"The elastic band of sleep deprivation can stretch only so far before it snaps" — Matthew Walker, PhD
Early morning routines have taken the modern-day world by storm. Whether it’s James Corden joining Mark Wahlberg’s ‘4:00am workout club’, or Forbes documenting another CEO powerhouse’s 5:00am routine, the internet is telling us to wake up earlier. It’s gone so far, that an early rise is synonymous with success, and sleeping in means you’re a lazy and unmotivated member of society.
In reality, what’s far more important than an early wakeup is sleep quality and quantity. If you’re a morning person that can fall asleep by 10:00pm, then an 8-hour sleep is within your wheelhouse. According to Matthew Walker, sleep expert and author of Why We Sleep, over 30% of the world’s population cannot achieve this feat.
That’s 2.3 billion people who shouldn’t be waking up with the birds.
Before getting into the science of the ‘Night Owl’, here are some alarming facts about sleep deprivation — proving that a full night of sleep is much more productive than an early rise.
Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.
Moderate sleep loss for a week disrupts blood sugars levels so profoundly that one would be classified as pre-diabetic.
Vehicular accidents by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined.
“…cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, infertility, weight gain, obesity, or immune deficiency. No facet of the human body is spared the crippling, noxious harm of sleep loss.” — Matthew Walker
Finding Our Rhythm.
You may have heard of ‘circadian rhythm’. It’s your biological wake and sleep clock that governs everything from eating and drinking cues, core body temperature, metabolic rate, and the release of various hormones.
Despite everyone having a slightly different cycle, no one individual can influence this internal timer (well, unless you do some traveling). Whether you listen to the cues or not, your rhythm will continue to cycle without fail, like a preprogrammed metronome.
We are all at mercy to our biological clocks.
There are two distinct groups within the circadian world: the morning lark (preferring to sleep early and wake early), and the evening owl (naturally inclined to do the exact opposite).
“An adult’s ‘larkness’ or ‘owlness’, also known as their chronotype, is strongly determined by genetics. The unfortunate truth about owls is that they are bound by a delayed sleep schedule through unavoidable DNA hard wiring.” — Walker
It is not their fault, but rather their genetic fate.
Surely You Can Just ‘Grind it Out’, Right?
Due to the complexity of circadian rhythm, a night owl will find great difficulty in going ‘online’ in the early morning as the brain remains in a sleep state. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functioning, will stay offline in the early hours when insufficient sleep has occurred. If a night owl chooses to push through, he or she will be grasping for productivity when the internal machinery is operating well below capacity.
If you fall asleep at midnight and get up at 5:00am for work, you’d be lopping off at least two hours of precious sleep. In fact, you will lose 60–90% of all your REM sleep, even though you are only losing about one-quarter of your total sleep time.
“I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required.” -Mendeleev on summating the periodic table of elements in his sleep.
REM (rapid eye movement) is the fifth and final stage of sleep. It’s when memory integration, innovative insights, and problem-solving are made possible. Additionally, it’s critical for consolidating facts from the day prior, leaving room for a new wave of information. It secures the mind map of the day if you will.
REM sleep is one of the reasons why humans are far more advanced than animals. It is described as a ‘super emotional brain gift’, leading to cognitive creativity, emotional intelligence, and thus, social complexity.
Let this be heard loud and clear: waking up early is counterproductive for night owls. Not only are you physically vulnerable due to sleep deprivation, but you’ll be missing out on the creativity and innovation that is necessary to spark success.
“When it comes to sleep, there is no such thing as burning the candle at both ends — or even at one end — and getting away with it.” -Matthew Walker
How to Determine if You’re a Night Owl.
From a clinical standpoint, the TimeSignature Test is a reliable approach for predicting one’s physiological clock. It involves two blood tests, suitably but flexibly spaced in time, that accurately determines where one’s circadian rhythm sits.
It may be even simpler than that, however. Take a moment and reflect on the list below, carefully curated by Sleep, etc.
You’ll happily start watching a film after 9 pm.
You do your best work at night.
You’re happy to have your dinner after 8 pm.
You’d much rather have a night in the pub than a morning yoga class.
You often snooze your alarm.
You drink coffee at any time.
You must set multiple alarms.
It annoys you when shops close — even if it’s at 10 pm.
If these statements ring a bell, it may be all the evidence you need to join the night owl club.
Stop Glorifying the Early Morning Rise.
It’s time to end the association of sleeping in with laziness. Over 30% of people are desperately in need of more shut-eye, but the constraints of work culture starve them of this necessity.
The reality is, we’re all on a journey to increased productivity, fulfillment, and ultimately, happiness. Everyone’s path looks different, but that does not mean that an eight-hour sleep should be a luxury reserved for the genetically fortunate.
For all you evening people out there, sleep in for goodness sakes. It’s not only essential for your present-day productivity, but it may be a deciding factor in your future health. If you have young children or work constraints, consider compensating with an afternoon nap or slightly earlier bedtime.
For the rest of us, it’s time to make room for the night owls of the world. Creating supple work schedules is key for adapting to all chronotypes, and not just one in its extreme. If the early morning grind is your cup of tea, then keep at it! Just know that there’s a community out there that was never built to see the sunrise — and that’s ok.