Experiments in Living: no.1

Waking up at 4am

Rationale: To investigate states of consciousness early in the morning and see whether they are useful for creativity

Apart from the insomnia, the anxiety and the fear of death, going to sleep is easy. Waking up, on the other hand, can be very hard indeed. How snugly we doze when there are things to do, people to see, trials to face, jobs to complete. By drawing out those opening minutes of the day we are like freedom fighters, rebelling against the dictatorship of consciousness. Regrettably, like any self-respecting dictator, consciousness feels obliged to use all its might to crush the popular uprising. Thus it sends the heavies: Guilt and Worthlessness. “Your life has no substance,” they shout, “you’ve wasted so much time. You could have been a contender!” They’re quietened by alcohol and blurred by TV, but they never leave. Once they’ve started harassing you, the surrender to self-improvement is all-but-inevitable.

The question is: how to live? I’d resolved to stop squandering so much time, but how was I going to do it? When I was young I imagined that adulthood brought with it peace and understanding, as though everything would suddenly make sense. I was wrong. I searched for a book containing the Rules of Life, but didn’t fancy the stonings and sacrifice of Leviticus or the “chilled out” path of Buddha. And don’t even mention the self-help industry. Then one day, as I idly flicked through a colour supplement, I chanced upon an interview with the novelist Haruki Murakami. Apparently he wakes up at 4am every morning, writes for five hours, then goes for a ten mile run. ‘Why not?’ I thought, and set the alarm.

One of the key problems with getting up early is that you have to go to bed early. Eight hours is recommended, seven is the minimum. So at 9pm that evening I was in bed with the light off. I didn’t feel especially sleepy, but I’d made the resolution to get up early and I wasn’t going to be swayed. So I scrunched my eyes tight to block the light outside the window and hummed to drown out the rumble of evening traffic. After lying there for what seemed like hours, tossing, turning, and wrestling with the pillow, I checked the clock. It said 9.15pm. My mind was glowing with ideas, but I didn’t want to have to get up and write them down, to do so would be to admit defeat.

I finally dropped off into a restful sleep just before 3am.

Then . . . BEEEP-BEEEP-BEEEP. It’s 4 o’clock and my alarm has never sounded more violent. A cold blue morning light and a desolate silence made my heart sink, it was like in those opening lines of Larkin’s ‘Aubade’:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.

There is an aching loneliness at 4am, a time when nobody else is awake and when there is no distraction. It is easy to see why it appeals to writers, for whom modern life holds so many distractions. There’s also an otherworldly character to 4am that must appeal to those who write fiction. For instance, Nicholson Baker’s novel A Box of Matches, takes the simple premise of a man waking at 4am and writing down his stream of semi-awake consciousness.

Staring at the computer screen that morning, my stream of consciousness had become a toxic puddle. Blearily and unwillingly, I occasionally forced myself to write a passage of bleak Beckettian prose: “Nothing, no, nobody. Never. Again.”

As soon as I realised that any efforts to write lucid prose were in vain, I became skittish for something to do that didn’t involve going back to bed. It was then that I realised that I should have defined my methodology. Should I load myself up with caffeinated drinks or would is that just a short-term solution? Then there was reading. Presumably dictionaries and reference books are fine, but if I was going to write then I couldn’t sit around reading novels. And what about music? Does it automatically divert your concentration or can it help you to focus? All of these questions deserved experiments of their own, sending whatever vestige of scientific method I had left straight out of the window.

For a few more days, I persisted with the 4am routine achieving less each day. I began to feel like I was swimming underwater, in that the further down I went, the more the pressure increased, the pressure to revert to my usual waking up time of 8am.


If it is self-consciousness that differentiates man from animals, then we are most animal-like when we are asleep. Therefore, it is no surprise that when we don’t get enough sleep we feel inhuman and grouchy. Depressives spend all day in bed, feeling tired, drifting in and out of consciousness. With consciousness comes responsibility. There may be a certain purity in getting up really early – I am led to believe that nuns and monks have morning prayers absurdly early – but it is hard to find secular transcendence when all of your rituals become routines. A ritual is a process invested with meaning, whereas a routine is something you impose on the structure of the day. In short, a routine soon becomes an overbearing monster, bossing you around. Resistance is inevitable.