You haven’t been feeling like the most productive version of yourself lately. Do you think there’s more to achieve in a day than you currently are capable of doing?
You may be right. Michael Phelps has the same 24 hours we all have in a day, and yet he seems to be doing much more than the average guy his age. How does he do it?
Stephen Seiler was one of the first psychology researchers to provide scientific documentation that clarified how the most successful athletes managed to perform so well. He tracked the training routines of elite athletes in several disciplines. He found that they didn’t necessarily adhere to the “no pain, no gain” model. They actually alternated between sessions of intense work and periods of recovery and easy training.
That’s what scientific research and elite athletes will tell you: train really hard for some time, and then have a period of recovery before you repeat the extreme training. It’s a model that could work for productivity in any other profession. A writer may intensely work on their book when they feel inspired, and then have a period of light editing work and slow progression in their writer before the muse visits again.
Most productivity gurus will not tell you that your body and mind work in sessions. Most of them will tell you the same thing: start waking up early if you want to make the most out of your day. They will tell you it’s hard at first, but you can turn the early rising into a routine that would make you much more productive. And they would be wrong.
So let’s bust that myth once and for all, shall we?
Why Waking Up Early Won’t Make You More Productive
We’ll get to the scientific facts right away, but first, let’s take a real experience as an example.
George Umson, a writer, tried that strategy. “I’m usually spending at least 9 hours of my day writing. It’s a lot of time in front of the computer, so I felt like I was incapable of doing anything else once I was finished,” – he says. “So I started waking up earlier, with the intention to squeeze a morning physical practice into my daily routine. I couldn’t do it. I just kept thinking about the work I was supposed to do and I could not focus on the exercise no matter how hard I tried. By the time I got to the computer, I felt really guilty for not starting earlier and my entire day was practically ruined.”
So what did George do? “At first, I thought I just needed to get into the routine, so I continued waking up early and doing that workout. One day, it simply hit me: I feel most inspired when I wake up, so that’s my working time. I don’t like waking up early, so maybe I should simply get my healthy sleep and work later throughout the day. I work from home, so that’s a manageable routine that actually works. Don’t worry; I still exercise! I just do it in between working sessions, when I know that I need a break from work. I get energized, I take a shower, and I’m ready to continue writing afterwards. I’m not saying this system will work for everyone. I’m just saying it works for me.”
This brings us to a serious question: should we simply do what we think works for us?
Now would be the perfect time to see what science says about it.
There’s something called individuality, which these productivity gurus often forget about when giving tips. They found something that works for them or some people, and they try to turn it into a universal rule. There are no universal productivity rules that apply to everyone.
Have you noticed that some of us are morning people are others are night owls? That’s because we all have our own circadian rhythms. That’s the mental, physical, and behavioural pattern throughout a daily cycle. The light-related circadian rhythm gets you to sleep at night and wake up when it’s day. It’s the biological clock that makes you sleepy and makes you feel energized at different times of the day or night.
So what’s the normal amount of sleep and what’s the normal time of waking up?
There is no rule. Researchers will tell you that sleep is related to a multitude of genetic, environmental, and behavioural factors. The “normal sleep” reference varies from individual to individual, so we should simply understand and accept our own patterns.
If your circadian rhythm determines activity later in the night, you can still force yourself to wake up early. You’ll just set the alarm and drag yourself out of bed. What you cannot force yourself to do, however, is to go to sleep early. Your mind will be active and you’ll just torture yourself if you go to bed at 10 PM. So you’ll practically shorten your rest, and you’ll suffer from chronic sleep deprivation if you do that consistently.
Yes; you may reset your circadian clock, but that requires individually timed light exposure. In other words, you’ll have to forget about the blinds and start letting the uncomfortable light waking you up in the early morning. It works for some people, but again: we’re all individuals and that strategy doesn’t work for everyone.
The most important question to ask at this point is: why? Why would you want to force yourself to wake up early if that makes you feel groggy for the rest of your day? You’ll still have the same number of hours being awake; you’ll just feel miserable throughout them.
If Waking Up at 6 AM Doesn’t Work as a Productivity Hack, Then What Does?
Instead of forcing yourself out of bed when you really need to sleep some more, you could do something else: monitor your body’s rhythm and identify your peak hours.
In other words, you need to find your prime time, when you feel most alert and productive.
1. Understand Ultradian Rhythms
If the term circadian was complex for you, wait for this one: you also have to understand your ultradian rhythm. While the circadian rhythm determines your body’s functions over the course of 24 hours, the ultradian rhythm determines its activity within shorter period spans of few hours. Your brain works in 80-120 minute wave frequency cycles. That cycle includes activity and rest. When awake, for example, your brain is active for 90 minutes and then wants to get 20 minutes of rest.
When you force yourself to wake up early and get the most out of your day, you practically ignore your rhythm. You might wake up in the middle of a rest phase, and that’s exactly why you feel so confused and you can’t help but hit the snooze button.
So why don’t you just wake up when your body is ready for it? If you don’t have to be at work at a precise time, you can actually allow yourself such a luxury. If you do have to be at work early, don’t set the alarm clock too early. Just give yourself enough time to sleep.
When you’re awake, you have to think about resting in between working sessions. That’s how you’ll respect your body’s ultradian rhythm.
2. Make an Experiment to Discover Your Activity Peaks
It’s time for a tedious spreadsheet. Don’t worry; you won’t have to do this measuring all the time. One week should be enough.
Write yourself a mark on your activity for each half an hour during the time you spend awake. You’ll do this in a spreadsheet. If you can give yourself three weeks to do this, you’ll be even more accurate in the measurements.
You’ll definitely notice your activity peaks. You’ll recognize the moments of your day when you feel most awake and most active. That’s your prime time. To capitalize on it, you should schedule your most important activity for that hour of the day. If you’re focused on hard training, that’s when you should train. If you’re focused on improving your working productivity, that’s when you should do your most important work, removing your most time-consuming activities.
3. Do a Morning Routine that Works for You
Some people love walking their dogs in the morning. Others enjoy a good run around the neighborhood. Some hit the gym as soon as they wake up. If it works for them, it works. What works for you?
The most important thing is to be completely awake. You’ll get that surge of energy only and only after a sound sleep. Once you get that covered, you can experiment with different routines in the morning, so you’ll see what the most efficient choice is.
Don’t wait for productivity gurus to tell you what works and what doesn’t. You’re the one who wants to work. You’re the one who wants to work out. So do the work and find out what works!