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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]