Career Path

The Early Riser Myth

Put your health first and success will come, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Years ago, I came across an article about why 4 a.m. is the most productive hour. According to psychologist Josh Davis, who was interviewed in the piece, it allows you to dodge distractions like email, text notifications and phone calls.

That’s not surprising. Who would even be awake at that obscene hour to bother you? A few people were courageous enough to give it a try, but the results were mostly negative. It was “miserable,” one person wrote. Another said they “fell asleep in their chair” that day. And my favorite: “I felt like my head had an unhappy sheep inside it.”

No thanks. Not doing it, I thought to myself.

What most people fail to realize is waking up at 4 a.m. only works if you’re naturally an early riser.

Fast forward to 2019, and the Internet is still trying to convince me that waking up super early will make me more productive and successful. In the modern world of entrepreneurship and high achievers, the cult of early risers only seems to be getting bigger. Ellevest co-founder Sallie Krawcheck and former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi both wake up at 4 a.m. Apple CEO Tim Cook is up a bit earlier, at around 3:45 a.m.

I get the hype: Early risers have the benefit of more hours in the day. But waking up the same time as Cook won’t make you successful any more than wearing black turtlenecks like Steve Jobs will make you a disruptive genius. What most people fail to realize is that waking up at 4 a.m. only works if you’re naturally an early riser. Keep in mind that this only applies to a very, very small population and, for the most part, is dependent on genomes.

If 4 a.m. sounds shockingly early to you, then attempting to adjust your schedule doesn’t make sense because you’ll probably just end up losing sleep and, as a result, be less productive.

Science has made it clear that sleep deficiency is one of the biggest productivity killers. Not getting enough sleep interferes with cognitive performance, increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and can even shave years off your life.

Instead, here are five ways to sleep for success:

1. Get at least eight and a half hours of sleep

Sleep scientist Daniel Gartenberg suggests getting eight and a half hours of sleep in order to maximize your productivity throughout the day.

So if you plan on setting your alarm clock to a few hours earlier, you’d need to be fast asleep by 7:30 p.m. Maybe that’s doable for you, but it’s unrealistic for any parent with a nine-to-five job. And even if you don’t have kids, you can kiss your social life goodbye.

Simply put, if you focus more on being well-rested, you’ll wake up with a clear brain and have a better advantage than the person who stayed at the office until 9 p.m., went to bed at 11 p.m. and woke up at 4 a.m.

2. Listen to your body

I was raised in Kansas where people follow the rhythms of an agricultural economy. It was normal to wake up with the sun (usually around 5:45 a.m.) and have “supper,” not “dinner,” at sunset.

My wake-up time still hasn’t changed much, and I rarely need an alarm clock. I spend the first two hours of my morning reading the news and contemplating my day.

That’s just what works for me. There is no one-size-fits-all. If you’re naturally a night owl, then do the math and adjust your sleep schedule accordingly.

3. Keep your hours consistent

Once you find a sleep schedule that works for you, commit to it. (That’s why testing out this whole “4 a.m. hour” is kind of ludicrous. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?)

A 2017 Harvard study found that it doesn’t matter whether you sleep early and wake up early or vice versa. The most important thing is that you’re consistent about your schedule.

Researchers traced the sleeping habits of 61 students for about a month and correlated those habits with their academic performance. Students who had irregular hours ended up with worse grades compared to those who went to bed and woke up at the same time every day.

If your sleep schedule doesn’t align with your work hours, consider having a chat with your boss, as a growing number of businesses are adjusting office hours to match their employees’ internal clocks.

4. Don’t press the snooze button

Hit it once, you’re catching up on lost sleep. Hit it twice, this isn’t going anywhere good — and it’s probably a hint that you have a job, not a career. Hit it three times, and it’s game over: You hate your job, you hate your boss and it’s time to get the heck out of there. Might as well go back to sleep!

“By dozing off for those extra minutes, we’re preparing our bodies for another sleep cycle, which is then quickly interrupted — causing us to feel fatigued for the rest of the day that lies ahead,” sleep expert Neil Robinson said in an interview with The Independent.

Can you imagine any successful CEO pressing the snooze button several times before getting out of bed? Any high achiever will tell you that those 10 extra minutes aren’t worth it.

5. If you need to wake up super early, make sure you still get enough sleep

Back when I worked at an investment banking company, there were a few days when I did have to be in the office by 4:30 a.m. But I never sacrificed my sleep; I’d have lunch at 7:30 a.m., and when my co-workers were eating dinner, I was already fast asleep.

People who work for global companies often end up working odd hours. If that’s the case for you, it’s still important to prioritize those eight and a half hours of sleep.

The proven formula for success is simple: Put your health first. And if you need a billionaire endorsement, just remember that Warren Buffett, a man worth $82 billion, is in favor of getting a lot of sleep. “I will usually sleep eight hours a night,” he told PBS. “I have no desire to get to work at 4 in the morning.”

A version of this article appears on CNBC.com.

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