Commentary: Does waking at 5am really help you get ahead in life?
Does the cult of the early riser still hold? The Financial Times' Jo Ellison dives into the question of whether waking early enhances your work performance.
LONDON: Will getting up before the sun has cracked its first rays make you a better, more brilliant person? In his book, The 5am Club: Own Your Morning, Elevate your Life, the leadership guru Robin Sharma argues the case.
The book is the 13th publication in an oeuvre that also includes the titles Who Will Cry When You Die? and The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, which has sold more than three million copies to date.
I am not usually in the habit of following the advice of leadership gurus and have a relatively low tolerance for books claiming to transform my life, especially when those books are framed as quasi-fictions featuring characters called the “Spellbinder”, but I was persuaded to have a look at Sharma’s latest offering when he messaged me directly on Instagram.
I can only assume that he was using the social-media platform outside his “zero technology zones”: The hours between 4.45am and 8am and after 6pm, during which all phones must be abandoned.
ONE MAGICAL HOUR
To spare you having to read his 300-page manifesto, it boils down thus: Club members must get up as soon as the alarm goes off at 4.45am before launching into “The Victory Hour”, which breaks down into 20 minutes of movement and hard physical exercise, 20 minutes of “reflection”, such as prayer, meditation or journal writing, followed by 20 minutes of “growth”, during which you might listen to “a podcast about leadership” or “consume an audiobook”.
This magical hour of solitude, contemplation and sweat allows one to focus on one’s goals and optimise one’s schedule for the day ahead, which is then split into 60- and 90-minute bursts of intensely focused work, with 10-minute intervals for mental growth, during which time the brain should roam freely.
Sharma saves the afternoons for meetings and “lower value work” before going home to enjoy a “portfolio of joyful pursuits”, family time and/or nature walks.
Digital devices are banned on waking and well before bed, and eating is allowed only during very small windows, and frequently following 16-hour fasts.
Despite scanning the schedule numerous times, I could find no allowance for watching television, unless it counts as a joyful pursuit, which I suspect it doesn’t. News watching is also curtailed to a bare minimum. And bedtime is scheduled for about 9.30pm.
ACTUALLY, IT'S NOT MUCH FUN
Sharma doesn’t pretend the club is fun, at least not to begin with. He describes the process of adjusting as “torture”, and suggests that it will take 66 days of “habit installation” before you reach “the automaticity point” where the brain is fully rewired.
But much of what he says does sound quite persuasive.
The advocacy of stringent technological restrictions is now fairly standard among most leadership gurus, with everyone from writer, columnist and now sleep evangelist Arianna Huffington, to Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford university, pointing to phone use before bedtime as being key to the rise in rates of insomnia, depression and sleep deprivation.
Sharma adds that our phone addiction has put us in a state of “digital dementia”, where we are so distracted by the white noise of “meaningless discussion” that we cannot complete even the most basic of daily tasks.
FAMOUS EARLY RISERS
The 5am call time, however, is a bit much.
I had hoped that with those nice chaps Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W Young being awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2017 for their work in unlocking the workings of the chronotype, the internal clock that programmes our ideal sleep time, we might have finally got over any more nonsense about early birds and worm-catching.
But it seems the cult of “manly wakefulness” (as coined by inventor and sleep aversionist Thomas Edison in the early part of the 20th century) still lingers.
People who rise early — Anna Wintour, Tim Cook, Michelle Obama and Jack Dorsey among them — are still admired as being more advanced specimens of human, even though there’s little evidence to prove it.
In his Ted talk “Why do we sleep?”, Professor Foster argues that there “is no evidence to suggest getting up early gives you more wealth at all”, but the sentiment that those who rise at daybreak are somehow better, more noble, more successful humans continues to persist — especially in the mind of my husband, who leaps out of bed just before the alarm goes off at 6.30am with irritatingly smug delight.
Have I joined the 5am club? Not yet. Although, in a burst of early-morning enthusiasm, I have started doing a 7am pilates class.
And I have found that travelling through London before the school run begins in earnest does offer an awesome sense of quietude. Driving over Grand Union Canal bridge as the first tendrils of morning sun catch the treetops, I am filled with a kind of Captain Marvel invincibility.
But could I shift the alarm another hour earlier? Or go to bed at 9.30pm? Or stop watching television? Good God no, I could not.