Why Being a Night Owl Isn't a Bad Thing
We all know Benjamin Franklin’s adage: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
But is it true?
If people go to bed at a decent hour and get up early the next day, are they really more successful? Or did dear old Ben pull a fast one on all of us?
As a lifelong night owl, I’ve always struggled to be on time in the morning and suffered through early-morning meetings, classes, and exams. Now that I work from home, I receive more than my fair share of jokes and eye-rolls when I decline morning activities.
It’s not that I like sleeping in. If anything, it’s the opposite. Ever since I was a little kid, I had trouble going to sleep early and would lie in bed for hours. Now, as an adult, I typically stay up until 3:00 am or later, usually writing, working, or reading.
More than once I’ve tried to get up earlier to exercise, to organize my day, to journal or write “morning pages,” or any number of things people recommend to boost happiness and productivity. But getting up a bit earlier just never works for me.
Are night owls like me (and maybe you) just lazy? Broken in some way? Or could there be something else going on?
Let’s take a look at different chronotypes (morning people and night people), what they mean in modern society, and whether or not people like us can (or should!) try to change.
Putting Mornings on a Pedestal
In addition to Ben Franklin’s saying, we also know that “the early bird catches the worm.” But why is it that getting up at the crack of dawn has always been associated with hard work and success?
Back in the 18th century when Franklin was around, it made sense to get up early. Without electric lights, people would structure their day around the rising and setting of the sun. Sleeping late meant you would lose precious time to plant or harvest crops, travel, or do all of the other work that required light.
Beyond the pure practicality of waking up early, there’s evidence that as a species, human beings are hard-wired to wake up in the morning. Psychology Today points out that circadian rhythms are common to the majority of animal life on the planet, including us. It’s coded within our genetic makeup. And as far as researchers can trace it back, human beings have always lived diurnal (daytime) lives, rising with the sun and sleeping with the stars.
Nowadays, even with electricity that allows us to work around the clock, people still seem to agree that the day starts at sunrise and like to point out all the benefits of being a morning person.
For example, studies suggest morning people are more likely to be punctual (especially for early morning classes, which surprises no one!). This example alone might be a correlation between being an early bird and being proactive about one’s life. Researchers also suggest that early risers (or “larks”) get better grades. It doesn’t take a scientific study to tell us that bosses like early birds better, but that’s been documented as well.
Meanwhile, we have “morning pages” (based on Julia Cameron’s concept, which we discuss in this post) and article after article talking about how much more productive you can be if you just wake up an hour or two earlier.
Age of Competitive Waking
CEOs and other business leaders often brag about how early they start their days, and how much they can get done before the rest of the world wakes up.
As described in a 2005 article in The New York Times, being an early riser is a mark of social success among the elite:
“To really get ahead in the world, to obtain the sacred stuff of CEOs and overachievers, one must get up before the other guy, when the roosters themselves are still deep in REM sleep. And of course, since so few people are awake at such an ungodly hour, the early risers of the world take special pains to let everyone else know of their impressive circadian discipline.”
The author goes as far as to describe this pressure to be a morning person as the “age of competitive waking.”
We’ve all heard the stories of the corporate executives who get up way before the crack of dawn. There’s Melania Edwards of HSBC who “gets up at 5:30 a.m. to meditate, check in with friends and family in different time zones, and play tennis.” And there’s Julia Wainwright, CEO of The RealReal, who gets up at 5:45 in the morning so she can start her day well before she gets to the office by 9:30. Let’s not forget Apple’s Tim Cook, Disney’s Robert Iger, and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, all of whom reportedly start their days between 3:45 and 4:30 in the morning.
When you see all of these successful people setting their alarms so early, you have to wonder. Are mornings really the secret sauce for success?
What’s the Deal with Night Owls?
As we’ve seen, there is a ton of evidence about successful people getting up early.
Yet not all corporate leaders follow the trend. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t wake up until 8:00 am (rather late for corporate execs) and admitted in a video interview that he was never a morning person. Then there’s Aaron Levie, the CEO of Box, who doesn’t go to bed until 3 am, while Alexis Ohanian of Reddit goes to sleep at 2 am. Both wake up around 10 am.
Even with such examples, those who stay up late tend to get the side-eye from the rest of the population.
Because we stay up late, and therefore often sleep in the next day, others consider night owls to be lazy. We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve heard “Are you just going to stay in bed all day?” from parents, roommates, and spouses.
So why do we do it?
- Some people prefer the quiet of late nights. Fewer people are online, the phone is silent, and kids are in bed. For freelancers, there are no clients to deal with, no meetings to schedule. So late nights are more peaceful and can be more productive because there are simply fewer distractions.
- Creative types can “get into the zone” easier when everything, and everyone, is winding down for the day.
- Getting things done at night feels less hectic—for those who get up before work to fit in an hour of exercise or journaling, they are working against the clock. For those of us who wait until evening, we can tackle these tasks with a leisurely approach.
And it’s not necessarily a bad thing to push back bedtimes. A study at the University of Madrid suggests that people who stay up late had higher scores in inductive reasoning, “which has been shown to be a good estimate of general intelligence and one of the strongest predictors of academic performance”. Furthermore, these people tend to be more innovative, which, if fostered, can lead to career success.
Of course, writers and artists have always “burned the midnight oil.” Some famous fans of late night travails include the creative geniuses J.R.R Tolkien, Prince, James Joyce, Carl Jung, George Sand, Linus Torvalds, and Bob Dylan. And science suggests being a little tired can actually boost creativity.
So staying up late has been a mark of artistry, innovation, and genius for a long time.
It All Comes Down to Chronotypes
Even if we assume that it’s not a personality flaw to be a night owl, it’s still a challenge for some of us to survive an 8-5 lifestyle.
Consider two people who have the same job or attend the same school. One easily goes to bed before 11 pm and the other who pushes the limits, staying up until midnight or 1 am. Who’s likely to feel well-rested in their 8 am class or meeting?
If a person who stays up late always feels tired and sluggish, then why don’t they just go to bed earlier? Logic suggests that their life would be so much easier if they just got over their desire to stay up late.
Turns out it’s actually not so easy.
Scientists have identified a genetic “sleep disorder” called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. People with DSPS have altered circadian rhythms and find it very difficult to go to sleep early and wake up early, despite socialization as children to accommodate the more common circadian rhythms that more closely align with the sun.
It’s likely that as much as 15% of the population may experience DSPS. As the American Sleep Association explains,
“In most individuals, going to bed at a time different than what is normal for them will result in the circadian rhythm adjusting and allowing them to fall asleep and wake up as desired. In those with delayed sleep phase, even when suffering through lack of sleep, the body maintains its inclination to go to bed at the usual time, making it difficult to fall asleep even when feeling physically tired. Likewise, the body will tend to wake up at the same time, regardless of the amount of sleep, be it too little or too much.”
In other words, even when we try to go to bed earlier, our bodies reject that plan and fall into a regular rhythm.
So when you can’t fall asleep as early as your friends and colleagues, it might be due to your DNA!
What Really Matters?
With all of that evidence, is it really true that early birds really do get the worm? Outside of us genetic weirdos, should the rest of the population all head to bed as early as possible and set our alarms for an hour (or two!) earlier so we can have more career success, a mindful personal lifestyle, and live longer and have healthier lives?
I’d argue that success really has little to do with when you fall asleep or get up. Instead, there are two other things that can make a bigger difference.
1. Get Enough Sleep
People who push themselves to get up before the crack of dawn potentially suffer sleep deprivation at the same rate that night owls do. More and more studies demonstrate that sleep is critical to our health and well-being.
In fact, according to a book written by sleep researcher Matthew Walker, human beings are suffering a “silent sleep loss epidemic.”
And it’s not just that we’re feeling lethargic. He calls sleep deprivation “the greatest public health challenge we face in the 21st century.” He points out that there are significant and serious health issues that come with sleep deprivation, including a 200% increase in heart attacks and strokes among people older than 45 who regularly get less than six hours of sleep a night.
In our quest to achieve more and more, we keep shrinking our time in bed, and it’s killing us all. So what we should be focusing on is not when we go to sleep but how much sleep we actually get.
For night owls, what this might mean is to find a way to structure your life around your waking/sleeping schedule. Which brings us to…
2. Build More Flexibility into Your Life
At a time when nearly everyone has a computer and high-speed Internet, there’s no reason why we can’t do more to make our lifestyle fit our personal chronotypes.
- Pay attention to when you feel most productive and creative. You’re the best judge of your ideal schedule. Whether you work for yourself or you have a job, try to schedule your most mentally-demanding tasks and meetings during your most productive time windows.
- Experiment. Even if you’re a night owl, it might be worth trying getting up a tad bit earlier to do morning pages. And if you usually get up early, maybe change things up and see if staying up a bit later to brainstorm or plan your day ahead helps you get more done.
- Look for remote companies. Increasingly popular, many global companies operate on a partial or fully-remote workforce, and with people all over the world, work hours are often negotiable. According to a 2018 study by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, about 7% of companies now allow remote working—a small number, but marks a 40% growth over five years ago. We Work Remotely is just one site that posts jobs that can be done from anywhere in the world, and often any time of day.
- Ask your boss about flextime. Many companies allow employees to shift their work schedule to a later 8-hour block to accommodate commuters, child care, or other personal needs (like your chronotype).
- Consider online degree programs that allow you to complete coursework on your own schedule.
The Bottom Line?
Maybe we need to rethink the 8-5 day. Let’s recognize that the reasons behind that schedule are antiquated, and that starting work at 8 am is not going to bring out the best in all people. After all, the person who is chronically late in the morning or hovers quietly in the back during an early morning standup meeting might actually be the sharpest person on the team—after lunch.
Or as a different version of the old saying goes,
“The early bird may get the worm, but it’s the second mouse who gets the cheese.”
Author’s note: I’ve been a night owl since childhood. After “lights out,” I would lie in bed for hours listening to music or talk shows on the radio. I could never fall asleep regularly before 11pm or midnight even as a grade-school kid. My happiest times in college were doing production at the school paper until 4 or 5 am, or doing the 2am-6am college radio shift. The only drawbacks to those activities were 8am classes the next day, which were almost always a disaster. As an adult, my most productive and creative time starts at midnight, so a regular 8-5 job is painful. I’m grateful that, for the past six years, I’ve had remote and freelance jobs that allowed for a more flexible schedule (for the first time, I can go to bed between 3-4 am and not feel like a truck hit me in the morning).