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Why did I switch to starting work at 4am and how did I do it?

Many, many people have asked me why I start working at 4am, and how the hell did I change from being a night owl to being a morning person. I had been thinking about writing about this topic for a very long time, and then this Wall Street Journal article started making the rounds (”Why 4 a.m. Is the Most Productive Hour“). Before anybody gets freaked out about me promoting overwork and longer hours (I don’t), let me explain that I wake up at 4am, and go to bed at the very latest by 10pm. I also have a 1 – 1.5 hour nap every day. This is completely in agreement with the fact that I have been actively advocating AGAINST overwork in academia.

AcWri at home office (Leon and Aguascalientes)

If you knew me while I was doing my undergraduate degree (I have a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering), you probably knew that I was a night owl. My late grandpa (another late-night person) would stay up with me until I finished my homework (usually between 1 and 3am, but sometimes as late as 4am). Often times, he would get tired and want to go to sleep before me, but he stayed and I really valued our time together during those long nights. As I was completing my degree, I had to wake up around 7 (a short 3-5 hours after finishing homework) to go to work which meant that I was usually exhausted by the time I had finished school. Since I played highly competitive volleyball at the national level for a very long time, even after I started working, I was lucky that my down time coincided with training and thus I got an additional high from the exercise. Then after I went to dance school. So, by the time I hit 7pm, I was ready to sleep. But I had homework to do. I got a 2 hour nap and then I started working on homework again.

I am not as young as I was then, so I couldn’t really maintain this schedule now even if I wanted to. Also, this was during my undergraduate and first few years of work. I was hoping that working would switch me to being a morning person (it didn’t). Even during my PhD I still remained a late night person, and this was compounded because just about everyone I dated was a night owl. Every close friend of mine was (with the exception of three of them) a night owl. Until I started seeing someone who woke up at 5am. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

And that was the end of it.

Not the end of the relationship, mind you. Much to the contrary, what this meant was the end of my time as a night owl. As I completed my PhD, submitted my final doctoral dissertation, filed it in the library and started working full time, I started weaning off of the late nights. I started switching to an early morning (which for someone like me, meant waking up at 7am, like most people do).

But then I realized I had way too much work to do to wake up at 7am. I would need to stay up late to finish my work if I wanted to come to the office to a clean desk. About 5 years ago, when I was already going up to 6am (slowly) I read Peter Shankman’s post (in a desperate Google search to justify whether it was worth for me to make the sacrifice of waking up earlier and earlier). His post, and the experience of my former professor Tony Dorcey (who woke up at 3am every day, and worked until 4pm, but then went to bed at 8pm) convinced me to go up to 4:45am. But then my body apparently decided that 4am was just fine, and since my gym opens at 6am, and I try to write 2 hours a day every day, 4-6 #AcWri (academic writing) and 6-7am exercise seemed to make sense.

OBVIOUSLY I get tired earlier. OBVIOUSLY I need a nap (I have what is called a 6+1.5 sleep cycle, where I sleep 6 hours but I then get a 1.5 hour nap). OBVIOUSLY this has a negative impact on my social activities. I don’t take well to those rare times when my friends keep me up after 10pm (you know who you are if you’re reading and you know why you shouldn’t). I simply have learned to explain to my friends, colleagues, students, and coauthors that I don’t stay up after 10pm, and to NEVER call me at that time (my brothers do this on rare occasions, with the subsequent angry “you woke me up“). But generally speaking, people tend to be very, very attentive and appreciative of my time.

There’s plenty of articles on why people wake up at 4m, and why it is the most productive. I Googled the idea and got a sample here and here. Like everything, you need to negotiate with other people when you’re living in a context of 8am to 5pm (or like in Mexico, where 9-2 and 5-8 are acceptable).

If you have a 4 am start, you really need to negotiate with people and teach them to respect your wake up time. For example, I push for faculty meetings to be closer to 1pm. First, it forces them (my colleagues) to be VERY efficient with time (many of them eat at 1:30pm) and not keep meetings too long. Second, I get my work done (4am-6am, then 8am-1pm) before my body shuts down for the day (usually at 2:30pm). And third, it allows me to be more receptive to ideas (if a meeting is in the early morning, I resent it and thus I’m cranky when attending). Because that’s also when I am at my most productive writing and data-analyzing, those meetings completely disrupt my productivity.

You can’t do the 4am wake-up time cold turkey, as my good friend and colleague Dr. Allyson Benton indicated – doing it cold turkey is pretty horrible (she and her husband, who is also a professor, do this too). Allyson and I agree that you need to do this gradually. Here’s a post by someone who did the 4:30am rise for 21 days (the number of days that apparently the scientific research says will be enough to create a habit for you). I can’t say that waking up at 4:30am was something I did in 21 days, but I assume it can be done. It took me MUCH longer.

Here is how I went up to a 4 am wake-up time: I started first with a very decent 6:30am rise. I spent the first few weeks (2-3) doing 6:30, then I went up to 5:45am (I didn’t reduce 15 minutes per week, as some suggested – my body doesn’t work that way). This was good for about 2 months. Then I read the Shankman post and tried to reduce to 4:45am. This didn’t go well, and I started regressing to 6am by waking up, feeling groggy and then “sleeping in” until 6am. After a few weeks, I was able to go down to 4:45am, which I then tried for a couple of weeks. Then my body automagically decided to wake up at 4am, and I haven’t stopped since.

Obviously, as those who wrote the posts that I linked, there are a few rules to this 4am thing (and it only works for some people – for example, if you are a Mom who just had a baby, or your toddler wakes up at 5am, or you need more sleep – there are PLENTY of people for whom 4am will NOT work and there is no need to make it work for them):

  • Listen to your body and rest when it asks you to.
  • Verbalize that your waking time is different to your colleagues and ask people to respect it.
  • Eat well, exercise regularly, and sleep exactly the number of hours your body needs, which often may mean, go to bed MUCH earlier
  • Accept that this is a process, and that for you 5:30am may be the earliest you can wake up and be functional, period.

I also have a few hacks for myself to make sure I can do this 4 am wake up and write thing:

1. I leave my work stuff ready the night before (music play list included).

2. I also make sure to have my To-Do list for the day ready the night before. This comes from my weekly planner whiteboard and my Everything Notebook, as you may already have guessed.

And…

3. I sleep as much as my body needs. That means, 1.5 hour naps just about every day, sleeping with ear plugs, going to bed early, and sleeping in on weekends.

As I have said, 4am isn’t for everyone, but if you want to try it, this is how I did it.

Posted in academia, productivity.


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