The Great Experiment: getting up at 4am

Don’t do it. 

I’ve now got up to work at 5am on weekdays exactly 350 times and yesterday I tried 4am instead. It was brilliant until about 1pm when I struggled, then 4pm when I was underwater. Grabbed thirty minutes nap somewhere around 5pm when I got home and the day was done.

That feels like such a waste: finishing my day by, what, 5:30pm. I know I can argue that I did a lot from 4am to 1pm and that this is officially the length of a working day.

But now this morning I am struggling again, the 5am lurch was harder than ever and I’m somehow feeling it all in my stomach.

I’ll try it again and I’ll have to try it again sometime soon but for now, I think I’ve found my limit. It’s 5am and no earlier. 

How do people manage any earlier?

If you get up at 5am, good things happen

I’ve been saying that this isn’t a universal truth: I get up to write at 5am because it unfortunately happens to be when I write the best. Cannot tell you how much I loathe and resent that fact but I also can’t deny it.

Except I often try and most especially I try to tell you that you need to find your best time, whenever it is.

But now I’m going to say no, it’s 5am. Universally. Or near enough.

I am still, unbelievably, struggling because of a virus I had months ago: the actual virus is long gone but the knock-on effect of its seven weeks is very definitely not. There are things still not done because of it and, I think even worse, the weight of those things is crippling. I never fail to get up at 5am weekdays if I’ve told myself I will, but I have very often decided the night before that I won’t. Maybe the reason I’m feeling so weighed down is a lack of sleep: you have to reckon that early morning starts and reasonably late night finishes are bad for you, are cumulatively bad.


I’ve found that if I lie in to 7am then it is at least 8am, very often 9am, before I start working.

That’s four hours behind before I’ve even started. There was one day recently that this feeling made me somewhat mad with myself and I roared through the rest of the day working very well, very quickly, very effectively. But otherwise, no. It’s a slog and I get done far less than I need. That just adds to the weight.

Plus, there is something weirdly cosmic about this 5am thing. A version of that headline up there has become a litany, it is something I have said aloud to myself and others: “If I get up at 5am, good things happen”. They really do. I’ve had unexpected work offers that were terribly interesting, I’ve had pitches go unexpectedly well. The offers didn’t come at 5am, the pitches didn’t go well at 5am, but on days when that’s when I got up, that’s when those things happen.

I can’t accept anything cosmic – not in that sense – so I can easily and will readily rationalise that I dealt with people better when the weight was off my back a bit. I’d be receptive and listening when something came up and that quickly nurtured it into something big and real.

All of this is nuts and bananas if you’re working 9-5 somewhere, if you’re working a night shift somewhere else or if you’re a parent who is therefore working 24 hours a day. It isn’t anything but sensible if you’re full-time self-employed freelance and I am: I hope that you can do this silly thing with me, I know that there is no excuse for me not to.

So while this will be posted around 11am today, I’m writing it now at 05:25. Had a very bad night, totally crap night and when the alarm went off I was having a dream where someone said: “It’s so sad, she’s just phoned to say -“. I long to know where that line was going, I don’t even know who ‘she’ was in the dream, but it’s gone forever.

Okay, if you get up at 5:01 then good things happen and your dream can finish its thought.

Not that this matters, but today’s my 300th

The 300th time I’ve got up and gone to work for 5am. I am not and will never recommend that you do the same thing but I have to tell you that if it works for you, it really works.

Right now, I confess it doesn’t feel like it’s working. It’s only just after 8pm and I am jiggered to the point of feeling like I could faint. So, you know, that’s not wonderful. But it has been an unusual time, I have worked straight through and I’d say for 290 of these 300 days I’ve stopped late afternoon at worst.

It’s not 300 days in a row, by the way. It sort-of is. The ideal is that I do the 5am start Monday to Friday every week. But if I have a late night working somewhere or I’m going to be speaking the next evening, I skip the 5am to protect my voice. Plus there are holidays. Plus often with travelling I have to be up earlier or it’s going to be longer. Once or twice I was ill. So the 300st is today but the 1st was Wednesday 2 January 2013.

Suddenly seems a bit crap, doesn’t it?

Let’s please not forget that I mean to do this on working days, the working week, Monday to Friday, so that’s already a bit of a difference from every day. Wolfram Alpha tells me that 2 January 2013 was 747 days ago. Count working days alone and it’s 533 weekdays since then.

So of the 533 days I could’ve got up at 5am, I only got up 300 times.

That means I got up a mere 56.29% of the times I could’ve done.

At least that’s more than half.

Just about.

A bit.

I think I’l shut up until 1,000 or 301, whichever comes first.

Making 5am starts even harder

Ah, what the hell? I’m 264 days into this 5am start lark, let’s shake it up. Today, for the first time – do you know, I’m suddenly embarrassed about admitting this? – I didn’t do the usual fast shower, mug of tea, bleary, get down to typing business.

I went straight to the keys.

From bed to alarm to keys, nothing else.

It was because I needed to write something and get it sent quickly, an extra thing ahead of a busy day, but also I woke with the first line in my head. I would like to stress to you now that it’s gone 6am and I have showered, made tea and, well, dressed.

I may never have written the words “well dressed” about me. I’ve certainly never written it without a comma.

But images of me sitting here nude and dishevelled aside, I can report that it may have worked. I walked away to do that showering and tea-ing after writing the piece and before sending it so I could come back with a freshly shampooed and caffeinated mind. I did rather rewrite it but more lots of twiddles than anything big. And I’m happy with it, it’s gone, I’m back to the rest of the day.

Can’t decide yet whether I’m actually recommending this to you. It was quite cold. But that was as much motivation to write quickly as the dangling prospect of tea was.

Put it this way: I’m not going to rush to do this every morning. But once in a while, it’s good to cut out everything that stands between you and the keyboard.

I must get a heater.

Essential morning preparation

I’m back on the getting up to work at 5am lark after about a month away doing various jobs and then one of those there holidays. This morning I woke up, looked at the clock, saw it was 04:53 and said aloud: “Well, this is fun, isn’t it?”

Getting up at 5am for day 256 was as hard as some of the first few days but it was helped by one thing, gigantically hindered by one thing and conned by a third.

The Helpful Thing
I had a plan. I knew exactly what I was going to be working on the moment I had showered, made a mug of tea and sat down at the keys. No hesitation, no choosing, just straight to it: I was going to work on a particular book project. There’s a lot to do today but for the first hour, I’d do this and then it would be done plus I’d be on my way.

Until today I would’ve said that this is easily the biggest thing in working at stupid o’clock: if you go straight to the keys with a purpose and work for an hour, then at stupid o’clock plus one you feel you’ve really achieved something. Half of you now wants to go back to bed but half of you is bursting to continue and that To Do list looks pretty doable.

The Con
It’s 06:46 as I write this to you and I haven’t done a word of that book. Because right after I said “Well, this is run, isn’t it?” I rolled back away from the clock, looked at the ceiling and while waiting for the alarm thought: “Act 1: Lights up on Mabel. Very plainly dressed: specifically, no jewellery, no bag.”

Without planning to, I’d got the start of a script I’d been working up. Most of it was done, I was just struggling with certain elements like the start and there it was.

So that’s what I did instead of the book project. And now I should really go do the book project, except that I am still suffering from The Gigantic Hindrance.

The Gigantic Hindrance
The milk has gone off. Did you hear me at 05:10? Tilting back my freshly-showered head, my hair still damp, and my face raised to the heavens as I howled?

There are worse things in this world but a mug of tea with bits in is up there.

The 5am anniversary

Today is the 250th day I’ve got up at 5am to write. That doesn’t feel like much given how long I’ve been a writer and it will feel feeble if you’re a farmer. But I want to mark this little anniversary in some way.

I only just thought of that this morning as I lurched very slowly out of bed. Yesterday I fair bound up out of there, today was tougher. Perhaps I should’ve kept a record but very broadly I think the 240s have been some of the hardest since the very first 5am starts.

It definitely goes in cycles, though.

There were patches even during the 20s and 30s where I would bound upright and not think about all this. There were times somewhere around 80 mornings in that I would come close to turning over.

I don’t think you need my sleep diary, if I had one, but the 5am start idea was difficult for me and I don’t think that even I can find a way to say I’ve failed at it. So there is discipline, there is effort, there are lessons.

But most of all there are results.

That’s why I do this thing. I’m not advocating getting up early as some kind of health advice. Look at me: I don’t know from health advice. And I’m not even recommending that you get up at 5am per se. What I did before all this began was to experiment with looking for when I wrote the best. Also the most, I was on various deadlines so most was an important issue, but chiefly the best. When did I write the best and preferably not have to rewrite quite so much.

It’s just an astonishingly awful thing that the answer is 5am.

But, okay, at least I know.

And now, 250 mornings in, I know these things too:

1) Bribery and threats
For the first 180 days I used my own Brutal £1 Pot Trick (as covered in my book, The Blank Screen, UK edition, US edition) to trick me into getting up. (The short summary is that I did bribe myself each morning but I also threatened. There was a treat for doing it but also a very big penalty for not.) I’d probably carry on using this, I had intended to and lately I’ve wondered whether it would help to try again, but it’s an expensive kind of thing and I wanted an iPad.

2) Alarms
I love my iPhone but there are times I hate my iPhone. Specifically at 5am. Or rather at about 6:30am when I’d wake up feeling great, feeling refreshed, feeling amazed that I could be so renewed and reinvigorated by a night’s sleep that was ending at 5am. And then seeing that my iPhone’s alarm was going off.

The alarm has to be very quiet so that I’m the only one it wakes, being right on top of it and able to switch it off quickly, but it does have to make a noise and sometimes it doesn’t. Not because I’d turned the volume down too low, not because I’d switched some setting.

Just because.

Yes, I had a moment of worrying about deafness. There was the screen with its Snooze button on that white alarm banner, but no sound.

After this had happened a few times – I have no idea what caused it, there’s no pattern I could see – I gave up setting an alarm for 5am.

Instead, when I’m going to bed, I ask Siri to wake me at 4:59am. And then to wake me at 5:01am. Two alarms. Many days they both work, just once or twice neither has. And for the rest of the time, one of them has and that’s enough.

kount3) It’s worth counting
I often forget until hours later, but just tapping a + on a counter app is a little bit satisfying. If it’s a choice between the satisfaction of a tap and the joy of another hour in bed, the bed wins. Let’s be clear there. But as it’s really a choice between bed and all the benefits that getting up early bring, the counter wins.

4) Do something. Have something to do
It’s like laying out your clothes the night before. Have something that you are going to do first. You won’t always do it. Right now, I’m not doing it. I had a plan for what I need to do and instead I’ve come to you. But this isn’t about the discipline of making plans and sticking to them. I get up at 5am, that’s discipline enough for anybody. It’s about using this Stupid O’Clock time and making it count.

Doing anything is fine. But it must be done. Easily the worst mornings of this whole 250 run are the couple where I had nothing to do. I had plenty I could do but nothing that was vital, nothing that made me ill with worry.

It was truly, deeply, insanely awful.

There is just little so stupid as wasting time at your desk at 5am. You don’t even spend some time deciding what to work on, you start checking emails and reading news.

So if there is not a particularly pressing deadline already, I will choose something the night before and make it the thing I will work on first. The aim is to get straight to the keys, to do the fastest shower in Christendom (I often re-shower later), get some tea (I definitely re-tea later) and start writing.

Today for example, I made a note in OmniFocus that I would finish a short story I’ve been commissioned to do. Hello. This is not a short story. This is you and I talking. But it is me writing and that is the sole aim of getting up at this time.

It’s a simple aim but it works for me and I find it very difficult. So, nuts to it: today is my 250th day of getting up at 5am to write and I’m proud of myself.