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!