There was a big debate on a videogame industry board I inhabit recently about night-owl vs. lark types (also known as chronotypes). This is a debate I’ve had with many people over the years, over and over again, and it typically takes this shape:
Why can’t you get to work at 10am? I:
- Have no problem waking up at 4am every morning, fit as a fiddle… or…
- Am a night-owl myself, and have trained myself to get up every morning – deal with it
… or many variations of the above.
So I did some research (and others did some research), and the upshot is that – as I expected – quite a large number of people in the video game industry are night owls if you do the right rigorous questionnaire and answer truthfully. Larger than the normal population by about 10%, in fact. And if you include the mostly night-owlish people with the extreme night-owls, that number goes up even higher.
The thing is, this isn’t something you wave a magic wand over and make it go away. It’s genetic – you can do a cheek swab test to check your system’s on-board clock – and it’s permanent once you reach adulthood (well, mainly. It can shift). As a human being, you’re synchronized to the Sun. Except different fractions of the population are synchronized to different times of day. Me? My body and brain want to wake up when the Sun has started to fall from the sky.
So get over it?
Not quite. I wish I could. Unfortunately, there’s some side effects (I won’t post links to the studies here, but I’ll dig them up at some point. Needless to say, there are lots of studies – in the last 20 years it has become quite topical).
The big thing that it causes is something called “social jetlag”. More accurately, it might be described as societal jetlag. In that you’re out of phase with “normal” society – although normal isn’t normal for at least 25% of the population (and more on the West coast and in the tech industry, apparently).
Yet that cute little term belies what’s actually going on here. Based on some of the research I’ve read, side-effects of ignoring your bodyclock and putting on the yoke of post-industrial revolution society, full of its pablum “early to bed, early to rise”, “early bird gets the worm”, and “business has core hours” statements, may include:
- Inaccurate cholesterol test readings (because they’re mostly scheduled in the early morning because you fast before them, before a night owl’s system has properly woken up)
- Increased risk of heart attack, particularly in the spring when daylight savings time kicks in (because the Sun just keeps on doing what it’s doing)
- Poor food choices, because you’re trying to pump your system full of stuff to stay awake
- Weight gain – no matter how much you exercise
- Symptoms of diabetes, because you’re eating at the wrong time of day for your system. (And fasting glucose is the measuring stick, so those tests are done in the morning).
- Poor addictive substance choices – including an increased likelihood to abuse tobacco and alcohol. Particularly nicotine during the day – because it keeps you awake!
- Poor work performance – your brain is a slave to this clock too, and different parts of it are on different schedules. During your “day”, all of the pieces of your brain sync up and are awake and happily motoring along at full capacity. But not if you’re awake earlier than your genetic clocks think you should be – it causes errors. (I’ve clocked this during vacations; I’m 3x more productive if I go to bed around 4-5am, and wake up around 2pm than if I keep a “normal” schedule).
- Symptoms which appear to be attention deficit disorder (ADD) – again, your brain thinks it should be sleeping, and you’re awake.
- Malaise, depression, increased impulsivity…
Interestingly, I’m at my most productive in February these days, and at my worst towards the end of March. This appears to be a combination of adjusting to shorter days and earlier nights in the winter months, moving me closer to my ideal schedule, and then it’s all blown to smithereens when the clocks spring forward and the days start getting longer – it’s a double whammy, and my internal clock wants to slide forward.
I’d probably better find a job on the equator at some point to nullify that one.
Eventually, I hope that we can find a way as a society to not label this stuff as a “disorder”*, but to actually find a way to get society to accommodate all of its denizens. When I think of the amount of potential wasted because most people think that 9-5 is “normal” and “appropriate”, it both saddens and angers me.
In the mean time, I guess I’ll just deal with the fact that my risk of cardiac arrest is way higher when I get up in the morning.**
* A psychiatric term meaning “not the way society behaves” – no seriously. Something only becomes a disorder once it interferes with your life to the extent that it makes holding down a job difficult.
** Yes, I’m a smoker. I’m trying to quit. And I do realize that smoking exacerbates that risk – and others. Eventually, I’ll die. Even so, if I wasn’t (and as I’ve said, being a night-owl in a lark’s world increases my statistical likelihood to be a hardcore smoker), I’d still have an increased risk of cardiac arrest vs. someone on a different schedule.