Productive study habits exposed: Larks versus night owls


Apparently, insanely productive people do their best work before the sun rises. I’d concur with that – if it means not going to bed first. I am not a morning person, I never have been and the only way I got my doctorate finished while also working full time with two children was to work long into the night.

Over the four years of the PhD journey, I clocked up more all nighters than I’d care to remember – and went to work the next day. On the day I handed in my doctorate, I managed about two and a half hours sleep, a full day’s work and went on to teach my night class in entrepreneurship. I am not Wonder Woman, but I do know a thing or two about my circadian rhythms. And that is I am toast in the morning.

I can’t utter a coherent sentence at 6 am, much less write anything that anyone would want to read – certainly not a sentence that would pass muster in my thesis. I am not a morning person. I feel nauseous in the morning, probably because I have such a hard time getting to sleep.

Like the late Margaret Thatcher, a woman to be admired for her work ethic if nothing else, I am at my best on no more than five hours sleep a night. The Iron Lady favored three or four. She’d think me a slacker, for sure. It’s not like I have a country to invade – my reasons for staying up late are that’s just when I am more productive. I like the quiet of the house when the kids and pets are asleep. And besides, after a day of slugging back the coffee, I suffer from insomnia.

An article in Fast Company by Paul Dejoe about getting up at 4 am  – and working productively and creatively – has made me feel queasy at the thought of having to get up that early. I have no problems staying up to 4 am working – that’s a given if I have a deadline. But to willingly get out of bed and face the new day that early? Dejoe is clearly cut from a different cloth to me. He is a morning person.

I am not a lark – no way. And yet, I do know about working productively in the early mornings. Daily journalism is by its very nature about shift work, and there was a period of time when I was working on a long defunct afternoon newspaper and needed to get into work by 6 am, file the first story before 7.15 am and then go and have a much needed coffee and start working on the update for the second edition.

I’ll never forget calling a night owl politician at 6 am  for a quote – in Perth – and forgetting the time difference. “Do you know what bloody time it is???!!” he screamed at me. Then, quickly realising that he did indeed want to add his right of reply to the story, mumbled “give my five minutes while I grab a coffee and call me back.” Like me, he certainly didn’t see the joy of clarity at 4 am.

It got worse when I did a stint as assistant Chief of Staff in the morning – that was a 5 am start. I don’t know how bright and perky breakfast news presenters do it. I hated leaving evening events by 10 pm to rush to bed. I still recall – all these years later – resenting having to leave the final act of a play so I could get up for that early shift.

I don’t care what anyone says, I hate seeing the sun rise. I find nothing compelling about the freezing cold of the dawn and I loathe everything about the smugness of early morning people who run out of steam by 8 pm at night. Yes, I’ll say it now – larks can be very smug indeed.

I much preferred my stint as Night Chief of Staff on the afternoon paper, and chatting into the long night with journalists on the road phoning in their stories and tips (yes, that was before the mobile phone). Back then, the printing presses were part of the old newspaper building and the whole place would lurch and shudder to life as the presses started. There was something about working well after the others had gone home or gone to bed that inspired camaraderie and a certain black humor that everyone working under communal deadline pressure knows so well.

Of course, for a writer of crime, horror and SF, the night has always been my playground. It’s hard to feel inspired by the possibilities of ghosts, demons and strange creatures that come out – at 6 am? I think not. Can you imagine seminal horror television shows such as The Night Stalker set in the morning? With everyone bright and perky? Why do you think there are night terrors and night fears, not bright and cheerful early morning ones? It’s in the dead of night, after all, that the imagination wanders. Not in the insipid morning light.

There are two notable occasions I realized I was not a morning person – and nothing would make me one. I was invited to a business breakfast featuring His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I tried my best, rising at 5 am, feeling as usual, utterly sick from being up so early. I sat at the table at the five star hotel and promptly fell asleep. Yes, I know it was the exiled leader of Tibet in front of me – but it made no difference – I simply could not keep my eyes open.

The second early morning disaster occurred when I was invited onto a US frigate. I had to be at South Melbourne pier at 5 am. I remember vividly the nausea that overcame me as I tried to remain upright on the vessel that ploughed through the choppy waters of Port Philip Bay at a rapid speed, smelling the spread of fatty American food – glazed donuts and pastries – spread on the buffet table before me. The view of Melbourne on the top deck in the grey dawn would have looked so much better at sunset.

I kept being told “you’ll always remember this” – and indeed, it was impressive being in the control room and seeing in the red light gloom (so your eyes do not have to adjust if it is dark outside, I was told) how the frigate was equipped to blow up Melbourne. But what I remember most is how awful I felt because it was so early.

I come from a family of night owls. My mother tells the story of how competitive housewives in England in the 1960s would make sure they got up earlier than each other to hang their washing on the line. My mother would stay up late, and hang hers out before she went to bed. None of the other women ever figured out how her washing was always on the line before theirs.

Mind you, as it was in England – not Australia –  the clothes dried stiff from frost. But she found a way around the moral superiority of the early riser.


Similarly, I was always worried about combining motherhood and writing as I read so many stories of women writers who would rise at 5 am before the kids were up and write chapters of their books. How was I going to manage?

The answer of course, if you belong to the night, is to work into the night. Write after you put the kids to bed. Avoid brain work in the morning – and never get up at 4 am unless the smoke alarm goes off or your child is sick. Simple.

I have adjusted my working day to according to my circadian rhythms – I do grunt emails and administrative tasks early, as I drink many cups of coffee. I sit next to a night owl at work and his Red Bull cans hit the bin we share along with my Diet Coke bottles. By 11 am, I am flying, and rarely get to lunch until after 2 pm. I am quite content to do my creative work late into the night, and have learnt that I am not slack just because I hate to start the day at the crack of dawn. In fact, Researchers from the London School of Economics say that being a night owl is an “evolutionarily novel preference” made by people with “a higher level of cognitive complexity.” Take heart, those of you slogging on your doctorates late into the night – smart people have evolved to stay up later.

Just don’t ask me to do anything at 5 am. Especially get on a frigate.