- Tim Cook wakes at 3:45 a.m. to get a head start on his workday, with time for exercise and email.
- I tried his schedule for a week to see if it improved my productivity.
- I loved the extra time to work and the way it let me communicate with East Coast colleagues right at the start of their day, but it wreaked havoc on my evenings and sleep schedule.
- Here are my observations about trying to adjust to Cook’s early-morning schedule.
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Starting the day ludicrously early seems to be a badge of honor for CEOs like Apple’s Tim Cook, who gets out of bed at 3:45 a.m. every day.
Cook is far from the only one. Richard Branson, Jack Dorsey, and Bob Iger are just some of the executives who wake up hours before the rest of us.
Could keeping that kind of schedule be some sort of magic elixir that unlocks the keys to productivity and success?
I am a full-time work-from-home freelancer, so in principle I have the flexibility to set my own hours. Typically, I get up around 6:30 a.m., and after exercising, I’m ready to start my workday around 8.
But there are never even remotely enough hours in my day. I constantly juggle endless tight deadlines, phone interviews, a daily deluge of email, and the need to record, produce, and edit a weekly podcast. I generally work until about 7 p.m., but there are days when I sit in front of a monitor until bedtime.
Could something as simple as sliding my wake-up time back a few hours help me to take better control of my day? I decided to reset my alarm for a week – Monday to Friday – to see if Cook’s routine could make a difference.
Here’s how my week of waking up like Apple’s CEO went.
SUNDAY: I went to bed at 8:30 p.m., which ended up being the earliest I’d go to sleep for the rest of the week.
- Marjan Apostolovic/Shutterstock
The experiment really started on Sunday night, of course. We all know what Ben Franklin had to say about sleep; I can’t lay claim to wealth or wisdom, but it’s clear that you can’t successfully get up early unless you go to bed correspondingly early.
Around dinner on Sunday, I did the math: To get eight hours of sleep, I’d have to be in bed at 7:45 p.m.
That was simply never going to happen. It reminded me of the weird hours I was forced to keep when I was a junior officer in the Air Force, working 12-hour shifts in a five-days-on, four-days-off sleep-deprivation experiment disguised as a work schedule.
But I’m an adult now, and a primetime bedtime is neither practical nor sustainable. I compromised by heading to bed at 8:30 p.m. As I would soon find out, it would be the earliest I’d get to sleep all week.
MONDAY: I felt energized and optimistic after the 3:45 a.m. wake-up and workout.
- Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock
With seven hours of sleep under my belt, 3:45 a.m. came quickly. I bolted out of bed – lest I fall back asleep – and immediately embarked on my day: exercising, showering, and settling down to work.
The good news was that even with a 30-minute high-intensity workout at the start of the day, I was at my desk by 5:30 a.m., and I was able to accomplish by 9:30 a.m. what usually takes me until noon.
Barely an hour after many people have breakfast, I had already accomplished half my workday. And even though it’s really only a few hours sooner, psychologically I felt a huge boost from seeing major to-do items cleared off my Trello board so early in the day.
In fact, this felt like a great time for an email break. I usually hide from email – with so much work on my plate, I often delay dealing with messages because I’m so nervous about getting work done. But now I could comfortably take an hour to deal with email without anxiety. Major win for the 3:45 a.m. wake-up.
Monday was a great start. Though I didn’t want to get out of bed, my energy was high throughout the day, and I managed to shut down around 6 p.m., feeling productive and confident.
TUESDAY: I noticed that my eating habits changed, as I snacked numerous times throughout the day, as well as that waking up so early on the West Coast has its productivity perks.
- 10’000 Hours/Getty Images
Unfortunately, bedtime slipped to nearly 10 p.m. on Monday, but I told myself it was fine – I’m used to getting by on about six hours of sleep anyway.
When the alarm went off, I again leapt into action. As a creature of habit, I like keeping to a schedule, and I was eager to exercise, shower, and settle down to work.
This was the day when I noticed a distressing trend in my eating habits while on the Tim Cook schedule. I am not generally much of a breakfast person – sometimes I’ll have a breakfast bar, but that’s about it. But when you get out of bed at 3:45 a.m., lunch is eight long hours away.
On Monday and Tuesday, I had noticeable hunger pangs and took a break around 7 a.m. for breakfast. But I wasn’t done. By 10 a.m., my stomach was growling again, and I snacked some more.
It might be purely psychological – if lunch is just four or five hours after the workday starts, I can wait it out. But eight hours demands a worrisome number of snack breaks.
On the other hand, I discovered that waking up at 3:45 a.m. on the West Coast is an extraordinary advantage for folks like me who need to communicate with people in New York. Usually, when I open Outlook at 8 a.m., it’s already 11 a.m. on the East Coast, and I’m playing catch-up with emails sent to me hours earlier. I don’t like feeling a step behind, something else that typically ratchets up my anxiety during the day.
But on Tuesday I realized that if I rescheduled my morning, I could take a break to manage email around 6 a.m., which lets me send emails before many East Coasters even show up to the office. Getting up early levels the time-zone playing field, and that’s awesome.
Unfortunately, there was no 8:30 p.m. (or even 10 p.m.) bedtime for me today. Thanks to a show I’d been holding reservations for weeks, I didn’t get home until 11 p.m. With an energy level too low to be measured by modern science, I crashed a half-hour later.
WEDNESDAY: I had little sleep and felt sluggish after skipping my workout.
- Phalinn Ooi/flickr
Wednesday was not a good day.
Operating on the kind of fumes you get from four hours of sleep, I was a zombie right from the moment I woke up. Unable to even bear the thought of burpees, I sat in bed for a half-hour, checking the news and following the Twitter activity about a story I had published the day before.
I actually wanted to dedicate some time to email, but my inbox was empty. This is the flip side of the early-morning email advantage I discovered yesterday. It’s so early that even the spambots aren’t awake yet, much less anyone with something important to say to me.
And Wednesday dragged like that all day long. Since I skipped my morning exercise, my energy level stayed low, and I made even worse diet choices than the day before.
I really started to question the wisdom of my new schedule. I was remarkably unproductive all day, taking frequent social-media breaks when I really should have been writing or researching. I called it a day a little on the early side, but anxiety about deadlines sent me back to work for a few hours after dinner. In the end, I didn’t get to bed until about 10 p.m.
THURSDAY: The lack of sleep affected my ability to work.
- REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro
Even though my alarm continued to go off at 3:45 a.m. – a solid three hours earlier than my usual wake-up time – I was starting to normalize the experience of getting up before the roosters.
Already used to having the extra time to work, feeling behind the eight ball from the day before, and sensing the week ending with large deadlines looming, I decided to skip my workout for the second day in a row – this time because I didn’t think I could spare the time.
Let’s be clear about this: That was the wrong decision. Cook clearly has time to go to the gym every day, and he runs one of the world’s most profitable companies. I should have been able to spare a half-hour of my newfound morning time, but I was gripped by irrational work anxiety.
And as I suspected might happen, my bedtime had managed to creep back to my usual time while I continued to get up at 3:45 a.m., which I know is not healthy. I could really feel the lack of sleep starting to affect my alertness, energy level, and mood. By the early afternoon, I had a headache that affected my ability to concentrate.
FRIDAY: I felt energized and was back on schedule with my exercise and work routine. I tackled work projects by dividing my time into short chunks.
Despite again not getting enough sleep (I went to bed at about 10 p.m. on Thursday), I woke up full of energy, probably because I subconsciously knew I was going to sleep in over the weekend.
Looking back on the week, I realized something else I liked about settling down at my computer at 5 a.m.: It was still pitch black outside.
With sunrise not until 7:22 a.m., I got to work for over two hours with the view out my window shrouded in darkness. Your mileage may vary, but I found that exhilarating, and it genuinely made me more productive.
For my last day, I was back on schedule: exercise, shower, work for a while, email. Then I was back to work until lunch.
In the afternoon, I worked in 25-minute, Pomodoro-like chunks on a few different projects and got to stop the workday by 6 p.m., knowing I’d do a little more work on the weekend to catch up.
And so ended a week of waking up with Cook.
Looking back, I realized it could be hard to replicate the habits of successful people without knowing their motives behind the activity. After the experiment, I decided to adopt a new wake-up time of 4:30 a.m.
It seems to me the mistake a lot of people make when trying to imitate the habits of successful people is that they don’t really internalize the underlying reasoning behind the activity.
If you don’t have insight into the context of why these techniques work for them, trying them for yourself can be a catastrophe.
The 3:45 a.m. wake-up works for Cook no doubt because he spends every moment of the business day in meetings, and this schedule gives him time to care for his health, address his inbox, and have uninterrupted thinking.
But you and me? We should know our own “why” before committing to a change like this.
I liked working early – and even getting a head start on the East Coast – enough that I will definitely continue to do it. But not waking up at 3:45 a.m. It’s simply not sustainable, since I still have regular evening activities and a desire to keep a little life in my work-life balance.
As soon as I was done with this experiment, I immediately transitioned into my new schedule: a 4:30 a.m. wake-up.
It’s somewhat more forgiving of going to bed at 11 p.m. (as I will inevitably do with alarming regularity). It still gives me hours to work in the early-morning darkness, deal with email as the East Coast is rolling into the office, and get a huge amount of work done by midday. Hopefully I can get my craving for midmorning snacks under control.
Thanks, Tim Cook, both for my gadgets and for a new way to approach my daily schedule.