In defence of Night Owls

Sleep has been on my mind recently for a variety of reasons, but my spontaneous reference to being a night owl in Thursday’s blog reminded me of something in Matthew Walker’s brilliant book ‘Why We Sleep’ which I dug it out today for a quick re-read.

If anything throughout my life I’ve veered towards excessive sleep. In fact I am the proud owner of a ‘World’s Best Sleeper’ trophy, gifted to me by an ex and dear friend.

But with a love for sleeping for me comes a frequent struggle to get out of bed in the morning. I adore and enjoy fresh coffee but I’m also absolutely one of those people who needs a hit in the morning to face the day. I get the mid afternoon / end of day slump but come 8 or 9 I’m wide awake again.

I often say I’m comfortable with the fact I’m not a morning person, but in reality I have battled against it for a lot of my life – with recurring disappointing results. The Sunday night self promises of an early AM rise, exercise followed by a cooked breakfast and a whole other list of things I’m sure I will achieve before 9am, which I’m not sure have ever actually come true. This guilty struggle is further fuelled by the aggressive amounts of articles circulating on the habits of ‘successful’ people who report rising before dawn.

Walker’s writing on Night Owls is a welcome relief for anyone who thinks this is just me, that surely this must just be a habit I could change if I only I put my mind to that bit harder.

First up, our owlness or larkness is strongly determined by genetics – it’s not actually a choice. Walker says “it’s not their conscious fault, it’s their genetic fate”.

Secondly, and this bit sucks, society is just plain shit to us. We’re often labelled lazy and society’s structures, such as school schedules and workplace starts, punish owls and favour larks.

As a result, Walker says, we are more likely to be chronically sleep deprived, being “forced to wake up with the larks, but not being able to fall asleep until far later in the evening. Owls are thus often forced to burn the proverbial candle at both ends.” Read his brilliant book to understand the dangerous and dreadful, yet poorly understood, consequences of sleep deprivation.

So far, so miserable. But Mother Nature had a plan. Walker describes how “humans likely evolved to co-sleep as families or even whole tribes, not alone or as couples.” By splitting the group into two sleep periods, with a significantly reduced overlap, the group’s safety and survival chances increased, because the whole group isn’t asleep at the same time for very long.

There are increasingly cool examples of workplaces and even schools starting to wake up to the fact that the current regime may not be working for everyone. Arianna Huffington is a well know and vocal convert to the importance of sleep. My workplace has core hours (though I’ve never asked if they were designed for Owls vs Larks) with freedom around that on how you time shift your day. Google is well known for its nap pods and Walker also notes that they have “adopted a more relaxed approach to work schedules, allowing employees to time their daily work hours to match their individual circadian rhythms and their respective owl and lark chronotype nature.” This isn’t just out of the goodness of their heart. There’s a genuine hit – or boost – to the bottom line; Walker cites a number of studies which have found the cost of lack of sleep, ranging from almost $2,000 per employee to 2 per cent of GDP.

Whilst we might not need to defend ourselves against wild pre-historic predators anymore, Mother Nature made both Owls and Larks this way and I know we Owls still have many gifts to give.

So say it loud and say it proud (and if you can, join the support for a change to the old 9-5). Hi, my name is Alex and I’m a Night Owl.

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