Early risers may not be all they’re cracked up to be
The Night Owls may be set to change how society views the non morning people
What if night owls are actually the unsung geniuses? Photograph: iStock
I hate that Delta Air Lines commercial, the one called “4am,” that mocks me from my in-seat screen.
It starts off with a montage of perky professionals, rising before dawn in homes and executive-class hotel rooms around the world, stretching their gym-toned bodies and firing up coffeepots at an hour usually reserved for mating fruit bats. “Here’s to all 180 million of you early risers, go-getters and should-be sleepers,” the voice-over says, as Disney’s “Heigh-Ho” swells in the background.
“Because the ones who truly change the world are the ones who can’t wait to get out in it.”
Yes, I get it. I have heard this all my life: Society likes morning people. Loves them, actually. Early risers tend to be more punctual, get better grades in school and climb up the corporate ladder. These larks are celebrated as the high achievers, the apple polishers, the CEOs.
It’s basically the idea that Ben Franklin touted more than 250 years ago? – “early to bed, early to rise” – with everyone else cast as lazy or self-indulgent. But what if they are wrong? What if night owls are actually the unsung geniuses? What if we are the ultimate disrupters and rule changers, the ones who are better suited to a modern, postindustrial society ruled by late-night coders, digital nomads, freelance moguls and coworking-working entrepreneurs?
Perhaps it is finally time for the night owls of the world to rise! Just not too early, of course.
I knew I was different by the time I was 7 or 8 years old. My parents’ efforts to get me to sleep by 7.30pm were pointless. I have painful memories of those nights, lying wide-awake with the lights out, my mind whirring as I watching the minutes on my old digital clock grind by – 30 minutes, 60, 90. Only my hamster Stuart shared my nocturnal proclivities, rattling along on his squeaky wheel in the darkness.
Things got worse in my teens. My father, who was an extreme lark, would wake up by 6.30am and storm into my room, huffing, “Society starts at dawn,” as he yanked off my bedcover. He was not wrong.
Schools, office jobs and sports leagues were all designed around a lark’s schedule. And there was nothing I could do about it: The notion that I could simply reset my internal wiring with a little self-discipline seemed patently false, likely damaging.
Keep in mind that my sleep hygiene, to invoke a term that had not yet come into vogue, was excellent. I didn’t touch alcohol or caffeine, and found it easy to avoid screen time before bedtime, since the only screen in my house was a cathode-tube television serving up dreck like Joanie Loves Chachi.
Years later, sleep doctors would diagnose me with what is commonly called delayed sleep phase syndrome, which refers to anyone who goes to sleep hours later than the, ahem, “conventional” time. The condition is often boiled down to scary sounding initials – DSPS – like so many life-threatening diseases.
And I have it fairly bad. My body naturally wants to go to bed around 2am and rise around 10am. Whenever I try to adjust to an early schedule, my brain is like mush. Conversely, I light up like the Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree around 9pm, and for the next few hours I am my most me: alert, clever, inspired to create.
Not that society has ever shown much flexibility toward my sleep cycle. I have had an office job for most of my adult life, and I am now married with two children under 10, so I regularly rise by 7.30am, doing my best to fake some Fred Rogers good cheer as I pack lunches and get our sons off to school.
As a result, I suffer chronic sleep deficit. That is, I have a sleep problem, although technically, that is not accurate. I sleep fine. It is everyone else who has a problem with it.
My blue-pill moment came this year, when I read Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, director of the Centre for Human Sleep Science at the University of California at Berkeley. The book details how every human runs on a 24-hour circadian rhythm, an internal clock, which coordinates a drop in body temperature, for example, as it prepares for slumber, and cranks back up when it is time to wake. What larks like my father never understood is that not everyone’s clock is the same.
According to Walker, about 40 per cent of the population are morning people, 30 per cent are evening people, and the remainder land somewhere in between. “Night owls are not owls by choice,” he writes. “They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hard-wiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.”
For further proof, researchers at Rockefeller University last year announced the discovery of a gene mutation that apparently accounts for DSPS. When night owls are forced to rise early, their prefrontal cortex, which controls sophisticated thought processes and logical reasoning, “remains in a disabled, or ‘offline,’ state,” Walker writes. “Like a cold engine in an early-morning start, it takes a long time before it warms up to operating temperature.”
That might even serve an evolutionary purpose. When early humans lived in small tribes, as in the early scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, staggered sleep schedules bestowed a survival advantage: Someone was always awake to watch for prowling leopards and club-wielding rivals, according to the book.
But it has been downhill for us night owls ever since. The rise of agriculture brought fields to till at daybreak. The industrial revolution brought factories with 8am time clocks. Night owls were forced to adapt, and that appears to have taken a toll.
According to a much-publicised study of chronotypes published this year, night owls may die earlier than morning people. Another study, in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, found that night owls are 6 per cent more likely to suffer depression than people who slept conventional hours.
Various studies have suggested that night owls also drink more, smoke more and have more sex partners (perhaps because it is easier to get lucky at a bar at midnight than in a Starbucks at 7am). Other research has drawn links to the dark triad of personality disorders: psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism.
I certainly know what it is like to burn the candle at both ends. When I graduated from college, I found the morning rhythms of office life to be an eye-opener – though not literally, of course. At my first job, as a newspaper reporter in Orange County, California, I was required to be at my desk at 8am. I held that job for 14 months, taking only one week of vacation, but my body never acclimated.
Night after night I would lie awake until 1am or later, freaking out about my inevitable exhaustion the next day, as the Santa Ana winds violently rustled the Italian cypress trees outside my bedroom window. Even when I dragged myself in at 7.45 am, my boss had already been there for an hour, because bosses rise at the crack of dawn, right? That’s why they are bosses. In the corporate world, rising early has always served as a handy signifier of unbridled ambition, the will to succeed.
Among C-suite executives, that tradition is alive and well. Robert Iger of Disney, Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Indra Nooyi, the departing chief executive of PepsiCo, are all said to rise between 4am and 4.30am, and they are relative lazy slobs compared with Tim Cook of Apple, who reportedly bounds out of bed at 3.45am.
No surprise that “employees who started work earlier in the day were rated by their supervisors as more conscientious, and thus received higher performance ratings,” according to a 2014 study by the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.
It’s the old “dress like your boss” formula for success, but with chronotypes, not clothes. But what if the modern-day workplace no longer operates under that formula? What if being a night owl is no longer a handicap, but an asset?
Night time productivity
“I was never a morning person,” Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, said in a 2016 Facebook video interview with Jerry Seinfeld. He reportedly rises around 8am, hours later than traditional executives, but perfectly in line with hacker hours that prevail in Silicon Valley.
“The most productive coders I know – and writers and probably a lot of other creatives,” said Tim Ferriss, the life-hacking author and tech investor, “tend to do a lot of their best work when others are asleep, at times that coincide with the fewest inbound distractions.”
Tech entrepreneurs are even advertising their night owl tendencies as a status symbol. Aaron Levie, chief executive of Box, told Fast Company that he usually sleeps between 3am and 10am.
“I don’t use many apps,” he said. “I use naps.”
Another next-generation tech titan, Alexis Ohanian of Reddit, is similarly boastful about his late hours, saying that he usually goes to bed around 2am and rises around 10am, or whenever his cat wakes him.
The traditional nine-to-five workplace is starting to fall out of favour, especially in Silicon Valley and creative sectors where the workday is no longer tied to daylight hours. And, with robots and artificial intelligence further eroding the old system by taking over the routine tasks, the new workplace culture is less about punctuality and more about creativity and breaking the rules.
Say what you will about night owls, but we are a tribe of mavericks. Our hall of fame – or infamy – includes rebels (Keith Richards, Hunter S. Thompson) and revolutionaries (Mao, Stalin), mad geniuses (James Joyce, Prince) and madmen (Charles Manson, Hitler). Even our conventional political heroes (Barack Obama, Winston Churchill) are remembered as genius outsiders.
This may not be a coincidence. The very essence of our chronotype makes us oddballs, prone to looking at life through a different lens. We are the weirdos who feel most alive skulking through the darkness, secure in the illusion that we own the world for at least a few precious hours every night while everyone else slumbers.
In those wee hours, we feel the freedom to think any thought, dream any dream, safe from the scrutiny and judgment of the strait-laced world.
Does that mean we are, in fact, narcissists? Perhaps. We are at least different. Maybe special. At least a few scientists agree. In 2009, Satoshi Kanazawa, a provocative evolutionary psychologist from the London School of Economics and Political Science, inspired many headlines with a study that attempted to suggest that night owls may be more intelligent than larks.
Other researchers have suggested that we are preternaturally wired to take risks, a quality that I tend to associate with entrepreneurial verve. A 2014 University of Chicago study found that night owls were “associated with greater general risk-taking” in matters of finance, ethics and leisure.
Granted, those traits may add up to embezzler as much as disrupter, but after a lifetime of hearing negatives about our chronotype, I’ll take what I can get. It would certainly make my life easier if scientists somehow proved that night owls were a teensy bit smarter and a weensy bit bolder. But I don’t think you have to go there to feel good about our chances.
Corporate America is catching up. Some 80 per cent of companies now offer some form of flexible work arrangements, according to a 2015 survey by WorldatWork, a nonprofit human resources association, and FlexJobs, a career site. For many workers, this means “freedom from a crushing commute, from an interruption-filled office, from a nine-to-five straitjacket,” said David Heinemeier Hansson, a tech entrepreneur and an author of the book “Remote: Office Not Required.” For night owls, this is huge. No longer must armies of professionals arbitrarily be rousted at daybreak, like groggy recruits heeding a bugle blowing reveille. Indeed, late risers are organizing. Camilla Kring, a Danish business consultant and author, founded B-Society, a night owl advocacy group that is lobbying to end daylight saving time, promote flexible work schedules and adjust start times in schools, “to support different human chronotypes.”
“Companies can use the knowledge about circadian rhythms as a competitive advantage,” Kring said. And maybe they already are. The term “chronotype diversity” is starting to find traction, as business managers explore concepts like team energetic asynchrony: staggered work schedules to make sure all workers are working at peak efficiency.
It is about time. Let’s hope the whole world finally wakes up to the idea that we night owls are more than laggards and sleepyheads.
Fast-forward to 2025, say, and I settle into my seat on a Delta flight, perhaps a supersonic one, to be greeted by a new commercial. It starts off with a montage of perky professionals in executive-class hotel rooms around the world, firing up the kettle for camomile tea and furiously tapping away at laptops as they race to meet deadlines at an hour usually reserved for James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.”
“Here’s to all 180 million of you late risers, night crawlers and can’t-get-to-sleepers,” the voice-over says, as Eric Clapton’s After Midnight swells in the background. “Because the ones who truly change the world are the ones who are still at it when everyone else is fast asleep.” – New York Times