I get more done after 8 p.m. than you do before 8 a.m.
Did you ever notice how much judgment there is around the sleeping habits of those of us who are “night owls”?
Our society has a long history of holding up early risers as “go getters” and somehow more virtuous than those who need a little more sleep in the morning. Even Ben Franklin was critical of late sleepers, and this was a man who reportedly worked from his bathtub.
“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” — Benjamin Franklin
There are about a zillion articles out there telling you how to train yourself to wake up early, all written by people who brag about how much they get done before 8 a.m. But what about those of us who are getting a lot of things done at 11 p.m. or even later? Do those accomplishments not count?
I walked into work one day several years ago (remember before the pandemic, when we put on clothes and went into the office?) and had this exchange with a fellow manager:
“Oh, are you just getting here?” she asked, knowing full well that yes, I had just gotten there.
I looked at the clock and responded, “It’s 9 a.m.”
“I’ve been here since 7 a.m., working hard while you were still in bed,” she told me with a tone that was clearly self-congratulatory.
“And I was here last night at 8 p.m.,” I rejoined. “Working hard while you were in your pajamas watching TV.”
It made me wonder: what made her think the work she did between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. was more important than the work I did between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m.?
Sleep researchers have found that every individual has their own circadian rhythm. Partly influenced by the cycles of the sun, partly influenced by genetics, your body has a natural time that it wants to rest.
These cycles get messed up by things like artificial light and forcing yourself to be someplace at a certain time when your body would prefer to sleep. And what they find is, if you take all that away and let yourself sleep and wake up whenever you want to, your body will naturally revert to its preferred sleep cycle.
My preferred sleep cycle is to go to bed between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. and awake around 9:00 a.m.
Researchers have discovered that a gene variation is present in people like me who are “night owls”. In an ideal world where you can set your own schedule, it wouldn’t be an issue. But in a society where we all have work and family obligations that generally require us to be up at a certain time every morning, forcing oneself to adapt to rising earlier than we want to can be a health hazard.
Houston Methodist neurologist Dr. Doha Nayish explains:
“Night owls have been shown to have poorer attention, slower reaction times, and increased sleepiness throughout the day. While this is really only an issue for people who work during the day, it can affect any morning parenting obligations you might have, too. On the other hand, studies have revealed that night owls outperform morning people when it comes to creativity, In addition, night owls benefit from the development of a non-conventional spirit and the ability to find alternative and original solutions.”
So what’s a night owl to do?
The best approach may be to try to keep as close to your natural sleep cycle as you can. If it’s possible to change your work schedule to start a little later that can be ideal.
If that’s not possible, a good approach is to try to mitigate insomnia and delayed sleep through things like making sure you get exposure to the sun when it’s out, avoiding caffeine in the late afternoon and evening, shutting down screens a few hours before bedtime, using mindfulness or yoga to relax, and making yourself as comfortable as possible.
Also, I’d recommend avoiding late-night shopping, as impulse control can be substantially lower in the wee hours.
You can always look forward to retirement when you can set your own schedule. I was talking to my 99-year-old aunt once and she told me never to call her before 10 a.m. Like me, she was a confirmed night owl.