Is waking up at 4am really the secret to being a successful person?

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by Eleanor Ross
15 May 2018

While the rest of the world sleeps, a select few are rising. Sayings such as ‘the early bird catches the worm’ suggest that success comes to those who set their alarms earlier than others, but how much truth is there in that? What are the benefits of waking up early? What is the best time to wake up? And should you sack off your lie-in and start getting up early?

4am get up, what counts as early?

The average Briton sets their alarm for 6.47am, but studies show that most people snooze their alarm for another 25 minutes before actually getting out of bed. A study by the University of Westminster found that people who wake up early (between 5.22am and 7.21am) have higher levels of a stress hormone than those who have a leisurely morning, but a dawn wake-up is also when most CEOs jump out of bed.

Interviews conducted by The Guardian in 2013 found that all of the successful CEOs got out of bed immediately. There was no snoozing and no lazing around thinking about the day. They had emails to answer and the earlier that was done the better.

So, an early start counts as anything from 3.30am to 5.45am. Any earlier and it’s really impossible to justify it as the morning. Who are you kidding?

The 4am club and some of the benefits of waking up early

Apple's Tim Cook is a notable and extreme morning routine example - reportedly rising at 3.45am to answer emails before heading to the gym at 4.30am. While many CEOs tend to rise a little later - between 5am and 6am, almost all incorporate starting the day with some kind of exercise and email checking. Few appear to make time for a leisurely breakfast or a crossword to boost energy levels. It’s up, exercise, and straight to work. Other early risers include Michelle Obama who works out before doing emails and Anna Wintour, who wakes at 5am and plays tennis at New York’s Midtown tennis club. According to a survey conducted by Fleximize, a UK revenue-based finance provider, Arnold Schwarzenegger sets his alarm to 5am, reads the news and then uses his iPad to check his email. Venture capitalist Brad Feld wakes at 5am, makes coffee, and then feeds the dog before checking his RSS feeds and email. After that, he goes for a run.

It can be easy for people who aren’t CEOs of multi-million pound companies to say "well yes, if I was chauffeured to work like Tim Armstrong of AOL I’d also be more productive and be able to wake up early with no stress". But there are plenty of people who do set their alarms early and who try to seize the day.

Some are just early risers. Others want to get a headstart on the day. There is a kind of peace that exists before 7am, before the nation’s alarm clocks have gone off. This quiet is perfect for writing the report that always gets put off without the distraction of social media or email.

Early risers in the real world, when is the best time to wake up?

Not everyone who gets up early is a CEO with staff on hand to look after their every mood. For James Constantinou, CEO of Prestige Pawnbrokers, his alarm goes off at 4.45am and he might snooze until 5am. He cites many benefits of getting up early: "I’m fresh, alert and brimming with ideas. I put together a to-do list and set myself targets for the day ahead. Everything is quiet and peaceful so I have no distractions. I can catch up and respond to emails straight away and deal with any urgent phone calls. All this before 6am."

He explains that his commitment to early rising also helps his business. "If I left speaking to a client on the other side of the world until normal UK business hours, there’s a good chance their office has closed for the day. I can’t afford to let this happen. I can often do deals and come to agreements very early in the day and head to Hatton Garden knowing I have a number of ducks in a row ahead of the 9 - 5 is hugely satisfying."

But surely getting up so early can be detrimental to the rest of Constantinou’s life? He says that he doesn’t plan to nap, but he sometimes catches up on sleep on his 40 minute commute back to the office. “When I’m working I never feel the need to nap, however, I do make sure I leave the office around 4pm. I feel great for getting home at a decent time and spending quality time with my family. I have to be honest though and admit to going to bed by 10pm or I run the risk of falling asleep in front of the TV."

Lewis Reeves is part of the 4am club, another entrepreneur who enjoys waking up before the sun’s up. He founded Viga, a data collection agency which now runs in the US and UK, he wakes at 4.30am and is in the office by 6am. He uses his shower to think about his goals for the day. "I love the feeling of beating the world up and essentially gaining free time. I love how insular and closed off a shower is, giving ultimate undistracted thinking time."

From 6am he’s in the office. "Totally distraction free, where I can get my serious work, thinking, admin complete. If I lose this time for any reason it feels like the day is lost before it’s even started. I have so much energy in the mornings and such a clear head that I find it increasingly difficult to get the same productivity working long into the night."

He explains that after 8am the day really belongs to his team. “This is when my role rapidly changes to leadership, management, meetings, networking. Hence getting ahead of the day by waking up early is absolutely critical to moving the business forward. Being the father of a very young family, weekends are precious and saved for work emergencies, hence the mornings are free for me to capitalise on."

He doesn’t think early starts necessarily have to hinder late night networking, but he says it’s all about being smart. "Diet and alcohol consumption have a huge impact on sleep. A super healthy and sober three hour sleep is much better for me than any other combination".

Simon Ong is a life coach and business strategist who swears by getting up early every day. He wakes at 6.15am, regardless of the day of the week, and made the decision consciously.

"By waking up early I am able to enjoy a powerful workout before the day gets going. Not only is this good from a health perspective, but also for my mind. This daily ritual puts me in a phenomenally empowered peak state that means I'm mentally ready to take on whatever the day may throw my way."

He adds that he is able to get so much more accomplished. "Think about it this way: if you woke up just one hour earlier every day for a year, you create extra time equating to over half a month. What could you do with all that extra time? Begin to imagine all the exciting possibilities!"

Because he gets up early, he explains how he’s learned to become more protective of his time. "One of the greatest productivity hacks we can embrace is saying 'No' more often to demands on our time. I'm therefore more selective about events that I attend in the evenings and when I do, will often arrive earlier and leave soon after they end. There will naturally be some events that go on longer in the evenings and so it's just a question of being flexible and adapting to those in the best way possible."

Read: Simon Sinek on fulfilling potential

For Joseph Valente, winner of 2015’s The Apprentice and author of Expelled from the Classroom to Billionaire Boardroom, getting up in the morning means he’s able to accomplish everything his rivals can in a day, by 9am. "I don’t nap either. My business and my life are too exciting for me to sleep during the day. I combat tiredness by giving every day 150 per cent - that way, I'm so tired at night I sleep like a baby."

He adds: "I learned a long time ago that if you want to be successful, the most productive stuff happens in the first half of the day. The evening tends to be more for recreation, and I make time for that only after my work is done. I have to admit, though, I'm pretty wired well through my evening live broadcasts."

Valente says he got his drive from his mother. "She taught me to get up early. After finishing a full work week at three to four jobs, she would get up early on Saturdays to ride her bike to the local bakery to clean. I have the utmost respect for that."

Can getting up early be detrimental to our daily lives?

A study conducted by the University of Westminster found that the stress hormone cortisol is found in higher levels among those who rise earlier. In addition, Lisa Artis, from the Sleep Council, says there’s no evidence to suggest that waking early really gives you a headstart. "While a minority may be part of the 'sleepless elite', the majority are probably well versed at masking the signs of exhaustion."

She explains: "In today’s busy world we’re all very eager to believe that sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity but in reality, it’s likely to have the opposite effect. Natural sleep has restorative functions - it detoxes the neurotoxic waste that accumulates when you’re awake. Too little sleep, and this waste remains. Lack of sleep can be dangerous in other ways: it is one of the main contributors to a burnout in top business leaders."

Although we may look at people like Tim Armstrong and be envious of their drive for success and ability not to hit snooze, they may also be making themselves ill. According to Artis misaligning your body clock (aka getting up very early) can increase the chance of having a stroke or heart attack. She advises: "If you’re going to wake early use daylight or daylight equivalent artificial light to boost your early morning alertness. It stimulates the production of hormones to help you get up and go. Equally, when you’re rising early you should ideally go to bed at a corresponding early hour. On summer evenings, make sure to use blackout blinds, heavy thick-lined curtains and even an eye mask to block out any rays of light."

Winston Churchill famously said he got by on four hours sleep a night but needed an afternoon nap. While it’s ok to have an occasional nap to make up for 'lost sleep' it shouldn’t be a long term solution. It can impact night time sleep.

Artis says: "A couple of hours less sleep every now and again won’t harm you but constant lack of sleep is serious - it mounts up and remember you can’t reverse all the side effects of sleep debt."

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