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New Year Resolutions: Rising with the lark


Emily Hourican. Photo: Kip Carroll

Emily Hourican. Photo: Kip Carroll

Emily Hourican. Photo: Kip Carroll

I guess this might be what unrequited love feels like - idealised yearning, the belief that with the beloved at one's side all will be well, the constant disappointment of not getting what you long for. Except in my case, it's not a person, it's a 'something'. To be more specific, it's an action.

You see, I have a dream. A dream of starting each day at 6.30am. Of being up with the lark and about before the world is stirring. To have done half a day's work by the time my children emerge, blinking sleepily, for school. I believe all that stuff about the mind being clearer and fresher early in the morning. I love the feeling of being awake while the world sleeps (not at night though, never at night). To me, the finest hours of the day are those that Wordsworth wrote about in Composed Upon Westminster Bridge: 'This city now doth, like a garment, wear/The beauty of the morning; silent, bare.'

And yet, I cannot do it. Unless forced to by a plane, a deadline or a very early meeting, I am terrible at getting up. I lie in bed until the last possible minute, and often a few minutes beyond that. Then, I get up in a flurry of, "Help, we're going to be late, hurry up . . ." (Often said to kids who have been up for hours.)

Now, it is possible that I am over-romancing the early-morning start. But I don't think so. Getting up an hour or two earlier isn't a fantasy on to which I am pinning unrealistic hopes. It actually is a shortcut to sanity and higher productivity. I know this, because when I do succeed, instead of the all-too-familiar feeling of chasing my own tail and being ever barely one step ahead of chaos, there is something new: calm, order, control.

A deadline, for example, will get me out of bed at 6am, 5am if needs be, and to the computer. The actual moment of rising is always hell, but then it's wonderful. I will do my work in a quiet house, without interruption, and perhaps a little extra, meaning that the rest of the day is relatively unencumbered. I can do things such as shop, cook, even tidy up a little. Those are nice sort of days. Relaxed. Sometimes I even find time to have a quick game of something with the kids: Boggle, Scrabble, or just a laugh.

Without that spur - the force majeur of a demanding editor, a plane about to depart - I get up only when I absolutely have to. Which is usually five minutes after the last possible time I need to get the kids ready for school, wracked with a feeling of mild self-loathing. Thus begins a day that feels as if I am constantly running, like the Red Queen in Alice Through The Looking Glass, just to keep pace: "Now, here, you see," she says to Alice, "it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

I know just what she means. The days of late starts go by rather dizzyingly. There is never quite enough time for what needs to be done and I am always a few minutes late for everything. Those days, I reach the end of the to-do list with a breathless sense of brinkmanship, and make it to evening knowing that everything I've done has been reactive; a kind of domestic bomb-disposal. I know there is a better way than this.

In general, I am pretty disciplined. I'm strict with myself about exercise, about what I eat, about fresh air and downtime; all that stuff. I am not, I think, overly self-indulgent. Neither do I have the excuse of staying up late - I don't. I usually go to bed at 10pm. I might read for an hour, but even so, I'm usually asleep by 11pm. There is no reason on earth not to be up and at 'em by 6.30am.

And yet, every night I go to bed vowing to get up at dawn, and every morning I hit snooze. And snooze again. Apparently, the great Dr Johnson had the same problem. Not that I compare myself to him, but just to indicate that this early-morning failure of will isn't actually an indicator of a slothful, self-indulgent mind.

I stress this because have you noticed how that equation seems more and more to be made? That 'early' equals 'better'. The general smugness of the early-riser knows no bounds. Every 'Day In The Life' or 'How I Succeed' type pieces always begins with Mr or Ms Super-Successful saying, 'I get up around 5am, even at weekends . . .' and they're off, credentials established. They wear 5am like a badge of honour, and, boy, do they like to send emails at that hour, just to let everyone else know they were up. Because the early bird owns the moral high ground. As if the simple fact of getting up when it's still dark outside makes you a better person - a more disciplined person, more ambitious, focused, successful, with greater personal resolve and drive. Probably better hair, too. I remember asking an older friend once about the secrets to her success in the corporate world. "Be first into the office every morning," was her answer. "Manage that, and the rest will follow naturally."

For someone who, at that stage, scrambled into the office slightly late every morning, anywhere between a reasonable-respectable 10 minutes to a thoroughly shaming 25, her advice was devastating. I had a sneaky feeling that, like many Waterloos, I would find mine very close to home.

A friend who swears by the early start, and who manages to balance the many, intense bits of his life because of it, says two weeks is all it takes for the habit to form, and after that it's easy. It's the kind of thing I say to people about running - "just force yourself for the first two weeks, then it becomes second nature". But I know this isn't quite true.

It isn't that easy, not for running or rising. I know because, ironically, the years of my life when I did have to get up before 7am every morning - when the children were very small and woke, hungry and insistent, with the birds - I hated it, and never stopped hating it. The habit never formed. I felt none of the early-morning joy, none of Wordsworth's sense of beauty, just a miserable, exhausted loneliness. I longed for nothing so much as just to go back to bed and sleep like a teenager.

And yet, I still believe it can be different. And if not different, at least worthwhile. But it is not simply a question of forming a new habit. No, I fear this is one to be played out, every night and morning, for the rest of my life, with some noble successes, and many failures.

Nightly resolve, followed by morning . . . snooze.

Sunday Independent