Which Bird Are You?
Do you love nothing more than getting up at the crack of dawn? Do you do your best work a few hours before lunch? Does the idea of staying up late make you cringe?
Do you love sleeping in? Do you do your best work in the evening? If you had your druthers would you stay up until 3 am every night?
If you identified with the first set of questions, then you are a lark. If the second set rang true, then you are an owl. As for myself, I’m a diehard lark. I love getting up early and usually am about to fall asleep in my soup around 10 pm. And I find that I am by far the most productive during the morning before lunch.
According to the book Brain Rules By John Medina, about 30% of us can be categorized as a lark (ie – early chronotype) or an owl (ie – late chronotype):
The behaviors of larks and owls are very specific. Researchers think these patterns are detectable in early childhood and burned into the genetic complexities of the brain that govern our sleep/wake cycle. At least one study shows that if Mom or Dad is a lark, half of their kids will be, too
The fact that this is genetic makes total sense to me. My dad is a lark in the extreme. He gets up at 4:30 AM — even on his days off!
But what about the stories we hear of people who only need 4 hours of sleep?
Of course, there always have to be those annoying people that break the mold and make us all look bad. Dean Karnazes, the Ultramarathon Man, who runs 100 mile races regularly had this to say about his sleep patterns:
My average night sleep is about four hours. I absolutely believe that diet is huge in that, and learning to sleep that little was also about a month’s process. It was really, really tough. I used to set my alarm and force myself to wake up, and I’d be groggy. But what I’ve found is that now, those four hours of sleep are a really good, solid four hours, where I used to have seven or eight before, and a lot of that was restless stirring around. Now when I sleep for four hours, it’s very restorative sleep.
When I first read this and other stories of people sleeping only 4 hours a night, I thought that was the secret to success. Just imagine what all you could get done if you only needed to sleep 4 hours per night! So I decided to run the following test on myself:
- Each night reduce the amount of my sleep by a half hour
- See how I felt during the day
- Repeat step 1 until I felt like it’s really impairing me
The results? I got down to about 5 hours and after doing that regularly, I began to accumulate a tremendous sleep debt. I started to feel very hazy during the day. I was irritable and couldn’t think clearly for long stretches.
My own tests confirmed what Medina found in his research:
When sleep was restricted to six hours or less per night for just five nights, for example, cognitive performance matched that of a person suffering from 48 hours of continual sleep deprivation (emphasis added)
The Importance of a Nap
During World War 2, it is said that Winston Churchill got by with only 4 hours of sleep a night. He must have been one of those outliers. What did he say was his secret to needing so little sleep…Naps!
Here’s what he had to say on the subject:
You must sleep some time between lunch and dinner, and no half-way measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imagination. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one-well, at least one and a half, I’m sure. When the war started, I had to sleep during the day because that was the only way I could cope with my responsibilities.
Edison and Einstein were famous nappers as well. NASA concurs. Their research (as quoted by Medina in his book) showed that:
a 26-minute nap improved a pilot’s performance by more than 34 percent. Another study showed that a 45-minute nap produced a similar boost in cognitive performance, lasting more than six hours.
Does it Matter What Bird I Am?
The short answer is Yes!
The reason it matters is because once you have the knowledge of when you work best, you can schedule your highest priority tasks for that time of the day. For example, if you are a lark and you have an important presentation to give, you should schedule it for the morning if possible. Owls should schedule their most important tasks for later in the day.
Also, the knowing that you are genetically wired one way or the other, somewhat puts to rest all of the self-improvement blogs which claim titles like “How to become an early riser.” Many of them talk about reprogramming yourself to be one way or the other as if it’s a learned skill rather than a genetic trait. My guess is that there is some wiggle-room, but if you are hard-wired as an owl, it may be exceedingly difficult to make yourself a lark. Instead, embrace it and optimize your life for it.
So in summary, you can use this knowledge to:
- Schedule Key Tasks at Optimal Times
- Incorporate Naps into Your Day
- Accept Your Sleeping Habits
Sleep is the best meditation -Dalai Lama