Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.
Surrounded by media reports that claim early risers are the most successful, productive, and happy among us, I used to feel guilty for being a night owl. Well-intentioned friends and mentors also kept insisting that waking up at dawn would be the solution to my frequent burnouts and help me manage my workload better. I tried multiple times to set my alarm to 5:00AM, but failed to get up every single time.
Then about seven months ago I got a letter saying I was scheduled to teach a daily 8AM class during Spring quarter. My new schedule meant I would have to get up at 5:30 on the days that I had things to prepare/print out for class and around 6:15 on days that I didn’t. While it wasn’t my choice, I embraced the opportunity, as I was desperately hoping this change would give me more productive hours in the day. I mean, the early bird gets the worm, right?
Well, not quite, as it turned out.
My new schedule almost cost me my friends, relationship, hobbies, and my (other) job. Sure, I did see some gorgeous sunrises in LA and, I admit, I’d seen too few of those in the past. I also bonded with fellow TAs who left their homes at the crack of dawn to beat the traffic—there’s just something about sharing a 7:00AM cup of coffee in a depressing, artificially-lit cubicle. A very pleasant surprise was discovering I had more willpower early in the day to deal with the unpleasant and menial tasks of everyday life. I was able to quickly get bills, paperwork, and annoying emails out of the way, and I postponed such things less. But the new schedule didn’t exactly work miracles. I wasn’t successful at generating more productive hours in the day. Waking up early didn’t mean that the quality of my work improved, or that I was healthier, wholler, or happier—it just meant a different alarm time.
An alarm time that was, as it turned out, incompatible with many of my interests and commitments. Having a calendar filled with afternoon seminars that ran from 1-5PM that quarter meant that I was sitting in class unfocused, battling severe mid-afternoon slumps when I was expected to be super-attentive and engaged. It also meant that I was spending an average of 12 hours on campus almost every day. I stopped going to my 6PM water pilates class because it conflicted with my last few productive hours of the day. And then I had a freelance job in London that required me to be on Skype between 10PM and 1AM on quite a few occasions, which I could only accomplish with the help of several cans of Red Bull. Needless to say, the next morning I’d be a wreck and hate my life.
More importantly, there was the question of how my schedule affected my personal life, which was effectively flushed down the drain. With my body starting to shut off around 9PM, I no longer had the strength for after-work meet-ups with friends. On the few occasions that I did drag myself to the bar, I had such a terrible time waking up and, even more importantly, teaching effectively the next morning, that I started to resent those social outings and avoid my friends altogether. I also stopped going to live shows (and I love, love socializing around music) after dozing off standing up in the middle of a punk show. But the relationship with my boyfriend at the time probably suffered the greatest blow from my new schedule. With me collapsing well before he’d return from the lab at night (or morning) and running off to work when he was halfway through his sleep cycle, we were robbed off the already limited quality time we shared.
Of course, my experience was very much informed by my TA job. I wasn’t waking up at dawn to meditate, have a run, and draw seagulls by the ocean. I was running to my office, then to class, and by the time I was done with office hours, everything and everyone around me was buzzing. There was very little “me” or “quiet” time involved. But frankly, I don’t think things would have been that different. I read somewhere, a long time ago, that if I woke up just one hour earlier every day, I would gain about 15 days a year. Fifteen days of “me” time a year sounds marvelous. The thing I realized with my new schedule though, was that you can’t miraculously generate an extra hour of productivity by waking up at 6 instead of 7. Because for every hour I gained in the morning, I lost one at night. In the end, I didn’t get more things done.
So now, for the first time in almost three decades, I don’t feel guilty for being a night owl. I have come to understand my body and my needs better. I think that nighttime appeals to my introverted nature: the dark, the calm, the solitude—it’s soothing to me. And I know that I’m most productive in the evening; if I don’t have to get up early, I can, and usually will, work well into the night. But I’ve also realized what my priorities are. I need my friends, my gigs, and my water pilates more than I need to fit into prescribed notions of what an ambitious and productive individual is.
I know our work culture celebrates early birds and judges night owls. But if, like me, you’re a night owl, don’t feel pressured into trying to change your schedule. As long as your evenings really are productive (you’re not binge-watching House of Cards, in other words) and your schedule is not negatively impacting other aspects of your life, embrace your inner owl. At the end of the day, doing what matters to you, and doing it well, is more important than trying to do it when other people say you should.
Do you have any tales of trying to change your schedule? Share them in the comment section below!
[Image by Flickr user Alexandra Zakharova and used under the Creative Commons license.]
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