Night Owls vs. Morning Larks: Who’s Really More Productive?

While building his business empire, Donald Trump used to sleep only three or four hours a night so he could get a jump on the competition. Benjamin Franklin used to get up at 4am, while the fashion designer Tom Ford gets three hours of sleep each night, which probably makes him both a night owl AND morning lark, depending on when he goes to sleep.These are just a few examples of some famous doers and their daily schedules. Those of us in the trenches are often hearing talk from two schools of thought: wake up early to get more done or work when you’re the most energetic, even if that means into the night while everyone else sleeps.

The Debate Continues

Ask any early riser, and they’ll swear they get more done before the sun is up each day. Night owls will try to convince you that they’re at their most productive after the sun sets, claiming proudly that they worked all night. So who’s right?

Well it’s more like, no one is really wrong when it comes to these arguments. Because everyone is different and our habits are formed at various stages in our lives (like our study habits in school, or our sleep schedules growing up), there is no schedule that makes sense to impose on everyone.

Erin Falconer wrote a great article for Lifehacker titled, “How to Be a Highly Productive Night Owl” where she recounts her first-hand experience trying to switch to being an early bird against her own energy schedule. She acknowledged that her mental energy did not align with the physical hours she was awake and when she tried to go to sleep to facilitate this schedule, she found it too difficult to turn off at night.

This schedule experiment is definitely worth a try and  also illustrates just how hard it is to confine people to buckets of time when their best work might come from a little flexibility and understanding.

The Other Bird & Which One Are You?

Something else to keep in mind is that while some people register as larks and others as owls on the bird-metaphor-scale, a lot of people are hummingbirds: they buzz about somewhere in the middle and can bounce from getting a lot done in the morning to burning a candle into the night.

In this excerpt from The Body Clock Guide, animal studies suggest that that being a morning person or a night person (or somewhere in the middle) might be built into our genetic code. Although some of us have owl tendencies, it’s interesting to note that biologically we weren’t built as creatures of the night.

For instance,  if we reduce ourselves to primal hunter/gatherers, the fact that we can’t see well at night means we would be more productive at finding food using daylight. Knowing this, we can see how our environment, technology and social pressure has pushed us to work against our natural inclinations.

To decipher what bird your energy patterns mimic the most, try keeping a journal to note your energy levels throughout the day. Barring no surprise disruptions (a fire alarm in the middle of the night) you should get a good grip on your energy graph with consistent tracking.

Use Your Energy Cycle to Your Advantage

This productivity hack is simple, understand your energy cycle and use peaks to your advantage. Here’s how you can work at your optimal best more often than not:

  1. Find a job that lets you have a work schedule that suits your energy graph. Okay, this might not be practical advice for the aspiring lawyers and doctors of the world, but if putting your best foot forward is important to you, then consider your career choices accordingly. You know what they say about square pegs and round holes.

  1. If you know you work best in the morning, be ruthless with your sleep schedule. You might have to sacrifice some late night social activities in the process but how about scheduling in some lunches and midday breaks when your focus dips or you need a break. This way you can maintain those relationships and your bedtime.

  1. For night owls, remember that sleep deprivation can really hurt you in the long run – this infographic  by Health Central paints the picture quite clearly. Knowing this, when you’re pushing those late hours, make sure you give yourself an absolute cutoff time (maybe no later than 1am), don’t work in the bedroom and stay hydrated with lots of healthy food options and snacks available to keep yourself healthy.

Living by your natural rhythms can have a great impact on your life. As leaders we need to acknowledge that setting arbitrary hours (like the standard 9 to 5)  can be misusing the talents of your team. As employees, make a case for your schedule by showing what you can achieve, regardless of what the clock says. The more we learn about productivity and energy schedules, the better chance we all have at getting more done.

Do you have a work rhythm or pattern that works for you? Share your experience with us in the comments!

photo credit: Emerging Birder via photopin cc

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