Sleep Patterns

By Shamus Posted Monday Jan 16, 2006

Filed under: Personal 19 comments

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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19 thoughts on “Sleep Patterns

  1. Andre says:

    Your pattern is the same as my pattern. How do I cope? I don’t, but coffee helps.

    At the beginning of the day I’m sluggish and tired, unable and unwilling to put effort into anything. I have to literally talk myself into getting out of bed. My energy rises all day, so that by the end of my workday I’m irrepressible and cheerful, while my coworkers are tired and cranky. By the time I’m really alert and ready to do things, it’s far to late to actually accomplish anything. I find I spend that time on the internet, reading. I put off going to bed as long as humanly possible, because I’m just so energized that the last thing I want to do is go to bed. Ultimately I don’t end up getting nearly enough sleep, and I don’t have any interesting or acceptable excuse for staying up to some ungodly hour. of the morning. So essentially, my cycle has turned me into an insomniac. Or the other way around.

    I find coffee works exactly the way you guessed:

  2. Andre says:

    it normalizes everything somewhat, but leaves me feeling drained at the end of the day. This would be great, except that it also makes sure I CAN’T fall asleep no matter how tired I am.

  3. Telas says:

    I’m kind of wired the same, but watch out for caffeine after noon… If I have more than a Dr. Pepper after 2 PM, I’m not tired until midnight at the earliest. A waiter accidentally gave me “regular” instead of “unleaded” (decaf) after dinner, and I was wired until 5 AM…

  4. sleepyfoo says:

    I work the same way, though caffine rarely helps me. My method of coping has been developing the ability to function while in a stupor. This generally means being able to solve problems but not tell anyone else how. In terms of classes, I learned the data in a stupor, and thus “remembered” it better while in the stupor.

    I find going to bed fairly difficult, and so generally don’t get enough sleep. In a strange way that helps, as it levels out the curve toward remaining in a stupor, so I remain semi-productive all the time.

  5. AndrewNZachsDad says:

    Wow. Finding your site has been like coming home, Shamus. Imagine, A whole community of people who think and work like me…

    My wife and I are living the same “dream” as you and yours. I’m a night owl and she is most DEFINITELY a morning person (freaks, all of them). As I am quite fond of saying: “I can’t stand coffee, but I LOVE caffeine!”

    One suggestion for those of us wired this way: have any of you considered taking on new responsibilities which allow us to better use those “awake” hours when “the rest of the world” (read: freaks, see above) is being “normal” and sleeping? I am specifically thinking of online comic artists as that is a lot of what I have been filling my uneventful (read: work) hours with – User Friendly, Mega Tokyo, OOTS, and (of course) DM Of The Rings, for example. Using these hours to create something fun may even eventually create an income of some sort which may enable you to get rid of that pesky job and sleep through the slump! Or learn a new language, start a business, learn a musical instrument – that sort of thing.

    BTW, Telas, nowadays you may be showing your age with references to “Regular vs. Unleaded”. There are likely kids reading this who have never had to decide. And, yes, I understand the irony of telling you this and showing my own age. I’m coming to terms with it. Slowly. And only in the evening hours when I’m at my sharpest. ;)

  6. Katrani Merack says:

    I’m a morning person. Sort of. Here’s my breakdown.

    – I wake up before 10 am. Don’t ask why. I just can never sleep past then. If I try, I just start to feel cold and uncomfy. Which makes it a pain when I wake upa nd want to go back to sleep because I feel perfectly relaxed.
    – I’m fairly relaxed until noon or so, but I’m able to concentrate quite easily.
    – In the afternoon, from about 1 to 3 or 4, I feel tired. I yawn a lot.
    – By evening time (6ish) I’m wide awake again. I can easily stay up until four am or something and repeat the above. But I don’t. I just always go to bed my midnight. But that’s mostly because I’ll get yelled at if I don’t.

    Take note, I’m a teenager. So no, not all of us sleep in until noon whenever possible. Hah.

  7. Falco Rusticula says:

    I’ve always thought that being alert early was ‘normal’, partly because I thought about it logically and concluded that, as your mind and body are fully rested, they should be powered up to start the new day, and you accumulate tiredness as the day wears on until you have to rest again. Your explanation is very interesting.

  8. Tempura says:

    Nice post, keep up the good work. I really enjoyed how you illustrated it with graphs. Great effort.

  9. Rick says:

    This is a great read. I’m in a similar situation… a night owl with a morning person as a partner. She even starts work earlier than me so the alarm going off at 6 when I start at 9 is a shock for my system.

    Then it gets turned around as she ends up staying up waiting for me to come to bed, so she’ll politely snuggle me while I play on the laptop or watch tv to wind down… I’m sitting there wide away while she’s almost half asleep.

    I also find that ‘winding down’ before going to bed helps sleep. Although I’d still be wide awake, if I sit there writing code up until I go to bed, my brain won’t relax for ages. But if I do something relatively mindless such as watch tv or play with the cats then I slip into sleep a bit easier.

    p.s. I love the graphs :D

  10. EMK says:

    I’m somewhere in the middle. I always wake up at about 9 am. I can go from “asleep” to “alert” in 5 minutes. I’m alert and most productive from 10 pm to 1 am. I have no problem with staying up all night. Then after just an hour of sleep, i’m already alert. So i’m pretty lucky i guess. It’s a perfect sleep pattern for me! :)

  11. I just found this ( and thought of this post… Thought maybe you might be interested in it :)

    They pretty much said just what you did, but with less details but actual brain excitement tests.

  12. Varewulf says:

    More post-necroing here, but I’d say my sleep/function pattern is much like yours. After waking up, I can spend half an hour or more just dozing in bed before I feel functional enough to get up, and it takes about another half hour of doing menial habit stuff before I actually feel like I function.

    I feel great in the evenings and in the early bits of the night, though it decreases the longer I stay up. And for some reason, I seem to become more honest to longer I stay up… sharing things I normally wouldn’t, and giving answers I might say a bit more diplomatically normally.

    To give a recent example of poor morning performance. I was woken by a call from work, asking why I hadn’t come in yet, because they had changed my shift to 3 hours earlier without actually telling me. So I hurried into work, and just bumbled around like a zombie, letting my instinct and habitual nature actually do my work for me. An hour or so into it, I finally feel like my brain is waking up, and starting to take notice of what I’m doing, and also analyze some of the stuff I’d already done. Like I clearly remembered getting a signed receipt for something, but had absolutely no memory of where I put that receipt afterwards. Luckily my manager was understanding and told me just print out a copy so I’d at least have the right figures for the end-of-day account. (Perhaps it should be noted that I work in a supermarket)

  13. Lanthanide says:

    Do you ever go back and read this old posts, Shamus? I just read the one about you being 34 at Christmas and getting spider man toys and a Penny Arcade comic. Now you’re 39! 5 years have whizzed past so quickly – if you hadn’t written down a blog about that particular Christmas, do you think you’d’ve remembered it very well?

    Do you still follow the sleep pattern you outlined in this blog, or have you changed?

    Also, studies have indicated that once you’ve become accustomed (read: addicted) to coffee, you no longer actually get any sort of benefit from it at all. Instead, you just suffer withdrawal symptoms and the caffeine brings you up to ‘normal’. All those people saying they “can’t do anything before they have coffee in the morning” are just fooling themselves into thinking caffeine is some wonderful productivity-enhancer, but really all they’re doing is getting them up to the same level as someone who doesn’t drink coffee. It’s also much cheaper to never drink coffee.

    1. Shamus says:

      Yes, I remember it.

      No, I don’t think I’d remember it if not for the blog.

      Yes, I discovered the same thing about caffeine. Gave it up this year.

  14. xXDarkWolfXx says:

    I like to think of the night-owl pattern as more of a nocturnal pattern because thats the way i am.

  15. Mephane says:

    My curve is similar to yours, Shamus. Especially the point where it suddenly starts to drop at the end, this is my experience.

    If I start doing some hobby programm at 10pm, all of a sudden it’s 2am and I really should go to bed, yet I don’t feel tired but as if I could continue the whole night. However, when tiredness kicks in, it can be hard and sudden. I am doing something in full concentration, half an hour later I have trouble keeping my eyes open (Especially bad when I am in the middle of a dungeon with 4 guys depending on me keeping them alive, heh).

  16. Adam says:

    This. I have exactly the same awakeness pattern that you do. I had a long string of classes freshman year that I failed, or at least didn’t excel in, that were all at 8:30. Couple night owl tendencies with a room mate who loved falling asleep to television during my prime studying hours, and it’s a wonder I didn’t end up on academic probation. Of course, once I figured out the trick to our conflicting study schedules and registered for more classes later in the day, my GPA shot right back up again.

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