The 4AM club

The evidence is in: The early bird does catch the worm.

A number of recent studies have confirmed that waking up earlier can have a profound impact on everything from career achievements to your waistline.

- Early risers are more proactive. German research showed that people who like to wake up early are more inclined to anticipate problems, and try to minimise them, than night owls. They are also more likely to set long-term goals for themselves.

- A 2012 study published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion, found that those who go to bed earlier are generally happier and healthier than those who stay up late. The study also found that morning people are more determined, agreeable, conscientious, and cooperative.

- Another study, published in 2010, also linked a preference for “evening activity” with greater rates of depression. 

- A 2014 study by the University of London showed that evening people tended to drink and smoke more, and reported higher stress levels. 

- Scientists at Northwestern University also found that earlier risers generally have fewer problems with their weight than those who go to bed later (who have ample time to raid their fridges). 

- A study by DePaul University in Chicago showed that evening people are far more likely to be procrastinators. 
Many of the world’s top business people get a very early start to the day: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (4:30AM), GE CEO Jeff Immelt (5:30AM), PIMCO co-founder Bill Gross (4:30AM), Virgin founder Richard Branson (5:45AM), PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi (4:00AM), Apple CEO Tim Cook (4:30AM) and Disney CEO Bob Iger (4:30AM). 

They know that waking up early can have a transformative impact on your time management and personal productivity. 

It allows you to work without being disturbed (no-one is around to email or call you, or divert your attention with small talk or a funny video on Facebook), and you can get a lot of meaningful work done while you are still fresh and focused. 

It also gives you the time to properly plan your day, and make sure that you know exactly what you want to take care of, says Stephen Beukes, a life coach and early riser in Cape Town. He gets up at 4AM every day – a habit he picked up from life at boarding school. He uses the time to exercise, draw up a plan and agenda for the day and see clients before they start their working day. 

But getting up earlier won’t come naturally for at least half of the population between the ages of 30 and 50. The world is divided between two so-called chronotypes: those who prefer evenings, and those who like mornings.

This will change over your lifetime: Most teenagers and younger people prefer the night time, but by the time you are in your fifties, most people will start to pivot towards mornings. While your chronotype is partly determined by genetics, it is believed that the majority of people can be trained to become morning types.

Here’s how to become more productive in the mornings:

- Do it gradually. Don’t suddenly set your alarm clock two hours earlier and expect your mind and body will embrace your new routine. Wake up a couple of minutes earlier every week until you have reached your sweet spot.

- Start off the day with something nice. Don’t wake up and immediately plunge yourself into work. Begin with a comforting ritual – like brewing some coffee, or stretching exercises and meditation, which is Beukes’ preferred waking-up routine.

- You snooze (button), you lose. Don’t hit the snooze button when you wake up. Drifting off for a couple of minutes means fragmented sleep (an unfinished sleep cycle), which will only make you feel more tired during the day, according to scientists. Also, find an alarm that won’t work on your nerves. Many people find waking up to the radio a more gentle way of easing into the day. 

- Go to bed earlier. Duh. It goes without saying that you will have to force yourself to stop binge-watching Westworld until midnight if you want to get up at 4AM.

- Open the curtains. Exposing yourself to sunlight will help adapt your circadian rhythm (the so-called “body clock”, the 24-hour cycle that regulates when you want to sleep, eat and rise). Allow some natural light into your room to help you wake up. Going outside once you are up will also help kick-start your body and mind.

- Take a nap. Increasingly, on-the-job napping is becoming a thing. In the US, many companies now have nap rooms after studies showed the powerful impact a short sleep can have on cognitive ability. To boost alertness, a nap of between 20 to 30 minutes is the best: it won’t leave you feeling groggy or interfere with your ability to go to sleep that night.

- Don’t do low-value work at your most productive time of day. To make the best use of an undisturbed block of time in the mornings, focus on work that requires your full attention. Leave your email or other “hygiene” tasks for when you are less fresh. “Don’t get sucked into responsive mode by starting on answering emails,” says Beukes. “Focus instead on the things you want to achieve.” 

This article originally appeared in the 26 January edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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