How To Become a Productive Night Owl

Appreciating the Magic Sky…Looking at the beautiful Cartagena afternoon sky and getting run over by a truck would be a sweet form to die. That said, I’m glad I managed to escape the truck this time and will consider using the sidewalk for future sky appreciation. Maybe there was another reason for my distractedness, though, as I was outlining this post in my mind, walking a bit numb after a weekend of night owl unproductivity.

It had been full of birthday cakes, Colombian death metal and a dive into the interesting subculture of illegal Caribbean motorcycle moped races, and I probably wasn’t ready to become part of the traffic again. So, first of all, a disclaimer concerning running around semi-somnilent while experimenting with nightowlism: Try this at your own risk, kids!

If you’re still up for giving nightowlism a try now, here are some pointers to get you started, the lessons learned from my experiment!

1. Make a Plan…

If you never worked at night over a longer time in your life, nightowlism can be quite a transition. In order to make it easier, start with a bit of planning: How many nights are you going to work during a normal week, at which times, and on what tasks?

This plan can be as broad or as specific as you like, and how you do it mostly depends on your personality. Hardcore GTDlers will probably set up a very precise schedule and create contexts, routines, and whatnot. But even idlers can benefit from making a plan. Give special consideration to things that have to be done during early bird hours: Errands, meetings, red tape issues. Also, put enough fun stuff into your day, as, remember, you’re gonna be working at night. Your daily plan doesn’t have to be met by the minute, but it helps you to stay on track until the evening hours. (I will write more about a simple approach to daily scheduling in my next post.)

2. …then Drop It: The Permission to Play

The nightowlism experiment was very playful, and that’s why it was both a success and quite entertaining at the same time. Before you fix anything, evaluate what’s working best for you. Try doing standard tasks of your life at different times of the day. Even for the 9-5 employee, there’s a lot of space to do this: If you feel unproductive in the morning, try doing your field work at these times to catch fresh air, or just work on the easiest tasks early, instead of following the GTD rule to start your day with the most important thing. Night owls might benefit from doing the important stuff later! It all depends on your energy!

If you’re working from home, get rid of the idea that “decent people” get up at 6am and are at their desk working at 8. Or just decide becoming indecent; it’s probably more fun, anyway. The main rule is that there are no rules and you should experiment as much as you can. To make it easier to keep track, try keeping a journal jotting down which tasks work well at what time of the day. After a couple of weeks, you will have more clarity about how to schedule your day in accordance with your energy flows.

3. Prepare for Compromise

I had seen this coming and got the confirmation right away: Our world just isn’t ready for night owls yet. Most people around us are either morning people or simply force themselves to appear as if they were. Thus, meetings are set up at 8am and your friends are going out for dinner way too early. If you’re looking for work meetings after 6pm or social activity after midnight, you’ll often be on your own.

Things get more complicated if your partner or, as in my case, your pets are early risers. The last two weeks I have been in charge of taking the dogs for a walk in the mornings, and they really think the day begins when the sun rises: Pretty punctual at 6am around these latitudes. This made the last part of my experiment rather tough, but I eventually found a solution in sleeping a little less at night and putting an emphasis on naps in the afternoon. Also, I noted that I generally did fine sleeping a little less.

4. Find a Night Owl Peer Group

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find one here in Cartagena yet, but I spent a great time with a sympathetic peer group of night workers in Cologne, Germany, while preparing my final exams for university two years ago. We were all active or former employees of a professor for Political Science and would generally meet in the office around 4pm or so, having coffee and slowly starting to work. Later at night, we would drink Taiwanese Oolong tea (great for maintaining a high degree of concentration over longer periods of time), have dinner together, and keep working until midnight or so, only to enjoy a couple of beers at the balcony before packing up.
I have never been as productive as during this time, I think. Having a work environment with motivated peers but without early-bird bosses is a great way to get things done!

5. Listen to Your Body

In a hugely popular post on becoming an early riser, Steve Pavlina recommends going to sleep whenever you feel like it and getting up at a regular time with the help of an alarm clock. In my own experience, this is the worst thing you can do. While I agree with him that it’s helpful to listen to your body at night, the same is true for the morning. An alarm clock can disrupt your sleeping patterns and leave you exhausted first time in the morning – not the best way to start a new day! If you want to avoid sleeping in, try using a timer on your stereo. Put on the smoothest music you can enjoy and reduce the volume until it’s barely audible. Let it go off 90 minutes before you have to get up, and you’re fine.

Why does this work? A human sleep cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes. If you use an alarm clock or loud music, you can disrupt this cycle, waking up feeling dizzy and in need to grab a huge cup of coffee. If you use the technique described above, though, the music won’t be loud enough to get you out of a deeper sleeping phase. Once you get towards the end of the cycle, though, you will notice the music and you’ll know it’s time to get up. (If you want to play it safe, you can still set up an alarm for your latest wake-up time, just in case.)

Similarly, don’t push your night owl shifts too far. In order to enter smoothly into sleep, get away from TVs and computers at least an hour before you want to rest. Spend that hour reading, relaxing, meditating, and you will easily fall into sleep once you go to bed.

6. Go Tempo Giusto

After the first two weeks of nightowlism, I definitely abandoned the idea of exclusively working at night. Different tasks, I noted, require different times and different levels of energy: I like to outline and write texts at night and edit them in the morning. Photo editing also works great in the evening, as do lower energy tasks. But if I need full concentration, (not too early) mornings will work best.

This brings us back to tempo giusto, obviously: Living life at your own pace! The biggest misjudgment when trying to get more productive is thinking you will behave like myself or like your best friend or like a productivity guru who wrote a book on the topic. You won’t. Human beings aren’t standardized yet, and each one is unique – thank God! Keep this in mind whenever you are struggling to fit into some productivity scheme that was invented by someone else. You have the freedom and opportunity to get inspired by them, but then go on and create habits in your life that work for you.

Did you enjoy reading this post? Sharing it won’t make you more productive, but it would certainly brighten up my day. Thanks in advance!

Comments 18

  1. Ruben Berenguel October 20, 2010

    Interesting as usual, it was a very unusual experiment (more so in this “early risers onslaught”). Is it the final of nightowlism? Will you turn again into a normal riser or you will keep this mixing with getting up earlier when you have morning appointments?

    Today I forced myself to get up at 6:30 for a good cause. Yesterday I spent something like 7 hours in front of a computer, trying to work out a program to give my students an assignment (the teacher should be able to do it!), and as I wasn’t able to finish, gave up for a while. But this messed with my to-do list for yesterday. And I was having a perfect to-doing week: Ticked everything on Monday (and Sunday, but for me weeks start on Monday).

    Thus I got up to finish some small chores at home, got to the office and by 11 I had already finished yesterday’s programming assignment and written the assignment questions to share with my fellow teachers. And by 12:30 I had finished all my to-do… for Tuesday and Wednesday. As I am writing this (at 12:20 AM), I have completely finished my to-do for today, with a few tasks I wasn’t expecting to do today. Probably the most productive day I have had in a long, long while. Had it something to do with waking up early? Probably not. And tomorrow I will let sleep sink in and get up at around 8, I am feeling tired. But… what if…? ;)

    I guess I could also adapt to being a night owl (my girlfriend is… and it is quite a problem for me!), but I am mostly a morning worker. I can get stuff done at the evening, but I am just productive from something like 20-22 (8 pm-10pm), and then I just disconnect and can only do some small thinking stuff like sketching blog posts (and then the next day cutting a lot of that nonsense) or a little soft reading.

    Cheers,

    Ruben
    Latest in my blog: 3 Ways to Sharpen Your Saw Daily

    • Fabian October 20, 2010

      Ruben, you leave me in envy with that discipline you have! :)
      Nightowlism will continue, it’s starting to be a new habit really. The most important change for me was in perspective, accepting slower days and getting consciously ready to work in the evenings. That said, I can’t really work like I’d like to now because of the dogs, but that’s part of point 3, compromise!
      If you get up early, do you use an alarm or do you manage to do without?

      • Ruben Berenguel October 21, 2010

        I used to be able to do it without an alarm clock, but that was when I decided my hour to go to bed… As my partner is a night owl, I either go to bed with her pretty late (and to get up early I need an alarm), or I just am too tired and go whenever I need to (and may get up early on my own). Now I think it is better to adjust my wake up time to whenever I go to bed, and how tired I am feeling (today I slept for 8 hours!)

        Cheers,

        Ruben

        • Fabian October 21, 2010

          Well, compromise isn’t a one-way road for us night owls, then! ;)
          8 hours sound good… ready for the new day, then!

  2. Jonathan Ziemba October 20, 2010

    I have often thought of doing something similar but with cycles as my model. Perhaps the moon waxing and waning as my guide, and no I am not a werewolf. Incorporate the seasons and presto a gentle life clock to live by.
    Alas, linear status-quo has too big of a reach on me and by the clock on the wall I have two more hours before bed.

    Now get back on that moped and enjoy the moonlight.

    • Fabian October 20, 2010

      Jonathan, this was probably the most poetic and at the same time the weirdest comment I ever got. Love it! :)
      And the linear status-quo doesn’t have to stop you forever, tempo giusto is right here at reach. Moonlight and adventure awaits!

  3. Nate October 21, 2010

    Great advice Fabian and I love the contrarian perspective to all the ‘get your ass up early’ stuff out there. The thing is, nothing is wrong with either, so it’s great that you are sharing your experiences with what works for you and showing others that it’s not necessarily the time that’s important, but rather your own intuitive feelings for what works best for you that’s important. Want to wake up early b/c you get a lot done…cool! Want to sleep in, enjoy a relaxed day and then kick some butt at night b/c that’s where you energy is? That’s cool too!

    How many hours on average did you sleep? I do have to say that 7-8 hours of sleep is important, so I’m curious about that.

    • Fabian October 23, 2010

      Thanks Nate! I normally sleep my 8 hours, too, but thanks to the dogs it is more like 5-6 these days. Sometimes, this leaves me a bit tired, but as I can start my day easy, it doesn’t really matter too much. And when it does, I just go to bed earlier that night. Still, I’m looking forward to my wife taking care again for the morning shift with the dogs, so I can sleep (and work) a little longer… :)

  4. Earl October 23, 2010

    This is as complete and useful a guide to nightowlism as I’ve ever seen. Actually, I’ve never seen another guide to nightowlism but there’s not need to look for one after this post.

    And thank you for adding #6 to your list. I am often turned off when reading about particular work/organizational systems when they assume that every person is going to behave in the exact same manner. The fact that we are all different seems to be rarely taken into consideration.

    And on a side note, I’ve found that your idea about avoiding the use of an alarm clock has played a major role in my productivity levels. Even while working at night, if I know that I have to set the alarm the following morning, I find it much harder to maintain my motivation. But if I know that I am free to sleep until my body naturally wakes up, then my brain tends to maintain its focus for a much longer period of time.

    Excellent stuff as always Fabian.

    • Fabian October 23, 2010

      Haha, thanks Earl, this is my winning strategy: Go for niches where there’s no competition and be the best! ;)

      You know, this whole productivity/life coach/lifestyle design community is really weird. Because, let’s face it, it’s generally based on anecdotical evidence at best. So if I make an experiment and it works great for me, I’m like: “Wow, you HAVE to share that. It’s a game changer, a revolution!” But then, I talk about it with a friend or my wife, and they’re like: “What? That would NEVER work for me!”

      That’s why I included this disclaimer, and it’s also the reason for friendly anarchism as a whole: There’s no easy solution that helps us all. Sure, many people want to buy a quick fix rather than experimenting for themselves. But more often or not, these quick fixes won’t work, even if they are based on profound psychological studies. The first step to get a grip on these issues, then, is realizing that we’re better off making the rules for ourselves.

  5. John October 24, 2010

    Speaking as a natural night owl, I appreciate this post. All the ‘get your butt up early’ posts bother me to no end – I don’t care what time I get up, my mind doesn’t shift to “On” till sometime shortly after noon, at the earliest.
    #5 is the best advice, and really the only advice that people need about what the best time to get up is.
    Keep it up, first time reader of your blog.

    • Fabian October 24, 2010

      Thanks for your comment, John, it‘s good to see more night owls stopping by! It’s all about personal preference, really, and I hope that this will soon become a more accepted view in society as a whole.

  6. Pingback: The “Do Whatever You Want” Approach to Getting Things Done

  7. Pingback: Reason Why Productivity: A Simple Guide to Getting Things Done, Lasting Happiness and Saving the World

  8. seo January 31, 2012

    Hi there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it’s really informative. I am going to watch out for brussels. I’ll appreciate if you continue this in future. Lots of people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

  9. Pingback: At Work: Milo McLaughlin

  10. Pingback: How to Make Change Real

  11. Pingback: 5: Summer (Un)Productivity | Mountain Shores

Comments are closed.