Back in June there was a fascinating article over in Slate about sleep patterns in teens. The short version of the article is this: Many studies have shown that people who eat breakfast do better in school. This article makes the case that the reason they do better is because they are ealy risers, and so they are hungry. It has nothing to do with actually eating food, but everything to do with whether or not they are naturally awake and alert in the early moring. Therefore, dragging your not-an-early-riser kid out of bed to make them eat isn’t going to improve their performance.
But the article talks about some things I’ve been trying to explain to people for years. In my personal life, I’m surrounded by early-risers: People who hop out of bed with a smile and are ready to eat a big meal and attack the day! They start out alert, and slowly become tired as the day goes on. My own view of their cycle looks like this:
The average day of an Early Riser.
Note that these charts are entirely subjective. There is no data behind these. I’m just using them to make my point clear. I don’t want to create the impression that I’ve done some sort of formal data-collection.
I’m a slow, slow riser. I don’t get hungry until mid-afternoon, and I’m not ready for complex tasks until noon or so. The late evening hours are when I’m most awake and effective, and I’m all but useless in the moring. Many people are wired this way. My own cycle feels like this:
The life of a Night Owl.
This is bad, since it means I spend my worst hours working, and my time of highest mental activity is spent with family or playing video games. When I work on the weekends, I almost always do so at night, when I’m sharpest.
Note that when I talk about being “awake”, I’m talking about a broad range of physiological effects, not just alertness. For example:
- I wake up feeling horrible. Classic morning zombie. I’m usually miserable right after waking up. In the evening, just as I fall in bed, I feel quite satisfied. This is in contrast to people who are frayed at the end of the day, but wake up feeling refreshed.
- When I wake up in the morning (the low end of my cycle), I’m cold. At night (at the peak) I’m hot. I go to sleep with the covers off, and wake up with them wrapped around me, shivvering.
- I’m most creative and talkitive at night. In the morning (I’m talking about the first few hours of the day, not just the half-hour or so after waking up) I hardly speak.
- If I get sick, my symptoms usually hit overnight, so that I wake up sick. Through the day, the symptoms weaken, and I feel relatively better by evening. The next morning, the symptoms return. The cycle repeats until I get better.
- I have no appetite at all in the morning. I’m not usually hungry until I’ve been up for 5 or 6 hours. At night – just before bed – I always eat.
- I never laugh and smile very little at the beginning of the day. I joke around a lot in the evening.
- Music: never in the morning, often in the evening.
My wife is the opposite in almost every way: Wakes up refreshed. Goes to bed cold. Wakes up hot. Alert in the morning. Tired in the evening. Sick in the evening. Feels better in the morning.
I’d love to know the breakdown of how many people operate the way my wife does, versus people who operate the way I do. I predict that I’m in the minority, but it’s not like I’m in a position to back that up with hard numbers. I’d love to see a study on this.
But for people like me, how do you cope with the fact that most of the most important hours of the day are spent in a stupor? You can force yourself to get up earlier, but if you don’t get a solid 8 hours of sleep it will do more harm than good. Instead of moving the alert hours to earlier in the day, it just dilutes them:
A night owl wakes up early.
After years of dealing with this, I’ve adjusted my sleep so that I get up at 5am. It means going to bed around 9pm, but I’ve found it really helps me to function like a normal person. By the time normal people wake up I’ve gotten my brain in gear and I’m more or less ready to cope with them. I’m alert by the time I start work, which has done wonders for my productivity.
Up until about two years ago, I never really drank coffee. However, I eventually experimented with it and found that a good dose of caffene is very useful in smoothing out the curve and making the morning hours more useful, at the expense of losing a bit of the edge at night. I usually skip the coffee on weekends, sleep in, and enjoy the extra energy in the evenings.
A night owl drinks coffee during the day and is a lot more useful in the morning.
It’s an interesting subject to me, although early-riser types have no patience for any of this. They think that their own pattern is “normal”, and if you are sleepy in the morning then it’s because you are irresponsible or lazy.
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