We constantly hear about the benefits of waking up early. It’s what successful people do, right? Wrong.
I’ve never admitted what I’m about to share in a public forum before, primarily for fear of the stigma that’s attached to it. Would people think I’m getting old, lack motivation and ambition, that I’m too comfortable and content, or perhaps that I’m just plain lazy? But, in the hope that I may be able to help a few others similarly afflicted, I can no longer keep this to myself. So, here it is: I love to stay up late and sleep in.
My most fruitful hours are well into the evening and early into the wee hours of the morning. I very consciously put off some of the hardest and most creative work I have until the late evening hours. Something I struggle with for hours on end during the day can be dispatched in minutes if I leave it until late enough.
I always thought of this as procrastination and beat myself up for not doing more during the day. But that didn’t change the way I worked. All-nighters were a greenfield of opportunity for some of my most brilliant ideas, best writing, and most creative work. Turns out I’m not alone. My good friend Geoff James, also wrote about this in a recent Inc column.
On the other side of that apparently aberrant sleep cycle, I indulge in the decadence of rewarding my late night endeavors by waking up long after the majority of my colleagues are already on their second cup of coffee. Honestly, I’d milk it till the fourth cup were it not for the fact that my dog still hasn’t mastered the deadbolt on the front door to let herself out.
I’m coming clean because I’ve finally come to the realization that I work differently than the archetype of hard work that I’d long held to as being the norm. It’s not that I cannot get up early. I spent decades as CEO of a thriving company being the first one in every morning and wearing as a badge of honor the fact that I was there to greet each employee as they strolled in at 8 AM. In fact, it was well known that I’d hold early morning meetings to which doors were locked for anyone who dared come in late. However, I also suffered from debilitating chronic headaches and a host of other maladies that suddenly went away with the end of my 5 AM morning commute. I could do it, I just wasn’t wired to, and yet I fought it all the way. After all, I thought it’s what successful people do, right?
Look, I’m not saying that long hours aren’t needed to build a company. They are. But they also need to be effective, creative, and brilliant hours.
It didn’t dawn on me until much later that I’d been fighting against my own internal wiring. I wanted to be a morning person, I just wasn’t. So, I’d get up early but I’d also stay up late, because that’s when I’d do my best work. The net was that I got four or five hours of sleep on a good night.
The bottom line is that all of the guilt I’d carried for so long at not being an early-bird was totally unnecessary.
Yes, There’s a Name for That
And what remained of that guilt was recently absolved when I read an article in the New York Times that finally gave a name to my condition. It’s called DSPS delayed sleep phase syndrome. Before you shrug at the idea of yet one more diagnostic code to help pawn off the blame for your non-conformity to your pathology, and provide an excuse for big pharma to come up with a drug for that, read on. Chances are that if you’re like me this will help you to understand something pretty significant about yourself, and it requires no medication, therapy, or six-step program.
Simply put, DSPS is what you have when you go to sleep well beyond what’s considered to be a normal bedtime; basically staying up until infomercials replace normal programming.
According to the Times article, we each have what’s called a Chronotype, that’s a sleep cycle that tends towards early bird or night owl, and several shades between the two.
In his book “Why We Sleep,” author Matthew Walker, who directs the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley looks at how industrialization is to blame for much of our sleep deprived state. He even pokes fun at those of us who keep books of this sort on our nightstand as a form of “sleep therapy,” joking, “Please, feel free to ebb and flow into and out of consciousness during this entire book. I will take absolutely no offense. On the contrary, I would be delighted.”
Walker describes how humans run on a 24-hour circadian rhythm, the internal mechanism that controls so much of our body’s function, from testosterone levels to sleep patterns. Nothing new there. We’ve known about the circadian rhythm for some time. However, Walker points out that all of our body clocks do not adhere to the same rhythm. That’s where we’ve gone astray. In fact, only 40 percent of us are what are typically referred to as morning people. Another 30 percent, hardly and insignificant or aberrant minority, are the classic night owls (yours truly). The remaining 20 percent are what we might call “normal” from a statistical standpoint
But here’s the good news, if you feel guilty about your “abnormal” sleep patterns, don’t! There is no “normal.” As it turns out, research seems to point to the fact that we have no choice in our sleep pattern; we are each genetically hardwired to our unique chronotype. (The Times article also refers to a study that reinforces that finding, “researchers at Rockefeller University last year announced the discovery of a gene mutation that apparently accounts for D.S.P.S.”)
So, what to make of all this?
Well, first off, it’s important to acknowledge that what are considered to be normal sleep patterns are simply a function of what we have agreed upon for the sake of convenience and social order. It’s not unlike the many other social norms that we accept as the way things ought to be; we work 9-5, eat three meals a day, relax on weekends, take two weeks of vacation, and retire when we are 65. None of these are immutable laws of the natural world.
These make sense in an industrialized society that’s built for mass production of not just parts and products but workers and students; it just makes very good sense to have everyone getting up at the same time. However, any parent who has had to wake up high school age children for a 7 AM homeroom check-in will tell you that there is nothing even remotely natural about a teenager getting up at 6 AM. I can remember the daily struggle of trying to convince a 15-year-old that its just the way the world works. All the while downing two cups of coffee myself just to stay awake long enough to make sure they got out of bed.
It’s bad enough that we have somehow all bought into the early bird mythology of the industrial age, but we also have to carry around the guilt of feeling somewhat deficient and inept if we stray from that norm.
Here’s the good news. The world is changing. Work at home, connectivity, online classrooms, and technologies that allow us to work asynchronously, or which do work for us, are all making the notion of a universal time frame for everyone’s circadian clock seem as antiquated as the use of sundials.
We are realizing that humans are not one size fits all. We see it in everything from how we respond as individuals to foods and medications, to how we process information, learn, and create. We are each uniquely wired to work best in our own way and at our own times.
By the way, keep in mind that the whole notion of coordinated sleep cycles is a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that railroads forced the notion of time zones in order to create schedules that could be used by travelers and commerce across differing geographic regions of varied sunrises and sunsets.
Working in the modern world, connected by mass transportation, and mass communication, demanded time zones; it was the only way to build an industrialized world. It was an artifact of the industrial era.
The industrial age was about conformity and there was perhaps no greater form of conformity than the notion of standardized times for sleep, work and play. We might as well have mandated that everyone wear the same size shoes.
In my book Revealing The Invisible I point out that we are exiting the industrial age, and in the process creating an entirely new set of norms, which are highly personalized to each individual. The age we are entering is one of hyper-personalized approaches to everything from how we medicate, to how we learn, to how we work, to how we sleep.
So, still feeling a bit guilty about not getting up early enough to greet the sun, putting off that creative writing until midnight, or just plain staying up to watch the infomercial for Dyson’s latest vacuum? If that’s who you are then don’t. Getting the most out of yourself may just require resetting the way you think about sleep rather than resetting your internal clock.
Of course, I’m posting this at 2 AM. Sleep well and don’t call me until you’ve had your second cup of coffee.
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.