The nightly schedule of knowledge workers and their reasonable alternatives

From 2012 to 2014, I wrote a blog called The UnStudent in which I explored issues related to academic life and finding meaning in work. It was an experiment in working through my career anxiety by writing. I’ve now migrated some of those thought pieces and edited them for Medium. This post was originally published January 21, 2013.

US Eastern Seaboard at Night

Why knowledge workers tend to work at night

Go out and find yourself a physicist, programmer, mathematician, or other knowledge worker. The following applies to many people active in the knowledge economy. Ask them what their schedule looks like or when they do their best work. Many will confess that they do their best work at night. They’ll either work late or else start their days at these absurd times.

This phenomenon was described and explained by Paul Graham in 2009 in his essay, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. His argument: knowledge workers, “Makers”, need large blocks of uninterrupted time to get their best work done. Writing code, or working on a complex project, requires getting into a mental space where the entire problem is before you. You build up the framework in your mind. You feel as though your mind is holding up all the pieces of the problem in a delicate balance. Once this mental space is created, you can work inside of it until the task is complete.

Shutting down the problem means leaving that mental space. Returning to the task requires familiarizing yourself with all the components of the problem and rebuilding the framework. This is why interruptions can be very costly. It’s like a house of cards that comes crashing down. Find a programmer and ask her what this feels like.

For this reason, many knowledge workers move their productive hours to the night, where interruptions are a minimum. While the world sleeps, the maker has time to build.

Paul Graham contrasts this to what he calls the “manager’s schedule.” The manager works in smaller chunks of time. Interruptions are less costly to their work. It’s been said, unkindly, that a manager’s job is to interrupt others.

Business Insider wrote about the phenomenon of nighttime productivity. Swizec Teller adds to Paul Graham’s ideas that the stimulating glow of the computer screen at night, combined with just enough fatigue to dampen the jitters of the brain that pull towards Twitter and Hacker News, make the night an ideal time for programming.

Why this may not be ideal

In the same article, Teller adds that working at night may not be ideal. Knowledge workers are not superhuman; they are still more alert during the day than at night. In theory, it should be possible to do the same high-quality work during the day as at night.

When I was completing my undergraduate studies at Columbia, I kept to something of a maker’s schedule. My most productive hours for study (I was majoring in applied physics, with a minor in applied math) were from 9pm to 2am and sometimes later. I would rise at 10am and jaunt off to class. My afternoons were lost in a fog. I couldn’t think clearly about my work until I got my “second wind” closer towards the evening. 20-ounce red-eyes from Starbucks also helped precipitate this second wind.

I thought this schedule was awesome. Nobody bothered me at night and I could think clearly for hours. Afternoons still sucked, but that was the price to pay.

But then things changed.

In May 2009, I graduated. Later that summer I was married. The life of the bachelor scientist was over.

Things could not continue this way.

When you coordinate your schedule around another person, there needs to be some give and take. Working and sleeping at odd hours opposed to the rest of society may work for you if nobody else depends on your being conscious whenever they are conscious. But participating in family life, or the life of wider society requires some conformity of schedule.

Excluding yourself by your nocturnal schedule can create problems when people want to see you, for work or for fun. As much as I resisted any changes to my schedule, the importance of my relationships eventually got me to adjust. I wanted to be able to wake and retire at the same time as my wife, without our schedules disrupting each other too much.

What alternatives exist

Butler Library at night, where I spent many late nights.

Somehow, miraculously, I became a morning person. I don’t know how, but I tell you it is possible. I now rise between 6am and 6:30am.

Mornings have been reclaimed as useful hours of the day. Afternoons are still kinda crumby. And evenings usually afford time for wrapping up tasks, responding to e-mail, relaxation, hobbies, and catching up with friends.

I’ve come to believe that giving yourself some downtime in the evening, useful for reading and spending time with other people, is essential to resting well. The soft glow of the computer screen that Swizec Teller mentioned, screws with your ability to get to sleep. People have gone so far as to develop apps for adjusting the color temperature of your computer screen. This supposedly mitigates the sleep-disrupting effects of electronics. This is also why it’s nicer to read on a Kindle at night compared to a tablet.

But what about the Maker’s Schedule? The original problem was about being able to avoid interruptions so that real work can get done.

This is where some creativity can help. Maybe you need to negotiate with your supervisor to let you work from home one day per week. The office is great, but often full of distractions and interruptions. Important tasks, like writing or programming sometimes need to be conducted away from the office in order to ensure a timely completion. My supervisor understands this, as long as I’m in the office most days of the week and as long as I meet all my other responsibilities.

I’ve been able to bring something of a Maker’s Schedule into the daylight. I still have this romantic image in my mind of the brooding scientist/intellectual, writing a brilliant paper or coding up some clever algorithm while the rest of the world sleeps. Then I remember how, in college, the quality of my thoughts would degrade further with each passing hour after midnight. And I think about how I’m much more balanced, happy, and energetic my life is now that I’m not putting my schedule through contortions in opposition to my body’s circadian rhythm.

The Maker’s Schedule was always a compromise made in order to get things done. It was never an ideal. And maybe no ideal exists, but there are other compromises that may work a little better. These may depend on your individual circumstances. I think I’ve found mine. What’s yours?