Unless we are college students studying or partying excessively, most of us sleep daily. Sleep is as common as a behavior gets for humans. We all do it frequently and we spend lots of time doing it relative to other behaviors. Can you think of another single behavior you spend more time doing? Despite all of our experience with it, many of us may not be good at it and may have many questions about it.
Questions about Sleep
Is it better for me to wake up early and go to bed early?
Is sleep the best way to relax?
Is reading a good way to cure insomnia?
Is it better to sleep a lot?
We are going to look at the answer to this first question, “Does the early bird really get the worm, leaving the night owl to starve?” Early birds and night owls refer to two different extreme sleep patterns- those who prefer to wake up early and those who like to sleep in, these extreme patterns are called chronotypes. Most of the colloquial sayings indicate that a chronotype of sleeping late probably leads to poor outcomes across the board. But research on chronotypes demonstrates something quite different.
Productivity and Sleep
Research indicates that when early birds and night owls are directed to follow their own natural cycles, night owls may outperform early birds on tasks after a significant amount of time has passed from their wake time. For example, a night owl who wakes at 12:00 pm may perform better on tasks requiring sustained attention at 11:00 pm than an early bird who woke at 6:00 am trying to complete the same task at 5:00 pm. Even though they have both been awake for 11 hours, it seems early birds have a tougher time as the hours pass. Of course early risers likely can get a lot of worms before the night owl even wakes up- so technically the early bird does likely get the first worm. But for those of us who are early risers we may want to take heed and plan accordingly- scheduling tasks that require sustained attention earlier and recognizing efficiency and attention may decrease in late evening. Other research has indicated that rotating shifts, which is often the most challenging shift and has the poorest health outcomes seems to be better tolerated by early birds or those said to have “morningness”, i.e., those who are more alert early, compared to the other extreme of eveningness. Research indicates that sleep quality was much worse for those with eveningness (the night owls) than the early birds.
Scheduling shifts or personal schedules according to our chronotype could really improve our output and increase our accuracy, avoiding errors due to decreases in sustained attention, and ensuring that the quality of our sleep is protected.
So it may be a good idea to know if you are naturally an early bird or night owl, not forced into that schedule by work demands. And if you are one of the two, you should schedule your tasks accordingly, and perhaps even change jobs or advocate with your employer for the shifts best suited for your biological clock.
Chung, M.H.; Chang, F.M.; Yang, C.C.; Kuo, T.B., Hsu, N. (January 2009). Sleep quality and morningness-eveningness of shift nurses. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 18 (2): 279–284.
Gibertini, M., Graham, C., Cook, M.R. (1999). Self-report of circadian type reflects the phase of the melatonin rhythm. Biological Psychology, 50 (1): 19–33.
Schmidt C, Collette F, Leclercq Y, Sterpenich V, Vandewalle G, Berthomier P, Berthomier C, Philipps C, Tinguely G, Darsaud A, Gais S, Schabus M, Desseilles M, Dang-Vu T, Salmon E, Balteau E, Degueldre C, Luxen A, Maquet P, Cajochen C, Peigneux P. (2009). Homeostatic sleep pressure and responses to sustained attention in the suprachiasmatic area. Science, 324 (5926):516-9.
Sleep Chronotype Additional Reading