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A week of waking up at 4.30am – The Swift Films Vlog

By - Richard - 12th February 2018

Filmmaker Richard Nicholls embarks on the first of his weekly challenges – a week of waking up at 4.30am.

You can read the full blog posts below of Richard’s sleepless, but productive week.

Week 1 – The early start (aka a week without sleep).

Monday 15th January 2018

It’s Sunday night and I’m setting my alarm clock for the following morning at 4.25am. It’s unnatural. The only time the alarm clock is set to go off before 5am is when I’ve got a holiday flight to catch. This is a rule I have lived by my whole life by.*

The saving grace is that I am going to bed tonight before 9.30pm, meaning that if I fall asleep immediately – and stay asleep – then I will get 6 hours and 55 minutes of sleep. That is more than enough.

Arse! I haven’t posted on Instagram today. I am not going to break my 378 consecutive days of posting. No way. But now it’s 9.53pm and I’m already doing the maths to work out how that affects the amount of sleep I’m going to get tonight.

Of course, it’s all irrelevant anyway. Both my wee boys – three year old Jack and one year old Tom – currently have chicken pox. This means that an uninterrupted night of sleep is highly unlikely. And so it proves to be. I’m woken from my deep slumber by a rising call of, “Daddy, Daddy” at 1.07am. Followed by another at 2.43am.

My wife Kirsty – bless her – gets Jack back to sleep the second time by spending an uncomfortable, and no doubt sleepless hour, lying on his floor. She knows my plan for this coming week:Seven consecutive days of getting up at 4.30am.

This morning was actually slightly earlier than 4.30am. Billy the cat woke me up for his breakfast at 4.13am. It was almost like he was worried that I’d sleep through my alarm. Thanks Billy. Licking my face repeatedly was exactly the insurance policy I needed this morning.

So yes, why the hell am I getting up at 4.30am for seven consecutive days? Since having children I’ve become one of those annoying morning people. During the week I wake up at 6am. For me, the hours between 6-8am are the most productive of the day. Armed with a strong cup of coffee (or let’s be honest – a can of Diet Coke), I plough through the least desirable tasks on the to-do list like a child on a Playstation. All before the family gets up.

Getting up at 4.30am means taking this idea further. Feasibly every morning I could have a good 3 and a half hours of uninterrupted time to myself for highly productive work, exercise and or reading. Bliss. Only it’s not bliss when that alarm clock goes off. But maybe it will get easier as the week goes on…

*This is not a rule I have lived by my whole life. But it feels like it should be.

Tuesday 16th January 2018

Tuesday morning and the alarm goes off at 4.25am. I am later to bed than the previous night which is a dangerous move. The sleep debt accumulates, exacerbated by the neighbour’s fire alarm which has been ringing incessantly since 2.24am. The faint ringing in my ears throughout the night is enough to keep me in a state of semi-consciousness, paralysed by that feeling of needing to do something but not knowing what.

Reluctantly peeling back the duvet cover, I reach for a pair of socks. This softens the sound of my feet on the wooden floor, allowing me to move around the house like a ninja without fear of disturbing anyone under the age of three. If I wake up either Jack or Tom at 4.30am, this plan has backfired spectacularly…

It has snowed overnight. Not a lot, but enough to make it feel colder in the house, and make the thought of going back to bed an option hard to ignore.

The first 5 minutes out of bed are the most painful. But after that the eyes, the brain and the mind adjust. It takes a short while to get fully up to speed, but here I am at 4.47am sat in front of a laptop writing. Dare I say it, it feels good.

It’s only day 2, but so far so good. I’m feeling positive. I don’t know about the long term gain and drawbacks of getting up at 4.30am, but there’s a lot to be said about how productive one can be in the small hours. I’m an advocate. If you want to get on, get up.

Wednesday 17th January 2018

Third day in a row of getting up at 4.30am and the novelty has worn off. Getting up at this time on Monday and Tuesday wasn’t so much of a problem. It was a new challenge and I was intrigued to see how I would feel. Now I know how I feel (tired) and there’s something less exciting about repeating the same trick.

A thick layering of snow across Edinburgh last night meant that my Tuesday night football was cancelled at the last minute. I was tempted to take solace in chocolate but went for a run on the treadmill instead.

I’ve often heard about the ‘runner’s high’ caused by the body releasing endorphins. I was intrigued to see whether these endorphins would carry through until 4.30am. I hoped that I might wake up feeling energised, enlightened and enthusiastic. I don’t. My aching muscles are compounded by my body screaming out for me to turn off the alarm and put my head back on the pillow.

I can hear the cat at the door. He has heard me stir and he wants his breakfast. This is enough for me to place my feet on the ground and rub my face with my hands. The wheels are in motion. I find a fresh pair of socks (see yesterday’s post), pull them onto my weary limbs and the day has started.

Whilst it’s only day three of the first challenge, I have noticed that my productivity has significantly increased. If you’re going to trade precious sleep for getting up early, then you want to make that time count. Those first four hours between 4.30am and 8.30am have now become the best time of the day to plough through the most unwelcome tasks on the to-do list.

Whenever I have a task that I really do not want to do, I focus on two things; getting started and how I will feel after I’ve finished.

Once I’ve started, I realise that I might as well carry on. I am then motivated to continue by focussing clearly on how I will feel after finishing that task. This motivation to continue is much stronger if I can paint a more vivid picture of how I will feel after finishing.

The pain of the 4.30am alarm clock is definitely alleviated by the feeling of accomplishment come 8.30am when the majority of people are just starting their working day.

After this week, I think it’s highly unlikely that I will be getting out of bed at 4.30am every morning. However, I suspect that this could well be a trick that I pull every now and again. Whilst for me the ‘runner’s high’ is a fleeting moment that can either occur during exercise or last for a short while afterwards, the ‘early-riser-high’ is something that can propel you through the whole day.

Thursday 18th January 2018

I never used to be a morning person. I was always more productive in the small hours of the night and took great comfort in staying up past midnight on a regular basis. At university, essays were usually written between the hours of 1-5am fuelled by large quantities of strong black coffee and swathes of Red Bull.
That all changed when I entered the real world of course, but it was always too easy for bedtime to slip way past midnight. I can’t entertain that idea now.

I never used to like watching the sun rise. Any time I had watched the sun come up was inevitably because I had stayed up or out all night and this was a clear indication that it was definitely time to go to bed. There was always something very discomforting about trying to go to sleep when it was daylight outside and the rest of the world was going about their business.

As a filmmaker, I appreciate the two times of the day when the light is at its softest and most colourful. This is the half an hour either side of sunrise and sunset.
In Scotland the times of our sunrises and sunsets are quite extreme. At peak summer time, feasibly the sun will come up before 4.30am and won’t set until after 10pm. There are very few hours of darkness. Of course this means that winter is long and dark, with the sun not coming up until almost 9am and setting around 3.30pm.

I never fully appreciated these opposite times of the day until a couple of years ago when I started documenting them with photos and video footage.
Now, the lure of capturing a beautiful sunrise is more than enough to get me out of bed in the morning.

In the four years I have been living in Edinburgh, snowfall has been a pretty rare occurrence. When it does come, it often doesn’t last long. So I knew that I had a small window of opportunity to capture any photos or footage of the recent snow.

Yesterday, by waking up at 4.30am I was up a full four hours before sunrise. By the time I had set off to capture the sun coming up with the drone, I felt like I had done a full day at work already. However, I was pleased that I did. By the afternoon the snow was already melting and the soft pink clouds hovering over the city had long since gone.

Whatever time of year it is, it’s always worth an early start to experience a sunrise.

Friday 19th January

This week is dragging. I can’t believe it’s only Friday and there’s another work day to navigate before the weekend starts. I haven’t been going to bed early enough this week so naturally the days have felt longer.

By getting up at 4.30am each morning (90 minutes before I normally do) I have extended the time that I’m up and about during the working week by seven and a half hours (10 and a half hours if you include the weekend). That is almost an additional full working day.

Dare I say it, but waking up at this time of the morning is starting to become addictive. Having the first few hours of the day to myself to do whatever I want whilst the children are sleeping is priceless.

Plus, there’s the additional bonus that I’m never running late in the mornings. Breakfast can be consumed at a leisurely pace, rather than walking out of the front door with a half chewed piece of toast in hand.

The early hours of the morning would be a perfect time to exercise as well. But I like to do this after dinner when I know that I can rest straight afterwards.
In fact there’s only two drawbacks to these early starts that I can think of. Firstly – and this is a big one – the evenings have become a write-off. I hardly feel like I’ve seen much of my wife this week. Post 9pm the pyjamas come on and my brain demands a rest. Conversation is stilted at best and I’m fuelling myself on caffeine to keep going. I’ve become zombie-husband.

Secondly – and this may be the sticking point for some – actually taking the steps to get out of bed at 4.30am is hard. It’s becoming easier with practice, but it’s all too easy for the brain to rationalise why it would make sense to stay in bed where it’s warm and you can get some precious rest.

Rationalising is bad. This must be overcome immediately if you’re to stand any chance of hauling your body out of bed at an unnatural hour. So must snoozing. This is a big no-no, no matter how tempting it may be. Overcome these obstacles and the serenity of the morning hours is yours to enjoy.

From what I’ve experienced so far this week, waking up early in the morning is all about motivation. If you’re motivated to do it, it’s easy.

If you had a flight to catch to go on the holiday of a lifetime and had to be at the airport at 6am, then getting out of bed at 4.30am wouldn’t be a problem. Similarly if the fire alarm in your house went off (or god forbid there’s an actual fire) then it’s safe to say that there would be nothing holding you back from getting out of bed.
The way I see it is that people who struggle to get out of bed in the mornings fail to do so because the motivation for them to do so isn’t strong enough.

Saturday 20th January 2018

The alarm goes off at 4.30am once again and it is so tempting to cheat. Saturdays are the one day of the week where I don’t set an alarm and allow my body clock (or the crying from one of my two boys) to wake me up.

Today I’m wishing that I had made the weekly challenge a “working” week challenge. It’s one thing to inflict this on myself during the working week and another to do it at the weekend.

Saturdays are now about spending time (and every conceivable amount of energy) with my three year old Jack and one year old Tom. It is hard work. Even more so when I’m operating on four hours of sleep. Today, patience is key.

When the family wakes, I’ve already been up for four hours. I’m relaxed. The new found morning routine has given me a serenity that I find surprising. It’s later in the day – post 5pm – that the slump kicks in. I know it’s coming now but it doesn’t make it any easier to handle.

The sleep debt is accumulating as well. There are famous historical figures such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher who famously claimed to have only slept for four hours every night. I don’t know how they maintained this long term.

Although my productivity has gone up, my short term memory has suffered dramatically. This is not ideal when I need to remember urgently where I’ve placed the baby’s nappies, wipes and other paraphernalia to help tidy up an “accident”.

Tomorrow is another day and the end is in sight. This first challenge has been an eye opener. Literally.

As I come towards the end of the week, it has been harder than I thought it would be. This is probably self-inflicted. If I had gone to bed every night this week at 9pm and fallen asleep instantly, undoubtedly I would have a different perspective.

Sunday 21st January 2018

The ringing from the 4.30am alarm clock this morning was a reminder that this was the last of the early starts. The first weekly challenge has been completed!

This week has been tough. It needn’t have been if I had been more serious about my bedtimes. Averaging 4 and a half – 5 hours of sleep every night has not been enough and I’ve only got myself to blame. I need more self-discipline. But that’s what ‘The Weekly Challenge’ is all about; trying out good new behaviours and eliminating bad ones. I can see that I have a long way to go.

However, I’m pleased that I stuck to my task. It would have been easy to throw in the towel on Thursday when the fatigue really kicked in. But I ploughed on through.
So what have I learned from seven consecutive days of waking up at 4.30am?

1) It’s addictive. After the first couple of days I embraced the tranquillity of the morning. There is something comforting about knowing that people are sleeping and you’re up and at it. Getting up early gives you complete freedom to do what you want, whether that’s work, exercise or relaxation.

2) The time must not be squandered. If you’re going to get up early, don’t waste this precious time browsing the internet. Do something constructive and come 8am you will feel fantastic.

3) Your productivity will increase significantly. Self-discipline is needed here, but I found myself able to plough through work between the hours of 4.30 – 8am. There’s no distractions from phone calls or emails coming in. If you repeat this over seven days then you’re adding a significant number of extra hours to your working week.

4) If you’re going to get up at 4.30am you must compensate for the early start by going to bed earlier. It sounds obvious, but I didn’t adhere to this. As a consequence my eyes are a little blood shot and I do have a general feeling of lethargy that only a solid amount of sleep will be able to cure.

5) Your evenings will suffer. This is the trade off. Having two small children, I love the time in the evening after a day at work when they’re asleep and my wife and I can enjoy spending time together. If you’re getting up at 4.30am then your evenings barely exist.

6) Your appetite and calorie consumption will probably increase. I was eating breakfast by myself at 5am. Come 9am I was ready to eat again. By extending the hours of the day that I was awake, I felt like I needed more fuel to carry me through. If you undertake early starts on a regular basis, watch what and when you eat or you will put on weight.

7) This is not something I could do long-term. In the summer of 2017 I was hospitalised with pneumonia. I’m sure this was to do with the general exhaustion of running my own business and helping to raise two small children. As a result of this, I know that I need to take better care of myself (hence ‘The Weekly Challenge’!). Whilst waking up at 4.30am every day for seven days has been a really interesting experiment, it’s not something I could do every week – if only because I value my evenings too highly.

8) The battle against the dreaded snooze button is all about motivation. The stronger the motivation to get out of bed in the morning, the easier it is. If you’re always running late in the morning or struggle to get out of bed at a certain time it’s because the motivation to do so isn’t strong enough.

9) Your body does adjust to being deprived of sleep. This is probably something that every new parent soon realises. The days of a solid 8 hours sleep are gone. Over time you acclimatise to having less sleep. Do listen to your body though. If you have an opportunity for a short nap then take it. Napping can do wonders to recharge the batteries.


This has been a good first challenge but I look forward to waking up a bit later later. I love how much I have been able to achieve this week, but I could not do the 4.30am starts on a regular basis.

However, I do like the idea of implementing one early start during the working week. For me I’m going to try this on Thursday mornings. Now that this is not a weekly challenge it will be interesting to see how easy it is to stick to this. Bring on the second Weekly Challenge!

About the Author

Richard Nicholls - Managing Director

Before launching Swift Films, Richard worked as a broadcast TV director and editor, working on programmes for the BBC, ITV and Sky.

A multi-skilled and technically-minded filmmaker, Richard is equally at home coming up with creative concepts as he is on location filming or pulling footage together in the edit suite.

Richard is a member of Independent Producers Scotland and has a love of cats, football, chocolate and Film Noir (in that order).