Like many people, Dennis Breier can’t fit his workday into just eight hours.
For years the Chicago-based wealth manager would squeeze in extra time late at night — from about 22:00 to 01:00 — to answer email and finish the day’s projects. He’d go to bed at 01:30 and wake up at 07:30.
But with four children under the age of 5 at home, Brier began to find it increasingly difficult to work late at night. If he could start earlier, he thought, maybe he could not only regain some of that lost productivity, but be more successful too.
“Successful people wake up at dawn, basically,” he said. “I wanted to try that. After working all day, I didn’t want to want to work at night anymore.”
A 2008 report from the University of Texas found that students who wake up early have an average grade point average of 3.5 versus 2.5 for people who go to bed late. That same year, a professor at Heidelberg, Germany’s University of Education found that early risers — people who wake up between 05:00 and 06:00 — are more proactive than their late night colleagues; they’re better at anticipating problems and many get better jobs. Other studies have found that while night owls are more creative and often smarter, morning people are more optimistic and conscientious.
Many successful CEOs also say they are early risers. Jeff Immelt, General Electric’s CEO and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey wake up at 05:30. PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi and Apple CEO Tim Cook get up at about 04:30. Vittorio Colao, Vodafone Group’s CEO, is up by 06:00. The list goes on.
In theory, then, a night owl who transforms into a morning person should be more successful. But, can you actually will yourself — or train yourself — to become a morning person?
The big experiment
George Burgess, the 22-year-old London-based chief executive of Gojimo, a company that has developed an app to help students study for exams, has tried and failed to become a morning person.
He went at the task in earnest, believing he could be more productive if he woke up earlier. Bedtime was usually between midnight and 02:00, but if he could shift his shuteye up to two to four hours, Burgess thought, he could wake up at 06:00 instead of his usual — after 08:00.
It worked well at first. Burgess started his experiment after one jet-lagged trip from London to Stanford, California in the US, where he was attending university. The time difference helped him wake up early. He started going to bed at 22:00 every night after that.
With the help of an alarm clock, Burgess would wake up at 06:00, take a shower, grab a coffee and sit at his desk. The results were what he had hoped for: he felt refreshed and found that he could accomplish more in the morning.
“It was a great time to get stuff done,” he said. “There’s hardly anything going on around you, so it’s easy to get some heavy duty work out of the way early.”
But after a couple of weeks, the routine got more and more difficult to maintain.
When a night out with friends or a work-related event kept him up past his bedtime, he found it nearly impossible to get up the next morning. It was also hard to wake up when he had nothing pressing to do. If he didn’t have a meeting or a class at 09:00, he’d sleep longer. Even scheduling workouts at 07:00 didn’t help.
“I was waking up feeling shattered and tired for a lot of the day,” he said. He gave up after five weeks.
Ways to wake up
Most people can’t simply switch wake up and bed times, because their bodies won’t allow them to. Our circadian rhythm is controlled by a tiny area in our brains, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, said Dr Nathaniel Watson, co-director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Centre and incoming president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.