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Night Owls Versus Early Birds

Updated on May 21, 2009

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Creature of the Night

That would be me. I'm an extreme night owl. I tend to go to bed when other people are starting to get up and then drag out of bed at noon or maybe noon-thirty on a good day, maybe later in the afternoon if it wasn't. Winters are bad because I'll get seasonal affective disorder if I don't start staying up late so that I can get at least some sun before crashing. Though I have sometimes just slept under a bright window in the sunpatch like my cat and that can seriously help.

I'm what I termed an Extreme Night Owl in the poll above, though there are times when my disabilities interfere and I can't even stick to that graveyard schedule of going to bed at seven or eight in the morning. It is the closest to a steady schedule that I can keep. Some of it is that I'm a writer and when the world is quiet I get fewer interruptions.

But a lot of it is that my mind and body are a lot sharper around two in the morning than any other time of day. That's when I can think clearly, make good plans, move around and get things done with the least difficulty. I have about twice the body energy and I function a lot better than I ever did on any day that I had to get up at five or six or seven and pretend to be awake enough to slog through a zombie routine of dressing, getting to work and doing a job. Most times, the jobs I could keep were so rote that once learned, I was literally doing them in my sleep if it was on the day shift.

Needless to say, this was one of the major reasons my childhood was such a train wreck. My grade school had a tendency to stick the really tough classes like math or gym early in the day to ruin it, and expect me to be able to solve arithmetic problems before I could manage to spell my name. (I was a champion speller. Early sign of my true profession.)

If it was gym, the whole day would be shot. Most often it started out with a sports injury from trying to do something my body's not capable of anyway, at a time of day when I'm staggering like a drunk and barely capable of understanding orders on the third shout. Usually I'd turn my right ankle, wreck my right knee or fall over from a spasm in my back and get screamed at for faking. Very rarely it'd be the luck of an injury visible as one that let me go to the nurse and skip half the day sleeping on the cot in the nurse's office, like hitting my head where someone saw it and thought it was more than the usual "clowning around."

I did clown around a lot in school, but never in gym. My comedy was verbal and satirical. It usually lowered my grade in science or history or social studies by pointing out the numerous errors and peculiar slants in the textbooks. I was bright and did way too much outside reading. Some atrocity that got passed off in two paragraphs of glowing praise for Manifest Destiny would get filled in by my latest report in the goriest detail that I could manage. Edgar Allen Poe was my idol until I discovered Franz Kafka.

I always used to imagine Poe sitting up way into the night, hearing the clock bang midnight as he reached the cool middle verse of his latest poem or triumphantly worked out a puzzle with words that he could base a funny story on like Xing the Paragrab. Too many of his stories took place at night. He had to be up when everyone else was sleeping and relatively undisturbed.

I had no biographical basis for this fantasy, I just identified with him so he had to have habits like mine. At night, I was exhausted but couldn't sleep.

That's not unfamiliar even today. If I try to sleep at night, forget it. I'll lay there paying full attention to the symphony of pain from my assorted disabilties, feeling exhausted, and if I do actually get any sleep it's because I exerted a bit too much or the weather turned. Then I'll nap for an hour or two and wake up around ten or eleven feeling better than I did all day -- even if I had gotten up horribly early at Ouch in the Morning and managed to stay up all day, that is.

I have no trouble doing all-nighters, any time. It gets a little rough doing them two days in a row and I'd better be doing something sedentary or the morning after the first all-nighter, I will definitely need a full day's sleep of six to eight hours. But when I really wanted to, I have stayed up through that feeling about like I did in grade school and then gotten a second wind in late afternoon that carried through a third night.

That wasn't true during surgical recovery or recovering from pneumonia or anything like that, but in normal situations I can stay awake a good long time if all I'm doing is pounding keys and I'm trying to do something like a Three Day Novel. When my typing speed went up, I stopped doing that though. Now I go ahead and get a good day's sleep a couple of times during the event and don't worry about it, because I think my typing speed is topping 120 words a minute by my guesstimate -- guesstimate based on how long it takes me to write a thousand words that I made up instead of retype two hundred words someone else did on typing tests.

I think I go faster on composition than I do on typing tests.

I still think faster than I can make my fingers move when I get into the heat of it and see the whole paragraph while I'm writing the first sentence.

Most of the times I've held a steady job it was a graveyard shift job. Most of the time when I tried day jobs, I didn't function well at them -- until the 1980s when I started one that began at 7am but carried over into a double and sometimes a triple shift. I'd work 80 or 90 hour weeks, sometimes 120 or more. I was fantastic at that typesetting job -- in part because I got the most done after everyone went home and was just slugging through the original day job hours as if that was a second job on top of my real swing/graveyard shift.

I slept on weekends and my then-partner used to complain about it. I had some serious sleep deprivation problems and went through the workweek on only two or three hours per night total -- usually the tail end of the night, maybe on a good night crash at two or three, some nights only catching an hour's nap before I had to get on the bus to get back to work. I had this repetitive dream. I'd wake up, shower, dress, get on the bus to go to work, then repeat and rinse -- maybe seven or eight times before it was actually real. Sometimes I made it all the way to work before I sat down and made hundreds of errors I never did when it was real.

This was my unconscious telling me that what I needed was something in life besides going to work. But it was the only time I ever managed to hold a day job more than three months.

I've heard the same complaints about shift work from day people. They can't stand it. The solitude -- sometimes you're all alone, sometimes there's a night crew and they're relatively few and all oddball weirdos. Night crews at most places like hospitals and bank security guards and other graveyard shift jobs tend to attract the idiosyncratic. Night owls never fit in on a basic level, so we learn to go ahead and indulge anything else that isn't standard about who we are because on the night shift, no one cares.

Everyone knows you're weird anyway for being on graveyard and not complaining about it, so any hobbies and personal rants and personal ideas about anything in life become public and something to be proud of. Dress and hair styles may vary a bit more than usual too, because the average night owl is less perturbed at things like bizarre hair or nose rings or facial tattoos. At least most of the ones I met weren't.

They don't get startled if you show up at work in full medieval costume coming right off a medieval recreation event either. I remember doing that several times when I worked at the hospital. Of course if there's a uniform like the security job, the night owls may be more straight-looking. But appearances can be deceptive especially if they're part of the job requirements.

And every single time I wound up with congenial, accepting oddballs who never got annoyed at anything unusual I did, I got paid extra for it on a shift differential intended to compensate me for being as miserable as I had been all along trying to work days. Sweet.

I met my first professional novelist working the bank security graveyard shift job. He had the freight elevator as his station, just rode up and down in it all night to make sure burglars never came in that way. We were all trained and armed with a truncheon and a flashlight that could function as one. He had a little stool and a clipboard he owned with a yellow legal pad on it.

He was working on his fourth pro-published detective novel. He'd make up plots based on the 2 AM security exercises when the supervisor would plant a couple of empty small boxes somewhere in the building and we had to sneak around like there were armed terrorists around every corner and find them. It was fun. The night would get this bit of exercise and a break playing cops 'n robbers for half an hour and you got points if you found the bombs.

I found the bombs pretty often. I may not be the fastest on my feet but I've got a keen mind and I was functioning at what is for me the best time of the day for me to get anything done. I didn't get as much time hanging out with the detective novelist as I wanted to -- his break didn't often coincide with mine. But he'd been so successful writing his rough drafts in the freight elevator that even though he'd reached a point that he could live on his books, he never wanted to quit. He'd lose his office and he might find it hard to write.

Caffeine is our friend whenever we have to function in the daylight world. One reason my childhood was an unrelieved nightmare until high school was that high school was when I was allowed coffee in the mornings. I would take a big thermos of it to school and then still get sick after gym or injured in it and have to go home, until the day I fell over in the hallway and a teacher got behind my needing to actually be sent to a doctor. I got sent to a specialist, diagnosed with scoliosis and told I could've had surgery for it if I was eight but would have a fifty-fifty chance of total paralysis neck down if I tried to get it at sixteen.

I would not take the chance of being unable to type stories and novels, so I got a Get Out Of Gym Free slip and my grades slid up onto the honor roll just for not having to overexert and then manage to stay awake. Between that and the coffee, my junior and senior years were spent fighting only the fog of being off my real biorhythm.

Day people who try to work graveyard have trouble staying awake at all. They complain constantly. Some places would rotate everyone's shifts on irregular hours that no one could adapt to, and I'd only feel all right on the swing or graveyard shift parts of it. But I could tell the day people.

They looked and sounded like drunks on a bender. They stumbled and bumped into things. Forgot really basic stuff and screwed things up constantly. Half the time they couldn't understand what you were saying to them.

They were just like me whenever I was stupid enough to get day work, and it was a bit amusing to see the shoe on the other foot and be the one who was awake and competent. But I had a lot of sympathy for them anyway because I'd been through it so many times. Most of them didn't last. Most of the places that did that messing with shifts thing were only doing it to the newest employees and as soon as they had a few months seniority would get out of the night shift -- or get into it and hang on hard.

It takes a month of sleep deprivation to get there, but a caffeine overdose can cause actual hallucinations. I got too into writing my fifth novel and went round the clock for about a month, taking occasional one-hour naps in the middle of the day of course. By the end my characters were talking to me telepathically and the radio was synchronistically playing music I'd thought of an hour before as perfect for the scene. It was glorious. It was the acid trip I'd never dared take in the 1960s until I reached those horrible words The End.

All the energy and excitement and push to get the book done drained out of me. The end of the book was incontrovertible and I was exhausted beyond reason. I was in so much pain, just the aches of fatigue, that I could not sleep. My heart banged out of my chest in sudden terrors and I was afraid I'd never wake up if I slept.

I wound up doing an overnighter in a hospital psych ward hallucinating lines of glowing type marching across my eyes They were transparent and looked like the burned-in afterimages on an old Pac-Man arcade screen that's been played too much. Clear message from the unconscious. The book's done, dummy, time to stop typing and get some sleep.

Dream deprivation will do that, your dreams will come up anyway whether you went to sleep or not.

A sedative knocked me into 18 hours of sleep and I slept 12 the night after that and mysteriously that cured everything right off. It took my then-therapist, a good one, to find out about it and explain that was the caffeine overdose. I was on six or seven pots a day, 12 cup pots, to get to that state... so I set myself a two-pot limit and have kept it ever since. Never had that trouble again. I can get to sleep in the morning when I need to, unless I'm in serious pain from surgery or from not getting my fibromyalgia medication.

Sometimes I sleep in the morning and get up in the afternoon. Sometimes I stay up late and sleep in the afternoon. I love summers because it may still be light even if I get to bed at noon, and that is pretty cool. It's been fairly easy to shift that around a little to accommodate things I want to do during the day, at least before I got so disabled I was housebound. If someone was coming over, I'd crash early or go to bed late and work around it.

But whenever nothing's scheduled, I revert to day sleeping and get the best of whatever I'm doing going at around two in the morning. Except art, sometimes I find myself using what daylight I have to draw things from life. From photo references -- forget it, I'll do that at two or three in the morning when I feel great. Otherwise it might be when I first get up so that I've still got good light, especially in winter.

I used to wonder why a statistically significant number of people tended to be night people who could not function well during business hours. The answer came from a surprising source, and I find it plausible for human beings too since we are social creatures who lived in small bands of a dozen or so for hundreds of thousands of years before we had cities.

Robert Bakker wrote Raptor Red, which is the best nature novel I've ever read, the only romance novel I actually ever liked and science fiction in the truest sense -- it's about science and has a lot in it about biology and observation and science and natural history as well as plenty of good detail about the Early Cretaceous period. He hypothesized that Utahraptors, like many living species that live in packs or bands, vary in their biorhythms.

That way one of them is awake when the rest bed down for the night. The early riser can take advantage of it if prey is abundant early in the morning. The late-night one can lead the hunt if it's most vulnerable after twilight. And someone is always awake to be sentry when most of the rest are sleeping.

I like that. Nature evolved me to be alert when most people are crashing and not at their best. Even if all I did was yell and wake the rest of the humans in the house in a nocturnal emergency, it could make a big difference.

So don't feel ashamed about it if you are a night owl. Life gets a lot happier if you do take the situation in hand and start to arrange things so that you're not doing the most important things for your career at the worst time of the day. Think about jobs that won't mess up your biorhythm and life gets a lot sweeter. It's amazing to find out how much you can do when you're not trying to do it to the beat of someone else's drummer.

Carpe noctem!


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    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Cal, that really sounds like me back when I was in school, lol.

      I did great in one early-morning class in college though because instead of getting to bed early, I'd go to class at the end of the day and crash about 8am when I got home. That can work!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      So excited it's almost summer, I'll be out of school and sleeping when I want... which starts out as 2:30am - Noon then by the end of summer has become 4/5 am - 1pm

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Your schedule sounds great too, Ria. I've fallen into that pattern pretty often too, but then wound up going to bed later when I had nothing, absolutely nothing scheduled for days and weeks on end. I'd just stay up for it if I needed to do something like a doctor's appointment -- except in winter where I really do need to be awake during the brief sunlit hours or I get real sick.

      Of course days are longer as you move South too by the angle of the sun to the Earth, so maybe I'll have less trouble with Arkansas winters than Kansas ones. Kansas is still up in the "winter knocks me out" range of climate.

    • RiaMorrison profile image

      Ria Bridges 

      9 years ago from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

      "By the end my characters were talking to me telepathically and the radio was synchronistically playing music I'd thought of an hour before as perfect for the scene."

      Wait, you mean that's not supposed to happen under normal circumstances? That's what constantly happens to me! :p

      I call myself a night owl, though not an extreme one. I have no trouble doing an overnight shift, and in fact love it to death because I get to work by myself and listen to music and not have to deal with any of those pesky people who make my life annoying. But my natural tendancy seems to be to wake up sometime between 10 AM and 1 PM, and going to bed between 2 and 4 in the morning is best for me. There are times this varies, of course, but that seems to be about standard for me. Works just fine, sincevery few of my hobbies are ones that can't be done equally as well at night as during the day, and oftenthe dark hours are when my creativity flows best.

      I also find it easier to adjust to working a later shift at work with fewer hours of sleep than an earlier one, another sign that I'm much more of a night person than a day person.

      One of the great things with my prefered sleeping and waking times is that I tend to get a good balance of sunlight and darkness. The downside is that it can be really hard to find a job that'll accommodate that sort of lifestyle, and even if I do, transportation to and from work can become an issue. That's why I prefer to just stick to overnight shifts if I can get them. Likely by the time my shift's over, the bus has started running again and I can get home easily if I'm too tired to walk.

    • My Inner Jew profile image

      My Inner Jew 

      9 years ago

      I need my sleep too much! lol Though i would rather stay up late than get up early!


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