In theory, it shouldn’t matter when you wake up. Hours are arbitrary, right? If you work from 11am to 7pm, why should that be any different from 9 to 5? Maybe you’ll even be like Tim Ferriss, who famously did a lot of his writing from 11pm to 4am.

1. The schedules of other people is what make early-rising productive.

However, there’s a big part missing with this analysis which is that for society at large, hours aren’t arbitrary. Office work usually goes 9-to-5. Friends, spouses, children and colleagues all have their own schedules they need to operate on.

Early mornings tend to be, at least in a majority of cases, the hours which are most flexible. Bosses may ask you to stay late, but they’re less likely to ask you to come in at 5 am, unless it’s an emergency. Friends may want to go for drinks, but few are going to ask for coffee at six in the morning.

In short, it’s the social calendar which may make early rising more desirable. For busy office workers, often waking up earlier to work on personal projects is the only time available. Staying late interferes with parental duties and weekends are always full of errands.

2. Cultural associations benefit early-rising.

Another vote in favor of early rising is simply that it’s strongly culturally associated with productivity and work-ethic. While you can dismiss this association as superstition, it probably does matter at least a little bit.

Cultural associations can be powerful forces. For instance, Neuroskeptic reports on a study showing that exercise seems to help with depression, but working a physically demanding job doesn’t, suggesting that the psychological effect of what exercise means may be the source of the benefit.

Perhaps making the intention to wake up early, even though it is difficult, has a similar benefit for productivity, solidifying the intention to work hard into a ritual which already has positive symbolic signficance in our culture.

The Case for Getting Enough Sleep

On the other hand, there’s a powerful case to be made for getting enough sleep. Especially if you are the kind of person who is predisposed to stay up late.

For starters, consider the evidence that early school schedules impair teenage academic performance. It wouldn’t seem like those students are benefitting from the “symbolic significance” of waking up early, or of maximizing the early parts of the day to get stuff done.

1. Sleep is critical for learning.

Some of this may also be due to the important association sleep has with memory. While operating on low sleep impairs performance in all sorts of ways, it’s particularly bad when you’re trying to learn something. Sleep appears to be involved with memory consolidation, and that may mean that cutting sleep is always a bad idea if you’re trying to learn.

During my MIT Challenge, for instance, I had a habit of taking 15-20 minute naps as short breaks. While I didn’t really think of it as a memory enhancer at the time, there is some research to suggest that short naps may actually help with learning.

2. Could you keep the ritual, and still wake up at a reasonable time?

Another argument in favor of getting enough sleep suggests that if its the ritual significance of setting the intention to wake up early that matters, why not do the ritual and just shift it a little later? Instead of waking up at six to do your productivity ritual, shift it to eight and get the same benefit? I’ve written before about how to create a morning ritual here.

3. Deep work is hard when you’re exhausted.

There’s also another argument based on deep work to favor getting enough sleep. The deep work argument is that the most valuable time spent working is a focused, distractionless state on hard problems. The corollary to this is that it’s difficult to sustain deep work for more than several hours in a day.

If this means that productivity requires less time at a higher intensity, then the extra time gained by cutting sleep seems extra useless. After all, it’s harder to focus when you’re tired, so you’ll have a harder time really getting into deep work. The added time you save isn’t helpful since it will just go towards more shallow work.

My Own Experiences Juggling the Two Ideals

In my own experience, I’ve gone back and forth between the two ideals.

When I first started writing, I was a big proponent of the early-rising habit. I kept it up for a few years, but then I found it started to interfere too much with my social life. As a college student and, later, shortly after graduating, I found early rising tended to make it harder.

When I’ve taken on more serious projects, I’ve shifted earlier, although the extent of how early that shift goes has changed over time. I used to wake up as early as 5am, now I try to sleep until 7am most days, even if I’m taking on more intensive projects.

Obviously, all of this is a luxury of having flexibility. For many of the readers here, this debate is besides the point. Work, childcare and other obligations can force a certain sleeping pattern upon you, rather than it being your choice. To hear a childless man who works at home mull over the merits of different sleeping schedules might be irritating, so if it is, I apologize.

However, even if you sleep and rise in less-than-ideal circumstances, you still have a choice to make about how you’re going to do it, and what you’ll choose to prioritize.

With my two cases outlined, which do you agree with more? Should you concentrate on getting enough sleep or on waking up early? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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