My New Year’s resolution was to get up early. Notice the past tense in that sentence. Four days into said new year, I clambered out of bed at 11am again after a night of "Ooh! I’ll just write this idea down in case I forget it" and performed my usual ritual of stomping around the house grumbling that I’m a lazy [insert any swear word you like – it ranges from 'twat' to 'bollock'. My ears rang with articles telling me that the most successful people get up at 4am, and work/life diaries that always seem to begin: "I rise at 6am already in the middle of a yoga class."
To make myself feel better I googled successful late-risers, and the first three that came up were Hunter S. Thompson, who woke at 3pm to a cocaine breakfast and eventually killed himself; René Descartes, who stayed in bed 'til 11am but was around in the 1600s, which isn’t a particularly relatable time period; and Mark Zuckerberg, who bravely admits to getting up at 8am. Which is not late. And don’t tell me Barack Obama is a night owl, either – he may stay up beyond midnight, but this is followed by a 7am wake-up call. I wouldn't last a day doing that, never mind running a country for eight years. Amid a fog of self-loathing, I put out a tweet asking if any successful (read: productive) night owls could make themselves known and, while waiting to hear back, ignored the actual work I was already late starting, to do some night owl research instead.
Turns out there’s very little difference in terms of measurable success between what scientists call an 'owl' and a 'lark', the latter referring to a morning person. (I probably didn't have to explain what a lark is but hey, it's 4am and I'm getting sleepy.) There are some studies that found owls to be a little bit smarter, but others where larks were found to be more persistent, agreeable and less likely to procrastinate. Some found that while larks might be happier, they aren't necessarily wealthier or wiser. I also found an article entitled "Night Owls Die Earlier", which I decided to skip.
The thing is, it depends not only on the individual but also on the sort of job they do. Of course the most quantifiably 'successful' people – the CEOs who have come from nothing and now own huge corporations – get up at 5am. They have to stay ahead of the working world, which operates between the hours of 9am and 5pm. A new study illustrates how detrimental this may be to night owls. According to scientists at the University of Birmingham's very impressive sounding Centre for Human Brain Health, night owls don't do well in a 9-5 world. Their brains are more sluggish during the day, they find concentration harder and and their reaction times are slower. They perk up around 8pm, by which point the traditional working world is at home watching Eastenders.
I’m a freelance writer and comedian, so I don’t have to get up at 5am to cram in my gym session before the Japanese stock market opens (look, I don’t work in business, I don’t understand what happens). I get a perverse pleasure from working when everyone else is asleep, because it means I’m not constantly distracted by the exact world the CEOs are getting up early to join.
There’s so much pressure put on being an early riser that I walk around as if I have this shameful secret. It begs the question: why, if there are so many of us, do we feel so bad?
I say 'perverse' pleasure because, while I hit my deadlines and get shit done, it’s all laced with extreme guilt about not being able to keep to the hours that everyone else seems to. Hours which, as it turns out, only came about because in 1914 the Ford factory realised that if it decreased workers' hours from 10-16-hour days to a 9am-5pm eight-hour routine, they were no longer regularly dying of exhaustion. It worked, which is great, but I’m not a factory worker. And I don’t live in 1914.
More and more people are starting to realise that they don’t either, with 42% of employed people in the UK already embracing flexi-working (whether that’s due to compressed hours or job-sharing) and half of the workforce expected to be working from home in 2020. There’s also been research into school hours, with a 2017 study showing that starting the first lesson at 10am halved student illness and increased productivity.
Spouting sciencey statistics might sound fancy but it doesn't help me feel less alone when my working day has, yet again, been 12pm until I get hungry for dinner. That's where Twitter comes in.
When I checked to see if anyone had responded to my night owl tweet, I was overwhelmed with hundreds of replies that made for the most uplifting reading since the study about owls being more intelligent. Nat Luurtseema, a BAFTA-nominated screenwriter, author and director who has her fourth and fifth books out in 2020, tweeted saying she "wouldn’t wake up at 6.30am if you set my bed on fire", later explaining: "I wake up at 8am when my boyfriend leaves for work and I sit up and feign cheeriness. The moment that front door bangs shut I flop back for a good two hour lie-in."
Samantha Baines, who is writing two books and hosts the excellent podcast Periods: Amazing Women in History told me: "I'm very productive in the evening and the afternoon so why would I sleep during my best times!?" and Rose Matafeo, a comedian who won last year’s award for best comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is currently working on myriad TV projects, simply said: "If I wake up before 10am I get worried."
It wasn’t just writers and creatives, either. I had messages from scientists who "don’t appear in the lab before 10.30am". Business development managers who’ve never closed a deal before 11.30am ("EVER"). A lighthouse keeper (!) got in touch to tell me he starts work "when the sun goes down" (obvs) and a chef tweeted me that she usually starts at 10am and would never, ever be a breakfast chef. "These days I seldom crawl out of bed before noon," Howard Chu, a software engineer who created the world’s smallest, fastest, most reliable embedded transactional database, said. "Doesn't really matter – open software development has no timetable!" Neither does cricket commentary, with commentator Geoff Lemon tweeting: "Thankfully most cricket doesn’t start until 11am", adding that he has "three books and hundreds of articles almost entirely written between 10pm and 4am". Business partners who own sustainable fashion brand RILKA told me how waking up early feels bad for their mental health "but we still get shit done". There were also the people who simply replied "Oh god this is me" and "Ugh my guilty secret".
"When I wake up late I feel like shit even though I'm so productive!" says Scarlett Curtis, a writer and activist whose book Feminists Don't Wear Pink (and other lies) is out now. "There’s so much pressure put on being an early riser that I walk around as if I have this shameful secret." It begs the question: why, if there are so many of us, do we feel so bad?
So what if you're not up before other people in the office? You get ahead by working hard and looking after yourself.
Humans as a species are hardwired to conform. Some more than others, but on the whole we don’t realise how important being part of society is for our mental health; ancient humans relied on the concept of community to survive, because being part of a group meant you were less likely to starve or get eaten by a tiger. Not a huge worry now, but when environments change so quickly it takes a lot longer for our brains to catch up, which may explain the primal tug of isolation and fear I get every time I wake up, knowing the rest of the working world is already having lunch. It's a protection impulse, which worked then but nowadays could cause serious complications, and it goes some way to explain the 'night owls die earlier' article that I previously skipped over. Yep, apparently we do run a higher risk of health complications (I'm not going to list them because that's hella depressing, but you can have a read here) but the link hasn't been explained, with researchers speculating that it's possibly to do with the fact that owls are forced to live in a lark-based world, depriving ourselves of sleep when we shouldn't have to. Interestingly, another theory is that the hours owls keep mean they're more likely to self-medicate with drinking and drugs, backed up by another study that found a link between owls and depression.
When I was at university, I found the flexibility and freedom of being able to get up when I wanted disorienting. Rather than accept that I was different from my uni halls neighbour, who regularly went rowing at 5am, I tried to fight it and slowly sank into a pit of self-loathing that a year later ended in me not getting out of bed for two weeks, trying to kill myself and dropping out of the course. I obviously had shit going on beyond being a late riser, but the guilt of sleeping in prevented me from getting better because it proved that the horrible voice in my head was right. It proved that I was lazier than other people. I was stupid. I wouldn’t succeed. I still feel like that every time I snooze my alarm clock 15 times, even on a bloody Sunday morning, and it has to stop.
"I need to make good shit and that can't be attributed to a time. It's an arbitrary pressure that makes people feel bad," says Charly Cox, a poet whose debut book She Must Be Mad became an instant bestseller. "So what if you're not up before other people in the office? You get ahead by working hard and looking after yourself – that does not mean punishing yourself first thing in the morning because some CEO who wakes up in his lovely house to his lovely PT to eat his lovely early breakfast enjoys it."
I'd like to get this quote tattooed onto the inside of my brain. Science doesn't know everything, but it knows enough to identify two different types of people. Not a good type and a wrong type, but two different types. If you're an owl, don't compare yourself to something your brain isn't, for whatever reason, wired to be. Structure your life in a way that helps you be your best self, rather than the self you wish you were. In short: be your best owl. It's time to fly around, hooting at the moon, guys.
I, for one, have decided to change my New Year’s resolution. Rather than getting up earlier, I’m going to aim to be more productive and, crucially, nicer to myself, whatever hours my body wants me to keep. I’d advise you do the same – and also have a read of the full Twitter thread because it’ll really give you a 3am boost. Happy hooting.