If the world can be roughly divided into two types – early birds and night owls – there is one overlapping category: the person who starts work so early that it constitutes the night before.
I have been thinking a lot about these people lately. I’m behind on a book deadline and, having failed to find more working hours in the day, I’m wondering if the solution I’ve been looking for is the 4am start. The idea makes me feel physically sick, but at least I can be sure the phone won’t ring.
We are, after all, bombarded with evidence to suggest there is a correlation between early risers and high risers. All those people who get up before dawn to do military fitness training in Central Park or boot camp at the gym might be obnoxious, but they do project a certain thrusting lust for life that must come in handy later in the day. The psychological benefits of forcing oneself into the shower hours before everyone else are backed up by countless academic studies, too.
And there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence. A few years ago, I interviewed Haruki Murakami, who, among his other idiosyncrasies, routinely starts work at 4am, writing until noon and then spending the afternoons doing the only thing someone with an elective schedule like that is built for: training for marathons.
Kate Mosse, the bestselling novelist, also maintains that when she’s doing “the sprint at the end” of a multi-year book project, she’s at her desk by 4am and keeps going for 10 hours at a stretch.
And Sally Wainwright, who I am semi-stalking at the moment out of love for her most recent TV shows, has said repeatedly in interviews that she starts writing at … 2am. What even is that? More to the point, what time do these people go to bed?
Murakami told me that he and his wife turn in at 9pm, which, if you have young kids, leaves you with roughly an hour of downtime after their bedtime and before yours, cutting things a little fine in the mental health department.
The whole thing also smacks of a fanaticism that makes me feel weary just to ponder. It’s one thing getting up at 5am for the gym or to beat rush hour; it’s another entirely to claim you’re at your desk drinking coffee hours earlier because that’s the time when you get the most done. To many of us, there is something not only antisocial, but also deeply alarming about being up at that time, an hour one associates with emergencies, health failures, sleepless nights and neurosis. It’s the time when babies cry and adults lie awake, staring at the ceiling and cycling through anxieties. It feels like a time to pray, not to work, the darkest hour of the night when the minutes creep by and tomorrow never comes.
That’s the point, I suppose. Time moves differently in the middle of the night. It slows down.
It also gives middle-of-the-night-workers a sense of getting one over on the slumbering populace. Wainwright has said that starting work that early gives her a “cozy feeling that everyone else is asleep” and that she is far more productive than when sitting at a computer for six hours during the day.
I can understand this. As a characteristic, I can find it admirable and enviable. But it’s also selectively applied. People who love what they do will make sacrifices to do it and get heaped with praise for their astonishing work ethic. Millions of others, with no say in the matter at all, have the far harder task of sticking to someone else’s hours for low pay and no ovation. No one gives shift workers nodding on the subway at 5am applause for their zany stamina and commitment.
Anyway, you can’t always believe what people say about what time they get up in the morning. In a study undertaken by the University of California, San Diego, scientists extensively interviewed subjects about their sleep habits, then attached motion sensors to their wrists to monitor them overnight. The results? Many more claimed to be up at 5am than were ever out of bed at that time.
It should perhaps come as a comfort that, as with almost everything else in life, the facts of what time you get up matter less than the story you tell about it.