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The Rise of the Early Birds

Your Future Begins at Dawn


In Japan, Korea and Taiwan, more and more people are rising at daybreak, and with the extra time before work, opening up new possibilities for their lives.



Your Future Begins at Dawn

By Sara Wu, Eric Chang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 390 )

It’s 6:30 on a winter’s morning and the sky is gradually brightening. The grounds of Taipei’s Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall have already been overrun as various groups of early risers fall in with one another, vibrant and energetic, betraying not even a hint of the tentativeness, apprehension or romance of nighttime.

The yoga people have occupied the stretch of lawn near the main gate and are sprawled across the grass in the Matsyasana (fish) pose. From the center of the grounds a PA system blares music for a crowd of people locked in purposeful ballroom dance. Not far away another group goes through the forms of Taiji Quan, slowly, rhythmically moving, breathing with their instructor. Each group has staked out its own turf.

And of course on this 12-degree morning, like any other day, one will find here Telly Kuo, Asia-Pacific regional VP and general manager for Optoma Corp., in a sleeveless black shirt going through his three km run and Taekwondo exercises.

"You can’t think of it as a chore,"Kuo says, "Heroes are forged by trial. Ability is perfected through practice and effort."

Kuo believes that a daily regimen of early rising can forge a disciplined, resolute character and has helped him build up Optoma into the world’s number-two brand name in video projection units.

Here Come the Early Birds!

Some people rise early as a means of hardening their willpower.

In a 2004 interview he gave CommonWealth Magazine while still mayor of Seoul, South Korean president-elect Lee Myung Bak said he rises each day at 4:30 a.m., exercises for an hour, then reads for an hour and never deviates from the routine. Lee, who has been a farmer, a construction worker and a market janitor in his time and is now the picture of the modern CEO president, believes his habit of early rising has forged in him the resolve he will need to lead South Korea in becoming the world’s seventh-largest economy within 10 years.  

Some people rise early for health reasons.

The most noteworthy daybreak exercise hound in Taiwan’s business community is Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) founder Y.C. Wang, who has imposed his early morning exercise habits on the employees of FPG companies. FPG vice chairman Wang Yung-tsai likes to hit the links at 5 a.m., even in howling wind and rain, for a round of golf. He’s a lover of the early morning game.

FPG executive board vice chairperson Susan Wang is up at 6 a.m. every day and spends 20 minutes putting in three km on the treadmill before 30 minutes of a hybrid workout of yoga and Taiji. She has been doing so for years. The trim, reserved Wang related the benefits of early morning exercise: "Research shows that people who exercise and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables live an average of 14 years longer than those who do not exercise and have a poor diet.”

Time Management Gets an Early Start

No longer just an isolated phenomenon, early rising is now spreading like wildfire in many countries.

The Japanese have come up with a new concept in time management. A new kind of individual, the asagata ningen, or "morning-type person,"is rapidly becoming the latest trend. The key thrust of the new credo: Your future is determined in the early morning hours.

In the past, time management was all about "maximizing efficiency,""utilization densities"and "zero-loss"– for example, figuring out how to complete in one hour what originally took three hours to accomplish, or perhaps using the time spent during your daily commute to study for qualifying examinations, or even the use of mobile telecommunications to efficiently handle business affairs.

But with these principles of time management stretched to the limit, the commuter crowd still feels there aren’t enough hours in the day. Thus, a new battleground in time management has opened, stretching back into the early morning hours. 

As Steven Lee, managing director of McDonald’s Restaurants Taiwan, observes, our globalized age means that at any time of the day or night there are people working somewhere, and McDonald’s now operates around the clock. The fastest growing market segment is during breakfast hours, which have shown cumulative sales growth of 25 percent over five years ago.

As a result, "breakfast hours have been pushed back to 4 a.m. from 6 a.m.,"Lee says.

The numbers show that recent years have indeed seen more and more people arriving for work earlier.

According to a survey by Japan’s NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, figures from 2005 compared with 2000 show a marked and sustained increase in the proportion of Japanese office workers who report to work between 4:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.

NHK researchers told the Nikkei Weekly that the report seemed to indicate that the work trends in Japanese society were moving toward a "round-the-clock"scenario. With more and more people getting up ever earlier for work, eventually they will gradually come to cross paths with those coming the other direction after burning the midnight oil.

30 Years, the Night Owl’s Outside Limit

With the rising global tide of health consciousness, society is gradually shifting from a society of night owls to a society of early birds.

Young people can get by easily going to bed late and getting up late, but once middle age sets in the brain begins to secrete sleep-inducing melatonin earlier and earlier, says Dr. Chen Ning-hung, director of Chang Gung Memorial Hospital’s Sleep Center. From this perspective the old adage of "early to bed, early to rise..."makes perfect sense for those middle aged and older. Those who have reached middle age and continue to lead a nocturnal life may find that their body clock awakens them early regardless of what time they go to bed, thus leading to sleep deprivation, affecting critical faculties and weakening the immune system.

Saisho Hiroshi, director of the Early Risers Psychological and Medical Research Institute, has been one of the pioneers promoting the asagata ningen lifestyle in Japan. He has written more than 10 books on the subject, one of which was even a best seller in South Korea, where his work sparked something of a movement in Korean society promoting better breakfast-eating habits.

As defined by Saisho, getting up at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. makes one an "early riser”; to be a "dawn riser"you have to be up by 5 a.m., when you can use the time before work to explore other possibilities in life.

Saisho was quick to emphasize the direct relationship between an early-to-bed-early-to-rise regimen and physical health and work efficiency. Going to bed late and rising late or spending a day "catching up on sleep"after a string of consecutive long nights will negatively impact critical self-discipline faculties, impair judgment and cause an inability to focus.

This heaping of abuse on one’s health can be handled and even remedied during youth. Once one passes the age of 30, however, metabolic function begins to gradually decline and the body’s power of recuperation weakens. The absence of self-restraint and a continued indulgence in night life will result in increasingly deteriorating health until the body finally sounds an alarm, at which point it’s already too late. With conditions like fulminant hepatitis or other serious liver diseases, once the symptoms show up it is already extremely serious. Consequently, upon reaching the age of 30, one should bid farewell to the night life, and join the ranks of early risers.

A lot of people may wonder: I’m very set in my ways, how do I become a dawn riser? In his book, Saisho acknowledges it’s impossible to accomplish immediately, and recommends an orderly, gradual approach. Perhaps those accustomed to rising at 7:30 a.m. might try setting the alarm a half hour earlier and rising at 7 a.m. After a week or two, set it back another half hour to 6:30 a.m. and so on, allowing the biological clock time to gradually adjust to the new rising time. The key is, once that alarm sounds the willpower to kick off the blankets and get out of bed must be summoned. Those who fear they lack the willpower can start in spring or summer, when it can be far less difficult to leave bed than in the cold of winter.

Early Bird Business Boom

Japan’s early bird phenomenon has also begun to influence industry, most noticeably in the parade of businesses stretching their operating hours ever earlier, creating a newly rising "early bird industry"outside of normal operating hours.

As a Nikkei Weekly report noted, numerous business have jumped on the bandwagon in opening earlier in response to the increasing numbers of commuters who are rising earlier. These businesses include English-language cram schools that are now offering dawn classes so office workers can learn when their minds are fresh and head straight to work afterward. This can also help supplement class opportunities lost in the evenings due to having to work overtime.

Moreover, breakfast culture, which has always emphasized "cheap and fast,"has also started to shift, not only pushing opening hours back earlier but also placing greater emphasis on high-quality ingredients and high nutritional content. That’s because early-rising commuters are in no particular hurry. They just want to enjoy a tasty, nutritious breakfast at their leisure, and they need a variety of choices. For example, last October saw the grand opening of "GranSta"at the Tokyo Railway Station, offering high-end breakfasts from 7 a.m.

Even more interestingly, even dental clinics are moving to cash in on the early morning market. For instance, Dr. Kunimo Eichi, director of a dental clinic across from Tokyo’s Yoyogi-Uehara Station, must rise each morning at 5 a.m. to prepare for his first appointments of the day at 7 a.m. Kunimo told the Nikkei Weekly working patients kept telling him working hours left them no time to see the dentist, and a number of them requested that he offer early morning appointments. As Kunimo was himself a dawn riser, he was only too happy to oblige public demand for earlier hours.

Your Future Is Determined at Daybreak

Time and health are a person’s two greatest assets. Getting up an hour earlier than others puts you a big step ahead. Once daytime workplace competition has become saturated, the battle lines will begin to be drawn toward dawn.

The life of an office worker can be repetitious, with little variation. Getting up an hour earlier provides an opportunity to arrange some new activities.

For the past two years, Tokyo has played host to an annual "Dawn Exposition,"to make busy office workers aware that with daytime hours filled with work and evenings often lost to overtime, the early morning hours are the only time one has to oneself.

The Dawn Exposition aims to inform office workers that "all you have to do is get up earlier than usual and every day can be different!"and hopefully prompt them to wonder, "If I get up earlier than usual, what sort of new people and things might I encounter?"

But if you want to join the ranks of the morning-type people, the most important tenet is, "Early to bed, early to rise."No partying until all hours and then barely dragging yourself out of bed early the next morning. That will not make you an early bird, but will only hasten your demise through overwork.

Add it all up and you’ll see for yourself how important getting up that one hour earlier can be to your life. In terms of an eight-hour workday, getting up one hour earlier each day over the course of one year (365 hours divided by 8 = 45.6) adds up to the equivalent of an additional 45 workdays. Use those 45 days wisely. You might read a few good books, brush up on a foreign language, take a licensing exam or broaden your interests or expertise. The possibility of another life unfolds right away.

Are you ready to take that worm in your beak, and join the ranks of the early birds?

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

The Secret Path to Becoming an Early Bird
1. Early to Bed, Early to Rise Set your alarm one half hour earlier every two weeks to allow your biological clock to gradually adjust to the new, earlier-rising time, optimally eventually attaining a 5 a.m. rising time.
2. No Sweets after Dinner     If the digestive system is too active, the quality of sleep will be affected, leading to an inability to rise the next day or a feeling of inadequate sleep.
3. Avoid Evening Internet Surfing Avoid becoming engrossed in online games, chatting with friends and other activities that can keep you up too late. Even after logging off, the brain can remain overactive, making sleep difficult.
4. Start in the Spring or Summer Those lacking faith in their ability to get up early can start in spring or summer when getting out of bed early can be far easier than during the cold winter months.