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Owl or lark? What your alarm clock setting means for your career

Does the early bird catch the worm? The corporate world’s obsession with early starts has certainly given rise to a supposed superiority of leaders who are awake at 5am, squeezing in a gym session and a conference call before the working day officially begins.

Internet forums twitter with night owls asking how they can change their natural predisposition for sleeping and waking later. The search term ‘how to become a morning person?’ delivers Google results in their millions from brands like Forbes, New York Times and entrepreneur.com, dispensing advice ranging from locating your alarm in an adjacent room to fasting from 6pm. There’s even an app born of the trend we, in the everywoman team, are calling ‘competitive alarm clocking’, whereby users score points for waking up before any of their friends.

To the question of switching from an owl to a lark (the question of how to switch from lark to owl is notable by its absence from the Internet), one respondent on the Q&A website Quora claims to be 60% of the way to changing their ‘biological clock’ thanks to a yearlong routine of ice cold showers; another cautions:

‘Being a morning person is not a matter of will; it is a part of individual biology which you can never completely succeed in changing.’

In his popular Ted Talk ‘Why do we sleep?’, neuroscientist Russell Foster gives us a whistle-stop tour of the changing attitudes that have governed society’s attitude towards sleep, from the days of Shakespeare (‘O gentle sleep! Nature’s soft nurse’) to the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Decker, echoing the wellbeing reference (‘Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together’) to a huge shift-change in the 20th century. ‘Sleep,’ said Thomas Edison ‘Is a criminal waste of time’. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – who famously survived her leadership days on four hours of rest per night – was more explicit. ‘Sleep,’ she said, ‘Is for wimps’.

Thankfully, the 21st century is more balanced in its view, with sleep’s health benefits firmly established. While the Gordon Gecko ‘Money never sleeps’ view still has a stronghold on the corporate world, where low-requirement for rest is often considered a benchmark of endurance and leadership ability, so too does a more moderate approach. Highly successful leaders like Arianna Huffington are leading the charge for recuperation. Speaking at an event in 2010 (see video below), the Huffington Post founder (who also advocates regular digital detoxes) told an audience about a ‘very small idea that can unlock billions of big ideas’. That idea? To get more sleep. The rapturous applause prompted Arianna to hazard a guess her audience (mostly working women) were ‘sleep deprived’. Cue more applause.

Recounting a point in her career when exhaustion caused her to faint, breaking her cheekbone in the process, Arianna urged us to do away with self-imposed sleep deprivation as ‘a virility symbol’, perpetuating ‘a collective delusion that burnout is the necessary price for achieving success’.

We might assume from these comments, that Arianna is a night owl, and one you wouldn’t find squeezing in a game of tennis and a blow dry before her working day (Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue US), or setting her alarm for 4.30am (something former Starbucks President Michelle Gass attributes to her business success).

But therein lies the first myth surrounding our sleep personalities – that morning people require less sleep than their night counterparts.

A study on sleep-personalities published by the National Association Of Science Writers, defines a lark as someone most alert and productive between mid morning and noon, and most active around 2.30pm. They favour early nights and fall asleep quicker and sounder than their owl counterparts. They often wake without the need of an alarm, are in best spirits at 9am (their mood gradually deteriorates throughout the day), are intolerant of shift work, suffer from jetlag and rarely nap.

Owls, like larks, are also defined by a burst of productivity mid morning, but often experience a second wave of productivity later in the day.

Owls wake ‘bearish’ but become increasingly positive as the day wears on. They like late bedtimes and lie-ins (because the working world doesn’t allow for this, owls, over a lifetime, get less sleep than larks), and are generally a couple of hours behind larks for other measures, including lowest and peak body temperatures. They tolerate shift work well and can adapt to time zone changes better than larks.

Our body clock type is controlled by a group of nerve cells within the hypothalamus located at the base of our brains, responsible for controlling multiple bodily functions from regulating temperature to water intake. The internal (‘circadian’) clock is reset by daylight, telling us it’s time to rise. If this was all there was to it, we’d all have identical body clocks. But we know this isn’t the case.

‘Most of us have some degree of preference for late nights or early mornings. Where an individual falls on this spectrum largely determines his or her chronotype - an individual disposition toward the timing of daily periods of activity and rest,’ says Michael Breus, Clinical Psychologist and Sleep Specialist.

Where scientists can’t seem to agree is on whether or not we can change our disposition - become a lark if we’re programmed owls, or vice versa.

While some studies have gathered evidence that our clock type is genetic, others conclude there is an element of personal choice, and that a predilection for either type can be consciously overridden. Good news for owls frantically searching for the key to unlocking their inner lark. But do they need to? Other factions of the science world insist that, where our careers are concerned, there are benefits to being owls.

Taking the principle that early man rose and rested with the sun, psychologists at the London School Of Economics have a theory that the principle of late to sleep, late to rise, is ‘evolutionarily novel’. That is to say, an advanced state of human development. Their studies led them to hypothesise that owls have higher IQs than larks, who still abide by our primitive ancestors’ sleeping habits.

Higher IQ isn’t the only attribute of fans of the snooze button.

‘Some studies have shown that people who stay up late are more productive than early risers…have more stamina…[and] greater reasoning and analytical abilities.’ Furthermore, says Michael Breus in his article ‘Night Owls and Early Risers Have Different Brain Structures’, ‘Stay-up-late types… achieve greater financial and professional success on average than those people with earlier wake times’.

But it’s not all good news for wise owls. Brain scans show anomalies in the way their nerve cells communicate, something that could be at the root of the feeling of ‘fogginess’ suffered by owls in a corporate world that isn’t conducive to later starts. The German Chronobiologist Till Roenneberg - who believes owls and larks are born, not made - describes this condition as ‘social jet-lag’. Its symptoms – doziness, grumpiness and reliance on stimulants like caffeine – are behind a growing number of scientists urging employers to facilitate flexi-time and workplace napping.

But for those of us whose organisations aren’t investing in snooze-zones, how can we ensure our sleeping preferences are aligned with the demands of our careers, enabling optimum productivity, creativity, and chances for success?

One camp encourages brain-training, not to ‘change your basic make up’, says The Body Clock Guide To Better Health, but to ‘help you adapt more comfortably to situational demands’.

For larks who want to increase their productivity later in the day, recommendations include increasing time spent outdoors in natural evening light, moving elements of morning routine (exercise, for example) to later in the day, and maintaining as much darkness as possible in the bedroom.

For owls wanting to improve their morning performance, exposure to natural light soon after waking (standing by a window for coffee or walking part of the way to work) is recommended; as is reducing evening activity to quieter pastimes like reading, and planning morning routines in advance - laying out clothes, packing bags, organising breakfast.

Then there’s the school of thought that says we should leverage the natural peaks in our productivity cycle rather than work against them.

This is where we learn something surprising. While it’s more logical that morning people are best able to perform challenging tasks first thing, one study, quoted by US Professor of Psychology Cynthia May in her article ‘The Inspiration Paradox’, claims the opposite is true.

When asked to solve problems requiring analytical skills, participants were able to find solutions at both their peak and off-peak times. When it came to creativity, however, ‘light bulb’ moments were more forthcoming during the off-peak times (mornings for owls, late afternoons for larks). The study concluded that the lack of focus we feel during our non-optimal times is more conducive to out-of-the box thinking.

Better understand your own energy cycles and how to best assign workplace tasks to your personal rhythms, by completing a ‘time audit’.

Over a week or longer, record your daily schedule by half hour time slots. Make a note of what you had to do and when you did it, noting how you felt at the time and scoring your effectiveness at completing the tasks. Over time you may notice patterns in what types of tasks are best performed at different points in the day. For more tips like the ‘time audit’ see the everywoman workbook ‘Managing Your Time’ (log in required).

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