“Early to bed, early to rise,” Benjamin Franklin wrote in his “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” “makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Franklin practiced that adage, rising at 5 a.m. most of his life. Though in his Paris years he sometimes neglected the greeting of the dawn, for the most part, he woke early, worked until noon, took a break for two hours to eat lunch, his main meal of the day, and then returned to his work until early evening.
Most human beings throughout history have lived by such a solar clock. They rose with the sun to plow their fields, perform their household chores, attend school, and prepare their meals. For them, darkness generally meant the day’s end and bedtime. Candles, kerosene lanterns, and oil helped illuminate that darkness, but those implements were costly and lacked the brightness of even a cloudy day.
Then came electricity, and our sleep habits were never again the same.
Dawn’s Early Light: It’s Still Valuable
Today we think nothing of flipping a switch, exchanging darkness for light, and staying awake to all hours of the night. Except for the obligations of work and school, we can if we choose hit the sheets at dawn and sleep till mid-afternoon.
But is that a wise or healthy practice?
The online article “Are Morning People More Successful?” presents research showing that early risers are more proactive, healthier, and happier than their night-owl, late-rising counterparts. Our motivation is highest in the early part of the day, not yet worn down by demands and problems. For this same reason, our powers of cognition are at their peak in the morning. Doctors have found that “our inner-cranial volume is actually larger when we first wake up,” allowing us to tackle difficulties better in the early part of the day.
Google “successful people early morning,” and we find descriptions of many Americans who credit waking early—in some cases, between 3 and 4 a.m.—for enhancing their professional performance. Some of these morning risers are wealthy entrepreneurs, but others belong to the middle class, with research showing they generally earn more than those who spend part of their morning tucked into sleep.
These financial advantages are worthy of our consideration, but as we can see, the beneficiaries are individuals. Can waking early bring similar benefits that might enhance our relationships and family life?
One young woman I know, the mother of seven school-age children, rises every morning at dawn before her husband and the kids, comes downstairs, pours a cup of coffee, and sits in a comfortable chair near a window overlooking a nearby stand of trees. She says her prayers, and then reads either from a spiritual book or a novel. This is her “alone time,” when she prepares herself mentally and spiritually for the day. As the kids drift down to join her, sleepily rubbing their eyes, she often moves to the sofa to sit with them and enjoy some quiet time together.
Another woman I know follows a similar tactic, kicking off the sheets at dawn, pouring her coffee, and then praying and reading scripture to prepare herself for the rigors and demands of the office.
Others greet the sunrise with meditation or other devices designed to bring on a spirit of peace and recollection, gaining a strength they can then share with family, friends, and fellow employees.
For some of us, early mornings are ideal for mapping out plans and strategies. Sleep has usually erased our fatigue and our worries, and we are ready to face new challenges.
Several people, including myself, use some part of this time to make a “to-do list.” We may lay out the day’s schedule hour-by-hour, or else string together a list of tasks in no particular order and then scratch them out as we complete them. A homeschooling mom I know even uses this quiet time to chart out the week’s meals and makes shopping lists for the items needed.
The young contractor who once lived across the street from me appeared nearly every day at sunrise, loading various tools into the back of his pickup truck, readying himself for the day’s construction projects.
“Preparation,” the old saying goes, “is half the battle.” The stillness of these early hours, when the world is just awakening from its slumbers, can provide the solitude and the energy to look ahead at the day’s tasks and formulate our plans.
Make It Easy on Yourself
Most parents have experienced those mornings when they’ve raced around getting the kids ready for church or school, scouring the house for Johnny’s missing shoe or trying to braid Sally’s hair, with the vital minutes ticking away.
And most of us have surely endured that awful occasion when we kept pushing the snooze button on the clock, then groggily squinted at the time and leaped out of bed, dashing into the shower, getting dressed, skipping the morning cup of coffee, and hustling off to work hoping against hope to make it on time for that important appointment.
One simple solution for eliminating this chaos is to set that alarm half an hour earlier and then abide by its summons. Wake the kids earlier as well; they’ll appreciate having some extra minutes and avoiding the morning sprint. Gathering up the children’s schoolbooks in the evening, preparing bagged lunches for them or for your own workday the night before, setting up the coffee so that you need only punch the switch when you stagger into the kitchen: these measures can also bring a slower pace to frenetic mornings.
More Tips on Becoming a Morning Person
To become an early riser first and foremost demands you become an early sleeper.
I am an early-morning person, but in the past five years, I’ve also spent too much time reading or watching YouTube videos late into the evening. Not a good combination. In the morning, I’ll often wake thickheaded with a lack of sleep.
If you typically go to bed at midnight, and you want to move that time to 10 p.m. so as to arise earlier, try rearranging your bedtime schedule incrementally over a period of time, moving back bedtime by 15-minute or half-an-hour segments over a period of days and weeks. Sleep is important for our minds and bodies, and you don’t want to rob yourself of rest by staying up late and getting up early.
When you begin waking earlier, set yourself a mission for that extra hour or two in the morning. We’ve already looked at some ways people make use of that time. You might follow their example, or come up with your own ideas like working out or answering emails. Whatever the case, when you go to sleep know what you are going to do when you wake. Otherwise, there is little point in waking early.
Finally, as much as possible, make your hours of sleep a routine, a habit. Becoming one of the morning larks as opposed to a night owl may take a while, but once you achieve your goal, keep to that sleep pattern.
Larks Versus Owls
In the article “Are You a Morning Lark or a Night Owl?” the writer reminds us of the advantages of rising early, but also points out that the natural “sleep clocks” of human beings vary widely. Some people, the morning larks, thrive on the a.m. hours, with their energy and resources dwindling during the late afternoon and evening, a time at which others, the night owls, are just hitting their stride. Many of us fall between these two extremes, staying up late some evenings and breaking out of sleep on other occasions early in the morning.
Here we’ve looked at the advantages waking in the early morning can bring to us. In my own case, if I started my days past 9 a.m. I would feel as if half the day was already shot, but I am certain some readers would disagree. For them, the peak of their day might be 6 p.m. or later.
Whatever our approach to wakefulness and sleep, we probably don’t want to practice what Edna St.Vincent Millay wrote in “First Fig:”
“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!”
Whether larks or owls, we all need our rest.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.