How to Be a High-Functioning Night Owl
A compassionate guide for late-risers
You feel like you should wake up a lot earlier, right?
If we believe most self-help books and productivity gurus, if you wake up early, you win the morning — and therefore win the day. To win your days means success, but it all starts with discipline. To wake up early is the mother of discipline.
Lots of highly successful people indeed wake up before the crack of dawn.
Apple CEO Tim Cook starts his day at 3:45 am. Oprah rises every day before the sun. Mark Wahlberg starts his morning workout at 2:30(!) am.
When it comes to great writers, the typical pattern is similar: Murakami’s wake up time is 4 a.m., while Benjamin Franklin got out of bed by 5 a.m., quickly followed by Kurt Vonnegut at 5:30 a.m.
You know all this, you’ve tried all the tips for waking up early, and still—here you are at 11:00 a.m., trudging towards the coffee machine.
It’s Not Your Fault
You aren’t lazy, either. This fact is crucial.
See, I’ve done the race against the sun and lost every time after a few ambitious mornings. What’s worse, forcing myself to wake up early got me into terrible phases of insomnia.
The pressure and the demand I’ve set myself to wake up early was enough to keep me awake all night. The next day, I was as groggy and unproductive as ever.
I’ve beaten myself up for my “bad sleep habits” for years. Why was I the only one whose body seemed incapable of getting out of bed early?
Turns out, it wasn’t my fault.
The answer lies in chronobiology — the biological field which examines cyclic phenomena in living beings.
We each belong to a certain chronotype which defines our propensity to sleep at a particular time of a 24-hour period. According to Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., who specializes in sleep medicine, there are 4 such chronotypes.
If to wake up early never felt quite right for you, you might be a wolf (Breus’s label of night owls).
For every chronotype, there’s the right time of the day (or night) to do things. If you mess with this time or try to force yourself into a chronotype you’re not (read: when you wake up early when your best time is to work late), you don’t optimize your energy and potential.
What Are Night Owls Anyway?
It’s clear by now night owl is more than a petty term for lazy, undisciplined people who can’t get out of bed. The circadian rhythm is a phenomenon neurologists have examined for decades. While to be awake at night comes with its perks, evening types can face some significant mental and health challenges throughout their lives.
The perks of being a night owl
“There is a romance about all those who are abroad in the black hours.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
Apart from the fact that they’re most active after sunset, night owls are often creative and tend to think out of the box, according to Breus.
The University of Madrid indeed found evening types score better in tests for inductive reasoning which is directly linked to innovative thinking. This may be due to the necessity for night owls to look for unconventional solutions in a daytime-oriented world.
The (literal) dark side of being a night owl
Unfortunately, it’s not only our habits and eccentricity which differ. Since the western world mostly caters to the natural cycle of larks (early birds), night owls were found to suffer from a form of chronic jetlag, accompanied by a higher vulnerability to depression and higher consumption of alcohol and nicotine.
Even our brains look different — the white matter of night owls was found to be in worse condition than of our early-riser counterparts.
This study furthermore examined the association between chronotype, morbidity, and mortality, and found that — regardless of sleep duration — to be an evening type is significantly correlated with psychological disorders, as well as an increased risk for all-cause mortality and various diseases.
The crucial point, however, is the likely reason the study gives as an answer to these alarming results:
Mortality risk in evening types […] may be attributable to chronic misalignment between internal physiological timing and externally imposed timing of work and social activities. These findings suggest the need for researching possible interventions aimed at either modifying circadian rhythms in individuals or at allowing evening types greater working hour flexibility.
Read: it’s not the fact you’re a night owl which causes your misery. It’s that you’re a night owl in a world made for early birds.
How to Be a High-Functioning Night Owl in a World Made for Early Birds
I’ve been on the rollercoaster of the upsides and downsides of night owls pretty much all my life. Some of my earliest memories (around the age of 3) revolve around how I laid awake at night and wasn’t able to sleep.
While I embrace being a little eccentric and creative, I have also suffered greatly from it. To go to school and to work regular jobs often forced me into the habits of early birds and, in the end, pushed me deep into the dark world of insomnia.
Today, I no longer believe wake-up times are the key to anything — be it discipline, success, or to reach your goals. I no longer push myself and my body to be something it’s not. I accept myself for the night owl I am. I decided it’s my boundaries that need to change, not my sleep times.
If you also feel like an exhausted pigeon in a world of songbirds, here is everything that worked for me to become a high-functioning night owl:
Step 1: Accept
While the above science might’ve helped you understand yourself better, it’s still a far cry from the true acceptance of your chronotype.
When I say acceptance, I mean you must be on your own side. You must forgive yourself for both sleepless nights and late risings. You must accept when you’re not able to keep an early appointment.
If you read this as a morning person, it might sound dramatic, but many night owls (me included) grew up thinking that they were lazy and incapable. It’s what our parents, teachers, role models, and early-bird colleagues tell us all the time.
As cliché as it sounds, if you don’t accept and believe in your worth and abilities regardless of your sleep times, nobody will.
Step 2: Arrange
“It really is up to us. Which is great, because we’re capable of changing everything if we choose. All we can do is all we can do, but maybe, all we can do is enough.” — Seth Godin
After you’ve accepted and forgiven your nocturnal nature, it’s time to make arrangements that favor your chronotype as much as possible.
I quit my regular job and started my own business partly because I felt to wake up early would kill me slowly. I know not everyone can do that, however. Still, you likely have at least some power over your circumstances and duties, and I urge you to exercise it.
Here are possible steps (from simple to radical) you can take to bring your work, schedule, and predisposition in alignment. None of them are groundbreaking or unheard of, but I want to show you you have options, even when you think you‘re trapped.
If you’re already in complete charge of your time (e.g. you’re self-employed) you can skip the following steps — these are for those of you whose time is mostly controlled externally (e.g. by a workplace).
Talk to your boss/team/etc.
In any case, this should be your first step. You don’t have to start to explain how you’re a night owl and what it means to you. Often, a simple “I prefer to start and finish later than most people because that’s how I can be most productive” will do.
Your boss and colleagues are human, and as long as you don’t miss appointments, and you show up and do the work, being present at slightly different hours shouldn’t be a problem.
Max out your flex time
If you have flex time at work, you’re already at advantage. I maxed out my flextime back when I worked a regular job and started as late as it was arguable (usually between 9:30 and 11 a.m.).
It’s sometimes tough because most of your colleagues will start (and get home!) a lot earlier but worth the relief to not have to wake up early.
Ask to work from a home office
Depending on where you live, the concept of remote work is either the most normal thing in the world or frowned upon.
Try to negotiate at least one day of remote work per week. If your boss isn’t convinced, ask him for one or two trial days where you show work from home can be just as (or even a lot more) productive.
This way you spare the commute and don’t have to physically show up too early for anyone.
Block out the early hours of your calendar
While you won’t be able to avoid every morning-meeting, a trick that worked well for me was to simply block the first 2–3 hours of the workday in my Outlook calendar. When meetings were arranged in which I had to be present my calendar always showed that I’m not available in the early hours.
Start your own business
That’s what I went for after I followed all the above steps. Being my own boss puts me in control of my time, and it’s been a game-changer — albeit one which comes with a boatload of other challenges.
I often wish to wake up early was my biggest problem now but in the end, the freedom over my time and body is worth all the troubles.
Don’t take a job you know is not good for you
I know not everyone can be so picky, but if your life allows you to choose, don’t accept jobs in the first place which force you to become an early bird (e.g early morning shift duty).
Nobody told me to respect my biological clock when I picked a job or career, so I say this to you now: it’s as much an aspect as your talents, experience, degree, or prospective salary.
You have the right to honor it.
Step 3: Adjust
Once you’ve established work times that you can live with, it’s time to do the work and be productive. Hard work and diligence are not terms reserved for diurnals.
Here are the steps which helped me become a productive night owl:
Create a morning routine and honor it
For a long time, I believed self-care in the morning (or whatever time of day you wake) is something only early-risers deserve. “Wake up at 7 am and then you can journal, do yoga, and meditate. There’s no time for this after 9 a.m. — you’ve already wasted half your day!”
That’s nonsense. Just because your cycle is different, doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to honor the first hours of your day.
No matter how late I wake up, I now follow a morning routine that serves me almost every day. It helps me set intentions for the day, get grounded, and do better work.
Your days aren’t shorter with less time to take care of yourself. You just happen to take care of yourself and be productive at other times.
Speaking of which…
Make use of your extra late-night hours
I often see those who rise before the sun brag about the “extra hour” their day has. Guess what — every day has 24 hours and if you stay up longer, your “extra hour” starts when the early birds fall asleep.
A typical night owl’s productivity peaks, well, at night, and it’s your responsibility to seize it.
It’s 11:30 p.m. as I write this — after a rather slow afternoon, my creativity is finally running high. Recognize your chance to get something done isn’t over just because everyone else already ordered their first margarita.
Find the right workplace
If you are somewhat in control of where you work (you can take work home or have your own business), find a good workplace for the aforementioned extra hour(s). If this is home — great! If to be at home, however, means distraction and a partner who’s getting ready for bed at 11, you might want to rethink your options.
I love coworking spaces, work cafés, or libraries. If you live in a big city, there’s likely one that’s open round the clock so you can come as late as you want.
This is where you can not only have the peace and quiet your extra hour deserves but see how you’re not the only night owl in town (i.e. meet people like you).
Plan your day the night before
While this is a good tip for everyone, it’s crucial for us night owls. No matter how content you are with your sleep cycle, a part of you might always be agitated and restless when you start working late.
I decide what I’ll do tomorrow every night before I go to bed. To have a roadmap for the day ahead helps me internalize and reinforce my right to a calm time after I wake up. It also keeps me on track and grounded and prevents me from getting turbulent, jumping from one task to the next.
Recognize the cost
To be a high-functioning night owl comes at a cost. To pick up on the margarita above, you’ll have to work when others are finished for the day and enjoy their well-earned downtime.
This means you probably won’t make it to the movies at 6, 7, or even 9 p.m. In fact, you often won’t have any company after a long day at all, because everyone’s asleep.
I love how Bryan Ye talks about how he lives in a box after he woke up at 5 a.m. for the past 3+ months. It’s similar when you work and go to bed late. Your routine is different from the rest of your friends (more or less so depending on how late we’re talking) and there is a price tag attached.
The problem is, we night owls are often stuck in-between states: we don’t succeed to wake up early but to work late at night feels, again, weird at first. That’s when everyone has time for the fun stuff, after all.
In the end, you’ll have to learn to say no to many after-work drinks and to meet friends at the usual evening hours.
Regulate your sleep hours
To be nocturnal doesn’t have to result in mayhem and chaos.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute found that not sticking to a regular bedtime and wake-up schedule can put you at higher risk for various metabolic disorders.
Consistency matters, even if your sleep times are different than for most people.
While I’m not religious about this I figured currently I have a productivity peak between ~11 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., and to go to bed after 2:30 a.m. yields diminishing returns for me.
A few years ago, I rarely went to bed before 3 a.m. which also worked at the time. I have no science to back this but my experience showed me to be consistent in the intermediate term is enough — I allow my bedtimes to change slowly, if necessary.
You’re Not Broken
To be a natural night owl isn’t easy. Most of the above tips are highly subjective, and in the end, all I can offer you is research, my personal experience and the steps I’ve taken to make the most of it. Even if you can’t or don’t want to follow any of my advice, this is what I want you to take away:
1. You’re not alone
No matter how lonely this state sometimes feels, The New York Times only around 40% of the population are morning people. The rest are either nocturnal or fall somewhere in between. There are plenty of other people like you.
2. You’re not abnormal or lazy
It’s your nature, and it’s backed by science.
3. You have options
Even when you think you don’t. A small change or an hour you get to sleep later can go a long way. It’s your responsibility to seize these options.
4. You can be productive and successful
No matter when you go to bed or wake up, what matters is consistency, to show up, and to do the work — not the hours of the day when you do it.
With these in mind: embrace who you are, and double down on it. It’s a mantra that holds independent of your sleep-wake patterns.