🔒 The Economist: Bartleby – Is it better to be an early bird or a night owl?

Early risers like Tim Cook and Bob Iger tout the productivity benefits of waking before dawn, a practice supported by research linking it to happiness and health. However, Bartleby argues that forcing early starts may backfire, as individual chronotypes are genetically determined. The best approach is embracing one’s natural rhythm and advocating for nap rooms at work.

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From The Economist, translated by BizNews, published under licence. The original article, in English, can be found on www.economist.com

© 2024 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

By Bartleby

The promise and perils of waking before sunrise ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Rare is the chief executive who extols the virtues of a lie-in. Tim Cook, boss of Apple, maker of the iPhone, wakes between 4am and 5am. So does Bob Iger, his counterpart at Disney, a media giant. According to one survey, two-thirds of the chief executives of large American companies are up by 6 o’clock; for average Americans the share is less than one in three. For those aspiring to corporate greatness, the message seems clear: you snooze, you lose.

Your guest Bartleby harbours no such ambitions. But he has, in the past, experimented with early starts, and can confirm that their benefits go beyond the smug sense of satisfaction that comes from arriving at your desk before your editor. Inboxes can be cleared and tricky problems mulled over before the onslaught of emails and meetings begins, leaving you feeling well prepared for the day ahead.

Those quiet hours of the morning need not be spent solely on work. In a popular genre of TikTok videos, influencers film themselves performing elaborate morning routines in which they submerge themselves in ice baths, recite affirmations and mindfully prepare nootropic coffees. In one widely pilloried video, Kris Krohn, a business coach, details how he wakes at 4 in the morning to “align the pharmacy of the body and over-dopamine the mind”.

Although Mr Krohn’s routine may lack scientific rigour, plenty of research finds merit in early rising. In a study conducted in 2012 by Renée Biss and Lynn Hasher, then both at the University of Toronto, early birds reported feeling happier and healthier. Night owls, their nocturnal opposites, tend to have less sleep, which can weigh on their mood and health—as well as their productivity. Andrew Conlin of the University of Oulu, in Finland, and co-authors found that men who rose late made 4% less money than those who were up early (they did not test whether an extra 4% is enough to entice slumberers to throw off their duvets).

Early birds are certainly held in higher regard. Rolling into the office late continues to be frowned upon in most workplaces. A study published in 2022 by Jessica Dietch of Oregon State University and her co-authors found that night owls were perceived by respondents as being “lazy”, “undisciplined” and “immature”. To pile on the the stereotypes, they are fatter, too, according to research by Lap Ah Tse of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and colleagues.

Rising early is not, though, all upside. Those ready and waiting to receive work when the boss arrives may be given more of it. If the early bird gets the worm, the clever worm stays in bed. Urgent tasks often come up during the day, meaning that those who come in early may end up working just as late as their dawn-averse colleagues. And the more emails you send in the morning, the more responses you are bound to get back.

Waking before sunrise also risks turning you into a bore. Some larks cannot resist describing how much they got done while owls bashed the snooze button. Others go home early to tuck themselves in rather than socialise after hours. Night owls, by contrast, let loose. Research shows they drink more and take more drugs. They also have more sex. Christoph Randler and colleagues at the Heidelberg University of Education found that men who stayed up later had “higher mating success”. In the eyes of many, late nights are the preserve of youth, whereas early mornings are the domain of the geriatric.

Efforts to alter your circadian rhythm are likely to end in sleepy frustration. A person’s chronotype, to use the scientific lingo, is largely a product of their genes. Dimming your lights at night and buying a special alarm clock will not magically transform you into a morning person. Those early hours will be of little use if they are spent staring blankly at a screen through bleary eyes. This Bartleby abandoned his efforts at early starts after growing alarmed at the quantities of caffeine he required to stay awake. Early birds, for their part, lose out by never being the life of the party after the sun goes down. If nothing else, that gives them one fewer thing to feel smug about.

Perhaps the best advice, then, is to stop worrying about your body clock. Most people are neither early birds nor night owls, but in between. They do not perform well first thing in the morning or late in the evening. Many, including your columnist, get sleepy in the afternoon, too. That is why most offices operate between 9 and 5—and why they ought to have nap rooms.

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