Is Being an Early Bird a Recipe for Burnout?
Early birds—the people who get more done before 5 a.m. than you or I could dream of, literally, often have a reputation for being smarter, more motivated, and more likely to succeed than their night-owl counterparts. However, a scientific study by Satoshi Kanazawa and colleagues at the London School of Economics and Political Science provides evidence to the contrary. Their study found that “people with higher IQs are more likely to be night owls.” The study also showed that “eveningness” is “an evolutionary novel preference” of individuals who demonstrate a “higher level of cognitive complexity.” In laymen’s terms, the study proves that night owls are often more intelligent than early birds.
Being an early bird, especially if it’s not your natural disposition, can catapult you into burnout mode. Sure, it’s swell when you can rise before everyone else and have the time, space, and silence to crank out work without any distractions. But oftentimes, society forces those of us whose brains aren’t wired to start functioning before 8 a.m. to adapt to an early-bird schedule. Burnout inevitably ensues.
We think it’s about time to acknowledge that there are some major downsides to being (or at least trying to be) an early bird. Below, we shed some light on the pitfalls of being an early bird and how to avoid total mental meltdown if you are obliged to keep strict morning hours.
Chris Hyams, the senior vice president of products and engineering at jobs site Indeed.com, tells Fast Company about his thoughts on early birds: “You drink a ton of coffee and you’re wide awake at 8:30 a.m. but then you’re crashing at 3 p.m. You’ve got to plan your wake-up strategy so that it works for you all day, not just in the morning.” Rather than cling to a morning venti latte, Hyams claims his morning moments for himself—not his work. “When I wake up before my family in the morning, I’m not out to be productive,” he says. “I don’t check emails or answer calls. In fact, I don’t do any work until I get into the office.”
Early birds are known for their ability to jump out of bed the second the alarm goes off, or usually right before, and start the day with a bang—answering emails, crossing items off their to-do list, or getting in a good workout before the rest of the world rises. We love how night-owl Hyams rises early but savors that time for himself.
Night owls like Devin Voorsanger, the co-founder of analytics company JuntoBot, pre-plan in the evenings so that their mornings require minimal output. “I write and schedule all of my needed emails using Right Inbox for Gmail to go out at 8 a.m. and then hit the sack,” Voorsanger tells Fast Company.
Rather than fight his body’s natural inclination toward late-night productivity and early-morning blurriness, Voorsanger has honed a strategy that lets him do his best work without disturbing the norm for those early risers.
Thomas Edison believed that sleep was an inefficient use of time. Fast Company quotes the lightbulb inventor’s philosophy as such: “There’s a loss of efficiency when you have to stop work midstream.” Edison was referring to the interruption of bedtime. As a night owl, he believed that the human impositions of the “workday” and “nighttime” as two distinct entities contradicted the flow of creative work. “With an all-nighter,” he said, “you can compress a whole phase of a project into a single work session.”
We do not take as extreme a stance on sleep as Edison does, but it does make sense that if you are in a state of flow, or optimal productivity, why break just because the workday is over or it’s past your bedtime? Why not ride out the workflow and sleep in a bit later the following day?
Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dedicates his life to the study of flow. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the professor states, “During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.” Like Michael Lewis said, a late night gives you the time to work totally uninterrupted. You are not worried about someone trying to reach you. There aren’t dozens of tasks due for completion at the same time. You have the freedom to think deeply and actually produce quality work.
Unlike night owls, early birds cannot expect a surge in energy toward the end of their day. A scientific study by AsapScience concludes that in the morning, the difference between early-bird and night-owl productivity is visible. But this variance quickly dissolves. “One hour after waking, early birds and night owls perform equally well in reaction time tests. Ten hours after waking, night owls perform significantly better than morning people in similar tests.”
In case all of the productivity talk didn’t strike you as a persuasive case for being a night owl, consider this: Science says night owls are prolific lovers, when compared to early birds. The study states, “Eveningness in men is related to mating success.” Men who are more active at night tend to make better lovers. We hope the same is true for women.
Prioritize your first 90 minutes.
According to Fast Company, Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz “wakes up and immediately throws 90 minutes at the most crucial job for the day.” This is “deep thinking time.” We recommend you do the same.
Never check email first thing in the morning.
“Early birds get a jump-start before the true pressures of the workday hit,” author Julie Morgenstern tells Fast Company. Don’t ruin this precious time with email. Your inbox will divert your attention and keep you from making strides in your work.
Find your off hours… and use them.
Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, figure out which hours are best for you to do your deepest and most uninterrupted thinking, and use those hours to accomplish your most critical tasks.
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Are you an early bird or a night owl? Let us know what you think of the pros and cons of either in the comments.
Opening photo: Diana Yen