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How waking early is life-changing, and high-fliers from Michelle Obama to Tim Cook swear by it

High-fliers from Michelle Obama to Tim Cook swears by the life-changing benefits of jumping out of bed before the dawn chorus. But on these dark winter mornings, can you really set your alarm a few hours early without being shattered later on in the day? Kathy Donaghy tries a 5.30am start to find out


Kathy Donaghy embracing the early morning outside her home in Donegal.Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Kathy Donaghy embracing the early morning outside her home in Donegal.Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Kathy Donaghy embracing the early morning outside her home in Donegal.Photo: Lorcan Doherty

It's 5.45am and pitch black outside. It doesn't feel like early morning, it feels like the middle of the night. I ask myself what am I doing up at this ungodly hour? Should I just slink back to bed? That would be so easy.

A voice in my ear is telling me to think of the comfort and the warmth. Nobody would be any the wiser. Nobody will be up for hours.

But hang on a minute, I'd only be fooling myself. This is something I've wanted to try for ages, to try and get some quality time before the day starts in earnest.

For too long now I've had the feeling that days are turning into weeks, and weeks are turning into months without me getting the things I want to do done. The endless cycle of school runs, household chores, work deadlines, after-school activities and what to make for dinner has left me feeling like a hamster on a wheel. I'm running to standstill.

I've read about early risers who seem to take on the world before the rest of the world is awake and I want to give it a go. For me it's not about getting a jump on the housework. I don't want to tackle the odd-sock drawer before the kids get out of bed. I want to steal some time for me, to read, to meditate and mostly to write.

Several studies have correlated early rising with success across a range of activities. Apple CEO Tim Cook reportedly wakes up at 3.45am to get ahead on emails. Michelle Obama is in the gym working out by 4.30am. She told Oprah Winfrey that she starts her day with a workout before her kids get up. Actor Mark Wahlberg rises at 2.30am to fit in two hours of exercise before the day starts, breakfasting on chicken and vegetables at 6am.

But can early starts work for mere mortals who perhaps don't want to take on the whole world, just their own small part of it?

To motivate me to actually get out of bed when the alarm goes off, I suggest to my editor that I might actually write about this personal experiment. That way I'm less likely to back out. I think I'm going to need this incentive in the dark days of winter ahead. (How right I was).

I set a Monday morning in November as my start day. Perhaps November isn't the best month to make a big change. It's dark and cold, and it just feels weird to be up at 5.30am, two hours earlier than my usual rising time. I put the kettle on, tiptoeing around so as not to wake the kids or the husband.

I try some meditation and then scribble in a journal for a while. By the time everyone else gets up - hours later, I might add - I feel quite virtuous. I confidently tell them I am on a journey to a better, more productive me.

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By the time 9pm comes on that first day, I'm dog tired and go to bed early - I usually don't go til after 11pm. I rise again at 5.30am and go through the same routine. I meditate and write, and on this morning I can't resist tidying the odd-sock drawer because I've all this time to do it now. The day goes on and I feel fine. I swim with a club on Tuesday evenings at 8pm. I'm in the water only a few minutes when I realise I feel leaden with tiredness and I find the session very tough. Even though I'm tired, all the adrenalin from an exercise session late in the evening leaves me too wired to sleep well. When the alarm goes off the next day, I switch it off and go back to sleep. I resolve to start again the next morning. That evening I have a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and I can't get off to sleep when I go to bed. It's back to the drawing board and time to get some expert advice. I call life coach and sleep expert Michael Comyn and go through my routine. He says a good rule of thumb to follow is what he calls the 10-3-2-1-0 rule. Ten hours before sleep, no more caffeine. Three hours before bed, no more food. Two hours before, no more work. One hour before, no more screen time. And zero is the number of times you hit the snooze button. I think I've broken every rule.

Michael says alcohol strips out REM sleep, the really good sleep where you have dreams - and there's no doubt alcohol plays a role in disrupting sleep.

He says if I'm finding a 5.30am start really tough, I should experiment with trying to rise 15 minutes later as this can make all the difference. And he says the old adage is true, that an hour before midnight is worth two afterwards. I try again putting all the tips into place. No alcohol, no caffeine, no screens. I switch off the TV, read a book and set my alarm for 5.45am. When it goes off, I don't feel like hitting the snooze button and I get up and go through my early morning ritual.

To make sure I stay on the right track, I call author Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert, whose new book Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done will be published this summer. She advises me to get a real alarm clock, not my phone, and put it on the opposite side of the room. That way I will have to get up and reset it to snooze and that generally won't seem worth it.

She tells me to try shifting the time I go to bed a little earlier for a few nights and to give myself an official bedtime. "You can stay up later - you are a grown-up - but there needs to be a good reason. Reading those extra few posts on Facebook is probably not it," she says.

She also makes the point that it's good to reward yourself when you rise early. Maybe that's simply reading for a few minutes or listening to rousing music. For her, it's strong coffee with real cream, but the idea is to make sure there's something compelling to get you out of bed.

I take all the expert advice on board and try again. To be honest, it's been a case of trial and error. I have found that for me, 5.30am just feels like the middle of the night. 5.45am is not much better. 6am feels like a more realistic goal and it's more manageable. At least it feels like it's technically morning, even though it's still dark outside. Not every day goes like clockwork. Some days I just can't manage the early start because I don't feel rested enough. But gradually I have begun waking earlier, as Michael Comyn said I would when my body adjusted. There are even mornings I wake a few minutes before the alarm goes off. That's what he calls "finding the sweet spot" when you know that this is the right waking time for you. Perhaps I am a morning person after all.

On those days when I am up before the lark and able to see the first traces of light in the sky, it feels like a secret I am lucky to share in. I feel like I've had some time to pursue things just for me before the scramble of doing what needs to be done begins. The meditation makes me feel calmer and I find I crave the mental headspace the early morning starts give me.

Two months in, Christmas and a bout of flu has put our household routine a little out of whack, but I'm longing to get back to my early rising ways as January continues. The time for myself in the morning has become such a cherished part of my day that I'm simply determined to keep it.

Why be an early bird?

* They're more cheerful

A 2012 study from the journal Emotion found that early risers tend to be more positive than people who wake up late. Morning people also reported feeling healthier.

* They're more pro-active

A study from the Journal of Applied Social Psychology linked activity levels and confidence with early rising. It found that those who rise and shine tend to agree with statements that indicate action and confidence like "I feel in charge of making things happen".

* They get more done

Being up while the rest of the world is asleep can also help you get into whatever work you need to get done in the morning without interruption.

Because it's so quiet and you're by yourself, there are no distractions, so you can really concentrate on your work and just really get it done in much less time.

* They make healthier food choices

There is some evidence to suggest that late sleepers consume more calories a day. A 2011 study by the US Northwestern University found that late sleepers had half as much fruit and veg as those who went to bed and rose early. By rising early, you have more time for a healthy breakfast than you have when you get up late and it's a scramble to get yourself and the kids out the door. By eating a proper nutritious breakfast, you feel fuller longer and are less likely to snack.

* See the sunrise

As an early riser you get to see one of the greatest feats of nature - the sunrise. Even on grey winter days, the sunrise is often the brightest part of the day. What's not to love?

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