Are Late Sleepers Going To Take Over The World?
The world is divided into two types of people. Those who, by 8am, have already gone for a 10km run and cleared their inbox. Or those who are blearily thinking about their first cup of coffee, while half-heartedly scrolling through Instagram from under the duvet. While the business world is largely set to the rhythms of early risers, whether you are a lark or a night owl depends on your genes—and increasingly, studies show that ignoring your natural sleep patterns can be dangerous to your mental health.
Today, early risers have a distinct advantage because they run on society’s schedule—meetings are far more likely to be scheduled for 9am, when larks are at their most productive, than at 6pm, when owls are firing on all cylinders. In a world that rewards morning people, late sleepers—who abide by the laws of their own bodies instead—are often maligned as lazy. As a result of their genetic advantage, early risers tend to be more punctual, get better marks in school and climb up the corporate ladder more easily. "Honestly, waking up early and getting stuff done before the working day has changed my life," says actor and Gen.T honouree Celina Jade. "That and exercising."
But if you’re at your best late in the afternoon, and find yourself meeting deadlines in a haze of midnight creativity, don’t worry—owls do also have a few advantages. Studies have found them to be cleverer, more creative and more consistent in their work than larks—but only if they’re allowed to work at their own rhythm.
The study in question let the participants choose their own sleep and wake times, and required them to take a test when they first woke up, and a second one 10 hours later. On the first test, both groups performed roughly the same. But on the second, owls significantly outperformed larks, suggesting they were better equipped to maintain a baseline level of mental performance throughout the day. Although, when they were forced to wake up earlier than they would like, the results were reversed. This suggests that it is society that needs to change, not the owls.
Daniel Gartenberg, a sleep coach who once gave a TED Talk on the benefits of deep sleep, agrees. “In my opinion, the problem isn’t when you sleep, but the natural misalignment in the sleep schedule of those who work a 9-to-5 job,” he says. “It’s these societal pressures that contribute to a growing number of sleep-deprived individuals."
For owls, forcing themselves into an unnatural sleep pattern can have a dangerous impact. While their bodies might not be ready for sleep until the small hours, society remains steadfast in its belief that "early to bed, early to rise" is the business world ideal—sleeping until 10am on a weekday is seen as slovenly; going to bed at 10pm is admirable.
Another study found that workers who got less than six hours’ sleep per night were more likely to engage in unethical or deviant behaviours, with researchers identifying a link between sleep deprivation and glucose levels in the cerebral cortex, the brain region responsible for self-control. And unsurprisingly, owls are far more sleep deprived than larks.
While there are dozens of tricks to make a night owl more of a lark—avoiding screens at night, limiting caffeine intake, sleeping in a cooler space or cutting calories after a certain hour—few are likely to make much of a difference over the long term. In a biological sense, you’re just fighting against yourself. The ideal solution, is to find ways to work around your natural rhythm.
As millennials embrace a freelance lifestyle, listening to your body has never been easier. Equally, entrepreneurs can create companies tailored to a wide variety of needs. "My advice would be to build a team and designate tasks," says Kathy Gong, the CEO of WafaGames. "That was the only way I learned to step back and sleep." But how do you do listen to your body and hold down a job?
My advice would be to build a team and designate tasks. That was the only way I learned to step back and sleep
— Gong Xiaosi (Kathy)
Speaking at the Hay festival in the UK on Monday about light and circadian rhythms, science journalist and author Linda Geddes called for more workplaces to introduce “flexi-working” to accommodate different chronotypes.
“Research suggests if your manager is a lark and you’re a night owl, they’re going to judge your performance more poorly,” Geddes said. “Lark managers tend to perceive more owlish workers who start later or just don’t get going until 10am, they judge them as less competent. And if you’re an owl forced to start work early, you’re going to curb your sleep.”
In her book Chasing the Sun, Geddes proposes that flexi-working would “help to level the playing field, it could boost workplace productivity and employees’ health and happiness… such an approach could create a more harmonious and morally sound workplace”.
And if we do all this, it might finally be time for the night owls of the world to rise—just not too early, of course.