Early riser or night creature? It’s all genetic, the research shows, and fighting against your bodyclock is a fool’s errand.
“The early bird catches the worm” – we’ve all heard this over and over, so it must be true, right? Well no. There’s been an abundance of research over the years claiming that mornings are the absolute best times to get things done, and going against this wisdom of the ages is foolhardy. Anyone who’s an owl – a person prone to going to bed later and then rising later – will certainly have been told at least once they’re on the wrong side of productivity. We have a strong perception that sleeping late is a habit for the lazy, but contrary to popular belief, work can also take place in the afternoon – and research supports this claim.
You’ll probably know already if you’re an owl or a lark – that’s someone who likes to get up early and also go to bed at a “proper” hour (there’s that judgment again!). There’s increasingly more evidence suggesting there’s nothing inherently good or bad about when we like to sleep. Our sleep-time preferences, or chronotypes, are genetic, making this an issue that’s pointless to debate with tales of morality. The good news for owls is that the trend is finally swinging away from the “morning superiority” attitude: flexible working is on the rise, meaning it will soon matter less when work is done, as long as it’s done well.
While chronotype will remain more or less stable throughout life, children and older adults generally prefer mornings, while teenagers and young adults prefer evenings. Later starting times at schools have a positive impact on student grades and overall health, according to a three-year study from the University of Minnesota. Starting at 9am instead of as early as 7.30am resulted in pupils doing better in school, being less tardy, taking fewer substances, and showing fewer symptoms of depression. This was all because they were allowed to go to school at an hour better suited to their teenage sleep patterns.
“It’s much better to match people to schedules and structures based on their chronotype than to just force them into a schedule, knowing nothing,” Sunita Sah, a behavioural scientist at Georgetown University who’s studied this issue, told the New Yorker. “I probably don’t want to set exams at 8am if I don’t want my students to cheat.”.
A quick internet search will show there are plenty of guides out there on how to train yourself to get up earlier in the morning. But Sah says there’s no point: there’s “very little evidence” that anything really works for resetting your body clock. Ultimately, the best policy may be to embrace your chronotype, but this requires a degree of flexibility absent in many offices today. But maybe not for long: if school principals can be encouraged to change their hours based on research that promises better student performance, why can’t corporate bosses follow the same logic? After all, productivity is usually the golden standard.
Approximately a third of the population suffers from extreme “social jetlag” – that’s an average difference of over two hours between their natural waking time and their socially obligated one – according to findings by Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. This is based on a database of more than 65,000 people. There’s a high personal and social cost to this mismatch, in that those who live at odds with their bodies are more likely to abuse alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine, and they’re more at risk of obesity. Says Roenneberg: “The practice of going to sleep and waking up at ‘unnatural’ times, could be the most prevalent high-risk behaviour in modern society.”.
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