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I tried waking up at 4 am for 2 weeks to boost my productivity—and it was miserable

A view of Jersey City skyline from an early morning run.
Kathleen Elkins | CNBC
A view of Jersey City skyline from an early morning run.

They say the early bird gets the worm — and there may be some truth to it.

After all, successful people tend to wake up early. Apple CEO Tim Cook starts his mornings at 3:45 a.m. to get a head start on email, and Ellevest CEO Sallie Krawcheck wakes up at 4 a.m. for creative thinking time.

It's arguably the most productive time of the day, according to The Wall Street Journal, because it allows you to tackle tasks before distractions arise.

I decided to join the 4 a.m. club for two weeks to see if the early bird really does catch the worm.

I barely lasted one week.

While I won't be adopting Cook or Krawcheck's morning routines in the near future, I did gain some valuable insights and got closer to establishing the ideal morning ritual for myself.

The Manhattan Bridge at sunrise.
Kathleen Elkins | CNBC
The Manhattan Bridge at sunrise.

Prior to this experiment, I started my days at 7 a.m., which allowed me 45 minutes to shower, dress for work and whip up lunch before heading out the door for my 40-minute commute.

Here's what my morning routine looked like during my experiment:

4 a.m.: My alarm sounds. I have a 50-50 chance of hearing the alarm right away.

4:20 a.m.: I get out of bed. I only managed to get out of bed at 4 a.m. on the dot once. Most mornings, I didn't even hear my alarm until 4:20 a.m. The one positive of consistently oversleeping by 20 to 30 minutes is that I shoot out of bed with a sense of urgency, the way you do when you realize your alarm didn't sound and you're going to be late.

4:30 a.m.: I make my bed. I find it helpful to immediately start and finish something, no matter how minor the task. Making my bed takes less than two minutes, but it still requires me to stand up and do something active with my hands. Plus, making your bed has been correlated with things like better productivity and sticking to a budget.

I also take a couple of minutes to tidy up — fold clothes or organize my room — after making my bed.

4:45 a.m.: I prepare lunch for the day. Again, doing something — cooking rice or chopping vegetables — wakes me up a bit. Making lunch doesn't require as much energy as reading or working out, but it's not completely mindless and helps me ease into the day.

On this particular morning, I prepped lunches for a couple of days.
Kathleen Elkins | CNBC
On this particular morning, I prepped lunches for a couple of days.

5 a.m.: I read. At this point, I'm awake enough to pick up a book and not risk falling back asleep. I make sure to read on my couch, not my bed, just in case I'm tempted to doze off.

I also use this time to check off any lingering to-do list items — writing thank-you notes, sending off emails, updating my budget or ironing clothes — that I normally wouldn't have time to do in the mornings. Individually, they're small tasks, but completing so many little things makes me feel significantly more productive and in control of my day.

5:45 a.m.: I work out. I go out for an hour-long jog along the Hudson or East River. I've never been much of a morning runner, but since I've been awake for an hour and a half at this point, I'm surprisingly energized and it doesn't feel like the typical morning workout.

7 a.m.: I shower and get ready for work. This is when I would typically wake up and get ready for the day. I leave home the same time I always do — 7:45 a.m. — and get to work around 8:30 a.m.

A good chunk of my mornings were spent running along the river.
Source: Eric Hu
A good chunk of my mornings were spent running along the river.

While productive, my "4 a.m. week" was miserable for several reasons:

  • I felt like I was waking up in the middle of the night. It was so early that my body couldn't even register the alarm! And I felt "off" from the get-go. That being said, if I stuck with the routine long term, I'm sure I'd eventually adapt to the schedule.
  • Most days, I hit a wall around 3 p.m. I couldn't figure out an effective way to cope with the fatigue, so I ended up front-loading my mornings — I made sure to finish the most mentally demanding tasks early in the day and save the more menial items for the late afternoon.
  • I had less energy at night. I thought by finishing my workout and so many other tasks before the workday, I'd have more freedom after work for things like dinner or drinks with friends. In actuality, I was too exhausted to do much more than watch Netflix and hit the pillow early. In fact, I found that most social activities are next to impossible if you want to be in bed by 9 p.m., and ended up canceling most plans that I had originally scheduled.
  • My eating schedule was thrown off. I was ravenous in the mornings after working out and oftentimes finished lunch before noon, which made it tricky to time dinner. Again, I think this is something I would adapt to if I stuck with the routine longer.
  • I was simply exhausted. I found myself counting down the days to the weekend, not because I was unhappy at work and desperate for time off, but because I was desperate to sleep in.
The biggest perk of the early morning wake up call: the sunrise.
Kathleen Elkins | CNBC
The biggest perk of the early morning wake up call: the sunrise.

There were several benefits to waking up hours before the workday began:

  • It's the quietest time of the day. In addition to fewer sirens, horns honking and general chatter, my mind was quieter. By waking up well before anyone else, I eliminated common distractions, such as text messages, emails and social media notifications.
  • I felt a greater sense of control over my day. I never once felt rushed, my to-do list seemed much more manageable, and I had time to do things I normally don't make time for, such as pleasure reading and keeping up with a journal. I have a stack of books I've been meaning to tackle, but oftentimes find myself too mentally checked out after work to crack them open. I was pleasantly surprised at how much reading you can get done in just 30 minutes, particularly if you're setting aside that time each morning.
  • I felt more productive. Finishing simple tasks — making my bed, writing a thank-you note or ironing a pile of clothes — early in the day made me feel productive from the start, and I was able to carry that momentum throughout the beginning of my workday.
Girl Running, exercising
Source: Eric Hu

During week two of the experiment, I decided to set my alarm to 5 a.m., which would still give me a solid chunk of time before the workday but wouldn't throw my body for quite the same loop.

Interestingly, after a week of 4 a.m. alarms, getting up at 5 a.m. felt like an absolute breeze, even though it's still much earlier than I'm used to.

I didn't get as much reading in, and shortened my runs a bit, but I still felt exponentially more productive and in control of my days. Most importantly, I wasn't overwhelmed with fatigue. That extra 45 to 60 minutes of sleep made a world of difference.

So while I ditched the 4 a.m. club as quickly as I joined, I'm now a content member of the 5 a.m. club — and here to stay.