I don't really know why, but when the idea of waking up earlier came up, I immediately wanted to say yes.
It all started with this blog by Laura Mabille. An entrepreneur specializing in content marketing, Mabille offers a detailed explanation about why she wakes up at 5:30 am every morning. She says it makes her happier, more focused, more motivated, more relaxed; to sum it up, more everything. Clearly, it's the stuff dreams are made of.
So I decided to do the same for three weeks. Like Laura Mabille, I pushed up my wake-up time by an hour and a half, so 6 a.m. instead of 7:30. Yes, I know, 6 a.m., that's not THAT early. Lots of people have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get to work.
The challenge here is to use this time wisely, for doing activities that we constantly put off for another day, or that are (usually) good for us.
Easier said than done. Because when the alarm goes off in the morning, let's just say it's hard to resist the scintillating temptation to bury your head in your pillow for another hour and a half. It is therefore essential to find a routine that suits you best -- and finding it can take time.
For practical reasons (read: so you don't fall asleep), I am not going to give you a day to day account of my three weeks. Just know that I tried several different routines before finding the one that suited me best. Including Laura Mabille's.
Here is the routine I referred to:
- Wake up at 6 a.m. (on weekends, closer to 8 a.m.)
- Have breakfast (more or less, as I'll explain to you soon)
- Do a meditation session
- Do an activity, such as a sport, work, reading, writing, etc. (I modified this section in particular)
Week 1: Sporty (in every sense of the word)
To get myself into the shower, and not doze off at work on the first Monday of my experiment, I started by setting my alarm to 7 a.m. on Sunday, and did a little bit of exercise (swimming, to be precise).
On Monday, it was time to get down to business, and wake up at 6 a.m. On the first day, everything went as planned: a good breakfast, a little paperwork, and a little cycling. But, I admit, my work day was minimally productive. In short, I was tired all day.
This was nothing compared to the next day, which was even more difficult, after a night of relentless insomnia. After only two or three hours of sleep, suffice it to say that I felt that this experience was doomed to fail. However, I realized my mistake: the night before, I tried to fall asleep at 10:30 pm, when I wasn't tired at all. Easy calculation: if I fall asleep now, I'll get a little over seven hours of sleep. A fatal error, and the first moral of the story: there's no point in putting pressure on your sleep cycle.
Anyway, the rest of the week restored some of my hope. Waking up became less brutal, and the days went by smoothly. On Friday, I even felt like I had found a routine that could suit me. That's to say:
- Wake up 6 a.m.
- Have breakfast
- Do 10 minutes of meditation
- Do 30 minutes of swimming
After this routine, I felt at peace and in shape. I could quickly complete an article, and I felt more productive than usual.
But still, I asked myself a question: Was it really smart to go swimming on a full stomach? Online, we read that it's better not to go in the water immediately after eating, so as not to feel bloated (wait an hour, if possible, they say). A little research on a swimming enthusiasts' online forum revealed that the question is commonly asked.
So I talked to a nutritionist specializing in sports, Anthony Berthou, who told me that with swimming, it's better to give first priority to digestion. "You must be careful because it's a horizontal sport," he emphasized.
"You can eat something light like a banana or dried fruit, and drink some tea rather than coffee, in order to find a good compromise between hypoglycemia and digestion," he explained. He suggested that I could go swimming on an empty stomach, which would enable me to burn more calories. However, he stressed that I would have to eat a real breakfast afterwards: "A sandwich with some ham and goat cheese, as well as some fruit."
When you exercise on an empty stomach, you are actually using up energy in the form of protein; that's the reason it is recommended that you eat protein afterwards. You can therefore swim or go for a run on an empty stomach, since running creates blast waves that can disrupt digestion.
Contrary to what I thought, it is quite feasible to wait until you've finished your sports session to eat. In fact, you feel lighter and more efficient than when you exercise on a full stomach.
Week 2: Tiring
After a very eventful first week, I started this new week with confidence. It turned out to be a lot more challenging than I had anticipated. I felt utterly exhausted. One morning, I felt sick during my work out. One evening, while out at a concert, I took a nosedive.
At that point, several questions tormented me: Was it okay for sleep to "impose" such a routine? Isn't that harming your body? Isn't it messing with your sleep cycle? A blog published on Le Plus de L'Obs had also managed to cast a shadow of doubt over my Sunday. In it, Claire Leconte, psychology of education professor the University of Lille III and author of a book on the rhythms of school and life, questions the lifestyles and ideas of the likes of Laura Mabille and those who believe that the world belongs to those who wake up early. She insists that sleep is a "fragile and complex state" and that from a biological point of view, it would be a mistake to try and manipulate it.
Questioning the relevance of my journey, I contacted the professor directly. As soon as I started talking to her, I could better understand the issue raised by this sleep specialist. "People don't give themselves the chance to understand their biological rhythm; they never learn how to understand their own needs," she starts. There's nothing wrong with waking up early, as long as this agrees with our biological rhythm. I told her that I've always thought I was a morning person: for as long as I can remember, I have always woken up early, and rarely slept in. I'm a lot more efficient in the morning, in terms of working or working out. Beside, I'm not a heavy sleeper: with six hours of sleep I'm fine. With seven hours, perfect. Nine hours is almost too much.
The verdict? It might in fact be the right rhythm for me. In any case, Claire Leconte sees no reason not to do it. If, however, you're a heavy sleeper and you're more efficient when night falls, forget this idea. You won't be happy; you'll be tired all the time, and you'll be messing with your health.
The key is to listen to your body. When you wake up, as well as when you go to sleep. Certain signs don't lie, and should push us to turn off the lights. The most glaring among them is shivering. As Leconte explained in her article, "If you're cold, that's because it's time to go to bed, it's also the time when you'll fall asleep most quickly."
Week 3: Stimulating
This last week was by far the best. I finally got into a rhythm. I fell asleep easily at night without worrying too much about the time (usually, around 11 p.m.), and I woke up in full form (gone are the days of endlessly pressing the snooze button). I got to work early, I was efficient, and exercise energized me. To sum it up: I felt good.
But the meditation session continued to bring me down. It did nothing for me. As much as I tried, I saw no benefits, I literally fell asleep during the 10 to 15 minutes of the Petit Bambou beginners program (a meditation site and app).
So I made a call to Benjamin Blasco, co-founder of this platform that I used for these three weeks. "In the States, they are experts at RPM -- rise, pee, meditate. But it doesn't necessarily have to happen that way. I advise meditating during the day rather than when you wake up, because your mind is still asleep when you get out of bed," he explained. "If you still want to keep meditation as part of your morning routine, it's best to assign it a time after showering and having breakfast, for example," he added. If you still don't manage to take 10 minutes to practice, Benjamin Blasco explains that you can also meditate during your shower or while drinking your coffee. This HuffPost article suggests something similar:
"Start the practice as soon as you walk to get your coffee. Feel your feet touching the floor, listen to the sounds around you. Once you're at the coffee machine, feel the cup in your hands, notice the smell of beverage, recognize the warm that penetrates through the mug to your hands."
Easier said than done? Like exercise, meditation requires rigor and perseverance. After three weeks, I started to get a sense of the benefits that a regular practice can bring.
As I write this article, I still haven't figured out how to take a few minutes every day to focus on my feelings. I am however convinced that in the long run, meditating will allow me to manage stress, for example. I will always believe that the majority of problems and sources of anxiety are not real, they are only thoughts, all you have to do is to identify them and then get rid of them.
The Balance Sheet
A month after I started this experience, it's now time to assess.
- That unpleasant feeling of having turned 50 all of a sudden when I felt like turning off the lights at 10 p.m.
- The constant fatigue when I first started, which ended up gradually disappearing.
- The feeling of putting your social life on hold. I took an hour and a half seven times a week for myself, sure, but how many times did I lose an hour and a half of spending time with others? I have to admit, during these three weeks, I was a lot less willing to go out. The idea of getting up early has somewhat wiped out my desire to socialize (clearly, those who don't have a choice but to wake up early must be even more familiar with this feeling).
- That pleasant feeling of being up before the rest of the world, and of having a head start on them (which is an illusion, as you realize as soon as you step foot outside at 6:30 a.m.).
- That thrilling feeling of working when the world is still calm, when it's still dark outside, seemingly far away from the morning haste and the noise that sometimes lasts late into the night.
- The feeling that you've already had a successful day even though it hasn't even started yet.
- Your productivity increases throughout the morning.
- Better sleep? The first sleep cycle was possibly the most restorative. And by the way, I feel more tired today than I was at the end of this experiment. This is certainly because I have to get used to a new rhythm again, which, as I could attest, can't be done with a snap of your fingers.
- I paid more attention to what I was eating (on mornings to work out, on evenings to be able to get to sleep without being in the middle of digesting my dinner).
The positives largely outweigh the negatives. Despite everything, it's a routine that I couldn't see myself getting into everyday unless I was going mad. Some days, it just isn't possible, unless I deprive myself of a concert, a night out with friends, a book that I just can't put down, a show that I want to binge watch. And I have to force myself to get up when I still need sleep or if I just want to be lazy.
On the other hand, it's a perfectly lovely way to organize your days. I would go so far as to say that I miss it. It's a ritual that I would like to go back to, two or three times a week, when I can, when I want to. But isn't that messing with your sleep even more? When I mentioned the idea to Claire Leconte, she assured me that it was totally possible and not necessarily a bad thing, as long as "you do it when you can press pause on your day around noon in an unlit room, to relax." That's where the problems is. Even though the work siesta might be gaining ground in France, it's a long way from being a widespread practice compared to in other countries.
Then, what's the solution? Give up a routine that could suit your biological rhythm better? Try it intermittently and run the risk of not respecting your biological needs in terms of sleep?
Between the infringements on happiness, a frantic pace of life, and less and less focus on sleep (even though we know how terrifying the effects of lack of sleep can be), it's not easy to know which way to turn.
As for Laura Mabille's routine, I quickly realized that it didn't suit me at all. Even though I don't deny the benefits that can be gained from putting your thoughts down on paper and from making lists, I don't see myself waking up earlier to do these tasks. These are nonetheless some good tricks for clearing your mind. One more time: to each his own!
This article first appeared on HuffPost France and was translated into English.