Tempted to join the 4am club? Please don’t – choosing to purposely sleep less isn’t as productive as you might think.

If you want to be successful, you’ve got to get up early. Really early. Get a workout done! Read 20 pages of self-help spiel! Nail hundreds of emails in the early hours! Productivity is best done before anyone else has woken up, right?

Earlier this month, business support platform Rovva claimed that becoming part of the early morning cult was the best way to get ahead at work. Why? Because waking up at 4am is supposed to make us more productive and efficient. According to Metro, the Rovva team then went on to recommend that folk go to bed between 6.45pm and 8.15pm to ensure a decent period of time in bed. Yep, you read that right: 6.45pm. I’ve barely made it through the door after a day in the office by 7pm. 

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It’s just the latest in what seems like a never-ending cycle of people telling us to wake up earlier in order to be better at life. We’ve all read about a working mum who set up her own multi-million pound business and got her kids through the 11+ by spending an extra few hours every morning manifesting. Or the piece around some bloke who got ripped and promoted after he started waking up ridiculously early. I’ve met that guy; my old PT went from being a relatively normal person to starting his cardio (an hour on the static bike) at 3.30am every morning followed by a relaxing 5am piece of steak. Needless to say, we don’t train together any more.     

He may have joined the illustrious ranks of overachievers like former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (up at 5am for an hour’s meditation, a 6-mile jog and an ice bath), Apple CEO Tim Cook (emails at 3.45am) and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (in the office by 6am), but I can’t imagine anything worse.

Waking up at 4am isn’t ground breaking – parents and essential workers have to do it all the time

Plenty of working parents get up at 4am to tend to young children and have to survive the following day propped up on espressos. Nurses, paramedics and junior doctors have to schlep to hospitals for 6am to work 12-hour shifts. It’s not groundbreaking to wake up mega-early, but tech bros and Margaret Thatcher (who famously claimed to sleep for four hours a night) have turned what is for most people a stressful and unpleasant necessity into productivity porn.

To be our most creative, fit and mindful, most of us need a decent amount of sleep. And to get a good night’s sleep, we need to have time to eat well, wind down, enjoy some social interaction with family or friends and exercise. To get seven hours’ sleep (the least amount of sleep you’re supposed to get) and wake up refreshed at 4am, you’d have to be asleep before 9pm – an impossible dream for anyone who finishes work at 5.30pm. 

The paramedic I used to live with was out of the door every morning at 5.45am and no matter how hard she tried, she never seemed to get to bed before 10pm because she had to shower, dine and relax after a gruelling day of saving lives. She always seemed exhausted (and needless to say, she spent her 10 minutes of downtime on TikTok rather than journaling).

“Unless you are an extreme early bird, 4am is in the middle of the night,” says sleep expert Dr Katharina Lederle. “It’s the time when our attention/cognitive performance is low (and gets even lower around 6am). Now some people will say, ‘But I am wide awake,’ and that might be true – but what is driving that feeling? Is it alertness driven by high adrenaline? How long does this feeling of alertness or productivity last? What effect does having such an early start have on the rest of the day?”

I say this in the knowledge that, by anyone’s standards, I’m an early bird; on any given day, I’m exercising by 7.15am. Getting up with the lark does (for me at least) set the day off on a productive, calm footing. I can’t imagine the stress of waking up 10 minutes before needing to log into work or sleeping past 8am on weekends. But there’s a marked difference between getting up in the middle of the night to answer emails and giving yourself 90 minutes to clean out your cat’s litter tray, have a coffee in bed and enjoy a 5k before the day begins in earnest. 

Why have we allowed something as delicious as sleep to be coopted by tech bros?

Maybe being tired isn’t an issue for these tech bros; I imagine that they could take a mid-afternoon nap if they really wanted to. They probably hire people to clean their homes, cook meals andchauffeur them around, rather than having to spend evenings cleaning out the veg drawers and meal prepping. If you’re free from the mundanity of life, why not sleep more?

Some people might get away with waking up before the crack of dawn, but it’d be hugely disruptive for those of us who function better later on. Dr Lederle tells Stylist that the obsession with early rising “certainly isn’t healthy” if you have a late chronotype. “Anything that curtails your sleep duration is unhealthy. For me, it’s just another way of pressuring people into being ever more productive”.

And don’t bother trying to train yourself to need fewer hours in bed. Dr Lederle says that you can’t train yourself to need less sleep. “You need the amount of sleep you need. Can you get by with less? Yes, but it comes at a cost.”

Can you actually train yourself to wake up earlier and need less sleep?

It is possible to learn to wake up earlier through daily light exposure, but it’s worth remembering that our sleep patterns tend to change across our lives; at some points, we’ll naturally wake up earlier or later. If I find myself jumping out of bed before 5am in a decade’s time, cool. If that’s me, the very last thing you’ll find me doing at that time in the morning will be checking emails, writing pages of free-writing gobbledegook or meditating.

This isn’t to say that starting your day with acts of self-care or reflection aren’t a good idea; taking time back to look after your wellbeing can only be a good thing. It’s just that, given all we know about the power of slumber, the Silicon Valley version of wellness sacrifices the ultimate wellbeing tool – sleep – in favour of more questionable ‘productive’ habits.

Images: Getty

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