Lose an hour in the morning, said 19th-century philosopher Richard Whately, and you will be all day hunting for it.
Two centuries on, however, escaping the warm duvet is a real battle for many, which can result in a morning of mad and desperate rushing.
There’s a sense of powerlessness when it comes to getting up. Whatever else we’ve overcome in life, we feel we’ll never overcome our addiction to the snooze button. And what’s to be gained from it anyway? What advantage is there in an early start to the day?
Like all converts, the ‘early riser’ lobby can sound a little worthy to those who struggle to prise their head from the pillow.
Just listen to Benjamin Franklin: ‘The mind must be fully made up that to rise early is a duty, wherever it is practicable and safe; that the habit is attainable and possible and that a strong effort and a sustained one, must be made, to overcome all obstacles to it.’
Fine words butter no parsnips, however, and the reality on the ground — or rather, in our bed — is a little different.
Again and again we press that snooze button, desperate for extra drowsy minutes, but only postponing the moment when our feet must touch the floor and our face feel the wet flannel.
When I used to work in a supermarket, the 7.30am team meetings were a mere extension of most people’s sleep. They’d get out of bed at the last possible moment, dress hurriedly, run down the road, just catching the bus, and make it to the shop on time.
But though they were at work, they were not fit for work. They arrived disorientated, sour-faced and fuelled only by high-energy (but low-happiness) drinks.
By the time I arrived at work, I’d sat quietly for a while, been for a run, enjoyed the fresh morning air — yes, even in London — and had some breakfast. And if that sounds smug, so be it. But at least I was cheery, hopeful and up for the complex business of sorting out the store newspapers before they were put out on the racks.
I picked up the habit of rising before 5am when I was 18 and at university. I discovered how much I enjoyed reading when the whole world was quiet and still — and I was astonished by how easily that early start became part of my daily routine.
So what’s your morning routine and is it serving you well? If it’s a rush, it may not be.
Some people throw sleep patterns into the debate and there are various theories. Some say you should always go to bed and get up at the same time; that your body likes things to be regular.
Others say you should trust the biological clock within and sleep for as long as your body wants.
Neither of these is the whole truth. For a start, some days are much more tiring than other days and nothing is achieved by going to bed at 10pm if you’re still lying there wide awake at 11pm.
Our sleep will adjust to our life. But equally, leaving sleep up to the biological clock may result in many of us being horizontal for around 12 to 15 hours a day, which is not necessary.
No, the answer lies in neither and both. The important thing is not to get too hooked up on how many hours of sleep you need. Where did that figure come from anyway?
I was always told I needed ‘a good eight hours’ but I don’t know when I last slept for that long — and have remained happy, active and creative in the meantime.
Some people say: ‘Oh, if I’m to get up at 5am then I must go to bed at 10pm.’ Well, maybe, but only if you’re tired. If you’re not tired till 11pm, stay up until then — but here’s the crunch: still get up when the alarm goes off at 5am. So…
RULE ONE: Listen to the biological clock in the evening and go to sleep when you’re tired.
RULE TWO: Get up when your alarm goes off. (Note for beginners: when starting out on this practice, your body, unused to discipline, will attempt to subvert the process so the alarm clock — and more particularly the snooze button — will need to be beyond easy reach.)
But the big question is this: if I am to gain an hour or two every day, what am I to do with it? One frequent use of the time is exercise.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used to get up at 4.30am and go straight to the gym. Early mornings are a good time to exercise. Studies have shown that more than 90 per cent of people who exercise regularly do so in the morning when there are no other distractions.
If you plan your exercise for the evening, it’s more liable to get lost amid life’s variables such as a late shift at the office, unexpected visits from friends, family commitments or just sheer exhaustion.
And then there’s breakfast. Many people skip the most important meal of the day not because they aren’t hungry but because they don’t have time.
Studies show that children who eat a good breakfast do better in school because their bodies and minds are not being asked to run on empty.
They’re also less likely to spend the day snacking their way to obesity in order to compensate for the absence of nutrients early in the day. Are there lessons for adults here, too?
‘I’d like mornings better if they started later,’ someone once joked, but I like them as they are.
There are plenty of motivational writers who’ll tell you the early start helps you to get ahead of others and be more productive. This may be so — the brain is wonderfully fresh at that time. But what most defines the dawn watch for me is not competition, but optimism.
‘I’ll tell you how the sun rose a ribbon at a time,’ wrote the poet Emily Dickinson as she watched the first light of day, and we can join her there.
Watching dawn break through the kitchen window really does ‘make light of the day’ whatever it may hold.
In the uninterrupted stillness — people don’t phone, text or email at this time — you hold the new day like you hold a new-born child, wondering what will be.
The peace around you becomes a peace within you and such calm before the storm can leave you calm in the storm if it strikes later on. And amazingly, this game-changing time at the start of the day is free.
Whether we know it or not, we all have a morning routine. The only question is whether it serves us well. If your current pattern leaves you rushed, stressed out or anxious, there’s always 5am and that golden extra hour. The best time of the day? Wake up and give it a try.