As time slips past midnight, then 1 a.m., and even later, I often find myself still awake – but not because I can’t fall asleep. As a teenager, I realized I am by nature a night owl – someone who prefers to stay up later at night and then sleep in and wake up later in the morning. This trait differs from “morning larks” or “early birds” who enjoy getting up early in the morning and, consequently, go to bed earlier in the evening.
For me, I seem to get a lot done later at night and often experience “a second wind” to finish up a project during the later evening hours. In fact, I’m writing this post after midnight.
But many friends and even some family members marvel that I can function so well as a night owl or are concerned about the shorter amounts of sleep I’m getting. It turns out that night owls – and morning larks – may be fewer in numbers than the people who don’t stay up late or wake up super early.
According to the “Night Owls Aren’t Lazy: Rethinking Sleep Variation” article in Psychology Today:
Sleep patterns are normally distributed, with about 30% of people on the extremes of the spectrum and about 70% concentrated toward the middle.
The author, Odessa S. Hamilton, MSc, MBPsS, FRSPH, explains that humans developed a variation in the 24-hour circadian rhythm – or biological clock – to “ensure the longest period of protection over a 24-hour period.”
While I’m not staying awake later at night to protect my family, that evolutionary adaptation does make sense. Maybe I was a night watchman or town crier in a previous life.
For me, being a night owl has its pros and cons, which I’ve learned to both embrace and cope with.
The Pros: Night Owl Benefits
Despite losing a few hours of sleep on many nights, I certainly feel I’ve gained a lot from being a night owl.
Quiet time for myself. Once my husband went to bed and our children were tucked in for the night (they are adults now and don’t need to be tucked in), I used the quiet to contemplate an issue or problem. It’s also useful for planning a project or event. I spent many late evenings organizing the final details for my son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor ceremony, including the ceremony script, food and drinks, room and table decorations – all while my son was working at a summer camp and had limited time to discuss his preferences with me.
Do whatever I like. I’m sure I discovered this advantage as a teenager when I read for hours before going to sleep. No one else was awake to ask me to do other tasks around the house, so I could dive into a good book. Nowadays, I can also check out my favorite YouTube channels or watch movies on TV that the rest of my family aren’t interested in. Who needs to hear their reactions to what I want to watch?
Focused time for projects. My mother comes to mind when I think of this pro. As a wife and mother who worked a full-time job, she didn’t have a lot of time for her own hobbies and interests unless she stayed up late. That’s when she would read or sew clothes for herself or me. I followed her lead, sewing Halloween costumes for my kids for many years and working on quilts. But I also finished up tasks for my job that I didn’t get to during the day, especially the ones that required uninterrupted focus. Those late-night hours could be so productive, if I needed to get something done by a deadline.
TV program discoveries. Often, I just wasn’t tired enough to go to bed, so I would surf through the channels to find something to watch. Granted, there can be a lot of strange content on TV, especially later at night, but I also stumbled across old movies and other broadcasts that I might never have seen. I recall finding and watching Raintree County, a 1957 movie set during the Civil War and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Another night I found a broadcast of the Drum Corps International final competition, so I enjoyed watching several drum corps marching bands perform. Now I might check out an international film on one of the streaming services, such as an Italian film with subtitles displayed – not something my husband would be interested in, but I like to test my ability to understand the dialogue.
The Cons: Night Owl Challenges
Not everything is great when you’re a night owl, though, and I recognize several ways that this trait has not served me well.
Balance with a daytime job. Perhaps the most significant challenge that most night owls face is having to live in a world that caters to daytime hours for work, school, and other activities. I might stay up later at night, but I still had to set my alarm clock to be awake most mornings by 6 a.m. I suppose I learned to cope with this scheduling while in high school, and during college I tried to schedule classes for later in the mornings and afternoons, when possible. Once I entered the workforce, however, my daytime hours during the work week were pretty set. So, I adapted to functioning with less sleep for some nights during the week and tried to catch some extra ZZZs on the weekends. That arrangement usually worked well, but I also struggled to get going on many mornings.
Late-night snacking. Depending on what I was doing during those later evening hours, I often grabbed a snack while watching TV. Those extra calories did me no favors, however. I still struggle to avoid that extra snacking or at least try to select something healthy to eat.
Easier to procrastinate. When I know I can stay up later to work on something, my strong tendency to procrastinate can easily kick in. Instead of starting a project a few nights earlier, I will underestimate how long the task will take or delay the work until the deadline is tomorrow. I have spent several all-night work sessions to finish something. Remember the Halloween costumes I mentioned earlier? One year my daughter didn’t want me to make her costume because she knew it would be stressful not knowing if I would finish it in time. Although I put more blame on procrastination for these situations that I put myself (and others) into, I recognize that being a night owl is an enabler.
Wasted time on apps and social media. Once cell phones and social media entered my life, I found myself wasting more late-night hours online. I’m especially vulnerable to game apps, which suck me into playing another game to pass a level or improve my score. But I can be just as addicted to scrolling through social media – Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram – for much longer than I intended to.
My Night Owl Coping Mechanisms
After so many years as a night owl, I have devised a few ways to find balance between what I enjoy about staying up late and how I can struggle with it. Often, I take short naps in the afternoon (now that I’m retired) or earlier in the evening or I plan to sleep longer the next morning. I suspect I’ll be napping later today since I’ve been up late finishing this post. Taking naps and/or sleeping in recharge my biological clock a bit, so I can accomplish tasks and interact with family and friends.
To avoid others expressing concern about my night owl schedule, I learned to avoid sending emails late at night. I would write the email but wait to send it until the next morning. It might seem like I was hiding from being a night owl, but often I might have napped earlier in the evening but was then awake later and wanted to make sure the email was ready to send. Getting that task done would often clear my mind, allowing me to fall asleep faster.
In recent months, I have tried to push myself to curb my night owl tendencies just a bit. So, I try to not stay up later than midnight. Admittedly, some nights I’m successful and other nights I’m not. But I’ll keep trying to make it a habit.
Where does your biological clock fall – with the 30% on the early bird and night owl extremes or in the 70% in the middle? Let me know in the comments below.