A common narrative is that you should strive to be either a night owl or an early riser in order to be productive and make the most of the day.
However, it seems more likely that there are genetic components to the way that we choose to sleep and work, and I think it's far more important to find a rhythm and schedule that works for you.
You can do your best work in your underwear. You can do your best work distracted. You can do your best work at any time of the day. Stop worrying about your circumstances, and instead focus on the things you can control, like the quality of your work.
I have a secret: I absolutely HATE those things about the “work habits of the greatest people in the world”.
I hate all those “people who go to sleep later are smarter and more creative!” or “you need to wake up early to be productive!”.
These distinctions are all virtually meaningless.
Not that long ago, I saw an infographic being shared on LinkedIn. In it, they laid out the sleeping habits of about ten or fifteen (extremely cherry picked) important historical figures. To their credit, they didn’t just cherry pick all the night owls or all the early risers - they basically pointed out that some of these famous people were early risers, and some were night owls.
Well if that’s really the case - what does it matter? Who cares when you do your best work? Why do we care so much about the sleep habits of the rich and the famous?
I also hate claims about the types of people that early risers and night owls are - for example, the common claim that night owls tend to be smarter. This may be the case, but it’s unlikely that this correlation is causation - choosing to stay up late doesn't instantly make you any smarter. Just because a night owl may tend to be more likely to be smarter, this doesn’t mean that stupid night owls and smart early risers don’t exist - again, correlation isn’t causation. Even if there are concrete and measurable differences between the two, you could very easily be one of those people who’s in the minority of your cohort - and to think otherwise without objective evidence is probably just confirmation bias.
So at the end of the day, we're right back where we started - just because night owls and early risers may tend to have certain habits, that says next to nothing about individuals.
I’ll be honest - I’ve always been a night owl. This is a problem in a profession like personal training, where you’re expected to be up and energetic at the asscrack of dawn so that you can train your clients before they go into work for the day. I also find that I’m more energetic at night, and that my sleep schedule often drifts a bit when I get let myself get tangled up in work an hour before I’m supposed to go to sleep and end up overshooting my bedtime by an hour or two.
It seems likely that our circadian rhythms (the times that we tend to do things within the day) are influenced by our genetics or epigenetics, and that part of having a good sleep schedule is just about finding the right ways to schedule our lives around those rhythms. If this is the case, there's no point in valuing one over the other - we might as well just stick with whatever comes most natural to us.
It’s also true that habit plays a huge role in things. When you’re used to going to sleep and waking up at certain times each day, this makes it easy to continue doing so. Your body likes circadian rhythms and regular schedules so much that things like jet lag and daylight savings time can really get you down.
Disruption to your regular rhythms is bad for your health.
I’ve gone through several phases in life where, because of my job, I had to be more of a morning person. In one job, I had to wake up at 4:30 every morning to open a gym at 5:30 every morning. It wasn’t pretty, but I got used to it.
I think we need to stop talking about being an early bird, or a night person. I think we need to accept that people can do their best work at any time of day - and that what matters more is the quality and quantity of your work than when you do it.
I’ll be honest - I’ve done some of my best work, absolutely exhausted, sitting around in my underwear after being forced to wake up early. Is that the best way to do things? Probably not.
But stop worrying about trying to optimize your exact sleep schedule. Stop worrying about doing things in the most perfectly right way. Stop being anxious over being perfect, and just do what you can.
Find your own plan that suits you well, lets you do your best work when you want to, and lets you get in your 6-9 hours of sleep.
Are you getting started with your own business, or developing a new skillset? Yes, you can squeeze work into the most unlikely times. Listen to audiobooks on your commute. Just ten minutes a day of exercise is better than nothing. Consistency matters more than perfection.
Recently I was forced to become a morning person again. My fiancee and I moved to London, and this means that I need to drive my stepdaughter to school at 8am. But since I've been working from home for over a year, I've gotten used to the process of going to bed late at night and waking up at 10am.
After I switched to waking up 3 hours earlier, I felt suddenly more productive - I was getting so much more done! - and then I realized that I wasn't, actually, getting anything done any faster. I was just starting 3 hours earlier, and finishing my work in roughly the same amount of time. I think that says enough.
Yes, you can often do better work using flow and deep work principles. Yes, you can generally do better work with a careful schedule. But don't miss the forest for the trees - what matters most is "whatever it takes to get you moving".
Enjoy this post? Share the gains!
- Cherry Picking and Confirmation Bias
- Winners Always Quit, and Quitters Always Win
- The "Easy" Way To Master Any Skill
- I Don't Think We Should Glorify Hard Work
- No One Really Knows What They're Doing
- It's Ok To Be Lazy!
- Deep Work For Intense Productivity
- Flow State For Maximum Performance
- Using Microworkouts For Strength and Size
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