What Successful Night Owls Get Done Before Bed

We all know morning people are said to have a business advantage, but what about those night owls? They've got a competitive edge, too. Here are their productivity tips for the wee hours.

Early birds get all the credit. Research indicates that morning people tend to be more active and goal oriented, and such larks as Steve Jobs, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, and 25-year old David Karp, founder of the Tumblr blogging platform suggest that climbing the ladder of success is easier before breakfast.

So does that mean night owls are at a disadvantage? Research by Satoshi Kanazawa and colleagues at the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests no. The group discovered significant differences in sleep preferences and found that people with higher IQs are more likely to be night owls. They found an evolutionary shift from being active in the day towards nightly pursuits and that those individuals who preferred to stay up late demonstrated "a higher level of cognitive complexity.” Researchers from Belgium and Switzerland studying sleep habits found that early risers needed more rest than their nocturnal counterparts and didn’t focus as well later in the day as those who slept in.

Armed with that knowledge, Fast Company found a group of dedicated night owls to discuss their strategies for making the wee hours work for them. Most responded to our queries via email well past midnight. Here’s what they told us.


Pick One Project

Keval Desai, a partner at InterWest Partners and a former Google product director, says he’s only seen the sun rise in the past decade when he pulls an all-nighter. He replied at 2:22 a.m., close to his typical turn-in time of 2 a.m.

His penchant for working late was born of necessity when he was still in high school in Bombay. “My parents and I lived in a small apartment and during the day there was no privacy of time or space to concentrate. So the only option to get my studies done would be to work on it at night after everyone was asleep and there were no friends, neighbors, or random visitors dropping by.”

Staying up late is now a habit, and Desai says it’s common for him to leave the thinking work for the wee hours. “During the day most of my time is spent in meetings with entrepreneurs, and the only time I can find alone to do work that requires some concentration is when the rest of the household is asleep.”

He’ll pick one project per night. Daytime is for doing the research on tasks that “require synthesizing several different pieces of information, then applying some thought on key decisions that need to be made and then articulating those decisions,” he says. “I don’t go to sleep until the task is done in one night session.”

You’ll find Desai working from home after hours, although he says he’s logged plenty of nights at the Google offices and then drives home to San Francisco, 45 miles away. He’s a big believer in drinking a cup or two of decaf green or chamomile tea while ensconced in a spare bed with his laptop.


Combat Clutter

Laurie Tucker is the senior vice president for corporate marketing at FedEx who sent her response to us at 1:45 a.m., also close to her bedtime of 2 am.

Tucker, who rises at 6 a.m. most mornings to work out, is one of those (rare) individuals who only needs about five hours of sleep each night. “My mother only slept a few hours a night, and I can still remember visits from my cousins who were put to bed by their parents at 8 p.m., while my brother and I sat up until midnight watching TV with the grownups,” she says. Though her husband “loves to sleep” and hits the hay at about 9:30 p.m., Tucker has to make herself go to bed.

“I adore late night. When my kids were young, I loved having hours of quiet after they went to bed. I had team all over the world back then so I would do conference calls, respond to email, and catch up on reading,” she says. Now that her kids are grown and she manages a U.S.-based team, she has more time to read and think.  “I love the quiet time to unclutter my mind.”

While she doesn't require as much sleep as most people, Tucker still believes late-night hours should be spent at rest. "Nighttime is for regeneration. Be at peace, feed your mind, and let your body rest.” 

She avoids anything with caffeine at night, says that she goes to sleep within minutes of her head hitting the pillow. Her energy level stays high all day, and she never naps. "My biggest challenge is to stay away from the kitchen--dinner to bedtime is a long stretch," says Tucker.


Hit The “Idea” Bar

Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief of and author of the new book I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This, Kate White was kind enough to spill some of her late-night strategies.

White goes to bed earlier than she used to (midnight or 1 a.m.) because she hits the ground running at 5:30 a.m. to work on her fiction. At night, you’ll find her hard at work on magazine editing, non-fiction book writing, and blogs.

“My craziest trick is that I regularly do my work standing up at a rolling butcher block counter in my kitchen. If I were to work sitting down, I’d fall asleep," White says. "I know it sounds awful, but I think of it as if I’m tending bar in the evening--a bar of ideas. And I always keep the kitchen TV on so it doesn’t seem too lonely. I drink several espressos at night, which really helps."


Late Night Rendezvous

CEO of the online meeting platform Groopt, Patrick Allen says his head doesn’t hit the pillow (or his desk) until about 3:30 a.m. That makes him the early bird among the site’s developer staff, who tend to stay up all night chatting on Campfire.

Located on the top floor or a quirky Victorian in San Francisco’s fabled Haight Ashbury neighborhood, Allen says the Groopt HQ is a haven for productivity, with feng shui that would make Confucius proud. “We firmly believe that to reach maximum productivity, you must work in the optimum environment, and this couldn't be more true for the night owl,” he says. Rather than revel in the quiet, Allen says it's not uncommon to find “three to five of our Troopers sitting around the coffee table at 3 a.m. hammering out user stories or crafting new experiments for cohort analysis,” which energizes him.

To be effective late, he says, you need to believe what you're doing is giving you an edge on the competition. "As Childish Gambino says, ‘While they be sleeping I'll be on to that new $hit.’"

To keep alert, they've stocked their pantry with fresh coffee, a Nespresso machine, and "mounds and mounds of Yerba Mate.”


Big Picture Thinking

Frank Aldorf, the chief brand officer of Specialized Bicycle Components sent us a reply at 1:49 a.m.--late for the guy who tries to turn in no later than half past midnight.

“It's actually fun working on this brand,” says Aldorf. But with a team in different time zones and a company that has offices in 28 countries, Aldorf’s day is mostly organized around meetings and connecting with people or travel.

“At night is the time when I get stuff done and can think about the bigger picture. It's focused. That’s the time when I can turn notes and ideas drafted on the fly into concepts and future projects. I read through saved articles and get inspired by my well-maintained RSS feed.”

Aldorf says he needs the right music on his headphones. “I can't live or travel anymore without my noise-canceling headphones and a station like KCRW.”

Aldorf doesn’t do caffeine at night and keeps the coffee consumption to 1 or 2 espressos a day. “Before I start my nightshift, I go for a short bike ride to sharpen my senses,” he adds, “But I know how important rest time is to be game the next day.” Which for him, starts back up at 6:30 a.m. 

What keeps you up at night? How do you stay productive? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Lydia Dishman used to stay up writing until 2 a.m. Now she's switched to waking up early, albeit with a LOT of coffee. You can read more of her work here.

[Images: Flickr users Dan Dzurisin, Rick Leche, Martin Teschner]

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238 Comments

  • An actual night owl.

    I don't think any of you people actually know what a night owl is. Staying up until 2am doesn't make you a night owl. Sleep til 4pm and go to bed at 10 am. That's a night owl. 

    It's an amazingly liberating lifestyle. Waking for a job is not freedom. Waking early enough so all the shops are still open isn't freedom. 

    Waking and sleeping because your mind and body are done for a while.... THAT's freedom. 

    Find that and you will become a different person. Unfortunately... it's easier said than done in todays world. But if you get the chance... try it. It's pretty interesting to see just how your body truly wants to operate. 

  • Blair

    i love staying up late at night cos it gives me all the time in world to myself, to think and create big things i wudnt av tot i cud do and it gives me dis quietness i love and peace of mind. i love having my chores done at night wen every one is at sleep and dere is dis calmness.

  • Mustafa Wiki

    Indeed people who usually up during the night hours have a strong IQ and other knowledge than early birds ! been a decade i love to stay up in night because none bother you all you have is a peace hours there i have no people, appointments and meetings. I usually chat with people from different time zone, i can read anything i like ! night hours are really freedom no haste in my mind, i don't know i will be a successful human in my life or not but i don't give up staying late hours !!!

  • Gmanalang

    What keeps me up late at night? how do you stay productive?

    What keeps me up late at night is my to do list. I work long productive hours starting at 6AM with a morning workout then shifting gears to reading anything to stimulate my mind for 20 mins that will help focus my senses towards the big picture. Once 8:30AM strikes I jet to work. The first work hour is the most critical in determining my success of the day or my career. At the end of my 5PM shift I head home for dinner with my parents. They always provide me with the best essential nutrients to give me a boost of energy to log in the long hours of studying I need to finish my masters degree in science of health care administration. I rest my head on my pillow around 1-2AM. Altogether, I would have to say that my curiosity to explore and to learn and my foolishness is what drives me to be the best who I can be. I laugh at my schedule, but on the day of victory, history is written.

  • LittleKingLuluLifeGuru

    My name is Lulu. Swindle me not.

    That lateness does not achieve greatness.....

  • A.J. Cerami

    Having recently graduated and generally being an inquisitive person, I've needed to find new ways to learn. 1-3am documentaries (Client 9, Gasland, Ai WeiWei) are filling that void. With a pilsner urquel to boot.

  • Darren X2

    In bed at 2am and up by 6?  Four hours of sleep per night?  These people aren't "night owls", they are workaholics.  Big difference.

  • Lady

    I have been a night owl since I was a small child. They tried to treat me for insomnia--when I was six--and I still have that diagnosis in my file. I have tried time and time again to fix my sleep schedule over the past twenty years. Sometimes I'll manage to go to bed early, at 10-11 for over a week, but it ever sticks. I only need about 5-6 hours a night, and when I get 8-9 I feel groggy, have trouble functioning during the day, and feel the need to take extra naps (getting too much sleep ca make you addicted to sleep). 

    For me, going to bed early is hitting the hay around 11PM-1AM. It is ideal and it is what I hope for. I've tried taking melatonin early and going to bed at 9-10 but what happens is I wake up 5 hours later around 1-3AM and can't get back to sleep at all. This is the way I am. I think a lot of people don't realize just how strong of a stigma there is against night owls. We are looked down on, viewed as lazy, and people can't understand why we don't just go to bed earlier. It limits job availability for many. I wake up at 6AM for my job. Part of my diagnosis of insomnia (which isn't a treatable disease for me--it's genetic) is that my sleep quality is low. Sleeping for 7 hours makes no difference over sleeping for 5.

    The biggest issue for me is that I literally can't fall asleep. I lay down, I avoid computers within a few hours of the desired sleep time, I listen to soothing music, I meditate, I take a warm bath, I have tried everything. Some nights my body will just tell me that I'm not getting to sleep until 4AM and there is nothing I can do about it.

    I'm in my mid twenties now. It would be nice to have a job that honors my sort of sleep schedule. Other studies have shown that sleeping in improves cognitive performance and that students and workers perform significantly better if work/school starts at 9-10AM instead of 7-8AM, regardless of the amount of sleep the people had.

    Have I ever experienced a crash before? Yes, when I push myself too far physically (I work at a barn raising animals, sometimes I have to spent a week working my ass off beyond what my body is designed to handle) I will have those days where I sleep through my alarm and wake up late at 8-10. Back when I had my old job (afternoons and evenings) I often went to bed at 4-5AM and woke up at 10-11AM. That's where my sleep schedule will naturally "settle" if I'm not artificially changing it to be earlier. I'm more productive at night.

    I'm not complaining about other people not understanding or anything and my life is fine, not hard. I love being awake at night. I just dislike when people put pressure on me as if this is a choice when multiple doctors medications, etc could not fix it nor could good personal decisions. My body is the way it is. 

  • StolenFriends

    It's 3:41 am. I'm a 20 year old male working in industry and am currently subject to only day work, meaning I rise roughly around 5:30 am everyday. I've always found that I have trouble sleeping but in the recent months it's gotten worse. I am constantly over-thinking and over-analyzing every little thing and find it ever so difficult to switch my thoughts off and fall asleep. In relation to the lack of sleep at night I am exhausted mentally and physically during the day and find it hard to concentrate on reality. I expect to sleep soundly after each day of this but find myself wide awake after about 7 pm till the early hours of the morning. I tend to spend my nights writing stories/ drawing/ editing photos I've taken and reading up on science related articles. And here I am, feeling quite alone and as if nothing is real and it's just one big dream or memory being recreated. I'm posting this in the hope of someone who's also going through the same thing seeing it and knowing they're not alone. 

  • Cpuksta

    As a religious individual, I find it import at to memorize certain religious texts. I find though it is easier to memorize if I read the, before bed time. Them as I fall asleep, I keep saying the sentences in my mind, for,some,reasonit helps me remember them upon waking.

  • Lizbet

    What a bunch of arrogant BS! If so many of us were supposed to be morning larks then why is big pharma pumping out sleep meds and Starbucks killing it on caffeine sales? Not all of us are sleep deprived. Many of us stay up all night and sleep 8 hours night in and night out. I am an artist and writer and tired of having to explain to my 9-5 friends that their arrival on my doorstep at 7pm is tantamount to my arriving in their office at 2pm and hanging out until 6. My neighbors barge into my studio at night and expect me to entertain them, make snide comments about my dazed PJ clad stroll to the mailbox at noon. At the same time all these "morning people" are zonked out on Ambien, zapped awake by pots of coffee at 6am and claim that is NORMAL. What is normal is whatever one's body's circadian rhythm is and if "normal is 2 sets of 3-4 hours of sleep, who cares and why does it bother anyone what time of day that takes place? I've been that person and was married to a guy that went to bed at 8 and got up at 4:30, it never occurred to me to give him hell about going to bed with the kindergarten crowd, but even though I paid all the bills and was our sole source of financial support, my sleep/work hours were the first barb thrown in every argument. 

    I've been a natural night owl since I was a very small child (so is my mother) and I am always amazed on a day when I must go into an office early, to see how many "night owls" waste the first couple of hours on the job bitching and moaning about how tired they are, playing on the internet and making coffee by the gallons. Work and sleep when you want to if you have the luxury of being able to do so. If you early risers are so much more successful than the rest of us, you wouldn't be so insecure as to need to pass judgement on the rest of us. I don't care what time anyone does anything. Live and let live.

  • Tom Cahillane

    I really enjoy working at night. It's peaceful without interruptions unless you count my dog asking for an occasional treat. I can start a project and work on it for hours without having to do my regular work stuff. I usually stay up till around 2 am and then I'm back up at 7 am and on a schedule all day. During the night if I feel like taking a break I can read for a bit or surf and go back to work when I feel like it. 

  • Edgar Mejia

    While I do my best work between 10PM and 1AM, my wife and 7 y/o wake up at 6:30 with the type of energy I don't have at that hour. However, my secret to staying sharp is 20-minute nap. I get one every other day, between meetings, and after long runs (marathon training). At the end of the day, it's about finding your most productive time and maximizing those few hours in your best way possible. We're all different, that's what makes us all unique.

  • Lana Clark

    I am most interested in how many of the night owls drink caffeine all day or late at night. It is easy to stay up late with coffee (or whatever) but what time do you go to sleep without caffeine? I had to give up caffeine to work in corporate America because naturally I go to sleep at 2am and wake about 9am but to function in this world, you need your sleep. I still don't drink caffeine but I do get 7-8 hours per night no matter what. 

  • nighty

     I don't touch the stuff after 2 PM, but I'm still have to force myself to go to bed at 2 AM.  I HAVE to have 8+ hours sleep to feel reasonable.  Anything less - no matter when I go to bed - and I'm struggling.

  • netiber

    Believe it or not, a Bi-Polar has those rushes of incredible output because of the illness.  The downside -- the depression hits sometimes.

  • Barbara Milligan

    When I read this article, it was like reading about myself, especially the bit on Laurie Tucker.  People that are not night owls do not understand us night owls.  Everyone always says they worry about me because I only get about 5 hrs....but that is all I NEED!  I love the time from 11P-2A.  I do my best and most creative work during those hours.  I can so identify with the people in the article.  I am also an entrepreneur and leave the days for customer relations and employee direction, leaving the wee hours for me to do my work in solitude without interruptions. We night owls are in the minority, but I believe we are more creative, focused and organized and tend to be more successful.

  • Chuck Spidell

    I usually work from 10am to 6pm, then from 9pm to 1am a few days during the week. Weekends, I take off to recharge. When my family is asleep, shit gets done. The key to being a night owl, is getting ample sleep. 6-7 hrs. will keep your creative flow in check. I'm with Rob, 4-5 hrs. of sleep then running/working out in the morning? That will kill your soul.

    I also schedule client calls (or meetings) either at 10am or 1pm. This way, it's post when everyone's "normally" working and after most people have had lunch at 12pm. It's all about strategy, people. Night owls rule!

  • Likelystorey

    These mostly aren't real night owls. They're people who work late due to circumstances. True night owls don't have to stand to keep from falling asleep, don't work at night because that's the only time they can get peace, and don't get up at 6:30 AM. My preferred bedtime is 3:00 AM, and has been since I was born. I like to get up around 11:00. When I sleep on this schedule I can work rings around other people. Unfortunately, the world expects me in the office at 8:00 AM. But they pay for it in productivity. (And yes, I am of exceptionally above average intelligence, as is my son, another night lover.)

  • Bhaskar Anand

    Well i am a night owl too.I usually go to bed at 3.30 to 4 AM.i feel this is the best time to think and provide optimum solution to our client.Its the time i browse and think about how our internet marketing services can work for advertiser. I generally go to office late around 11 Am
    And then usually in day time i finish my meetings and team building , project management.
    I dont forget to write any idea i got in night and thats how i started MavenClickZ and devise some really good campaign for our client :)

    Bhaskar Anand
    bhaskar@mavenclickz.com