Photo: Tim Laman

Confessions of a Hopeless Night Owl

At a recent luncheon, an interior designer sitting next to me mentioned that she likes working late at night.

“Clients think I’m crazy if I send a proposal or contract at two o’clock in the morning,” she said.

I had met a kindred spirit. I, too, have been admonished by friends and colleagues for staying up late and sending emails in the middle of the night. The usual retort is: “Were you really up at 1:15 in the morning working?”

Years ago, I went on a quest to give the illusion of conformance. By doing a “System Restore” in Windows XP on my PC, I could futz with the settings and turn the clock back six hours. The reset brought on a strange malfunction that created a Y2K-like nightmare and I had to get a new computer.

My next M.O. (on my Mac) was to write emails at night and save them in a “Draft” folder. This technique had my missives poised for send-out first thing in the morning.

I basked in the new tone from recipients: “Wow, you were up early this morning! No more late-night emails? Are you okay?

Were they being sarcastic? Is there any hope for night owls who want to become morning larks?

Dr. Christoph Randler, a biology professor at the University of Education in Heidelberg, Germany, sheds light on the subject in his research that appears in the Harvard Business Review.

“Much of morningness and eveningness is changeable,” writes Professor Randler. “People can be trained to alter what we call their ‘chronotypes,’ but only somewhat. In one study, about half of school pupils were able to shift their daily sleep-wake schedules by one hour. But significant change can be a challenge.”

“Morning people are very capable of understanding the value of chronotype (their morningness and eveningness) diversity,” Randler continues. “This understanding probably originated far back in history, when groups comprising morning people, evening people, and various chronotypes in between, would have been better able to watch for danger at all hours. Evening types may no longer serve as our midnight lookouts, but their intelligence, creativity, humor and extroversion are huge potential benefits to the organization.”

I decided to contact the z-z-z maestro directly and ask whether he had any new research that might help reform people whose primetime is nighttime in a morning lark world.

“Some people are able to change their chronotype from an owl to a lark. If one wants to test to become an earlier type, try to go to bed earlier (e.g., one hour) and do this on a regular basis,” Professor Randler responded.

“However, 50 percent of the time the genetics of owls and larks cannot be changed,” he continued. “Experiments with adolescents from Israel showed that some evening types were able to go to bed earlier and fall asleep earlier, while some could not sleep for hours. The best solution would be to have more flexible work hours and to be able to do more work from home. For example, one of my Ph.D. students often works at night from 2–5:00 a.m., so I sent him work for his ‘night shift’ in the evening and he returned it to me in the morning. I started at 7 a.m., and we met for lunch, which was an optimal time for both of us.”

This is a perfect example of the magical overlap when nocturnal and diurnal chronotypes work side-by-side. It is a blessed eclipse when circadian rhythms are in sync and revving at similar RPMs.

As a self-confessed nocturnal who can blame it on genetics, I proudly declare my solace from the quiet of the night. I love hearing the whir of the refrigerator in the kitchen and the hoot of the Barn Owl in our fields. The clock on the piano chimes softly amidst the silence. While others sleep, new ideas are spawned. The lingering laundry piled on the dryer can peacefully be folded. (I’ve learned, though, not to empty the dishwasher. And to my children, I say, “Sorry, kids. Seriously, I didn’t think you’d hear me if you were asleep and I emptied it quietly.”)

Without aspersion, let us midnight riders keep watch from dusk to dawn. Muzzle the cacophony of the starlings, larks, wrens and robins. Bring on the whisper of the Eastern Whippoorwill and the twill of the Budgie Parakeet. Let the Night Owls regale the darkness with nocturnal delight.

British author Hilary Rubenstein profoundly sets the record straight in his book, The Complete Insomniac. “Blessed are the owls, for they shall inherit the mystery and magic of the night.”

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