Guilt, begone! Why this lifestyle may not be right for you.

As I start this piece I’m in bed curled up with my computer, sipping a lukewarm cup of tea, my kitten still snoring. It’s 6:23 a.m., and I’ve been working for about an hour and awake for about two hours. And the feeling is glorious.

It wasn’t too long ago that I decided I wanted to shake my life up a little bit—and instead of getting a tattoo or dyeing my hair pink, I started waking up at 4:30 a.m. I had read an assortment of articles about waking up early—how to do it, why to do it, why everyone should do it. I’d even dipped into the somewhere-between-inspirational-and-totally-overwhelming corner of YouTube dedicated to people filming their morning routines.

Because I’ve got a competitive streak and wanted to be just a little earlier than the “5 AM Club,” I picked 4:30 a.m. as a wake-up time; it also had that insane factor that I felt myself in need of. I wanted to do something different, and 4:30 was definitely different. While going to bed by 8:30 proved to be somewhat unrealistic, I planned to be reading in bed by that time, and having that goal in mind helped me structure my evening and not waste lots of time browsing Pinterest or searching Amazon.

The next day, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. I was energized and awake. It was like my body was finally doing what it had always wanted to do—wake up early and go to bed early—and I was able to fit in quiet time, two hours of work, breakfast, and a walk before 9 am. It encouraged me all day to remember that I’d done a solid chunk of work before the sun came up, no matter what went sideways in the remaining hours.

All of this reads like another intro to one of those “wake up early” articles that I found so inspirational—“Waking up at 5AM Changed My Life,” “How I became a morning person (and why I decided to make the change),” or “Productivity Boost: How to start your day at 5:00 AM” (see what I mean? There’s something about the 5 a.m. thing). But I’m actually here to tell you that waking up at 4:30 a.m. may not work for you. Here’s what inspirational articles on waking up early sometimes miss:

The danger of productivity guilt

Imagine that you wake up at 7 a.m. You only need an hour to get everything done and head to work, and you have two hours. You’re feeling great about your day—until you scroll through your news feed and read “You Make or Break Your Life Between 5-7 AM.”

Shoot. Guess my life is already broken.

There are many problems with thinking about “waking up early” as a panacea for all life’s ills (or an indispensable key to life success). The first, and most paralyzing, is what Scott H. Young calls “productivity guilt.” Reading lots of inspirational articles can be just that—inspirational. But it can also be crippling and exhausting. As Young puts it, “Unfortunately, this is a side-effect of offering advice and suggestions. For some people, the suggestions will be helpful in solving their problems. For others, they will be too much and just make them feel guilty. It’s hard as a writer to have the former without the latter.” Especially if we’re already battling overwhelm, it’s essential to leave some—even good!—pieces of advice by the wayside. There will always be more productive things to do—the question is whether the ideas you’re reading are inspiring you or making you feel inadequate and unable to change.

Being attentive to your chronotype

I started waking up this early somewhat as a dare to myself. But the idea made sense—I’d experimented with getting up early before, and even from early childhood I’ve been a morning person. Even when I wasn’t getting up at 4:30 a.m., my brain would naturally start to shut down in the early evening, around 8:30 p.m. or so. I wasn’t productive in the evenings, and often staying up late led to a downward spiral of Downton Abbey binge-watching or vague apartment research so that I stayed up even later than I needed to. Part of this change was acknowledging to myself that nothing productive tended to happen in my life after dinner, and that was okay.

In other words, I’m an early bird—a chronotype also known as a “lion.” Your chronotype is a description of how your natural circadian rhythm functions. Do you do your best work at night, or in the early morning, or somewhere in between? Are you sleepy by mid-evening, or just about to get your second wind? On reflection, you might already know the answers to these questions (or your housemates or spouse might!).

If you’re a “bear” or “wolf” chronotype—someone who does their best work midday or in the evening—then you actually shouldn’t be waking up that early. It’s not going to help you—you’ll just be as sleepy and distracted as I get in the early evening (or, if I’m honest, even in the afternoon!). Not only that, but you could end up sleep-deprived or a victim of “at-home jet lag.” Be honest about who you really are, and don’t let well-meaning advice try to dictate your personal circadian rhythm.

The value of flexibility

Part of me wishes that I could say I’ve woken up at 4:30 without fail since that first day. The fact is that more often I haven’t! Even though I’m naturally an early bird, I still like to go to dinner parties and visit with friends. Since I really do need to get enough sleep, sometimes my wake time gets pushed to accommodate these events—or I’m sick or traveling and can’t maintain my early-bird schedule.

Life happens. I know that, as fun as a 4:30 wakeup time sounds at this stage in life, it might not be that thrilling if I’ve been up all night with a baby or just returned from traveling internationally. Making broad, inflexible plans for my future could just end in disappointing myself and not really doing what’s best for each life stage. I’m getting a lot out of this experience, and learning a lot about myself because of it—that’s what will serve me for the rest of my life, not a rigid goal. 

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