It was like a dream.
Last Wednesday, I hit every green light on the drive to Kroger. I made it through the aisles in 15 minutes and didn’t have to wait in line at checkout. Back home, I prepped meals and washed dishes without anyone interrupting or asking when dinner would be ready.
When I got online, the chatter on Facebook and Twitter hushed. I made it to inbox zero before receiving any more incoming messages, then finally broke through my writer’s block to finish my latest article for work.
The secret to my miraculous productivity? I started at midnight.
Night owls aren’t the lazy, distracted weirdos the early crowd makes us out to be. When the rest of the world winds down, we work, create, and tinker on our own schedules. Each evening, I watch the typical bedtimes pass by and wait for that jolt of energy and inspiration that comes well past twilight.
The daily pattern I share with many of the chronic night owls of the world is known as delayed sleep phase disorder. Essentially, our internal clocks end up set a few hours behind typical sleeping and waking hours.
For us, staying up late is the easy part. The real challenge comes when we wake up and face the early risers, who still see night owls as lazy, juvenile, and unhealthy. And today’s hyperawareness around the importance of sleep has only made our reputations worse.
My unusual sleep schedule comes with a heavy dose of guilt
I feel more energized and inspired after-hours than I do during the 9 to 5. I don’t suffer from restlessness or insomnia; I’ll get a good, deep slumber once I’m ready … it’s just a lot later than everybody else. I typically get to bed at 2:30 am, and my alarm goes off between 8:30 and 9. Most days, I’ll catch a nap in the afternoon or evening to make up for any sleepiness.
Both environmental and genetic factors have been linked to these offset circadian rhythms, so people with delayed sleep can’t fully control when their bodies get tired, or when they’re ready to get up.
This doesn’t stop articles, schedules, or well-intentioned friends from insisting we’d be better off if we just made ourselves go to bed “at a normal time.”
Night owls remain a misunderstood, maligned minority. We defy the conventional wisdom, missing out on the proverbial worm and whatever instincts make early risers “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Researchers estimate that about one in 10 adolescents go through a period of delayed sleep, but just a fraction of 1 percent still have the condition into adulthood.
Because so many teens and college kids naturally stay up late and sleep in longer, people associate that pattern with immaturity and childishness. Staying up until the wee hours is something you’re expected to grow out of; adulting means you embrace your 6 am wakeup with joy. (For bonus grown-up points, you complain that you can’t make it to midnight, even on New Year’s Eve.)
Those of us still hours from our alarms when others have completed their morning routines know we’re getting the figurative side-eye for staying in bed. I sense a bit of rise-and-shine smugness from the friend who posts a list of the things she got done before 9 am or even the countless articles on how to become a morning person. We’re all expected to conform to the early bird schedule; Real Simple and Women’s Health aren’t doling out tips on how to stay up later.
At least once a month, I’m still up when my husband’s iPhone alarm goes off at 4:30 am. He wanders out of the bedroom in boxer shorts, squints at me typing away on my glowing laptop on the couch, and shakes his head. (I now feel a Pavlovian shame whenever I hear that guitar strum ringtone.)
I have to disclose my habits when staying the night at someone’s house or sharing a hotel room. Earlier sleepers tend to assume if you’re staying up late, you’re watching TV or playing video games, forgetting that people can run errands, work, and spend their time productively past midnight. Even normal tasks — bouncing away on the treadmill at 24 Hour Fitness or mailing a package at the always-open automated post office kiosk — seem covert when done so late.
My faith doused our cultural preference for early birds with biblical backing, too, making me feel even guiltier. Within American evangelicalism, many expect faithful Christians to dedicate the “first fruits” of each day to “quiet time” with the Lord (prayers, devotional reading, Bible study). Researchers even found people to be more “spiritually aware” early in the mornings.
Faced with these expectations, I really did question whether my habits were sinful: Was I being selfish by staying up late? Was I putting productivity over the natural patterns of work and rest?
The real problem for delayed sleepers: adhering to the 9-to-5 work schedule
But guilt pangs aren’t the worst of it: We suffer at work. Even as flexible schedules become more common, employers still favor the early birds and penalize those who take advantage of adjustable hours.
“In three separate studies, we found evidence of a natural morning bias at work,” said Kai Chi Yam, co-author of a University of Washington business school study. “Compared to people who choose to work earlier in the day, people who choose to work later in the day are implicitly assumed to be less conscientious and less effective in their jobs.
Even though I work from home in a job that allows me to shift my schedule, I still try to conceal when I’m up and when I sleep to avoid confusing people or having to defend my weird hours. I’ll write a batch of emails after 1 am and schedule an alarm to send them at 9. Before my first call of the day, whether it’s at 9, 10, or 11 am, I’ll practice talking to my dog so I don’t sound groggy when I get on the phone. (The worst is when someone decides to video-chat rather than call; I’ve had to pretend my camera wasn’t working to conceal frizzy hair and pajamas.)
But sometimes I let things slip. When an alert popped up on a work message board the other night, I replied without glancing at the time. “Oh my goodness. Did I wake you up?” my concerned colleague asked. He was working in Nairobi. It was 11 am there, and 3 am on the East Coast.
Fewer than 5 percent of American workers have a job where they’re on the clock between midnight and 4 in the morning, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most night owls are forced to work during normal times, despite any hopes or plans for a job that lets them work in the off hours.
A night owl wrote into Ask A Manager about how she went into the science field knowing labs often operate on their own schedules. She accepted a job where they assured her she could work late. But they still scheduled her experiments in the morning.
“I am experiencing a lot of anxiety about trying to become an early riser,” she said.
She added that she feels physically sick from getting up early and worrying that those who read her question, like her co-workers, might tell her to just suck it up. Luckily, the advice-giver was a fellow night owl and agreed: Not getting to sleep when you want can be a legitimate deal breaker.
I’ve tried — and failed — to adopt the early to bed, early to rise schedule
Most American adults fall asleep between 10 and midnight, and over the years, I’ve tried to join them. After all, the science seems to be on their side: Studies boast that early birds are more agreeable, more proactive, happier, and healthier.
I’ve made sincere attempts to reform, knowing it would be easier on me and my partner if we could just sleep at the same time. I’ve given up caffeine for a month, eliminated late-night screentime, played relaxing recordings, dabbed essential oils on my temples, charted sleep cycles, and even started a dose of melatonin — the hormone that cues our sleep patterns.
Nothing worked. Instead, I’d lie in bed for a few hours feeling panicked about still being awake hour after hour before dozing off around my usual time. Most nights, trying to fall asleep early felt as futile as forcing myself to grow 5 inches taller or changing the color of my hair through the power of concentration. It just wasn’t going to happen.
How I made peace with my predicament
A former roommate is now a psychologist specializing in sleep and mood disorders. She remembers me working and watching YouTube makeup tutorials (another strategy to get to sleep) until the wee hours back when we lived together in grad school seven years ago. I recently confessed to her how I’m still staying up late. When I described how it feels better for me to work a few hours later and sleep in a few hours more, she immediately responded with two words: delayed sleep.
Going to bed at 3, by choice, makes me more than just a “night person.” But there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, she assured me. Unless my delayed sleep phase starts to negatively impact my life, it’s fine for me to keep burning the midnight oil. If I start struggling to get enough sleep overall, feeling an emotional or physical toll as a result, or slacking at work, she said, I can take action then.
People have mixed results with treatment, but it takes a deliberate effort trick our internal clock to shifting a few hours earlier — bedtime adjustments night after night with melatonin or exposure to a light box in the morning.
Ultimately, learning about delayed sleep helped me sleep easier. My late-night writing inspiration, marathon sleep-in sessions on weekends, and Garfield-like distaste for mornings all had an explanation that went all the way down to the cellular level. I wasn’t resisting the world’s sleep schedule; I was conforming to my own. Deep down I always believed that staying up late wasn’t the result of some moral deficiency — now I felt like I had the proof.
For years, every time I discovered someone else who stayed up past midnight, I felt less like an anomaly and more like a part of a clandestine, late-night club. Some stayed up with medical issues, new babies, and looming deadlines, but others simply preferred to work after dark.
These are my people.
For all the knocks against night owls, we remain regarded as more creative, impulsive, and strategic thinkers. There’s something to the caricature of the artist, inventor, or writer staying up chasing their ideas. Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated documentary director, said working late is part of his process: “I’m a night owl, and luckily my profession supports that. The best ideas come to me in the dead of night. My friends know I’m up, so they can call at three in the morning. Just don’t call me at, like, 8.”
I get it. I feel most clear-headed, productive, and energized in the evenings, free to work as long as I’d like. If you’ve ever gone to work in an empty office — on a weekend or holiday or a day when everybody else was on vacation — that’s what working after midnight feels like. There are no meetings, no places to be, no disruptions. It’s eerily quiet, just you and your thoughts.
The more we give night people the freedom to lean into their after-dark rhythms, I believe the more we’ll continue to see the benefits of flexible schedules, as employee satisfaction and efficiency thrive.
I understand the concerns around America’s messed-up sleep habits — so severe that the Centers for Disease Control declared insufficient sleep a public health problem last year. But we can’t conflate staying up late with not sleeping enough. Sleep delay, though it can be linked to other sleep issues, is not the primary culprit here.
Night owls and early birds and everyone in between, we’re all verging on burnout and could use healthier sleep habits. So let’s tuck our cell phones in and do whatever we can to get our uninterrupted six, seven, or eight hours of rest.
But if we want people who are up late to get in more zzz’s, we don’t have to demand they go to bed earlier; we can simply let them sleep in.
Kate Shellnutt is a journalist covering faith, women, and pop culture. She works as an editor at Christianity Today magazine. Find her on Twitter @kateshellnutt.