Waking up early won’t change your life—but it’s awesome for capitalism

Like these cats, you do not need to get up earlier.
Like these cats, you do not need to get up earlier.
Image: Reuters/David W Cerny
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The internet really wants you to start getting up earlier. Everywhere you look, there’s an article touting waking during the pre-dawn hours as the ultimate life-hack.

There is Mark Wahlberg’s viral morning routine that involves waking up at 2:30am to go to the gym, which ostensibly helps him stay focused on…whatever it is that Mark Wahlberg is trying to achieve. There’s the widely-ridiculed portrait of an HSBC executive who rises at 5:30am, using her early morning hours to meditate, drink green juice, and talk to friends and family on FaceTime. The New York Times talked to 300 successful people and determined that the average wakeup time for a business leader or Olympian type is 6:27am. And finally, The Cut’s Edith Zimmerman recently (and somewhat cheekily) suggested a 4am or 5am wakeup call for anyone trying to get ahead in life, noting, “When I helped start a website almost a decade ago, I didn’t know anything about how to do it, but I knew that at the very minimum I could wake up early as hell.”

But the cult of early rising seems to miss a pretty obvious point: There is an opportunity cost involved. First and foremost, if you’re waking up this early without going to bed early, you’re going to be very tired and sleep-deprived. If you are going to bed early, that means you’ll need to cut down on other non-work-related areas of your life such as exercise, doing household chores, cooking delicious meals, having drinks with friends and colleagues after work, reading actual books, having free time after you put your children to bed, or watching one of the 17 Netflix shows everyone is talking about. Indeed, unless the goal is to make like a Silicon Valley ascetic and eschew friendship, pleasure, wine, home-cooked meals, and downtime in the service of ruthless productivity, this advice seems pretty useless.

Worse still, the early-rising canon doesn’t seem to question the fact that the primary motivator for maximizing our mornings is to make more room in the day for work. As the demands of employers extend far beyond what’s possible in the eight-hour workday, early-rising advocates recommend not cutting back on work, but simply finding creative new ways to accommodate it. That’s because the waking up early isn’t really particularly good for you: It’s good for capitalism. As Nicholas Lezard writes in his review of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, “Today we are willing connivers in our own sleeplessness … as far as late capitalism is concerned, we are nothing more than ultimately disposable units for keeping economies running.” 

Of course, we all know some people who naturally spring out of bed in the wee hours—not because their careers make it necessary, but because they genuinely enjoy it. (Parents of young children also get up early because they have no choice, but no one seems to idolize that as a life hack.) And perhaps it’s true that the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed early risers really do experience fewer “inbound distractions” as they go about getting their work done, as productivity obsessive Tim Ferriss put it. Good for them. But a lot of us already struggle to rise post-dawn, and it’s disingenuous to suggest that there’s some secret stash of hours in the 24-hour day that we could make better use of, if only we were dedicated enough. Waking up early necessarily comes at the cost of something else.

As Cassie Werber noted in Quartz yesterday, the best life hack really is to get enough sleep that you don’t even need an alarm clock. It’s a sound piece of advice—one that Ferriss would probably be unimpressed by. But not all of us need or want to be overachievers who send emails time-stamped at 5:14 am. For some, the real aspiration is to be a well-rested person who finally has time to watch Killing Eve.