Is Your Morning Routine Making You Less Productive?

Working smarter doesn’t always mean getting up at 5 a.m.

Is Your Morning Routine Making You Less Productive?
[Photo: Asdrubal luna/Unsplash]

If you google “morning routine,” chances are you’ll see lots of articles (including from Fast Company) touting the benefits of waking up early–before everyone else in your house gets up. After all, what’s not great about having an hour or two to yourself to do all the things you don’t usually have time to do? You can go to the gym when it’s empty,  have a quiet moment to meditate, and make yourself a nutritious breakfast that you can actually enjoy, rather than scarf yet another granola bar as you sprint out the door. All great things for productivity, right?


Yes, there are proven benefits of rising early–but unfortunately, working smarter, not harder, involves a lot more than the time you wake up every morning. So if you’re wondering why your 5 a.m. start isn’t making you into a productivity machine (and is in fact turning you into a more inefficient one), one of the following reasons might be to blame.

1. You’re Sacrificing Sleep

It might seem obvious that if you’re going to get up early, you should also try to go to bed early–but this is something many people overlook. Joel Gascoigne, the founder and CEO of social media management platform Buffer, wrote that in order to get the full productivity benefit of rising early, he needed to ensure that he was getting an adequate amount of sleep. “One of the most important things I’ve found when I have attempted to keep up an early morning routine for several days and weeks in a row is that if I let my daily sleep amount get much below seven hours for too many consecutive days, I will burn out sooner or later.”

As Dani Gordon previously wrote for Fast Company, even a small amount of sleep deprivation can impair “parts of the brain’s frontal lobe.” This can lead to poorer decision making and mental functioning–the opposite of improving your productivity.

Related: This Is How To Actually Work Smarter, Not Harder 

2. You Haven’t Made Any Other Changes To The Rest Of Your Day

You know that you need to change your bedtime, but you’re unable to fall asleep before midnight. Waking up early starts with a good night’s sleep, and as neuroscientist Tara Swart previously wrote for Fast Company, a good night’s sleep starts with shutting down your overactive brain (and monitoring your behavior throughout the day). For example, if you usually drink coffee at 4.30 p.m. as fuel for the last stretch of your workday, you might want to move it back (or substitute it with a non-caffeinated drink) if you want to be asleep by 9.30 p.m. According to a 2013 study, drinking coffee six hours or less before bedtime can mess up your sleep.

The same goes with screens. If you’re used to curling up in front of Netflix at 8 p.m., you might find it hard to be asleep by 9 p.m. Even productivity-enhancing habits like working out can mess with your sleep, if you do it too late in the day. As pharmacist Brandon Allen told Levo League, exercise raises your cortisol level, which increases your blood pressure and makes you more alert. “Exercising in the evening makes your cortisol spike at a time when your cortisol levels should be declining. This can interfere with sleep patterns.”


Related: 4 Ways To Plan For A Super Productive Day The Night Before 

3. You’re Naturally A Night Owl

Some people are just not naturally suited to waking up early. If you know for sure that you’re one of these people, forcing yourself to be an early bird might actually make it harder for you to catch the worms. Sleep expert Michael Breus and author Daniel Pink have both spoken to Fast Company about how people’s chronotype influences the optimal time that they should go to bed and rise in the morning. Pink and Breus define each chronotype a little differently, but both acknowledged that a portion of the population are wired to be night owls. For these people, waking up earlier will probably ruin their productivity, and the best thing they can do to boost it would be to get up later, and start work later.

4. You’ll Benefit More From Changing Your Afternoon Routine

Your morning routine can set the tone for your day, but if you’re not structuring your day right, changing it probably won’t impact your productivity. “But I’m always overloaded with work and need more time to complete it!” you argue. Well, perhaps you’d benefit more by looking at how you spend your afternoons–when you tend to crash. RescueTime’s Jory MacKay gives some idea on changes you can make to your afternoon routine without having to change the time you wake up. Perhaps, instead of forcing yourself to come up with that sales plan, you should catch up on emails when you’ve hit the 3 p.m. slump. Or maybe a quick 15-minute workout or walk at 2 p.m. will do more to your productivity than a 6 a.m. high-intensity exercise class would do.

Related: Try One Of These Eight Ways To Get Through The 3 p.m. Slump

5. You’re Not Using Those Early Hours Productively

Waking up early is only as productive as what you do during that time. When Fast Company writer Stephanie Vozza forced herself to wake up at 5 a.m. for a month, she realized that she didn’t plan how she was going to spend her morning. She attempted to meditate, but ended up falling asleep. Co.Design associate editor Katharine Schwab also found that getting up earlier had very little impact on her productivity. She benefited much more from making adjustments to her evening routine (such as not looking at screens an hour before bedtime) rather than getting up an hour earlier.

About the author

Anisa is a freelance writer and editor who covers the intersection of work and life, personal development, money, and entrepreneurship. Previously, she was the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section and the co-host of Secrets Of The Most Productive people podcast.