The Truth About Night Owls

It was the type of schedule that only a young man could keep.

He began the night at an official government reception. When that ended, he moved on at 2 a.m. to a private party at a friend’s house, finally arriving home at 3:40 a.m.

Yet the next day he was still up in time to have his daily American Presidential breakfast of eggs, bacon, orange juice, coffee, and toast before receiving visitors in the White House at 9 a.m.

President John F. Kennedy had a reputation as a night owl. He preferred to work late and play late, socializing into the early morning with his wife Jackie. They entertained celebrities, actors, artists, and important people from around the world, earning the nickname “Camelot” for the term of his Presidency.

His hectic schedule required an afternoon siesta. Each day President Kennedy would have a one- to two-hour nap after lunch during which his staff was strictly forbidden to disturb him unless it was a national emergency. He would return to the office around 3:30 p.m. and resume meetings at 4 p.m.

President Kennedy was not the only Commander-in-Chief that wasn’t early to rise. According to Newsweek, President Barack Obama also prefers to work late, although he is much less social and doesn’t allow himself a nap.

Said President Obama, “I’m a night owl. My usual day [is]: I work out in the morning; I get to the office around 9, 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.; work till about 6:30 p.m.; have dinner with the family, hang out with the kids and put them to bed about 8:30 p.m. And then I’ll probably read briefing papers or do paperwork or write stuff until about 11:30 p.m., and then I usually have about a half hour to read before I go to bed … about midnight, 12:30 a.m. — sometimes a little later.”

If the Night Owl approach could work for the President of the United States, then perhaps you shouldn’t rule out this way of living.

Contemporary American author Anne Beatty said, “I really believe in day people and night people. I really think people’s bodies are on different clocks. I even feel now like I just woke up and I’ve been awake for three or four hours. And I’ll feel this way until seven o’clock tonight when I’ll start to pick up and then by nine it will be O.K. to start writing. My favorite hours are from 12:00 to 3:00 a.m. for writing.”

Her instinct is backed by science. There are proven genetic differences in optimal circadian rhythms and in the performance of late versus early risers. According to research from Belgium in the journal Science, late risers are better able to stay focused as the day wears on compared to early risers.

“There is a strong genetic component determining whether a person is an evening or a morning type in their activity times,” says Penn State psychology professor Frederick Brown.

Some folks simply work better at night. While living an extreme night owl lifestyle, such as being a shift worker, is associated with negative health consequences, not everyone needs to be early to rise to achieve great things in their life.

To create his notorious novel, Madame Bovary, in the early 1850’s, French writer Gustave Flaubert followed a strict night-owl routine that allowed him to write for a few secluded hours beginning at 10:00 p.m. It was the reverse schedule of the one I outline in my upcoming book, The Perfect Day Formula.

Flaubert woke up at 10 a.m., read letters (the equivalent of checking email today), chatted with his mother, bathed, ate, and went for a walk. In the afternoon he tutored his niece and read, had supper, socialized, and finally got to writing late at night.

Despite being a night owl, he was not a socialite. He described his existence as an “austere life, stripped of all external pleasure” and admitted, “I love my work with a love that is frantic and perverted”. His book required five years to finish as he wrote at a rate of just two pages per week. Flaubert was a notorious perfectionist and claimed always to be searching for le mot juste (“the precise word”). Despite his penchant for drama, Flaubert wrote years later, “work is still the best way of escaping from life!”

Franz Kafka also began writing after 10:00 p.m, and some nights would go as late as 3:00 a.m., even though he held down a full-time job during the day. Alas, poor Franz was was often tired, worn out, and sick from this schedule.

Then there was the French author Honore de Balzac. His schedule was so extreme that it’s difficult to label him a night owl or an early riser. Balzac slept from 6:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., and then worked for seven hours, before taking a nap from 8:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. He returned to the writing table until 4:00 p.m., fueled by copious amounts of coffee (some historians suggest he drank 50 cups per day, although the size of strength of each are debated). Balzac finished his day with a walk, a bath, and a light dinner, and then to bed by 6:00 p.m. Perhaps suffering from some of the depression associated with night owl personalities, he once said,  “I’m not living, I’m wearing myself out in a horrible fashion — but whether I die of work or something else, it’s all the same.” And die he did, at the young age of 51.

Working on a night owl schedule brings several benefits, most notably the built-in natural deadline of bedtime, and the urgency to make significant progress or finish a big project before earning the reward of crawling under the covers. Most people have experienced this, pulling all-nighters in college or in their business. Even Ben Franklin, for all his reputation as an early riser, was often found burning the midnight oil due to the demands of his print shop.

You have to find the right approach for you, but don’t use this as excuse to be lazy. There are far too many benefits to the Early to Rise approach in life. Early risers sleep better, and “have more regular sleep patterns and more flexible personalities,” Sharkey says. They also tend to be happier and feel healthier than night owls, according to a recent study from the University of Toronto.

New research from the University of Barcelona published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that early risers are more persistent, and resistant to fatigue, frustration and difficulties. This tends to be associated with lower anxiety and depression, higher life satisfaction, and a lower overall risk of substance abuse.

The Night Owl lifestyle also has a greater downside. “Night owls tend to be more depressed, have a higher dependence on caffeine, and use alcohol more,” Sharkey says. Other studies show that night owls eat more and eat poorly. Spanish researchers found that late risers displayed more extravagant, temperamental, and novelty-seeking characteristics, and suffered from higher rates of insomnia, ADHD, and even addictive behaviors.

Even worse are the negative effects on those non-Night Owls forced into overnight shift work. The hazards of which are well documented, and include “restlessness, sleepiness on the job, fatigue, decreased attention and disruption of the body’s metabolic process,” according to the American Psychological Association.

“Working at night runs counter to the body’s natural circadian rhythm,” says Charmane Eastman, PhD, a physiological psychologist at Rush University in Chicago, and may contribute to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer, according to a study published in the journal, Policing.

Finally, you might not be a night owl after all.

“Dr. Richard Coleman, a chronobiologist who has worked extensively in developing shift and night work schedules, maintains that only about 10 percent of the population are extreme owls or extreme larks/early birds. Most other sources state that intermediates account for 80% of the population and night owls and early birds account for the remaining 20%,” said author Carolyn Schur.

Research indicates about 10 percent of the population is comprised of “extreme” night owls or early birds, who may get chronically fatigued, sick or depressed if they work a schedule counter to their nature. But the vast majority of people are neither strong morning nor strong evening types — just day types. “Even though somebody will swear he’s a morning person or a night owl, that’s often a false perception,” Brown says. “Most college students, like most members of the population in general, aren’t true night owls, even though they tend to be evening-active,” Brown says.

For the rest of us, schedule is simply a choice. Many night owls can be reformed. But if you insist on being late to rise, on Monday I’ll show you how to make that schedule work.