How To Thrive As A Night Owl In A World Of Early Birds

It may seem that we live in a world that values early birds, but there are ways that burning the midnight oil can still spell success.

How To Thrive As A Night Owl In A World Of Early Birds
[Image: Flickr user the_tahoe_guy]

The world is set up for morning people. High school classes start early. Consequently, students who function early get better grades. They get into better colleges, get better jobs, and then run businesses according to their schedules.


So if your body follows a different schedule, are you doomed?

Not necessarily. Night owls can still set up their lives to take advantage of their most productive hours, even while the rest of the world lives by a different clock. Here’s how:

1. Identify a feasible schedule.

How many hours of sleep do you need? What hours would you like to have available to you for work or creative pursuits? Most night owls don’t want to be up all night. They just want to be able to enjoy some quiet after others go to sleep, and wake up a little later than average.

Mike Vardy, a speaker and author who runs the Productivityist website, reports that “I generally wake up at 8:30 a.m. and go to bed around 1:30 a.m. on the average weekday. This allows me to get plenty of work done in the evening hours from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m.” Even sleeping from midnight to 7:30 might allow a night owl to use some chunk of her best hours. Figure out what a reasonable routine might look like for you.

2. Shorten the commute.

Showing up around 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. is okay in many offices. It’s the hour-long drive to get there that forces people to wake up early. Move close by and you might be able to wake up at 8 a.m. and still make it. If a move isn’t feasible, propose working from home a day or two per week. Then you can wake up right before settling in for that first conference call, and leave the showering for later (as long as you’re not on video calls).

3. Ask for flexibility.

Holly McLoughlin describes herself as a lifelong night owl who, as a child, used to stay up later than her mother. She was chronically late to a newspaper job until she went to her supervisor and “was blunt,” she says. “I asked to have my schedule changed from 8-5 to 9-6, and when that worked really well, I asked for 10-7. I got it each time and was careful to thank her profusely for her flexibility.


I followed it up with an email every couple of weeks that mentioned specifically something I was able to accomplish during those later hours because I was working when I was at my best.” Awesome performances get people’s attention whenever they happen.

4. Trade off with your spouse.

Asking for flexibility at work is one thing. Unfortunately, the home front can be equally problematic for night owls with children. The need to get the kids on the bus at 7:30 a.m. pulls many a night owl out of bed far earlier than he or she would like. One solution? Volunteer to always do the bedtime routine if your spouse does the morning run.

Vardy stuck to his late-night work schedule even when his kids were infants. “One of the major factors is that my wife is a morning person, so we actually structure our sleeping time in shifts. Anything that happens from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. is on me to deal with and anything that happens from 3 a.m. until 8 a.m. is hers to handle,” he says. “Since my wife is in bed anywhere between 10 and 11 p.m., this arrangement works nicely. This isn’t going to be the case for everyone, but I think it’s worth having a conversation with your partner to see if this kind of strategy will work. Just like I enjoy the uninterrupted peace and quiet of the evening, my wife enjoys the same in the morning hours.”

5. Plan the right work for the right time.

Pittsburgh resident Paul Kalkhof, who is starting his own software company, worked a lot of night shifts in his life. He likes that schedule. But now that he has a day job, an entrepreneurial side gig, and a family, he can’t stay up all night. So he schedules two hours to work on the creative aspects of his business from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. He then does his day job from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. He spends time with his family, and then goes back to work on his own business after his family goes to bed.

“I’ve found that splitting my workload up, where I do more of the practical side of development at night, and more of the creative side in the morning, leads me to the most success,” he says. “If I do the creative in the morning, I can spend a good deal of my day looking for solutions and inspirations.” Having pondered the problem all day, when he hits his productive nighttime hours, he is ready to go–and then ready to go to bed when he’s done. “I find it easier to go to sleep because I have a psychological sense of satisfaction that I did my best work today,” he says.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at