Rising Early Is Clearly a Good Idea. But Stop Pretending We Need to Do It Perfectly or Only for Productivity.

A woman in a white dress walks through a creek.
7-7:45 a.m.: Walk on water.
Photo by Rafael Alcure on Unsplash

We all know how early-risers feel about their sacred routine: Whether through replying-all to an email at 5 a.m. or humble-bragging about how they just can’t manage to sleep late on the weekend, they never miss an opportunity to make sure you know how great it is to be up before the sun.

As a champion snooze-hitter myself, I’m usually allergic to early bird evangelizing, but a pair of recent articles caused me to take a fresh look. Over at The Cut, Edith Zimmerman lays out a few objectively good reasons for her pre-dawn habit: “You can do all the little tasks that are otherwise not crucial but that weigh over you like a nuisance cloud all day as they build up,” she writes. “Such as getting to in-box zero…or spending hours pinning down a detail that almost no one else will ever notice.” And according to interviews by Benjamin Spall with over 300 high-achievers, who on average rise at 6:27 a.m., it’s probably incredibly beneficial to experiment with your wake-up time rather than dozing until you have barely enough time to make it to work after your morning ablutions.

Yet despite all the evidence that rising early can be beneficial, I still find myself rolling my eyes at performative early-risers like the HSBC exec who apparently fits in a game of tennis before even heading into the office. Zimmerman does a good job articulating why: “Waking up early gives you a surge of power; you feel superior, smug,” she says. “I’m pretty sure there’s no one I talked with [when she was an early regular] who I didn’t tell in some way, as quickly as possible, that I got up at 5 a.m.” That smug superiority is as pleasant to be on the receiving end of as a root canal and only makes the people you’re theoretically evangelizing to immediately tune out any real benefit. Even if the early-riser in question manages to gently espouse the Dawn Gospel rather than beat their audience over the head with it, a feeling of resentment still lingers—mainly because I’ve yet to meet an early-riser who actually talks about the mornings when they don’t abide by their routine. This is why the most comforting part of those 300 interviews with high-achievers is that nearly everyone Spall spoke to “said they don’t consider one, two or even three missed days of their morning routine a failure, so long as they get back to it as soon as they can. They recognize that sometimes they’ll miss their routine, and that’s O.K.”

Attempting to shift your entire circadian rhythm is no small feat, despite how glib the unsolicited advice to do so often is. There’s little chance that anyone who regularly gets up before the sun has done so without sleeping through their 5 a.m. alarm a few times. But because we all want to look perfect, no one talks about those mornings, just like no one talks about the times they skipped yoga to watch Bachelor in Paradise. It’s no wonder the mention of a defined, hours-long morning routine tends to leave me with the vague impression that the person I’m talking to was born a freak of nature: The person casually mentioning their pre-dawn start time probably wants me to think they’re a freak of nature. And because productivity rules our lives, waking up early is almost always framed as a way to cram more work into your waking hours, which quite frankly is the last thing I want to do.

In our work-obsessed society, waking up early is one of many Puritanical cues designed to telegraph how ruthlessly efficient we are. Telling someone you get up at dawn just so you can have time to watch 40 minutes of YouTube videos doesn’t sound nearly as good as saying you went to a 7:30am SoulCycle class, but both are perfectly fine reasons to wake up early! Attempting to have an actual routine, whatever that might entail, rather than a panicked 30 minutes of rushing around with a toothbrush in your mouth, is a noble goal, and there are countless benefits to doing so, the least of which is not getting toothpaste on your sweater. But you’re bound for disappointment if you truly believe that you’re going to abide by an hour-by-hour plan within the first weeks of your new dawn wake-up calls or make all of those hours ultra-productive. Letting yourself be in the 6-9 moment and seeing what uses emerge of that time, rather than waking up with the secondary intent of lording your robotic competence over other people, will probably make you happier in the long run—and make you a much more pleasant person to be around.