Day for Night
Or: Why I Don’t Keep Office Hours
I reside in Portland, OR, which means I live in the Pacific Time Zone.
However, I don’t really “live” on Pacific Time Zone hours. The hours I keep are more like someone from Tokyo.
In fact, no matter where on Earth I live, the hours I keep are more like someone on the opposite side of wherever that place is on the globe.
This is because I have a sleep disorder that shifts my sleep/wake cycle to a pattern that’s roughly the exact opposite of a normal 9–5 schedule.
Most people’s bodies regulate their biological clocks using melatonin: it makes them drowsy at sundown and alert at sunup. For whatever reason, though, my body seems to have the opposite response.
The short version is that I get super tired when the sun comes up, and then when it goes down again I perk right back up for the rest of the night.
I am, in a biological sense, nocturnal.
It’s somewhat like Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, which Wikipedia describes as the following:
“… a chronic dysregulation of a person’s circadian rhythm (biological clock), compared to the general population and relative to societal norms. The disorder affects the timing of sleep, peak period of alertness, the core body temperature rhythm, and hormonal and other daily cycles.”
The only difference is that instead of my sleep schedule being “delayed” by a few hours, I’m shifted fully opposite: day for me is night, night for me is day.
The upshot is that it is very weird and, in many ways, completely sucks.
One of the ways in which it sucks comes from how misunderstood it is.
I myself didn’t even understand it for a ridiculously long time.
As a young adult, I was constantly regarded as lazy or unserious about any 9–5 job I had, which was completely reasonable because I was regularly showing up late, unshowered, and totally groggy.
The reason I was showing up like that, though, was because I was regularly staring at the clock unable to sleep all night, until finally succumbing by sheer force of will around 6 or 7am, then promptly sleeping through my alarm an hour later, only to eventually wake up on a couple hours’ sleep, have my heart race when I saw I was already supposed to be at work, and throw on clothes while trying to pat down my bedhead as I ran out the door
The act of going to bed each night was extremely stressful because it meant playing Russian roulette with my employment every following morning: I had no idea when I would be able to fall asleep, so I had no idea when I would wake up, and I had no idea why it was happening.
I tried a million different things: no caffeine, no bright screens, taking sleep medications, keeping curtains closed, reading boring books, and nothing worked — not reliably anyway, and if you can’t count on it, that really doesn’t solve the Russian roulette problem.
It was also hard in a social sense, because even when people pretty close to me (co-workers, friends, etc.) would sympathize, I could tell deep down they still didn’t really think it was a “real” thing, like I just wasn’t disciplined enough. It led to so much well-meaning-but-still-misplaced empathy from others over the years:
“Yeah, sometimes it’s hard for me to make myself drag myself out of bed too.”
“Man, I totally remember staying up until, like, 4 in the morning every so often when I was in college.”
“Oh yeah, if I have caffeine after the sun sets, it takes me hours to wind down — have you perhaps tried cutting that out?”
It wasn’t until I started having live-in relationships that, by sharing a bed (or most nights, not), anyone other than myself finally caught on to just how legitimate of a condition it is.
It’s not that I’m undisciplined or that I have poor sleep hygiene or that I even have trouble sleeping at all; if I went to bed when my body is naturally tired and woke up when it’s naturally awake, I’d be among the most regular people you know in the sleep department.
“Insomnia” is the inability to either stay asleep or fall asleep, but both of those are totally fine for me — it’s just that they have to happen during the daytime in order to be so.
In other words, I could easily keep a 9–5 schedule, so long as it was one that went from 9pm to 5am.
On that note, the other reason it sucks is because I have rarely been able to experience anything resembling that ever-so-elusive regular sleep schedule.
It would be one thing to lean into my nocturnalism and not have to fight my natural rhythm on a constant basis, but that would also mean sacrificing a ton of civilian activities that everyone else probably takes for granted.
It would have been profoundly difficult to find a decent job, for one thing. Graveyard shifts at factories, nighttime security patrol, and stocking shelves at 24-hour grocery stores aren’t exactly the entry points to lucrative or fulfilling career paths.
I’m beyond fortunate to have my own design consultancy and can therefore make my own hours to a very significant degree, but even in our high-tech, asynchronous age, clients reasonably enough need to meet at least every so often. That usually involves me wrenching my sleep schedule forward or backward by twelve or more hours, and therefore losing a half a day of anything even resembling rested productivity in the process.
And if I want to involve myself in other normal daily activities like going to the bank or the post office, or picking up dry cleaning, or, say… parenting, then that also means I need to stretch my sleep schedule one way or another to make room for them whenever they arise.
Imagine a parent-teacher conference casually being scheduled for midnight, or a work meeting where the only time that’s good for everyone else is 3am, or your friends and colleagues inviting you out to “happy hour” at 6am.
Now imagine this all day, every day, with everything you’re surrounded by and everyone you care about. It feels very much like pulling a “graveyard shift” a few times a week (or more) just to participate in normal life. For that reason, I’m also extremely selective in which activities I commit to.
Even with relatively few daytime things on my calendar, the wrenching back and forth involved also produces compensatory ripple effects in order to make up that missing sleep in the days that follow, which means it’s exceptionally rare that I know exactly when I will be awake or not more than a few days out in general.
In short, instead of keeping a regular sleep schedule during the daytime, my current approach to establishing a “daily rhythm” is to essentially not have one at all.
This is why it tends to be very difficult to book anything more than a couple days out, especially when it’s accommodating something like a 9–5 EST business day: 5pm Eastern is 2pm Pacific, and 2pm Pacific is basically 2am for me. There’s a chance I might be up: it’s possible I will still be awake at 9am after pulling an all-nighter in order to make an 8am daytime commitment that morning, or it’s possible that at 1pm I will be just waking up to prep for a 2pm client meeting that afternoon, but otherwise, I will probably be asleep. Because, again, it’s “2am” for me.
This is also why I’m probably way less disposed to schedule a time to “just jump on the phone for a few minutes” than other professionals are; I totally get that a 10 minute phone call is a very small commitment if it’s in the flow of a normal day, but it is a WAY bigger commitment if that 10 minutes involves contorting my entire sleep schedule just to accommodate it.
I often really wish I had a more “normal” sleep/wake schedule, and definitely wish it was at least more predictable.
Still, it is what it is and I’m doing my best to make the best of it, in a world whose day feels like night for me.
If you’re reading this because I’m sending it to you in response to a schedule request, I hope it adds some clarity to the conversation.
If not, I’m pretty much always free around 10pm Pacific time, if that happens to be a convenient time for you to have a quick chat about it.