Magazines, websites, and blogs are flooded with articles that brand early rising as a success factor while painting night owls in a negative light.
There are coaching programs that revolve around kicking the day off at the crack of dawn, countless books that tout its many benefits, and individual success stories that set an early bird precedence for the rest of the world. You’ve got examples like...
- Malk Wahlberg, who starts his day at 2:30am (Nope, that’s not a type-o)
- The Rock, who rises at 3:30am
- Apple CEO, Tim Cook, who begins his day at 3:45am
- Scott Adams, the creator of “Dilbert”, greets the day at 4am
- Michelle Obama welcomes the new day at 4:30am
- Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO, starts the day at 5:30am
Now for the record, I'm not an early bird hater - I actually start my days at 4:50am. But, as a science practitioner who studies psychology, neuroscience, and human functioning, I apply biological and physiological principles to such questions as:
Can starting your day at 5am catapult you to success?
The answer: Maybe. Maybe not.
While rising early can bring a myriad of benefits to some, including the ability to get ahead of your day before everyone else is awake and treading on your time, it’s certainly not a one size fits all success requirement.
In fact, in some cases rising early can destroy your productivity instead of building it.
This is because not everyone is genetically wired to rise with the sun.
Extensive research has been conducted on the biological fluctuations that occur within each and every one of us. These fluctuations follow a pattern that recurs about every 24 hours and is known as our circadian rhythm.
It dictates everything from our sleep-wake cycles, to the release of certain hormones, to when we’re hungry, and what our body temperature is; and it impacts various cognitive functions, such as attention, memory, decision making, and problem-solving.
Embrace your circadian rhythm and you can thrive. Fight it and you may find yourself in a constant struggle.
Why is this? A 2011 study published in the psychological journal Thinking & Reasoning explored the “synchrony effect”, illustrating that everyone has an “optimal time of day” based on their individual circadian rhythm.
Early birds, by the nature of being morning people, tend to perform better on cognitive tasks earlier in the day, whereas night owls perform better later in the day. Leveraging one’s optimal time of day was found to positively impact tasks that require careful and deliberate attention.
An interesting and unexpected finding in that same study, however, was the revelation that insight problem performance was greater during non-optimal times of day. In other words, tasks involving creativity benefit from being performed at non-optimal times of day.
In addition, when performing tasks that we already have a knowledge base for - such as tasks where we’re simply retrieving previous information - research has shown that we excel at those tasks during non-peak hours as well.
However, when it comes to maintaining focus and knocking out more challenging action items, non-optimal hours can negatively impact our ability to successfully execute. Not only are we more easily distracted during non-peak hours, but we also struggle more with decision making.
As research has revealed, when people make decisions during their non-optimal hours, they typically have less self-control and are more likely to make poor and potentially unethical decisions.
And while it may seem like there are only two choices - early birds and night owls - most people, 60% in fact, fall in the middle and are more adaptable as a result. But what if you want to be an early riser...
Can You Alter Your Circadian Rhythm?
Just like so many other aspects of our personality, it's a combination of biological and environmental factors that determine and define our individual circadian typology. And while our preference for mornings tends to increase over time, it’s not always something we have complete control over.
For the 60% who don’t fall to either extreme, training the circadian rhythm to adjust its cycle is both reasonable and achievable - though don’t mistake that to mean easy.
However, for those who fall in the morning and evening extremes, attempting to do so can produce negative results, such as “social jet lag”, which occurs when early birds repeatedly force themselves to stay up late and sacrifice sleep, or when night owls stay up until the wee hours of the morn, and then cut their sleep short to drag themselves out of bed for work.
Social jet lag is similar to traditional jet lag - it creates a situation where the internal body clock isn’t in sync with external and/or environmental factors. And in the same way that jet lag caused from travel can create sleep deprivation that affects health, fitness, and well-being, social jet leg can have the same profoundly negative effects.
As an example, research has shown that social jet lag is linked to metabolic disorders, immune system suppression, and depression, and is especially prolific in night-shift workers whose working hours occur outside of traditional daylight hours. Similar studies have also been conducted on pilots, measuring and documenting the negative impacts of not having a predictable circadian rhythm.
But for those who experience more cyclical patterns with work and life, maximizing the optimal hours within your circadian rhythm can help lead to more productivity and less stress.
How to Uncover Your Optimal Hours
Understanding your personal circadian rhythm is only half the equation... identifying your optimal hours and strategically using them to get the most out of your days is what allows certain people to thrive while others struggle.
Most people instinctively know what their circadian typology is, but if you’re unsure, or if you think you may fall in the middle and simply want to verify, then take the morningness-eveningness questionnaire. This simple yet accurate, empirically-based questionnaire, developed by psychologists Horne and Ostberg, will provide insights into your circadian rhythm.
Next, once you know your typology, spend three days minimum (though a week is better) tracking your energy levels in two-hour blocks throughout the day. You can do this using a simple sheet of scrap paper, or feel free to download this printable tracker. (Alternatively, you can also do so in a spreadsheet like Excel, just make sure it’s something you have easy access to and can print out at the end.)
For each 2-hour block of time, rate your energy and attention level on a scale of 1-10. As an example, if you were napping or completely lethargic, you’d give yourself a 1. If you were tired and struggling to focus, you might give yourself a 3 or 4. If you were humming on all cylinders and as productive as possible, a 9 or 10 might be the right score.
(A quick tip... since tracking time in two-hour blocks is not a normal habit, use the timer in your phone as a reminder to help keep you on track with the task. Doing so will help ensure you have an accurate picture of your energy levels when you get to the end of the exercise.)
After you’ve spent 3-7 days tracking your energy levels, look for the patterns that emerge. As examples, are you consistently at your best from 8-10 am and most sluggish from 2-3pm? Or maybe you find you thrive from 7-9pm but really struggle from 11a-1p?
Identifying your personal patterns will empower you to uncover your optimal and non-optimal times of day. And once you’re armed with this information, you can turn your optimal hours into power hours, using these times to get your most cognitively demanding tasks completed each day.
Whether you rise at the crack of dawn or sleep well into the afternoon is not nearly as important as using your power hours to accomplish your biggest tasks. Like Brian Tracy says, "Eat That Frog" first thing each day - even if first thing is at 3pm for you - and you’ll be among the top percent of people who make their dreams a reality.
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