Self-Serving Self-Help

One of the most common pieces of self-help advice that gets thrown around is that you should wake up early; this inevitably leads to advice going the other direction, saying either that it doesn’t matter or that waking up later leads to increased creativity and energy, often pointing to historical examples like Benjamin Franklin and Winston Churchill. I’m not an expert on sleep, and much work has been done showing that different people indeed have different built-in preferences for when they go to sleep and wake up. But this doesn’t turn the debate into a free-for-all.

Be cautious of any advice that allows you to keep doing what you’d like to do anyway. I wake up in the morning and enjoy the time I spend in relative silence and peace, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the process of getting out of bed. I set multiple alarms for my desired wake-up time, at least one of which is usually a puzzle of some sort so I have to engage my brain to shut it off. If I just did what I wanted, I’d stay asleep longer despite being a rather extreme morning person. The reason why I don’t stay in bed is because I’ve taken a closer look at the way I function and found that I’m more productive when I don’t postpone waking up. I want to stay in bed. Now wouldn’t someone telling me about all the great historical figures who were late risers be just what I wanted to hear?

I don’t doubt that there are some people who genuinely want to get up and out of bed before the sun gets up, and maybe for them, hearing all about the benefits of early rising strokes their ego, meaning they should be skeptical of advice that leans that direction. But for the rest of us, waking up early means cutting off the pleasant experience of sleep, and going to bed early enough to make it easier to wake up means cutting off the pleasant experience of evening leisure. Being a night owl allows you to prolong those experiences at the expense of more important tasks. There’s a large margin for bullshit when you stay up and wake up late that simply doesn’t exist when you stay up and wake up early.

None of this is to say that anyone should change their sleeping habits; as mentioned before, there’s a lot of research showing that there are legitimate differences in people’s energy levels and sleep patterns that are rooted in biology, and there are plenty of historical figures who slept into the afternoon and burned the midnight oil to get their work done. But you should be skeptical of advice that justifies sleeping in for the same reason you should be skeptical of advice that justifies eating whatever you want and still losing weight or learning Spanish while you sleep. Remember: feeling better doesn’t mean doing better.

One thought on “Self-Serving Self-Help

  1. Pingback: Analysis: Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel – THE NEXT FIVE MINUTES

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