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Early Birds Versus Night Owls: Who Is More Productive?

There’s no one right way to plan your schedule: It depends on how you structure your workday.

Early Birds Versus Night Owls: Who Is More Productive?
[Photo: Flickr user Simon Thalmann]

If early birds catch the worms, it’s because the worm catching is rigged in their favor. According to board-certified sleep specialist Michael Breus, workplaces are typically built around people who thrive in the mornings, and night owls tend to lose out. “In the normal, everyday workforce, the late-night people are assumed to be lazy because they can’t get up and make it to early-morning meetings,” he explains. “They’re assumed to be undisciplined.”

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Not only is that assessment unfair, but as Breus sees it, night owls can be every bit as productive as early birds when they’re given the freedom to structure their workdays. And for that matter, morning people can further optimize their productivity, too. Here’s how.


Related: How To Design Your Ideal Workday Based On Your Sleep Habits


Two Sleep-Habit Truths

Breus says he meets countless people who are dying to transform themselves into early birds. “They ask me all the time, ‘How do I convert myself into the person who wants to wake up at 4 a.m. and fire off 100 emails before 6 a.m. and work out really early?'” But Breus thinks it’s the wrong question to ask for two reasons:

  1. “Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, that’s a genetic predisposition,” he explains. “There’s only so much you’re going to be able to do to try to change that.”
  2. “While it may seem at work that [being an early bird] is an ideal position, in our social world it’s extremely difficult.” When you may be able to get up early and crank out a ton of work, Breus points out, you’re probably exhausted by 7 or 8 p.m., which could hurt your personal life and make networking a drag.

The better approach, he believes, is to embrace your “chronotype”–the genetically influenced category you fall into due to your natural sleep habits and energy levels–rather than try to change it. After all, “You really want both [early birds and night owls] in your organization,” says Breus. The key is to “make sure they’re lined up with the right duties” and performing them at the right times.


Related: Is Your Morning Routine Making You Less Productive?


Productivity Tips For Each Type Of Person

Breus has devised four labels to describe the most common chronotypes he encounters in his research: bears, lions, dolphins, and wolves. They’re all a bit different (here’s a helpful breakdown of the key characteristics of all four chronotypes), but the first three tend to function better as early risers than wolves do.

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Folks who fall into the last category are just as productive as all the others–just typically in different ways and at later hours. “We know late-night people are much more creative,” Breus explains. “They also have a tendency to be more introverted.” Wolves are typically actors, musicians, and authors, says Breus, “the idea people” who don’t typically thrive in traditional office environments, where the workday ends right when they start hitting peak productivity, around 4 or 5 p.m.

Still, there are a few simple habits everyone can adopt to lean into their chronotypical strengths:

If you’re a wolf, you struggle to get up in the mornings, and do your best work after hours, rarely going to bed before midnight. For you, “getting morning sunlight will clear the cobwebs faster than any cup of coffee ever would,” Breus says. “Walk to work. Sit outside for 10 minutes, [or even] stand by the window for 15 minutes [after getting up]. Sunlight turns off the melatonin faucet that makes [you] feel sleepy in the morning.”


Related: How To Figure Out Exactly What Time Of Day You’ll Be Most Productive


If you’re a dolphin, you’re probably a morning person, mainly because you’re a light sleeper. You may even be something of an anxious person, says Breus; the wheels are always turning. For dolphins, “The best thing is to either have sex or work out in the morning,” he suggests. “It helps quell their anxiety and levels them out for the day.”

If you’re a bear, “Be consistent with your wakeup time,” Breus recommends. Bears can be both night owls and early birds, but their key characteristics are extroversion and a resulting tendency to stay up later than they should. “They want to sleep in on the weekend, but they [also] want to be more social–out late on Friday and Saturday nights,” which can make getting up for work on Monday a real slog.

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If you’re a lion, you’re probably already a productive person–a logistics-minded early bird who probably doesn’t take enough time for yourself. Breus suggests taking 15 to 25 minutes each day to change that, “whether that’s go for a walk during lunch or go to [your] fav restaurant–something non-work-related.” He also recommends lions exercise in the early evening or late afternoon. Even “a half-hour run if will give them enough energy to stay awake” for socializing in the evening, which would otherwise be a struggle.

It turns out there are plenty of worms to go around. We just need to bait our own hooks the right way, so to speak–no matter what time we prefer to do it.

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About the author

Rich Bellis was previously the Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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