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Is it time to embrace your inner night owl or morning lark?

Is it time to embrace your inner night owl or morning lark?

We’ve all heard about the current pandemic potentially ‘resetting the world’. And if that sounds a shade over-ambitious, one thing the present crisis could perhaps more realistically reset is our sleeping patterns.

It appears that these have changed somewhat in recent months, with some of us retiring to bed at a different hour and waking slightly later than usual. At the same time, others have been getting rather less rest than ‘normal’ (whatever that is).

Biological Chronotype

Sleep scientist Matthew Walker believes recent data indicates that more of us are beginning to enjoy our slumber in keeping with what’s called our biological chronotype or internal clock – whether that’s morning lark, night owl, or somewhere in-between. In practice, the average sleep cycle typically runs from around 11.30 pm until about 7.30 am, although many people change bedtimes and rising times during their lives and as they get older.

(A night owl, incidentally, should not be confused with an insomniac, or someone who is awake late because they can’t sleep.)

Interestingly, chronotype is something that’s predominantly biologically fixed, meaning it’s hardwired into our bodies and not an easy thing to change, although not impossible.

Walker has suggested that as more of us return to our day jobs in the weeks and months ahead, employers could even ask staff their preferred sleeping and waking times, and start to work these into individual work schedules.

That may sound like a radical proposal – but when you consider how much more productive, creative, and efficient we all are when we’re well rested, perhaps it isn’t such a crazy idea?

And it may well be that this is something worth thinking about as you use lockdown to reflect on how best you work and study, and begin to plan ahead.

Morning Larks vs Night Owls

It’s true that society seems naturally disposed towards ‘morning larks’ rather than ‘night owls’. Sayings about the early bird catching the worm and Benjamin Franklin’s reported comment “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” are drummed into us from a young age.

Yet there is absolutely no evidence to show that night owls are lazy or achieve less simply because they happen to get up later – they just work at a different time of day (or night). Chronotype is a biological quirk in the same way that, say, having hazel eyes is.

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And given that we do tend to be healthier and more productive when we can work flexibly, at the times that suit us best, surely we should all be doing more to tap into that? For morning larks, this might mean getting up early to put in an hour or two of study before heading off to your day job, whereas if you’re a night owl, you may find you study more effectively after your evening meal.

After all, the association of early rising being equated with success probably dates back largely to the days when more of us worked the land and had to start work at the crack of dawn. Clearly, that no longer applies to most people, who enjoy the luxury of greater freedom over when to work than their forebears.

But flexible work schedules are still not the norm, and the association of productivity with physical presence lingers. Not all organisations show what some are starting to call ‘chronoleadership’ – yes, apparently, it’s a thing.

So meanwhile night owls could try shifting their body clocks to more of a middle ground. One way of doing this is gradually starting to retire slightly earlier each night (or morning), exercising and eating at set times, and perhaps thinking about light exposure.

No Easy Solutions

The reality is that there are no easy solutions, and it’s not always as simple as cutting out caffeine, going to bed earlier, practising enhanced sleep hygiene, or just, in that vaguest of terms, ‘being more disciplined’.

As the world changes in response to a global pandemic, it’s worth understanding that your body clock is part of your genetic make-up. Maybe it’s time to appreciate that most of us are either morning larks or night owls and that it’s time to embrace, rather than fight, this particular part of our biology.