High-fliers swear a 5am start is the key to success – but how hard is it, does it work and what does it do to your sex life?
By Alice Hart-davis the Daily Mail Online
Yawn chorus: Is 5am a productive time to begin the day?
But how do you do it all, I asked my high-powered friend Fiona, who had just reeled off her latest long list of projects. ‘Oh, I get up at 5am,’ she said. ‘So by breakfast time, I’ve cleared emails, been through the diary and can hit the ground running.’
That did it. For years, I’ve heard people proclaim the advantages of early rising. Yoga teachers, life coaches and exercise gurus swear by its benefits for the body.
Over-achievers find it’s the best time to get things done because their brains are fresh and ready for action.
Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue, famously rises at 5am to fit in an hour’s tennis before her 6am blow-dry each day.
In order to get her first book written, P. D. James, like many would-be authors, used to get up at 5am.
But research released this summer from the University of Alberta in Canada concluded that people fall into two categories: larks, early risers whose brains function best in the morning, tiring through the day; and owls, whose mental capacity improves by nightfall, reaching optimum levels at 9pm.
If you are an owl, they said, it might just be that your body is biologically programmed to start the day later and there is precious little you can do to change it.
I was determined to know who was right. Am I a lapsed lark who could be more productive at dawn? Could getting up early change my life, making me more alert and more industrious?
Normally, on school days, I get up at 6.30am; at weekends and in the holidays, it’s 7.30am. That night, I announced my intention to my astonished husband, and set the alarm for 5am. That was a month ago. This is how it has been:
To start with, it was hideous. At 5am on the first day, my body was fast asleep and didn’t want to wake up.
I stumbled downstairs to switch on the kettle, feeling leaden of limb and thick in the head. The house was silent and dark.
Carrying a mug of warm water and another of tea, I tiptoed upstairs to my study, cursing the creaky floorboards.
My computer screen was horribly bright and hurt my eyes. It was hard to focus, let alone think. I laboured through my email inbox and wondered what I’d let myself in for.
After three days, I was on my knees with fatigue and felt a cold coming on. I rang Fiona for advice. ‘You’ve got to be in bed by 10pm,’ she said. ‘No TV, no reading and lights out. And no alcohol. It really doesn’t help.’
Like many women with school-age children, I have a busy life. As a freelance writer, I’m self-employed and work from home, which means I can attend everything from parents’ evenings to coffee mornings while working full-time.
My job entails meetings, launches, places to visit; emails arrive in a continuous stream on my laptop and BlackBerry. Plus the actual writing.
Then there’s the domestic admin, the business so beautifully described by Allison Pearson as running ‘a small country called Home’.
For the past ten years, I’ve managed to achieve all this by working late. Once my three children were in bed, I would settle down at my desk and write for as long as I needed.
My husband resigned himself to evenings of solo TV. So turning things around seemed a gargantuan undertaking. Writing in the evening was exhausting; my eyes would feel gritty and my back would grumble, but at least there was peace and plenty of time.
However tired I felt when I started, by 10pm I would get a second wind and could carry on for hours before collapsing into bed satisfied that the job was done.
Getting up in the morning didn’t allow as much latitude. Once I’d got my brain functioning, it was 5.30am, which left only an hour before I had to wake my youngest and get him ready for school.
Each morning, I crawled to my desk. What else could I do? The pool was shut, so the only option was to work.
My yoga teacher suggested limbering up with a few sun salutations, the yogi’s way to greet the new dawn, but the house was too cold and my back too stiff. Plus I just couldn’t face it.
Fiona advised leaving deadlines for the morning: ‘Then you’ll have to get up early, to get them done,’ she said. This kind of pressure may work for her, but for me, it was even harder than going to bed at 10pm.
The first night I left a piece unfinished with a deadline looming the next day. I lay awake for two hours fretting I’d never get it done in time.
By the end of the week, it was no easier, but I liked watching the dawn rise over the rooftops at 6am.
Certainly, I was firing on all cylinders by breakfast time, while the rest of the family stumbled about in a daze. I was ravenous, too, eating twice as much as usual, so had to eat less in the evenings.
My husband wasn’t mad about the early starts – I woke him when creeping out of bed – but he was delighted by the early end to the day.
Instead of him sitting alone watching TV while I toiled upstairs, we could put the children to bed by 9pm, watch an episode of 24 together and go to bed at the same time.
Despite the early bedtime, it allowed us more quality time together. And something in my body clock was shifting.
At the weekend, when I decided to cut myself some slack and sleep in, I was wide awake by 6am. Hmm.
Owl by nature: Alice Hart-Davis changed her morning routine to see if she would benefit from an early start
It was half-term and for a couple of days I did well; at my desk by 5.15am, I had two clear hours before the first child woke up. Much to my surprise, I could concentrate and write more productively than usual.
I began to feel more positive about the enterprise, but then my sister-in-law and her family came to stay.
With ten of us in the house, there were children sleeping everywhere, including in the study.
Quite apart from the fact that it would have been rude to retire, sober, at 10pm when we had guests, what was I going to do if I got up at 5am? Keep vigil in the kitchen with the hamster?
I was starting to wonder if I was really an owl – or had I just allowed myself to become that way?
According to professional coach Chris Smith, every hour’s sleep before midnight is worth two after. Apparently, your body sleeps more deeply, and you drop off more naturally, in the hours soonest after sunset.
The body’s natural release of melatonin, the sleep hormone, is triggered by nightfall, making the hours soon after dark the time when your body craves sleep.
The later you stay up after this time, the less your body is responding to its natural body clock and the less productive sleep will be. It’s an evolutionary hangover from pre-industrial days when, without the benefit of artificial light, people would sleep when it was dark and wake with the sun.
This saw me back on the wagon (or should that be the milk float?), even though, with the clocks going back, it is still horribly dark until 7am and the house is freezing.
I can see why some friends say they do 5am starts for special projects, but only in the summer.
But cold starts aside, by now I am into my stride, more focused, heading to bed at 10pm, dropping off to sleep faster and waking more easily, sometimes even before the alarm.
It is all working as the larks said it would – though I can see I’m becoming deadly boring.
I dread having to go out in the evening. I can manage early evening drinks, but anything more than that is a struggle. At a friend’s birthday dinner, while she was getting everyone up to dance as the plates were cleared, I was sloping out of the door, sober, and longing for bed.
My husband says he will join me in my 5am start as there are plenty of bits of admin he could dispatch at that hour.
However, most days I haven’t the heart to drag him from his slumbers so early. I’ve become expert at which creaky stairs to skip to avoid waking anyone up. This morning, I even tried a creaky sun salutation as the tea brewed.
Most people get an average seven hours of sleep a night. But one in five of us suffers from insomnia
I feel more attuned to early rising, though no closer to joining the super effective elite. So should you give it a try? Unless you’re trying to start a business, write a novel or fit an exercise routine into your day, would you really want to?
And what would your partner think of it? Would it harm your relationship to suddenly curtail your social life? And how about your sex life?
If you’re falling into bed exhausted just after the children and rising before your husband is awake, just how do you fit it all in?
For those with a nine-to-five routine who aren’t natural larks, I’m not sure it’s worth it. After all, would you not run out of steam by midday, despite getting off to a roaring start?
I look exhausted. I shouldn’t do – I’m still getting six-and-a-half hours’ sleep, just in a different pattern, but I know I’d prefer more.
Certainly, I’ve been wildly productive work-wise, though my house still looks like a tip.
I’d love to carry on like this, but with an imminent trip to China followed by lots of Christmas parties, I know it will be nearly impossible.
But come January, when I’ve got another book to write, instead of giving up alcohol or joining a gym, I know what my New Year’s resolution will be – that the alarm clock will be going back to 5am.