You don’t have to wake up early to get ahead

We lionize early-bird CEOs—but being up at the crack of dawn won’t magically make you more productive

Mean-looking worm with bird skeletons scattered around it

(Illustration by Graham Roumieu)

Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, is a late riser. By the time he lumbers out of bed—6 a.m.—Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt have already been up for half an hour. Meanwhile, AOL chief Tim Armstrong was kicking ass and taking names at 5 a.m. Apple’s Tim Cook and Cisco’s Padmasree Warrior were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—and earning their shareholders billions—at 4:30.

The facts do not lie. Students who wake up early have higher GPAs than those who burn the midnight oil. Early risers are more proactive, more optimistic, and more conscientious. All of which explains why, according to Harvard Business Review, bosses with employees who work flextime prefer the larks over the owls.

The lesson is simple: If you want the worm, get up early.

That’s what I did. I undertook a program of what I will call “wake-up realignment” to put my career on steroids. The plan was simple. Get up at 5 a.m. and start working. And like some kind of miracle diet, I got results. Fast.

The first morning, I tiptoed out of bed at five o’clock, headed downstairs and cranked up the laptop. By 5:02, I was sending and receiving. The change to my productivity curve was breathtaking. Just a day before, I would have been snoring. And now, when the workday was still hours from officially beginning, I was being productive.

And this wasn’t your garden-variety productivity, either. I was sending thoughtful responses to messages that normally get lost in the afternoon rush. I engaged in careful forethought and planning. Instead of chasing the play, I was ahead of it. I was in control.

Until 10 a.m., at which point…I got tired. Coffee didn’t help. Lunch only made it worse. I spent a wasted afternoon simultaneously wired on caffeine and exhausted, half-reading emails but incapable of responding. The most I could do was surf the web.

The early bird theory, it seems, is not so simple. For instance, when you go for a run in the wee hours, you realize a lot of other people besides Jeff Immelt and Jack Dorsey get up disgustingly early, too. Most of them don’t look like they’re holding conference calls at 9 a.m. to announce record earnings.

Is optimizing worm procurement more complicated than just getting up earlier? As it turns out, yes. Researchers at the University of Liège confirmed my misery with science—early risers have more trouble focusing as the day progresses than those who sleep in. And there are plenty of CEOs who prefer the nightlife. GE Canada’s Elyse Allan has said 1 a.m. is the perfect time for writing; Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg once refused an 8 a.m. conference call because he wouldn’t be awake enough after staying up late. A 2011 study found morning people should do their critical thinking in the morning and creative work later, and night owls should do the opposite.

But this much was undeniable: The old cliché needs an edit. There are many early birds. Some of them get the worm. The vast majority are tired and unhappy. It’s easier to stay in bed.