Dawn is destructive. The start of the workday is a brutal disruption of the tender bliss of slumber. To me, any alarm clock, no matter how gentle – mine plays the sound of crickets chirping – carries a glassy shattering overtone, like the crash of a delicate crystal sculpture of a hummingbird thrown against a brick fireplace. That’s the sound of the demolition of sleep.
I know it’s not just me that associates sunrise with destruction. It’s a primal, human sensation, ingrained in our language. The “break” of day. The “crack” of dawn. If awakening weren’t such a ruinous transition, we’d have idioms like “the mending of the morn” or “the caress of first light”. But no.
Even our bodies know the real truth, and treat waking up like the stressful crisis it really is. In the first 20 minutes or so after awakening, the level of cortisol – the “stress hormone” – in your bloodstream shoots up by 50%. This is the same kind of reaction you’d have if you were suddenly caught in an earthquake. Physiologically, waking up is like having a building collapse around you.
Oh, I know that there are some “morning people” out there who would protest, “Oh, no, mornings are peaceful and lovely. The quiet of the still morning air before the noise and the traffic pick up. Mornings are my most productive time.” And it is true that once you are awake, the hours before the workday begins can be unusually valuable. With no appointments or interruptions competing for your attention, you can take time for yourself (for example, to exercise, meditate, or study) or you can work especially efficiently. Commuting is certainly easier at 7:00 a.m. than at 8:30 a.m. And being able to take the time for a well-paced, decent breakfast – rather than rushing to guzzle a costly Starbucks on the way into the office – can provide nutrition and composure that will persist for hours. But none of those benefits eliminate or even ease the jolting passage from sleep to wakefulness.
On the other hand, nothing else you do will ease the transition, either. Whether you wake at 5:00 a.m. or 8:00 a.m., your mind still treats it like a disruption, and your body still treats it like a catastrophe. Since you are going to suffer either way, why not make it worth your while? It may seem hard to pull your head off the pillow when you know you could still squeeze in some more shuteye, but you know what? Waking up is not really going to get much easier at 8 o’clock. Set your alarm back an hour or two (and maybe make a deal with a friend to do the same, and to check up on each other), get through the break of day early, and make the most of the extra time.
After all, “break” also means “opportunity”.