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Can a Night Owl Be Productive at Work?

February 11, 2015

By: Terri Williams

Working 9 to 5 might describe the typical workday for most employees, but you’re not a typical employee. You’re sluggish and lethargic during the morning hours, but you tend to get smarter and sharper as the day progresses. And by the end of the workday, when most people are shutting down to leave work, you’re bouncing off the walls with energy and ideas.

That’s because you’re a night owl. You like staying up late at night - long after everyone else is asleep. As a result, you dread waking up early in the morning, you hate the sound of your alarm clock, and you have probably worn out your snooze button. Ten minutes in the shower and two large cups of coffee do nothing to help you shake that sluggish feeling. In fact, when you arrive at work, you’re irritated by those highly-animated coworkers exclaiming, “Good morning!” because you don’t see anything good about having to wake up and be expected to function that early in the morning.

At the same time, your boss is wondering if perhaps you’re a slacker or a lazy worker since you seem rather . . . well . . . unproductive during the morning hours. Whether you’re a morning person or not, when you’re on company time, there’s a reasonable expectation that you should be earning your pay. So what’s a night owl to do?

Plan A

According to a study conducted by Satoshi Kanazawa, a psychologist at The London School of Economics and Political Science, people with higher IQs tend to stay up later at night, and wake up later in the day. On the other hand, those with average and below average IQs prefer to perform their activities during daytime hours, go to bed early, and wake up early.  Kanazawa says that our ancestors followed this pattern because they didn’t have light during the nighttime hours. However, those with higher IQs display a “higher level of cognitive complexity” that allows them to ignore the impulse to sleep because the sun has gone down.

And another study conducted by researchers at the Université de Liège in Belgium found that night owls could stay alert longer than early birds.  The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor brain activity while having participants perform a task that required sustained attention, after being awake for 1.5 hours, and again at 10.5 hours. At 1.5 hours, there was no difference in attention levels between the early birds and the night owls.  However, after 10.5 hours, there was increased activity in the brains of the night owls, but in the early birds, the circadian signal that triggers alertness was overcome by the desire to sleep.

Therefore, you may be able to convince your boss that since you’re one of the more intelligent employees, it would be to the company’s advantage to let you adjust your working hours so you can arrive later in the morning, and leave later in the evening. Especially since you’re at your prime at the same time that your rise-and-shine colleagues are at their weakest.

Plan B

There’s a chance that your boss cannot or will not change your schedule to accommodate your nocturnal lifestyle. If not, you need to make the necessary adjustments to avoid the appearance of being unproductive during the morning hours. For example:

Set and maintain a regular bedtime.

It will take about two weeks for your body to get used to going to sleep earlier; however, you need to maintain the schedule on the weekends to be consistent, or your body will never adjust.

Use a smart clock.

According to Dr. W. Christopher Winter, medical director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, Va., pressing the snooze button allows you to sleep longer; however, he says that cognitively, you’re in no position to objectively determine if you should add more minutes for sleep. In an article in Entrepreneur, Winter recommends some type of smartphone alarm app, such as Math Alarm, which requires you to correctly answer a math problem to cut the alarm off.


Exercising also jump-starts your body, so consider working out in the morning, instead of after work.

Prepare at night.

To gain as many precious minutes of sleep as possible, select your clothes, etc., at night before you go to bed.

Power down.

Research shows that spending time in front of bright screens, such as your phone, iPad, or TV, interferes with your ability to fall asleep, so power down these devices at least an hour before your bedtime.

If you’re a night owl, you may be able to convince your boss to rearrange your schedule accordingly. If not, these tips can help you make the necessary adjustments to become more productive during morning hours!


Terri Williams

Terri Williams began writing professionally in 1997, working with a large nonprofit organization. Her business, education, and lifestyle articles have appeared in various online publications including Yahoo, USA Today, The Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report University Directory, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago. Williams has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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