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I am not a morning person | Just Reflections - Issue #12
Welcome to another week. As always, thank you for your support. Today I’m talking about another subject that’s close to my heart. I hope you enjoy and share your thoughts.
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I’ve had really terrible sleep hygiene for a long time. I wrote here about much of a workaholic I am and how I am trying to do better to not make work the entirety of my life. Early this year I made a resolution to sleep early and wake up early so that I have lots of time in the morning when it’s still quiet to read and workout and plan my day. You know, the whole ‘5 am club’ spiel. It worked out surprisingly well for a few weeks. I was waking up at 5:30 am; I didn’t struggle with it at all. In fact, I didn’t even need an alarm. My body just woke up on its own. I had a nice little morning routine going and everything. A few weeks later, it was all gone and I had returned to my usual sleep late wake up late routine. And in this issue, I want to talk about why that happened.
The early bird gets the worm. We’ve all heard this, but how true is it, really? Do early birds naturally have an advantage over night owls? Well yes, and no. Let me explain.
The difference between a morning and an evening person appears to be influenced by lots of things that are probably genetic and it’s not something you can just change by training. — Dr David Rapoport, Professor of Medicine, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
There is plenty of advice out there about how to sleep and rise earlier; go to bed at the same time every day, avoid screens towards bedtime, don’t hit the snooze button, etc. All of this assumes that you’re doing something wrong, but actually, it may not be your fault at all. It turns out that we have little to no say regarding sleep preference because it’s almost entirely genetically predetermined. We all have what is called the Circadian Rhythm, which is most famous for controlling our sleep cycles. Not everyone’s circadian rhythm is the same. Night owls naturally wake up late and are at their peak function later in the day, so they sleep late, and early birds wake up early because their peak function is early in the morning and they sleep early. I did a poll on Twitter about this and — if that small sample is anything to go by — it turns out there are people who don’t know where they fall.
I'm a night owl. I tried waking up early but it didn't work for me. My body adjusted to waking up early but my brain didn't come along for the ride. I can't to do focussed work before 11am but I'm a machine after 10pm. To my 3 twitter contacts, Are you an earlybird or a nightowl?
In fact, it is apparently difficult to classify most of the population because they fall somewhere in between. But if you don’t know your biological rhythm and you’d love to know, you can take a test at the WeP website.
In modern society, we live according to three clocks; the body clock, which is governed by our circadian rhythm, the clock governed by the movement of the earth around the sun, and the social clock as determined by our work and school schedules, etc. These clocks can be out of sync.
Considering that most modern social activities happen between 6 am and 6 pm, night owls are at a disadvantage because their body clocks are perpetually out of sync with the social clock. Researchers have actually coined the term, ‘Social Jetlag’ to describe this difference between what our body clock and what the social clock wants us to do. This social jetlag is taking a toll on night owls and for them, every day feels like living in the wrong time zone. It’s like the jetlag you experience after a long plane trip, but worse because it doesn’t disappear after a few days.
Professor Till Roenneberg — one of the foremost researchers in the subject of social jetlag and its consequences — explains this in more detail in this talk titled ‘Social Jetlag - What you need to know about your sleep’. The images below appeared on another of his articles titled Internal Time published in the Harvard University Press.
Source: Till Roenneberg (2012): Internal Time, Harvard University Press
The image on the left shows the sleep schedule of an early bird, the middle image shows the sleep schedule of a night owl who can choose their work times. And the image on the right shows the sleep schedule of a night owl who can’t choose their work schedule. As you can see, there is clear evidence of social jetlag. There’s a big difference between working days and weekends. They always have a hard wake up time during the week, they likely need to use an alarm to wake up, they don’t get enough sleep during the week and they sleep in on weekends to refill their sleep tanks and readjust to their natural rhythm only to mess it up again the following week.
The circadian rhythm is linked to many aspects of our physiology. So even if you get the recommended amount of sleep, knocking your circadian rhythm out of whack has many consequences on your health. Considering that sleep deprivation has a direct effect on brain function, it’s no surprise that studies report that night owl university students have lower overall grades and night owls are more prone to addictions to alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and food. Studies also show that if you have social jetlag, your chances of obesity increase by 33%. And the problem isn’t just a physical one. In other studies, people whose circadian rhythms were over 2 hours off reported notably more severe symptoms of depression. Dr Todd Grande gives a great summary of the research that exists on this subject in this video.
This is quite tragic if you consider that around 27% of people self-report as night owls. All this is because night owls are forced to align to schedules contrary to their natural rhythms and they resort to many things to cope with this persistent social jetlag. So early birds don’t exactly have an inherent advantage over night owls, but because their body clock aligns with the social clock more closely, they’re at an advantage.
Embracing my body clock
“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” — Benjamin Franklin
I hate phrases like this. They do a lot to stigmatize night owls. Early birds are branded as virtuous and full of energy, while evening people are branded as lazy and self-indulgent. Yet studies show that night owls on average, night owls are smarter, more creative and more successful. Reddit is littered with people complaining about how their parents were morning people and thought everyone else should be too. Check the night owls subreddit, it’s sad.
I’m a night owl. My productivity gets into full gear around 10 pm and I do my best work after midnight. There’s just something about the quiet, no distractions atmosphere of the night that’s just fuel for me. That’s when I get my best ideas and read the most intellectually challenging books because I’m more alert at night. When I have a challenge that I can’t seem to figure out during standard working hours, I usually leave it for later at night when my brain is at peak focus and more often than not when morning comes I’ll have a solution or will be closer to the solution. In fact, it’s way past midnight right now as I’m writing this newsletter.
I really don’t like coming home and then going straight to bed, so even if I get home after a late dinner at like 10 pm, I usually still stay up until around 2 am and I’ll still get my 7 hours of sleep to wake up just in time for my first work engagement at 9:30 am.
As I said, I’ve tried the whole wake up early thing several times in my life to varying success. I usually end up really miserable after a few weeks because I can’t get as much done at 5 am as I can at 2 am and I have to struggle to go to sleep when my mind is just getting into gear. In the mornings, my brain just doesn’t come along until much later. It gets stuck booting up, so it’s absolutely mush until around 11 am. It’s for this reason that pretty much everywhere I’ve worked, I had a reputation for coming in late. Fortunately, even though morning people are very energetic right after waking up, they lose steam faster than night owls throughout the day. So I am usually the last person out after everyone is gone which gives me ample time to get some focused work in and more than makeup for my tardiness.
My perfect work schedule is to start at 11 am, rest around 5 pm and then resume around 10 pm. I’m fortunate that my work allows me to do some of this, with the exception that I have to attend meetings in the morning with everyone and other collaborative sessions. Unfortunately, most workplaces favour early birds. In most workplaces it’s taboo to start late, a productive employee checks in before 9 am, just by showing up earlier in the morning you get better performance evaluations, etc.
So what do you do if you’re a night owl but can’t change your school or work schedule? It turns out light plays a big role in your sleep cycle. So to help yourself feel better, when you first wake up, get outside and soak up some morning sun or if that’s out of the question, make sure your home is well lit in the morning. I also recommend that you use the Sleep Cycle app as your alarm, it’s available on both android and iOS. It tracks your sleep, so when you set an alarm, it will gently wake you up while you’re in your lightest sleep phase so that you don’t wake up feeling groggy. My experience with it has been really great. And finally, here’s a Twitter thread by Matthew Covey Brown with some brilliant advice for improving your sleep.
13 tactical tips to improve your sleep without buying a brand new $5k mattress:
I’m done sleeping early and waking up early. I’m listening to my body’s rhythm. So my last word to you is, listen to your natural inner clock. It is your body’s most authentic timekeeper. Accept your partner’s rhythm, accept your work colleagues’ rhythm. Some will send emails at 2 am and others will send them at 4 am, that’s fine. There are many night owls who think they are early birds because they’ve been socialised into early birds. This means there are many people whose true potential we’ll never see because they’re living out of their time and are continuously trying to catch up. I hope this whole ‘new ways of working’ movement will really catch on and give more people the opportunity to have more flexible work schedules so that they can align with their most natural selves. And we don’t all have to feel like we trying to catch up all the time.
Are you an early bird or a night owl? I’d like to know. What do you think of this research about social jetlag? Does any of it ring true for you? Let me know.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think about the issue.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
Impactful ideas that challenged my thinking.
I have a lot of interests so I'm always learning all kinds of things, some of which really challenge my thinking. In the Just Reflections newsletter, I'll be sharing with you a summary of the ideas that challenged my thinking recently and hopefully they will challenge yours too and we grow together.
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