The Early Bird Might Catch the Worm, But What About Us Night Owls?


The Early Bird Might Catch the Worm, But What About Us Night Owls?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Staying up beyond 12 o’clock is a battle I fight daily. What makes this so hard is that the 12 o’clock I’m referring to isn’t at midnight, but at noon. While the sun shines brightly down on Mumbai’s bustling, lively streets, I’m yawning and fending off sleep as if the humidity was a cosy blanket. “Early to bed, early to rise, makes one happy, healthy, and wise” sounds like good advice… unless you’re like me. Being an early bird makes me cranky, lazy, and stupider than usual. And in a world that still believes “the early bird gets the worm”, does the inability to wake up at the crack of dawn mean I’m less likely to succeed?

When I was younger, my mother used to blame my mid-day grogginess on bad habits like playing too many video games at night or staying up reading a book after bedtime, but now I know that was just character assassination by a different name. The world looks less kindly on those who prefer late nights to early mornings. An article in The Harvard Gazette quotes a study which “suggests that being genetically programmed to rise early may lead to greater well-being and a lower risk of schizophrenia and depression.” The title of the article proclaims, “Early Birds May be Happier than Night Owls”, and when even Harvard is writing my kind off, there’s cause for concern.

“You’ll do permanent damage to your body’s rhythm,” my mother would say, when she realised the thing that went bump in the night was her own son. Well, it’s too late now, because I’m not, and never will be, an early bird. What I am is a night owl, and morning people are my natural enemies.

Being a night owl was never a conscious decision – I don’t derive any secret joy from knowing I’m awake while the world around me slumbers peacefully. However, as long as I can remember, whether as a student preparing for final exams or as a professional racing to meet a deadline, my productivity has always spiked at a time when most people are snuggling up to their pillows. This, then, is the curse of the night owl. The way modern society is structured, night owls must fight their internal body clock and sleepwalk groggily through the daylight hours, barely scraping through before sacrificing their sleep once again as their creative juices start flowing after dark and they can do real work.

With improved understanding in how the biology of night owls works as opposed to early birds, there may come a day when working from home in my boxers at 3 am becomes a reality.

Today, rising early and working through the day, before winding down as night approaches is a culturally accepted way of functioning. But this leaves night owls like me behind, as we’re just not as chipper as the people who have already reached peak efficiency even before breakfast. And this could be a modern problem. During the 1960s, a scientific theory known as the “Sentinel Hypothesis” was postulated, claiming that humans evolved to have varying sleep schedules, so that several members of early human tribes could be awake and watchful of threats while the majority slept. Night owls might be genetic descendants of these primitive sentinels, except without campfires or sabre-tooth tigers to watch out for, our skills are now used for all-nighter Netflix binges or bouts of feverish creativity.

If, and this is a huge if, I was able to transfer my night-time energy levels to my office’s working hours, I like to think Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk would be my personal assistants by this point. Now, that might be a reach, but it’s true that being at odds with what society considers a normal schedule does leave me feeling like I’m not operating at full potential. It’s no fun needing a cup of coffee just to check your email inbox when you get in, nor is the feeling of drifting off into a fugue state by lunchtime something I would recommend to others. And the worst part is how just as you start to feel ready to interact with your fellow humans, they’re ready to call it a day.

But despite the way normal society seems stacked against night owls, there’s still some hope for us. In 2017, the Nobel Prize for Medicine went to the three scientists who discovered the “molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm”, or, in plain English, mapped the functioning of our body clocks. With improved understanding in how the biology of night owls works as opposed to early birds, there may come a day when working from home in my boxers at 3 am becomes a reality (I hope). It’s a light at the end of the tunnel for night owls, and the source of that light isn’t the sun, but a little reading lamp that’s turned on when it shouldn’t be.