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How to Survive as a Night Owl in a 9-to-5 World

Living as a night owl in a lark's world could be damaging your health. Here are three tips (backed by science) for thriving among the day dwellers.

By
Jade Wu,
Episode #256
night owl

Would you rather watch a sunrise, or count the midnight stars? Do you have your creative energy and optimistic zeal when you pop out of bed in the morning, or when everyone else has gone to bed for the night? Or how about this—if you had to wake up at 6:00am, would you look and feel more like Mary Poppins or Oscar the Grouch? 

Your answers will depend on your chronotype, a biologically hardwired tendency for your body and brain to function best at certain times of day. Most of you are somewhere in the middle—you don’t love waking up at 5:00 a.m. for a run, but you’re not the type to be buzzing with energy after midnight either. But many of us have more obviously advanced or delayed chronotypes. That is, we could be extreme morning larks or night owls.

Why Do Night Owls Have a Bad Reputation?

I’m personally a night owl. Back in college, I never signed up for classes starting before 10:00 a.m. and I could comfortably stay up past 2:00 a.m. partying—I mean, studying—without my energy flagging. And there was no problem with that in college! I had no 7:00 a.m. rounds or 8:00 a.m. meetings, so my body and brain could happily live on the schedule they wanted to. But the further I get into my professional career, the more my biology has to cater to the big bad world, which is designed by and for morning people.

I blame Benjamin Franklin. When he said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” he didn’t follow that up with the caveat that this is only true for morning people!

I blame Benjamin Franklin. When he said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” he didn’t follow that up with the caveat that this is only true for morning people! If he were speaking to the rest of us, he should have said, “Staying up, sleeping in, makes you healthy and happy in your own skin.” But unfortunately, his admiration for morningness has contributed to the stereotype that late risers are just lazy or immature.

Night Owl Coping Mechanisms and Health

And it's not only a problem of bad reputation. People with delayed chronotypes (i.e., night owls) are at greater risk for psychiatric disorders, addiction, hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even infertility. But this is not because owls are inherently unhealthy. It’s because we are forced to live a life of misalignment—our biology does not match up with our external demands, and this causes us to have less healthy habits for maintaining our biological clocks. For example, if you’re a delayed chronotype person, I bet you sleep in on weekends. You try to go to bed “at a decent hour,” but cannot help tossing and turning and eventually getting on your iPad late at night. Have you ever worn sunglasses in the morning because you’re just not ready to look human yet? These habits are totally understandable—I used to do all of them.

The circadian system is responsible for keeping all of your biological functions on schedule and running smoothly, including your metabolism, hormone secretion, cognitive function, muscle tone, and even mood.

Unfortunately, these habits constantly mess up your inner biological clock, called the circadian system. This is no small deal, because the circadian system is responsible for keeping all of your biological functions on schedule and running smoothly, including your metabolism, hormone secretion, cognitive function, muscle tone, and even mood. If your body and brain are Grand Central Station, then the circadian system is the network of all the clocks at the station. When the big clock tower’s time always matches the train conductors’ times, which also matches all the computers’ times and each passenger’s watch, then things go smoothly. But imagine if that big clock tower’s time would just randomly change, and nobody could be confident that they knew what time it was. Imagine the chaos at this train station!

It’s no wonder shift workers, who have an even more extreme version of circadian misalignment, have greater health problems like obesity than their non-shift working peers. Even scarier is that shift work is the only non-chemical item on the American Cancer Society’s carcinogens list, meaning doctors agree that shift work increases a person’s risk for cancer. And even if you are not a shift worker, but have even a couple of hours of flip-flopping back and forth between your weekday sleep schedule and your weekend schedule, you are at greater risk for weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and depression.

3 Tips to Help Night Owl Chronotypes Thrive

That was the scary part. Don’t worry, owls, because you are not doomed to suffer these health problems. Your chronotype can actually adapt to the outside world with your help.

Tip #1: Wake up at the same time every day.

This tip does double duty! It not only helps us to sleep the proper amount, but is also one of the best tools for keeping your circadian clock on time.

See also: How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?

Night owls, when you sleep in on weekends, you’re giving yourself "social jetlag." Catching those extra 2 or 3 hours on Saturday might feel like a relief in the moment, but it’s like flying your body from New York to Los Angeles. And then, when you have to be up early for work on Monday morning, you’re flying your body back to New York. If you do this every week, this “jetlag” becomes a major stressor for your circadian system. It not only makes Monday mornings feel awful, but can affect your overall mental health through increased risk for depression and addiction.

Night owls, when you sleep in on weekends, you’re giving yourself social jetlag.

Also, because your clocks are so intimately linked with metabolism, it’s no wonder that social jetlag is also linked to obesity. If you absolutely cannot get up at the same time every day, minimize sleeping in on weekends, keeping it to an extra hour or so. You can also plan your weekday morning routine more efficiently so you can wake up later on weekdays.

Tip #2: Get a dose of bright light first thing in the morning.

Light is the strongest cue that your circadian system uses for telling time. Your eyes are not only windows to the soul but also windows for your circadian system! When light enters your eye and hits your retina, your retina sends direct signals to the suprachiasmatic nucleus, the brain’s master clock. This master clock can then tell the whole system when it’s time to gear up. Getting that dose of light first thing in the morning can actually help to make you more of a morning person, but only if you do it consistently.

When light enters your eye and hits your retina, your retina sends direct signals to the suprachiasmatic nucleus, the brain’s master clock.

If you can’t get outside in the morning or you live in a perpetually cloudy place, you can use artificial light, such as a light box. It doesn’t have to be a fancy $200 light box, as long as the light source is bright and broad-spectrum. For example, a candle would not work because the light is too weak and too orange, but one of those bright grow bulbs from Home Depot would do. Don’t stare directly at it, because this will hurt your eyes. Just have it a couple of feet in front of you for about 30 minutes as you have your breakfast, answer your emails, or just relax with a cup of coffee in the morning.

As a bonus, getting that morning light can also improve your mood, especially if you have seasonal depression. One caveat is that you should not use light therapy if you have bipolar disorder, as this can sometimes increase your risk of having a manic episode.

Tip #3: Minimize bright light exposure at night.

Now we know that light is a powerful tuning tool for the circadian system. We have to also know that it’s not always good to have bright light. Just think about how our ancestors lived before there was 24/7 artificial light. They would get lots of light during the day, and hardly any light after sunset. This kept things very simple for their circadian systems, which always knew when it was day versus night. Now that we have light from TVs, iPads, overhead lights, and phones, it’s confusing for our inner clocks. And if you are a night owl, this effect is even stronger, because the more you get light exposure at night, the more your chronotype gets delayed. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Now that we have light from TVs, iPads, overhead lights, and phones, it’s confusing for our inner clocks.

But fear not, you can actually reverse this pattern!

One of my favorite studies of all time found that after one week of camping without electronic devices, people who started out as owls became just like larks. They felt good in the mornings, and their melatonin profiles—the most precise measure of internal circadian rhythms—became indistinguishable from their morning lark peers. Since most of us can’t go camping everyday, you can mimic the “campfire effect” at home by dimming your screens, wearing blue-light blocking glasses, or maybe even going screenless after a certain time in the evening. Warm lamplight is fine, just like campfire light, because its wavelengths are long and will not trick your brain into thinking it’s day time.

Thriving Means Tuning Your Inner Clock

Circadian health is important for everybody, whether you are a morning lark or a night owl, a shift worker or day worker. Keeping your clocks happy and on track means better sleep and lower risk for serious health problems like obesity, diabetes, cancer, and mental illness. Things are especially tough for night owls because we live in a morning lark’s world, so we’re constantly fighting against the clock and getting into unhealthy circadian habits. But no matter who you are, you can tune your own inner clocks by waking up at the same time every day, getting lots of light exposure during the day, and minimizing your light exposure at night.

And to all you lucky morning people out there: Don’t think of us owls as lazy or irresponsible. You can appreciate us instead. After all, owls likely exist as evolution's answer to our cavemen ancestors' need for vigilante night guards. The cavemen and women who couldn't stop fidgeting after moonrise may have helped to save the whole tribe from nocturnal predators. So, you’re welcome!

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