A Night Owl Asks: Is it Objectively Better to Get Up Early?

(photo: Shutterstock image)

The alarm clock strikes six, and an explosion of sound shatters the stillness of the darkened house. Once again the kids have been playing with the radio dials, and instead of waking to quiet contemporary jazz, I am bombarded at full volume by the voice of the announcer at the local Tejano station, who is shouting in Spanish over an energetic mariachi band. Despite the DJ’s exhortations, my morning is not muy bueno.

The weight of a thousand elephants presses me into the bed. My brain feels like it may melt from exhaustion. I make a list of what possessions I would trade for a couple more hours of slumber, and run out of ideas after I get to my refrigerator and my car. Every molecule of my being screams for sleep. But no. I have committed to getting up early, and that is what I shall do.

Like a scene from a zombie movie, I rise from the covers and lurch into the darkness, lifeless and angry. When I reach the living room, I gaze across the expanse and behold the coffee maker. I moved toward it, staggering quickly into the kitchen lest I collapse on the floor in a snoring heap. I grip the counter as the coffee streams into the pot, willing myself to hold on until it’s ready. When I almost burn my nose from staring too closely at the stream of mahogany-colored liquid, I make a mental note to discuss my relationship to this beverage with my confessor. With my coffee safely in hand, I retreat to my prayer corner. I finish the entire mug in gulps during pauses in the Our Father, and begin to feel partially human. And I ask myself:

Is this worth it?

I got eight solid hours of sleep, but it makes little difference. No matter how well I rest at night, I always feel like I’m part of some dastardly sleep deprivation experiment until around ten-thirty. I am hard-wired to go to bed late and get up late. For example, when I stopped working while expecting my first child, I naturally drifted into a routine where I’d go to sleep at four o’clock in the morning and rise around two in the afternoon. I felt great, and realized that my peak hours of alertness occur between eleven in the evening and three in the morning.

Now that I have kids I can no longer pull off that schedule, but thanks to the synergy of homeschooling and room-darkening shades I can usually sleep until around eight-thirty if I want to. But I don’t, because…wait, why am I doing this again?

The early bird theory is that “early to bed, early to rise” is objectively better than “late to bed, late to rise.” (Notwithstanding circumstances when sleeping in may be necessary for survival, like when you’re not getting enough rest because of pregnancy, babies, kids, neighbors’ bad dogs, awesome books you can’t put down, etc.) Somewhere along the way, those sneaky morning people convinced me that there’s truth to this idea, that a host of benefits await even us night owls when we set the alarm clock for some awful pre-dawn hour. As I sit here slumped in front of my desk, feeling like I left my brain somewhere between the bedroom and the hallway, I feel moved to review whatever it was that I found so compelling about this theory. Because I would like to refresh my memory about why, exactly, I am doing this to myself:

Getting up early is better because…

  • It starts your day with victory. St. Josemaria Escrivá stressed the importance of setting a time to get up then sticking to it strictly, “without granting a single minute to laziness.” He explained: “If with the help of God, you conquer yourself in the moment, you have accomplished a great deal for the rest of the day.” With all the comforts of modern life, it’s easy to let your days be controlled by inertia: We’re engaged in some activity, so we keep doing it rather than going to bed at night. It feels good to be in bed, so we stay in bed. Getting up when the alarm goes off is an inertia-conquering act that starts your day off with the bold proclamation that you will not let yourself be ruled by the desires of the flesh. (If you’re a night owl and have the root sin of sensuality, it’s a double victory!)
  • It gives you a feeling of accomplishment. When I’ve drifted back onto my natural schedule of staying up late and sleeping late, there’s always a question mark looming over my day as to whether I’ll use my quiet time for something fruitful. In theory, after everyone else goes to sleep I’ll have some prayer time, and then cross a few important items off of my to-do list. But in the back of my mind is the knowledge that far too often I end up procrastinating on the internet instead. When I shift my quiet time to occur in the morning, I’m more motivated to use it wisely—I don’t want to walk around all day knowing that I spent my prayer time watching videos of kittens riding vacuum cleaners, then spent another hour tweeting about it. A prayerful and productive morning gives me a sense of accomplishment that I can carry with me throughout the day, no matter what else may go wrong.
  • It allows you to be proactive. I don’t think I got up early a single day during my last pregnancy. It was a good decision since it helped me get the extra sleep I desperately needed, but the downside was that I was always in the mode of being reactive. From the moment I opened my eyes, I was hit with one urgent need after another: The kids needed breakfast, I needed breakfast, the baby needed a diaper change, the little ones needed help getting dressed, something had to be done about the sink full of dirty dishes—and that was just in the first thirty minutes. Without having a few moments in the morning to think through our plans for the day and ask for God’s guidance, I was perpetually in fire drill mode; I’d hop from one urgent thing to the next with no overarching vision for the day, or even for my life. It doesn’t sound like it would make that much of a difference, but getting up even 30 minutes earlier than the rest of the house gives me the time I need to get control of the chaos before it controls me.

That all sounds good, but as I sit here pondering what a nice pillow my keyboard would make, I wonder if this is all just morning person trickery. Perhaps I have deluded myself into thinking that getting up early is beneficial, and there are a whole host of pro-night-owl arguments I’m overlooking. So if anyone would like to make the case that it is not objectively better to be an early riser, I’m all ears. I’m going to crawl under my desk and take a little nap while I await your answers.