How 4am Became The Most Productive Time Of Day

How Is the Middle Of the Night Now Suddenly More Productive?

There is a meme floating around the internet recently about how 4am has become the most productive time of day, which is very interesting since that time has always been associated with bad things happening – as in “nothing good ever happens after 2am” right?

But I digress. In our ever expanding quest to become more and more productive, more and more competitive and more and more competent than just about everyone else, we are seeing rafts and rafts of content being created about how great it is to get up early in the morning. Everywhere you look, everywhere you turn productivity seems to have become the golden grail. Many electrons are shed, espousing the wonder of getting up earlier and earlier (although none of the articles ever mention what time people are supposed to go to bed in order to support this ungodly wake-up time, but we can figure it out.)

Let’s say that, according to many very intelligent people, both those who really know something about the science and those who don’t, that 4am is the most productive time of the day. Assuming that you will need some time to wake up, freshen up, maybe put on a pot of coffee or something, then you really need to be up at 330am. Let’s also do some research on sleep. Many of these same people, or other well versed in the study of sleep, say that you need at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night (since you can’t really make up sleep). If that is the case, then our ultra high performer who wakes up at 330am needs to be asleep by a geriatric 8:30pm. That’s asleep. So let’s say that you need, oh I don’t know, maybe 30 minutes to get to sleep after you get to bed. Which means that you’re ultra high powered, super productive, amazingly prolific executive needs to go beddy-bye at 8pm.

Think about this for a second. We keep hearing that all of these high-powered Silicon Valley (and other) executives, like Tim Cook, find 4am their most productive time of day. Do you think that we’d think of them as just-as-awesome if we found out that they all went to bed by 8pm? Not so much.

Since when did going to bed at 8pm become a manly executive trait? No, we never hear about that. I bet that the reality is that for most of these executives and other high performers in the news, that they can easily afford to go to bed at 8pm, because they have legions of minions to do work for them. So just waking up at 4am is not going to make you like Tim Cook.

No, the real secret of the 4am wake up is reducing the amount of distraction. And by distraction, I mean dealing with other people and their demands. I remember back when I used to work in IT, my most productive times were the weeks when most people went on holiday, summers and around Christmas. I never got more work done than when there is no one else around. That’s the main reason why people get up early, to get things done in the quiet of isolation, because most everyone else is sleeping.

Here’s the problem, though. Once everyone else figures out that waking up at 330am is awesome, then THEY will start doing it too. Eventually, everyone who used to only start bugging you at 8 or 9am will start bugging you at 4am, because everyone else will be up at that time as well. Suddenly, your 4am is no longer distraction free.

Since being productive isn’t really about getting up a 4am, but working when no one else is, I have a different suggestion. Instead of getting up at 4am every day, just work when others aren’t. Do a night shift, or work weekends and take the week off (my personal favorite), because, when you read between the lines of all of these articles, blog posts and videos, the root of productivity is not waking up early, but working in isolation from other people. Or go off and live in a cabin somewhere. Or do like what George R. R. Martin purports to do: go back to a crappy old desktop computer without even the capability of connecting to the internet, running DOS and use a full-screen plain text editor. Oh, the productivity!

Bottom line: productivity = isolation. Problem is, if you ask me, innovation and new ideas are more likely to strike you when you are not trying to be productive. They tend to strike when your mind is wandering. When you are wasting time. When you are playing, relaxing, hanging out with friends, or even showering. So if you need productivity, isolate yourself. But if you are looking to innovate, do the opposite.