Early Birds and Night Owls

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
— Benjamin Franklin

Blessed are the owls, for they shall inherit the mystery and magic of the night.
— Hilary Rubinstein

Do you ever feel that you’re just not in synch with the people around you? You’re soaking your brain in caffeine in the early a.m., trying to shake off sleep like a bear in spring, while your coworkers behave like busy beavers and Chatty Cathys. Then, just about the time everyone is clocking out, your brain lights up like a firecracker. If that sounds familiar, chances are you’re a night owl.

Night owls, or evening people, tend to stay awake past midnight, perhaps even until dawn. They feel most lively in the evening. Morning people, on the other hand, also known as early birds, early risers, or larks, get up around 6 a.m. and feel most energetic in the morning.

I’ve been a night owl since I was a kid. In the summertime in my preteen and teen years, I stayed up late reading or watching TV well past anyone else in the household—and I was the youngest. During the school year, I conformed to the school schedule, but those hours were never my preference. Nocturnal habits followed me into college, where I typically opted for afternoon classes and studied in the evenings.

Sometimes I lucked out with work. For instance, for a couple summers during college, I worked the swing shift at lumber mills, 4 p.m. to midnight, which coordinated well with my natural rhythms. (I also worked the graveyard shift, midnight to 8 a.m., but didn’t like that at all.) After graduation, however, daytime hours were the workplace norm, and getting up early, day in, day out, became an unpleasant grind. Before too many years had passed, I figured out a way to work for myself and set my own hours.

So why do some people feel more active in the morning and others in the evening? Are early birds and night owls just people with slightly altered sleep tendencies, or is there more to the phenomenon?

Science Says

Scientists have discovered that the number of people who identify as night owls or early birds is surprising high. A survey of more than four hundred adults found that about 15% were morning people, 25% were evening people, and 60% were intermediates, according to Carolyn Schur in Birds of a Different Feather.

Studies performed at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in 2008 showed that sleep-time preferences are often inherited, and additional research indicates that 50 percent of sleep-time choices are determined by genetic factors. In fact, rare gene mutations are linked to entire families whose members wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and cannot stay up much later than 8 p.m.

This all makes sense in the context of my family. My mom is a morning person and my dad (now deceased) was a night owl. My two oldest siblings follow my mom’s pattern, while my other sister and I are more evening people, like my dad.

Some speculate that the division between larks and owls is rooted in evolution, with early risers in the ancient past immersed in daytime activities such as food gathering, while owls took up guard duty as darkness descended.

The Benefits of “Earliness” and “Owliness”

Studies have uncovered certain trends among larks and owls. For instance, early birds tend to be more conscientious. They also display more positive emotions and are more proactive in general. “They tend to get better grades in school, which gets them into better colleges which then leads to better job opportunities,” according to Christopher Randler, a professor at the University of Education in Heidelberg, Germany. “Morning people also anticipate problems and try to minimize them,” he said. Night owls tend to be less reliable, less emotionally stable, and more likely to experience depression, addictions, and eating disorders.

And that’s not all. A recent study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences indicates that staying up late is associated with a “dark triad” of personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

That all sounds pretty grim for owls, but take note of a few bright spots. Evening people, studies show, need less rest and are able to stay focused longer. Early birds may be more sensitive to sleep pressure than night owls. Oddly enough, evening people become physically stronger as the day goes on, but the strength of morning people remains the same throughout the day. People with higher IQs are more likely to be night owls, and they tend to have better memories and accumulate more wealth.

A Who’s Who of Larks and Owls

Examples abound of famous early risers and night people, so neither pattern appears to hold an edge for success. Benjamin Franklin of the well-known “early to bed” idiom was a dedicated early riser. He reportedly began each morning by asking himself “what good shall I do today?” and ended it with “what good did I do today?” Ernest Hemingway, John Grisham, George W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Napoleon, Tim Cook, and Rachael Ray also fall within the early bird category.

Famous night owls include Charles Darwin, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Florence King, Fran Lebowitz, Keith Richards, and Elvis Presley. Winston Churchill typically went to bed at 4 a.m. and rose late. As a result of his sleeping patterns, he often hosted War Cabinet meetings in his bath.

The Creativity Question

One question that arises when discussing sleep patterns is whether night owls are more creative. The answer might indeed be yes. A Spanish researcher found that early risers were more likely to be logical and analytical, while those who stayed up late were more imaginative and intuitive. Night owls scored better on creativity tests than did intermediary and morning people, according to a study published in the February 2007 issue of Personality and Individual Differences.

That’s not to say that creative early risers and analytical night owls don’t exist. As I researched this piece, I found that I have a mix of the traits for morning and evening people. For instance, I did well in school, and I’m conscientious and reliable, all characteristics of morning people, but I also at times demonstrate something of an artistic temperament. (My husband can attest to that.)

So what about you? Are you a lark? An owl? Something in between? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

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22 Comments

Filed under Personal Log

22 responses to “Early Birds and Night Owls

  1. sherry fundin

    Excellent post.

  2. Very nice. Your posts are like fine wine and well worth it

  3. Thank you, John! Better a wine than a whine. 🙂

  4. Good to see you back, Marny. I was a night owl up till about 10 years ago and I think I was smarter back then – but that might have been because I was younger. lol

  5. Thanks, gp! The early part of the summer is a blur.

    Experience has the edge on smarts in my book. 🙂

  6. Fascinating post – I’ve always been a Night Owl but I find my strengths and weaknesses can change depending on the situation I’m in. Personality studies call me a chameleon. I try not to analyze it too much and just go-with-the-flow.
    I’ll be following your future posts.

  7. A ways back I read an interesting research article that said night owls were definitely more creative. Sometimes I don’t even hit my stride until late in the evening. Great post!

  8. Thanks, Vickie! Sounds like an interesting study. I’m curious about why that would be.

    I’m with you on the late night writing groove. I don’t know why, but that’s when a lot of the ideas come.

  9. Awesome! I’d love to read it! 🙂

  10. Fascinating post! I think I fall somewhere in between-lately I have been staying up later to write and work and it seems fine-it helps when you work for yourself though-definitely!

  11. It’s nice to have the option to go either way. Thanks for visiting. 🙂

  12. Night owl through and through. I seem to come alive around 8pm! Though I have tried to convert to the way of the lark, it never lasts long. 😀

  13. I too have tried to go in the other direction, but it doesn’t take. Thanks for dropping by!

  14. Thank you for visiting my blog and liking my post today Marny! By the way, there is an explanation for the link between night owls and depression… that is, since today’s (industrialized) society is largely constructed around the rhythms and preferences of early birds, it is natural for those who fall outside of it to have negative emotional reactions to the arrangement. If we were to construct society around night owls’ rhythms and preferences instead, I think we would see happier night owls and a spike in depression among early bird types! Essentially the link to depression isn’t a byproduct of your circadian rhythm type but, rather, by the environment-type fit.

    • It appears I neglected to reply to this. That is an interesting explanation, Lynn, and it makes sense. I’m not depressed, but I do get annoyed when people don’t grasp that there isn’t just one sleep pattern for all of us. Not fitting into the “correct” pattern probably is depressing for some. It would be fun to make the switch to a night owl society, at least for a day or two.
      Thanks for commenting!

      • Absolutely Marny! There’d be more understanding if schedules were reversed so that the early birds who don’t understand can see what it’s like for social norms to dictate staying up later as proof of being productive members of society, haha! 😛

        And no problem on the response time. Happy New Year!

  15. Whitney Buonarota

    Wow! This article was spot on. I am definitely a night owl and always have been. During my school years, I did adjust and graduated with honors, but it never felt like my natural sleeping pattern. I always perform and create better in the late evening hours.

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