Sir Richard Branson wakes up at 5 am every day. Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Square and CashApp fame is up at 5.30 am before walking eight kilometres to the office. About 90 per cent of executives identify as being early risers (some of them might just be signalling).
In reality though, people get into ‘the zone’ at different times.
Science suggests that our preferred sleeping patterns — our chronotypes — are programmed at birth.
People are either night owls or early birds. Astrophysicist Sabrina Stierwalt wrote for Scientific American that ‘our preferences for one or the other are encoded in genes called “clock” or “period” genes that regulate our circadian rhythms, and are linked to our blood pressure, metabolism, body temperature and hormone levels’.
Why The Early Bird Gets the Worm
Sayings like ‘the early bird gets the worm’ and beliefs that successful people are early risers — glorified by the likes of ex-Navy SEAL Jocko Willink (who posts a photo of his wristwatch to Instagram at 4.30 each morning) — might actually have to do with the fact that the standard workday is better suited to early risers.
If the rules of the game are heavily skewed in favour of your biological predispositions, then you’re more likely to win.
Stierwalt said that work days usually start between 7 and 9 am. However, night owls can experience ‘social jetlag’ if they wake up this early — that is, they can feel like they would if they had jetlag after an overnight flight. Early risers are less likely to experience social jetlag, giving them an advantage over night owls.
Studies show that while early risers are more alert in the morning, night owls show stronger focus and longer attention spans 10 hours after waking than their early-bird compatriots.
A study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences had researchers observing over 700 people who showed a split in personality traits between night owls and early risers. Early birds tended to be more persistent and resistant to frustration, and showed lower levels of anxiety. Night owls were braver, but more likely to develop addictive habits (this may be influenced by the many temptations of the night that aren’t as evident or plentiful during the day).
Several studies have found that about 30 to 40 per cent of the population are night owls, which means that the modern 9-to-5 workday is sabotaging the creative and intellectual efforts of almost half the workforce. Perhaps it’s sabotaging yours?
Diminished productivity might not be the only downside for night owls. They face a 10 per cent higher risk of early death than early birds, according to a study by Kristen Knutson published in Chronobiology International.
In his best-selling book Why We Sleep, Matt Walker finds that sleep deprivation shows a 60 per cent amplification in emotional reactivity. With a full night of plentiful sleep, we have a balanced mix between what Walker calls our emotional gas pedal (our fight or flight inducing amygdala) and our brake (our prefrontal cortex). Without sleep, the strong coupling between these two brain regions is lost.
He tells us that healthy people can experience a neurological pattern of brain activity similar to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder if they have their sleep disrupted or blocked.
Insufficient sleep can also lead to an early onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s due to a collection of amyloid beta plaques in the brain.
Successful Night Owls
While there’s no shortage of heavy hitters glorifying the 5 am alarm clock, there are also examples on the other side of the spectrum.
Mark Zuckerberg told Jerry Seinfeld in a Facebook live Q&A that he normally gets up at 8 am.
Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti routinely sleeps until 8.30 am.
The New Yorker journalist Kathryn Schultz told Business Insider that her writing brain kicks in at about 10 pm so she does most of her writing in the wee hours of the morning.
Aaron Levie, CEO of billion-dollar cloud storage company Box, wakes up at 10 am.
Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit, author and husband to tennis superstar Serena Williams, says he normally hits the sack at 2 am and gets up at 10 am.
Meanwhile, legendary American author Hunter S Thompson would normally settle in to write at midnight, albeit in his case aided by a daily diet of burgers, drugs and alcohol.
Machines Should Work Nine to Five, Not Humans
Startup investor, entrepreneur and deep thinker Naval Ravikant said it well in an appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast: ‘Machines should be working nine to five. Humans are not meant to work nine to five. It makes no sense to work nine to five, yet that is what we keep doing, despite the fact that it is working less and less’.
He went on to say that work isn’t linear and inputs don’t result in the same ouputs for every person.
Or, as Seneca put it almost 2000 years earlier, ‘Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest … unremitting effort leads to a kind of mental dullness and lethargy’.
Okay, so waking up at 5am isn’t totally bullshit — in fact, I’m an earlybird myself who wakes up between 5am and 6am each day, but it all depends on your chronotype. Ultimately, night owls shouldn’t be demonised for getting up late, and subsequently working late.
If you’re going to demonise anything, let it be failing to live up to your potential, whether that be as an early bird or a night owl.