Why Getting Up Earlier Doesn’t Make You More Productive

November 2, 2018 ​- 50 Comments

If you're an entrepreneur, you need to hustle 24/7. You need to be always on. You need to make superhuman efforts and far outperform the average 9-to-5 working chump.

And getting a solid 8 hours of sleep just doesn't fit that picture, does it?

This is the kind of message I'm seeing a lot in entrepreneurial circles. More specifically, I've recently seen the spread of the idea that entrepreneurs ought to wake up at 5 AM or earlier, to get some extra productive hours in.

It fits the picture of the look-at-me-I'm-working-so-hard hustler, but it has little to do with real productivity. In this video, I explain why I think getting up super early is the dumbest trend in entrepreneurship.


Getting Up Early = Sleep Deprivation

The content for this post is primarily in the video, so watch that first. One thing I want to clarify is the connection between getting up early and being sleep deprived.

It's one thing to suggest an early wake up time of, say, 6 AM. I have no issues with that at all, because you can have a normal family life, a social life with few compromises, get enough sleep and wake up at 6 every day. No problem.

But of course, getting up at 6 isn't cool enough. Your Instagram followers won't be impressed by that. We gotta step it up, hence waking up at 4 AM...

Waking up at 4 AM equals sleep deprivation. After all, you'd have to go to sleep at around 8 PM in order to be able to sustain a wakeup time of 4 AM and still get enough sleep. And who the heck would do that?

No, the reality is that you're going to get up super early, but you're still going to go to sleep relatively late at night. And thanks to coffee, you can probably power through and still feel relatively normal.

Do You Really Need 8 Hours?

In short, yes.

Sure, you can function relatively well on less sleep. The average American gets 6.8 hours of sleep per night. My guess is that most people who undersleep by an hour or two per day don't feel like sleep deprivation is a major issue in their life.

However, research shows that when you put it to the test, even mild sleep deprivation affects your brain's performance significantly.

A mildly drunk person feels like they're perfectly fine to drive (or do some cognitively challenging work), but in reality, their performance is significantly impacted by alcohol. It's the same for sleep deprivation: it may feel like you're just a bit drowsy, but you may be performing at 50% or less of your full cognitive capacity.

You don't need 8 hours of sleep to function, but you need 8 hours to be truly effective.

Don't Believe Me

Now that I've said all that, my hot tip is to not believe me. A bunch of Internet people are spreading the idea that getting up super early is great for your productivity. I'm saying the opposite. You shouldn't believe any of these Internet people, including me.

I also don't want to suggest that you take the simple mainstream advice of "you need 8 hours a day" at face value, without questioning it.

The only thing I hope to get across is this: sleep is important for your productivity (and your health). More important than you probably think. And if you are serious about being more productive and more effective, it's worth spending a bit of time getting to the truth of this.

The first stop in such a search that I recommend is Matthew Walker's book Why We Sleep. If you're going to read only one book on the topic, this should be it.

Also, it makes sense to try this out for yourself. Ultimately, what works for you is what matters most. The key point in this is that you need to measure how effective you are when you sleep different amounts, not just how many hours you put in. To that end, listen to this podcast episode to learn about Personal KPI, a way to measure what really matters for your productivity. And read this post about the apps I use to track my Personal KPI.

The Endless Hustle vs. Actual Productivity

There's another aspect to this that grinds my gears: productivity isn't about working like a maniac, for as many hours in the day as possible. Productivity isn't about doing more work, it's about getting more done.

What's the difference?

Imagine the following scenario: there are two small businesses, both operating in the same market. In business A, everyone is constantly working overtime, everyone is stressed and under pressure, everyone is working hard and no one gets paid well, because the business is barely surviving.

In business B, people work 8 hours a day, intensely, but not in a stressed way. No one does overtime. Everyone gets a good wage and the business is profitable.

Surely, in business A, more work is happening. There's more effort and sweat going into that business. You have to be a hardcore, life-sacrificing hustler to work there. But is that a good thing? Isn't it just a really ineffective business? In fact, if the business can't pay people well and requires everyone to do unpaid overtime, doesn't that mean that the business is actually failing and is only being kept afloat by "cheating"?

I paint this picture, because as an entrepreneur, I see it as my job to create a well designed, highly effective "machine" that turns input (e.g. from working hours and materials) into more than enough output (value, money) to pay for all the input and generate a profit. The better this machine is designed, the more effortless it is to get a great output from a "normal" input.

And I aim to design my own life the same way: my goal is not to suffer harder than anyone, in order to make piles of money. My goal is to get so good at what I do that I can have all the money and freedom I want, without breaking much of a sweat. That, to me, is the goal of productivity (and it's what I teach in my course). 

In short, I aim to get a lot of work done without having to ever compromise my sleep, my freedom or my health.

What's Your Take?

Have you experimented with your sleep schedule, as a productivity strategy? Do you have any personal experience with sleeping less, sleeping more, sleeping differently and how it's affected you and your business? Let me know by leaving a comment below!

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About ​Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.

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  • Absolutely, Shane! This topic can’t be overemphasized! The macho around sleep deprivation is toxic and needs to change – particularly in a complex, changeable economy where we all have to be more productive than ever – not just running on adrenaline, coffee (or worse, and bravado). See also what Arianna Huffington is doing with her company Thrive Global (http://thriveglobal.com)

    • Thanks for your comment! It’s true that now seems like the wrong time for these ideas. In early industrialization, it made sense that all the workers need to be at the factory at the same time, but we’re pretty far past that, now.

  • Love this video, thanks Shane! I was shocked after seeing Casey Neistat promoting this forcefully waking up at 4:15 or something with some marine dude. Yeah I get it it’s a win or whatever and you feel like a warrior. But practically what a completely horrible idea. I think Neistat also said he goes to sleep after 23? That’s really dangerous advice from an influencer like him.

    Yeah. Love your grounded commentary on this.

    Awesome scenery btw. =D

    P.S. I wake up at 10.30. Why? Because I work from 17 to about 2. And I love it. It really frustrates me when some pretentious asshat tries to tell me waking up early would revolutionize my life. And yeah that’s a huge trigger I have coming from a life where people would shame me for not living a “standard” “proper” schedule.

    • Yes, great point! If your creative hours are late at night, what’s the point in going to sleep then? And there’s definitely this stigma of getting up late = laziness.

      In a different book (can’t recall which one, right now), I read about an evolutionary explanation for different chronotypes. In a typical tribe, people’s sleep/wake cycles are naturally distributed in such a way that basically there’s always at least a few people awake, at any time of day or night. This has obvious benefits for survival. If the entire tribe goes to sleep at the same time, they’d all be vulnerable. But because we have different sleep cycles, there’s always someone to keep watch.

  • I agree Shane. We are all different and should honor our natural ways. I’m NOT a morning person, never have been. However, if I get a good nights sleep and feel refreshed in the morning, I am at my most productive. Thanks for de-buffing this myth that EVERYONE should get up early. Entrepreneurs are blessed with a choice.

    • Yes, exactly! That’s another point I didn’t even get into, in the video. People get shamed for being night owls. But if you’re self employed, who cares what time of day you’re doing your work? It makes no sense for night owls to force themselves to go to bed when they’d be most switched on and wake up when they’re at their worst… just because it seems uncool or lazy to get up late.

  • Thank you Shane, this is great advice! I am emerging from my “momentum building” days, and as you said the hustle and burnout should not be the long-term goal of a smart entrepreneur. None of us quit our jobs thinking we’re going to create a horrific existence for ourselves. We quit for the freedom and options you speak of. Great video!

    • Thanks for your comment! This is a tricky balance to strike. Like I mentioned in the video, I’m no stranger to all-nighters and generally working too much. But like you say, it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t the goal and isn’t the purpose. It’s supposed to only be necessary until you have achieved lift-off.

  • Bali? Thailand? Electric car/battery is a spot-on analogy, Shane.

  • I don’t care what those guys say… I like my sleep and try to get 7-8 hours per night. Your electric car analogy, to me, explains exactly what happens to me if I don’t sleep enough.

  • Spot on Shane! I think a misguided “hero” mentality drives many of these “sleep is over rated” gurus! Also, like me, a lot of people suffer from sleep apnia, which can be a potentially life threatening condition!

  • Excellent post Shane.

    I’ve been running a bit of an experiment myself lately. Like everyone else I’ve been hustling like crazy and getting nowhere so out of frustration I decided to kick back and take a break from all this internet marketing nonsense and give my brain a break.

    I went to bed earlier and after a couple of days started to feel great.

    I’ve never been a fan of 5am wake up calls because by 11:30 that morning I was useless to anyone.

    I have to admit I’ve been slipping back into the bad habit of staying up late and just getting muddled so I really appreciate this reminder to take my health more seriously.

    I’ll also definitely check out those book recommendations.


    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Ricky!

      I can recognize a familiar and dangerous cycle here: if you’re working so much and not getting results, it feels like you should be working even more. And the more you cut down on sleep to work more, the less effective you are and the greater the frustration becomes. I’ve definitely been there myself.

      • Exactly.

        I finally figured out that I need to actually stick with one project and so that’s what I’ve been working on for about 2 months now and this week has been amazing.

        For the first time in years I’m seeing actual progress because I’m following ONE plan instead of being pulled in every possible direction and panicking because there are so many things to learn.

        And this is all without the unnecessary all-nighters and early mornings.

        This is such a relief because when you’re as ugly as me beauty sleep isn’t optional ;)

        So thanks for confirming I’m now on the right track

  • Many years ago at my boarding school in England someone had the bright idea that our group of friends should wake up early to fit in some extra revision for exams.
    Suffice it to say that I achieved my worst results ever.
    Lesson learned!

    • Good to learn the lesson early. Clearly, many entrepreneurs still have some catching up to do.

  • That’s good advice Shane, messing around with your sleeping patterns, over a long period of time, can be detrimental to your health. I find finding somewhere quiet to work with no disturbances can be more productive.

    • Absolutely, yes. This is a point Walker makes in his book as well: not sleeping enough is incredibly bad for your health.

  • You mentioned you would give us the link to your personal KPI article, but I didn’t see it. And you don’t have a search function so I could find it. Could you share the link please?

  • I used to think the same as “the gurus”, less sleep = more work – but then I saw sleep expert Matthew Walker episode on Joe Rogan and it blew my mind. Reminded me of the reality of how horrible I actually felt operating on 4 or so hours sleep.

    • Thanks for your comment, Garreth!

      I have also done all kinds of experiments with sleep, often cutting down on sleep time, adding some naps instead and so on. But it’s clear to me now that it’s just not worth compromising on something so fundamentally important.

  • Erghhhhh watching this at 7.30am so proud of myself for getting up early, going for a jog and a mediatate, but also waiting for the coffee shop to open so I can feel regular before getting anything that requires my brain done… secretly knowing you’re right.
    Thanks for the additional reminder… they’re always appreciated Shane

    • Thanks for your comment, Gun.
      Part of the problem is how easy it is to stay up just a little later, especially when there’s artificial light all around. This is something I sometimes also struggle with.

  • I appreciated your take on this Shane. As a mom who works at home, I often get up and get going at 5:30, but I also take naps when I need them and, when I feel my body wearing down, I sleep in a bit.

    I can still feel the toll that this takes and I need to start making sure that I’m going to bed by 10:00 PM and maybe bump that morning wake-up time to 6:00 or 6:30.

    I like your idea of testing this out and I think I’m going to do that but I’ll have to adjust the rest of my schedule a bit (I also homeschool my kids.)

    Thanks for bringing up this valuable subject.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience with this, Jenette!

      I really encourage you to test this out on yourself.

  • I’m off to sleep now, thanks Shane :)

    So good to hear someone more focused on the truth than what just sounds good.

  • As someone who lives in an area with harsh winter and who has been struggling to get up early for years, I have a mixed feeling about this issue. On one hand, I understand the importance of at least getting up and go to rest with the sun for optimizing energy metabolism, I’ve found it to be rather difficult to implement in practice.

    So usually what happens is that I would wake up early, get bogged down with many things in the to-do list, and stay until midnight or after, at which point I would find myself waking up much later than usual to ensure that adequate sleep is met. This cycle would then repeats itself until waking up early becomes a pipe dream.

    So here’s what I’ve learnt: sleep is critically important because it can directly affect hormone production and telomere length (i.e., lifespan), but work is important too — especially quality work. Nowadays what I would do is just to take the full amount of sleep as it is, and then take even more time to do something which I called “thought meditation” — where I try to plan out my activities in advance in great details. This would basically make sure that I get both the rest and work done, though not necessarily within the expected timeframe though.

    • Thank you for sharing! I like your tip about the thought meditation. Taking your time to get into something instead of rushing to the first thing is a great idea.

      Also, regarding sleep and day/night cycles: there are many parts of the world, where matching sleep to the day/night cycle just isn’t practical. Having a natural exposure to light and dark is good, but I think we shouldn’t feel obliged to wake up with the sunrise.

  • Thank you very much for this very important blog post, Shane! In my practice I see a lot of people who are sleep deprivating themselves (they won’t tell me until I ask).

    These people come with problems like burnout, hormonal problems, mood changes, bad temper, depression… and when we dive deeper into their problem it shows that they are literally functioning on autopilot instead of finding adequate and creative ways of reacting to the challenges they meet throughout the day.

    So good sleep, at least 7 hours, is even important for our happiness :-)

    • Yes, great example! I think this is something that makes the sleep problem difficult to detect. Because sure, you can sleep less and work more hours and you feel like you’re getting more done. But maybe you miss the fact that you’re not coming up with creative solutions or not seeing the real source of problems you’re dealing with.

  • Hey Shane, fantastic post. Up until I turned 21 I used to wake up very early, sacrificing sleep, thinking it was for the ‘weak.’ Due to this and other unhealthy habits, I was slowly approaching burn out. I decided to take some months to rest and travel, without setting up the alarm. Since then, I never turned back, and have successfully reached my goals anyway. Thanks for sharing such empowering posts!

    • Thank you for your comment!

      I had many periods of burning the candle at both ends as well. And I used to (perhaps still do) pride myself in my ability to go hard and for long periods of time. I can out-work most people I know. But to what end? I had basically turned myself into a really hard working slave for my business. The opposite of thinking like a boss…

  • Hi Shane

    Thank you for doing this video.

    I’ve got a couple of points to make which support your view.

    My career, for almost 30 years, is a professional business to business sales person working for a variety of companies in the UK. For much of the time, I was based from home. I’d see clients during the day and then work in the evening.

    What happens over time is you get more and more tired. And definitely get less and less productive.

    When I did venture into an office the culture of being “first in and last out” was paramount to be seen to be a good worker. That’s what I see in this ‘new’ get up at 4 am BS.

    In more recent years I worked for two companies with a totally different approach. In both of these, you came in at 8:30 am and by 5:05 pm the office was empty.

    As a result, everyone was more alive, awake and super productive.

    Both businesses were very successful, with happier employees.

    As an entrepreneur now, and working from home, I remember and practice this way of working.

    Sure, there are times when you have to put in many extra hours. But when they come, I have the energy and drive to do them.

    I know I need my 7 or 8 hours every night, and I also know that when I need the extra boost I can do it without burnout.

    Please, continue to have your rants. They’re immensely refreshing.


    • Thank you for sharing your experiences, Phil! Yes, the “first in, last out” is another example of this attitude. I guess that’s the corporate equivalent of the 24/7 hustle thing among entrepreneurs.

  • Thanks Shane, common sense prevails again. I actually use to work in management for a fortune 200 company that was all in on the 80/20 Principle. The philosophy there was, if you had to work long hours you wern’t applying the concept. You were just running harder over more time to chase more things. All of which just took your focus away from what was really important.

    • I admire that this company made it a part of their culture like that. That’s really cool.

  • John Kirkham says:

    Hi Shane, thanks for this and all the great advice. The problem I have is leaving my work, I just get so into what I’m doing I find it hard to switch off and leave it. I know that if I don’t, nothing good will happen the next day, but sometimes, I still can’t leave it.

    By the way, where are you? Thailand?

    • This is a relatively good problem to have. Certainly better than a lack of motivation. :)

      What might help is if you find something else that is also important to you and prioritize it. E.g. family time. Instead of just thinking “I should/want to do more of this”, actually prioritize it and put it in your calendar. It’s great to be passionate about your work, but it’s probably not the only thing you’re passionate about, right?

      I’m in Bali, currently.

  • You are a superb ranter, Shane. :) My personal experimentation shows 8 hours is a fantastic amount for me. If I have 6 or fewer, I am sleepy and productivity suffers. Thanks for always being willing to speak out with counterintuitive advice to help us avoid self-sabotaging by following “expert” advice.

  • Hello, Shane,

    I completely agree. The testimonials about waking up at 5 or earlier, that this is the only way to success, really bother me.

    For those who can do this, I applaud them. We all want a system that brings out the best in us when it comes to productivity and creativity and if this works for them, kudos.

    But, do they have help? Do they have the funds to delegate the menial tasks of daily life to others: laundry, grocery shopping, taking kids to lessons, cooking, etc.

    For many of us, we have to do all this ourselves. We don’t have the funds to pay for outside help…and, after crossing off item after item on a “To Do” list that gets resurrected anew each day, it gets tiring. A tired that, possibly, many gurus don’t have to personally have to face on a daily basis.

    Their “tired” is likely of a different “tired.” They need sleep but maybe fewer hours is restorative enough so that they can still function well enough day after day after day.

    As a single parent (now an empty-nester), I can honestly say the most challenging part of all those years was being chronically sleep deprived. Going to be late to get things done (and have a little “me” time) and waking up early to attend to my responsibilities, lead to me feeling like I was just surviving. Worst, it really does affect memory. Sad to say, there are many things I don’t remember.

    My current challenge?…trying to relearn a healthy sleep pattern. It’s tough but getting better.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You are wise beyond your years.


    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Susan!
      I think you make a very important point, here. Not everyone has the luxury of defining their own sleep schedule in the first place. This is also why I think it’s very important to advocate for later school start times for kids as well as for greater flexibility when it comes to defining work hours. The latter can also be in the interest of a business’ bottom line, but a culture of “late risers are lazy” makes us blind to what we are missing out on.

  • i couldn’t agree more. if i don’t get 8.5 or even 9 hrs a sleep a night, i hate my life. i hate all the tasks, and my to-do list feels oppressive. if i have enough sleep? presto. it’s all ‘easier’. the lists are all there. the things, the people, the demands, but the FEELING changes. it’s the pushing the electric car metaphor – when you don’t FEEL like you’re pushing a vehicle uphill, then you like your life better. thus you’re more productive. i love this video :)

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