Night Owls & Early Birds

SunriseRussell Foster has a good piece in the New Scientist about teenagers and sleeping:

The biology of human sleep timing, like that of other mammals, changes as we age. This has been shown in many studies. As puberty begins, bedtimes and waking times get later. This trend continues until 19.5 years in women and 21 in men. Then it reverses. At 55 we wake at about the time we woke prior to puberty. On average this is two hours earlier than adolescents. This means that for a teenager, a 7 am alarm call is the equivalent of a 5 am start for a person in their 50s.

Precisely why this is so is unclear but the shifts correlate with hormonal changes at puberty and the decline in those hormones as we age.

However, biology is only part of the problem. Additional factors include a more relaxed attitude to bedtimes by parents, a general disregard for the importance of sleep, and access to TVs, DVDs, PCs, gaming devices, cellphones and so on, all of which promote alertness and eat into time available for sleep.

The amount of sleep teenagers get varies between countries, geographic region and social class, but all studies show they are going to bed later and not getting as much sleep as they need because of early school starts.

Whenever this subject comes up, people invariably respond that if you start school later, kids will just sleep later. QED, or something. While there is no doubt some truth to this, the theory has been tested at various places and the ultimate determination is that kids actually do get more sleep if you let them sleep in. And they perform better.

In the United States, at least, we have a very moralistic view of sleep. I got a little pushback on this post, which criticized an employer for needlessly having rigid hours that resulted in a good employee’s termination. NewDealer phrased it thusly:

Being up in the morning is just one of those things adults should be able to do without complaint. If it is important to you to be up in the afternoon or evenings, find a job that let’s you take that shift. Not the other way around.

I see comments of this sort a lot. I used to buy into it a lot more than I do now. Back when I was working for a workaholic boss, I was pushing the boundaries of my capabilities. I was staying up too late and I was getting too little sleep. I was fighting the alarm clock in the morning. Then, by the time the weekend rolled around, I would be asleep by seven and would stay that way until Saturday. At some point I just became fed up with it. So I went to sleep early. I made a rule about never hitting the snooze button (ever!). And it was, in the overall, a pretty easy transition. So if I could do it, why can’t others?

Then I met Clancy. To say that Clancy isn’t lazy would be an understatement. She is one of the more ambitious people that I know and has a tremendous work ethic. Getting up in the morning? Wow, she just struggles like nothing I’ve ever seen before (in anything but an adolescent, anyway). It doesn’t even matter all that much when she goes to sleep. If she goes to sleep early, she still wants to sleep in. She still struggles mightily to get out of bed. Which has always come to me relatively easy. Except for DST. Another reason I hate that convention. It may be “relatively easy” for me, but it helps a lot if it’s not in utter darkness.

It’s earlybirds who run everything, and so it’s no surprise that school starts earlier in the morning than it maybe should. Or that employers are inflexible with their hours. Sometimes, of course, it’s unavoidable because you need people at the office at particular times during the day and there’s inherently little flexibility. Some consider it desirable because it saves daylight hours.
I personally wonder how often it’s just another case of us shooting ourselves in the food in the name of (secular, in this case) virtue.

That the automatic response by a lot of people to studies on this stuff is the assumption that people who have difficulty getting up in the morning (aka teenagers) would just push their bedtime later tells us a lot, I think.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. The sleep/activity cycle that feels “natural” for me involves going to bed around 11:00 to midnight, and waking up around 7:00 to 8:00. This is not compatible with a professional lifestyle, which demands arising at 6:00 a.m., if not sooner, so as to allow sufficient time for grooming and commuting to work.

    I can do this, but during those times when I am not under pressure to adhere to a professional schedule I find myself quickly — as in starting the day I know I do not need to be awake at any particular time — reverting back to the “default” schedule of staying up to around midnight and then sleeping for the requisite roughly eight hours. It is this quick reversion that makes me think this is a “natural” or “default” timing of my cycle.

    So I make myself do what my body would prefer not to do and will not do left to its own devices. And I do this in no small part because I feel a moral imperative to behave this way, to adhere to the ethic NewDealer articulates. If the cost of adhering to a professional schedule like this is so high, then I guess I didn’t really want that professional job, did I? If I don’t want to get up in the morning and show up to court on time, then I need to find a job other than being a lawyer. And I expect no one to feel sorry for me that I don’t get to sleep as late as I would prefer and must therefore go to bed earlier that I would prefer.

    After all, my desire to stay up late, and sleep in late, is selfish, juvenile, and wasteful.

    • I have more or less the same schedule, or a slightly later one. I’m glad my chosen profession allows that, as well as the T-shirts and jeans, all of which combine to make me more or less a teenager at mumblety-mumble years old. I don’t know how Burt got stuck being a grownup.

        • You picked the high-falootin’ job, you get the tie.

    • I default to sleeping at around 2 and waking up at around 10. But compared to my wife, it’s relatively easy for me to shift my schedule as needed. Back in Cascadia, I had to get up at 5:30 because of the 100-minute drive to work (which, in my escort, required a “must get out of my car and walk around before I break my knees” break).

      I do retain some of the bit that it feels immoral to sleep in. These days, it doesn’t stop me. But it should.

    • Burt, you need to become a night court judge. And practice magic.

      • And now, for my next trick, I will make money appear!

        …Many of my clients, judging by their actual behavior, believe I can do this. If I could, why would I use it for their benefit?

    • I used to work as a freelance legal proofreader during my early 20s when I was trying to be a theatre director.

      The firms that used these agencies were large, international corporate law firms. These firms had 24/7 departments for IT, Word Processing, and Proofreading. I told my agencies that my preferred shifts were the morning and evening ones but every now and then I was forced to work a graveyard shift (10 PM to 6 AM or 12 AM to 8 AM) under threat of never getting work again. This was very hard to recover from because I spent most of the week awake on a normal schedule and was required an entire night up.

      Though I have always wondered why these big corporate firms don’t hire lawyers for the graveyard shift as well.

      I will add that there is something very odd yet very peaceful about being awake at 3 AM in the morning while the rest of the world is asleep especially in the Financial District or Midtown Manhattan. Even in my San Francisco apartment, I get some weird kind of pleasure from being semi-awake during that time. I’ve analyzed this is for largely depressing psychological reasons though.

      • My job at Bregna )worst employer ever) started off at the midnight (third) shift, then moved you to second, then moved you to first. I actually liked third shift. I only wish they had given me more to do. Moving to second shift was the pits. First shift was fine, too, depending on traffic. But man, I hated second shift.

        • Yes, I can see second shift being a weird sort of inbetween.

          When I worked in Japan, about half my shifts were from 1:20-9 PM. This meant there was just enough time in the morning, not to do much before work. And when you got home, you wanted to be up a bit which killed even more of the mornings.

          I suppose a regular graveyard shift would let you do some things during early business hours or middle business hours.

          • 1:20-9 would have been okay better than 3-12, which was roughly the hours of the job I had. With the third shift, you’re basically swapping work hours for sleep hours and keeping recreation hours in place.

        • That’s actually a really smart way of handling things, I think.

          At my job it was mostly “assign people we think are lazy, incompetent, or disagreeable to the late shift”.

          This resulted in a cycle, wherein there weren’t enough people working nights to cover all of the shifts, so one of the people who worked days (all of whom were competent and friendly) would draw the short straw and work the night shift for a few days a week. The disruption of their sleeping habits made them irritable and ineffective during the day, so they’d be assigned to night shifts permanently. They’d either get fed up and quit, or just be so bad at working at 4AM that they’d get fired, so you didn’t have enough coverage of the night shifts and the whole thing started all over again.

          By comparison, starting everyone on night shifts seems pretty reasonable.

    • That’s the interesting thing, though. A professional lifestyle requires you to be up so early only because of your morning commute. If you lived 15 minutes away from your office, you’d be able to get up at 7, take a quick shower, shave, dress, eat breakfast, and still be at work at 8.

      • I was a bit surprised by that. For some reason I was under the impression that Burt lived and worked in the same exurb.

        I’ve never had much luck living and working in close proximity.

      • Unless you are like me and like to go to the gym before work instead of after.

        I tended to get up at 5:30 because I wanted to be at the gym at 6 when it opened.

        • I can’t believe I didn’t mention this in the post itself, but back in high school I used to have to get up at around 5:15. High school started early, and you literally had to get there about 90 minutes early to get a good parking space. (A good parking space was not one that saved you a walk, but rather one that saved you from a traffic jam on the way out.)

          • When did you start driving?

            In my part of NY, you were not allowed to get a license until 17 and only seniors were allowed to drive to school.

            I spent four year on the bus.

          • That being said, I took an 8:30 AM writing class during my first semester of college under this rubric of logic:

            1. I used to get up at 6 AM for high school and high school started at 8.

            2. The philosophy class was 5 minutes from my dorm because it was on the quad with the rest of the dorms. I could sleep until 7:30 or 8 and still make it to class on-time and after breakfast.

            3. This proved harder than originally anticipated.

          • I turned 16 before my sophomore year began and started driving and swapping rides immediately thereafter. Parking was only available if you were a junior or senior, so my sophomore year I had to rely on street parking, which was even tighter than lot parking.

            I went to an obnoxiously well-to-do high school where taking Big Yella was social death if anybody knew about it. Not that the vibrating Dodge Caravan was a chick magnet, but it was still something.

          • I worked during college. At first, that had me getting up at 5am because my job was from 5-7am. Then it had me working the overnight (11-8*) and my sleep schedule became really, really erratic (one semester I had all of my classes stacked on Tuesdays and Thursdays, meaning that I would go to work Monday night, go to classes all day Tuesday, go to work on Tuesday night, then sleep all day Wednesday. Then repeat the process later in the week. I’d catch a little sleep during that 30-something hour stretch of work-class-work, but not enough.

            * – Actually, the two overlapped for a while. I would work from 9-6, then do the morning route from 6:30-8, then had an 8:30 class. I don’t think that was the T-Th semester, though.

          • My HS was in a well-to-do suburb as well. It was also located right next to the entrance of I-495.

            The fact that only seniors were allowed to drive and you did not get your license until 17, made the bus easy to swallow. Plus there was not exactly anywhere nearby to go for lunch during the 45 minutes you had.

          • Leaving campus for lunch was expressly prohibited.

            Forcing Big Yella on non-seniors (or anybody, for that matter) would have created problems for people with extra-curricular activities.

          • I walked to school. we didn’t have schoolbusses.

      • I could do this. But I don’t. Like Clancy, I find actually waking up to be a slower process than you would think. My body doesn’t want to be awake, and without the motive force of panic, doesn’t move at a pace sufficient to allow this to happen.

        Blogging in the morning doesn’t help, either.

    • I wake at 7, have time for a cappuchino (homemade), and get to work by 9.

  2. They did this study where they put people in a cave without clocks and just let them live according to their own schedules. Sleep when you’re inclined to sleep, wake up when you’re inclined to wake up, have your day when you’re inclined to have your day.

    To no one’s surprise, they found that not everybody is in tune with the whole 24 hour thing. Some people got on schedules where their day was 20 hours. Some people got on schedules where their day was 30 hours.

    The 24-hour day is a harsh master.

    • That wasn’t even the worst part of the experiment: where they chained the participants to a wall and tricked them into thinking the shadow puppets on the wall represented reality.

      There were no IRB’s in Ancient Greece, is what I am saying.

        • They were college students! They’ll do anything for gyro money!

          • Which is a form of coercion, as we all know, when Big Lab wants to pay Poor Person for labor. Think of the power differential…

          • It’s earlybirds who run everything

            Earlybird Privilege is BS.

          • Boy, my initial response to this proves that I am just in a remarkably disagreeable/snarky mood today.

          • As long as you are directing it toward those darn Earlybirds, it’s all good.

            Fight the powers that be (up real early), brother.

    • Another way to interpret that is that the light/dark cycle is a necessary cue; without it, people drift.

      • Another indication that it is perhaps not wise to move the day around for the sake of “conserving daylight”?

        • I suspect that artificial light screws us up much worse, but it’s far too valuable to give up.

          Also, if you take this argument all the way, it’s “natural” to have significantly different light/dark balances during the year. Unless humans weren’t designed to live outside the tropics.

  3. I think my comment sounded much harsher than I meant it to be.

    I am also against workaholic bosses who seem to thrive on three hours of sleep and are sending out e-mails and calls at 2 in the morning and expecting answers by 2:30. There seem to be a lot of these.

    That being said, I am not completely sympathetic to the argument that all businesses should be running 24/7 because we might not have that much work and there are also light pollution issues.

    The problem can probably be solved by turning more jobs into hourly positions. For some reason, American employers would rather hire one person to work 70-80 hours* a week than hire two people to work 35-40 hours a week. If we instituted the French solution and said that the maximum work week was 35-40 hours a week, I think you would find employers going back to placing people into multiple shifts.

    *This is one of those frustrating things where people refuse to obey or follow scientific studies and place anecdote over data. IIRC many studies show that humans operate a maximum efficiency when doing 40-50 hours of work a week. Yet we find this weak in the United States and a deploarable situation.

    • I don’t think 24/7 is necessarily necessary, though I do think that thinking in terms of 7-7 or 8-8 would be reasonable. Especially if it helps you nab and retain good talent.

      I think the 80-hour workweek is more of a law thing than an other-careers thing. Even salaried people at most places I’ve worked haven’t worked nearly that kind of load. A while back I asked Ryan Noonan whether he knew where I could find some data on how many hours the average salaried employee works (specifically, to see if there’s been much change in the last 40 years). Unfortunately, he couldn’t help (but he tried, for which I am grateful), but I think a lot of the talk about salaried employers working insane hours is overblown.

      Outside of law, anyway, and some areas of medicine. And start-ups. And other relatively narrow markets.

      That being said, I do think hourly employment should be much, much more common than it is.

      • It’s also counter-productive. Total output peaks at about 60 hour work weeks. After that productivity is so low and mistakes rise to the point where extra hours reduce output. You can beat the numbers for short bursts, but it’s unsustainable.

          • There’s productivity, and then there’s revenue, and the first and the second are not necessarily tightly coupled.

      • 80 hours is NOT uncommon in computer science. Of course it’s not always all “on” time.

      • A lot of people in banking and finance have to work rather long hours to.

    • I think your comment was right on, actually. There is a dimension of moral judgment about how long people work, and about how early they wake up to do it. Quite apart from the financial reward from an employer. Asking for hours that work around your schedule is something most employers find an imposition. You need to work around their schedule — if you don’t want to do that, there’s the door; we can find someone who will. I encounter that ethic not just in law but with nearly all of my clients.

      • Newish tech companies seem to be find with the flex time thing but I think it plays into their “non-traditionalist” image.

        If I ever got to the part of being an employer, I would probably do relative flex time and allow employees to come in between 9 AM-12 PM and work their day as long as the work got done when it needed to get done.

        • 6AM-12PM. And you are ontime for meetings, whenever they are.

      • Humans debating about how many hours people need to devote to work forever. The debate really got heated after the Industrial Revolution and the growth of Corporate Capitalism when the number of self-employed people dropped dramatically. There were epic battles over working hours during the 19th century, the fight for the eight-hour day. Eventually, employees caved in and it was agreed that people should spend forty-hours a week at work plus commuting time and in generally have at least two weeks paid vacation plus the federal Holidays off.

        Than something changed, what changed depends on your particular ideology, and the pressure for employers to work more and more hours increased.

    • I have gotten up at all kinds of ungodly times to do work of various sorts, but my very favorite schedule is the one I work now. Noon until 8 pm. Where by favorite, I mean “it suits my body the best” – it’s not always socially convenient.

      I have to work a couple of 9-5s a month and I dread the heck out of them.

      That said, I’m pretty adaptable… In the summers I work 9-5s and one 7:30-5 and after the first 2 weeks I’m absolutely fine with it. I think that it being summer helps? And it’s a break, socially, where I can spend more time with people. Once it gets darker, I’m happy to go back to sleeping in…

      I’m not as bad off as Clancy, but really it takes me about 3 hours to wake up *happily* – and I am not able to start that process at 4 in the morning.

      • That’s something I can’t relate to very well, at least ever since I decided to stop straddling the alarm clock. Either I’m getting up or I’m not. If I’m getting up, I’m up quickly. I do like to “unwind” a bit before going to work, but that’s primarily because going to work has historically entailed driving for more than an hour. It’s a matter of being relaxed for the drive rather than a matter of being awake for it.

        • I’ve always been that way, with the slow waking. In high school, I made jokes about acing math quizzes without remembering them, because math happened from 9-10:30 in the morning …. except they weren’t actually jokes. I managed to stay awake for 7 am band practice, but the minute I was slumped in a classroom chair, I was only about 1/3 of the way there until 11:30 or so.

          It’s not quite that bad these days, but still. Oy. It takes huge willpower to wake up faster. I *can* do it, but it usually predisposes me to surliness… not exactly my natural state.

  4. I have lived and worked all over the Los Angeles basin and had the worst commute possible (City of Orange to downtown Los Angeles: 35 miles on the 5 freeway with no alternates and an average commute time of an hour and twenty minutes each way with the outliers as long as two and a half) to the commute I have now, which is 25 minutes if I walk it and I’m taking a particularly leisurely strolling pace.

    I will never ever again put two hours plus in the car daily for less than $65,000 more than what I make today, and I don’t make chump change.

    My natural waking time is about 9:30 am. I’m definitely an eighter, when I get less than 8 I’m measurably more grumpy.

    • I have a bad habit of getting a job in town A while I live in town B. I’ve never once had the traditional suburb-to-core commute. One hour is where my patience runs out.

  5. In my line of work, we have 8- or 9-hour days most of the time, with people coming in early if they’re inclined, or later if that suits them better. My preferred sleep schedule is like Burt’s, so my typical schedule is roughly 8:45am-5pm. However, during spacecraft testing periods, mission simulations, or actual launch and early orbit operations, we have to have a team working 24/7 until the job is done. Each team negotiates their own schedule, but you’ve typically got 5-8 people and two people have to be at work at every moment.

    My first time doing this I was the new kid, so I got the midnight-noon shift (other shifts were 6pm-6am, noon-midnight, and 6am-6pm). This is the worst shift possible for me. I had to work that schedule 8 days in a row for launch and early ops, got one day off, then another. I basically worked my shift, grabbed McDonald’s on the way home (25-minute commute), ate it in the car, and then slept until the alarm told me it was time to go back to work. Despite getting “enough” sleep, I lost 10 pounds (those who met me in Las Vegas know that’s a dangerous amount for someone of my build), I had to take Tylenol every shift to dull the headaches, and…all my taste buds went away. I thought I had cancer, but I had no more stress hormone to make me act on that fear.

    Good times!

  6. Can’t believe no one’s mentioned child care yet. During the period when our kids were small and both my wife and I were working, earliest drop off at day care was 7:00 AM, and Lord help you if you didn’t have them out of the building by 6:00 PM. First time after 6:00 was a $25 penalty; second time and you were told that you were no longer a customer. Fortunately we both had a small amount of flexibility (this back in the early-to-mid 1980s) in scheduling, so I was at work at 7:30 or earlier while she dropped them off, then she worked until 5:30 or later while I picked them up. Things got more complicated when one of us had an out-of-town trip.

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