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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Introducing: A Daily Routine So Good it Works for Early Birds and Night Owls

I’m sure you’ve seen studies and articles comparing early birds and night owls. Night people are smarter and more entrepreneurial. But morning people are happier and procrastinate less. I could go on and on.

But here’s what I think. It’s not about one being better than the other. It’s about one being better for you. And instead of trying to fight your natural sleep preferences or wondering if you’d be more effective if you worked late at night or got up at the crack of dawn, you should look for ways to maximize whatever routine is best for you.

Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, here are a few ways you can change up your daily and nightly routines—to get more sleep and get more done.

1. Find Your Optimal Sleeping Hours

The first step in maximizing your routine is figuring out what your ideal sleeping and waking hours are. To do this, try a little sleep experiment, inspired by Dr. Michael Breus, a.k.a “the sleep doctor.” The goal here is to get you to wake up without an alarm in order to determine—and stick to—your natural sleep rhythm.

For morning people, start by determining your ideal waking time and counting backward five 90-minute sleep cycles (or 7.5 hours). (Use to make it easy.) That’s your starting bedtime. Try it, then see what happens—if you wake up within 10 minutes of your alarm going off for the next three days, you’ve found your schedule! If not, move your bedtime back by 15 minutes every three days until this happens.

For night owls, we’re going to adjust this a bit. Think about when you would go to bed in your ideal world—then count forward by 7.5 hours to determine your wakeup time, and do the same process, shifting your wakeup time up by 15 minutes every three days until you wake up before your alarm. (Unfortunately, this time may not be realistic if you have to be at work by a certain hour—in which case, follow the process for morning people and set your waking time to the latest possible time you can wake up and make it to work on time.)

Of course, carving out enough time to sleep is pretty pointless if the quality of your slumber is lacking, so make sure your bedroom is totally conducive to getting a good night’s sleep. Start with the place you’re laying your head—your mattress and bedding. If you bought the cheapest mattress you could find or have an old hand-me-down that’s sagging a bit, it’s probably time for an upgrade. (Look at online mattress companies like Casper, which offer lower prices than most retailers and a trial period, so you can sleep on it before committing.) And invest in some pillows and sheets you actually want to snooze in.

Then, consider your surroundings: Is there light or noise that keeps you up a night? My noise-muffling blackout curtains were one of the best investments I’ve ever made, and my friend who lives on a noisy street swears by his white noise machine. It’s even worth covering up blinking lights from electronics with black duct tape.

Whatever it is, you owe it to yourself to invest time and money in making sure you get the best sleep possible.

2. Make the Most of Your Productive Time

Most of us generally know when we’re most productive—whether it’s first thing in the morning or in the wee hours of the night. But what’s actually more important to maximizing your productivity is knowing—and fighting against—when your brain is fatigued. Our willpower and ability to focus are limited things, and mental fatigue plays a large part in preventing you from getting your most important work done.

For morning people, this is relatively easy—you should aim to get your most important work done first thing, ideally before you get ready and head into the office. If you like to start your morning slowly, feel free to do something enjoyable like meditating, exercising, or eating a good breakfast before you get started, but absolutely do not check your email—this will just distract you from your most important work.

For people with a preference for doing tough work in the evenings, this is a little trickier, though still possible. A great approach is to automate as much as you can throughout the day so you still have mental reserves left when you sit down to work at night. Start wearing a work uniform (à la Steve Jobs or Barack Obama) or pick out a week’s worth of outfits on Sunday. Make a batch of meals or eat the same thing every day. As productivity expert Mike Vardy explains in his Night Owl Action Plan, plan out what you’re going to do the next day before you go to bed, focusing on your more mindless tasks first and saving the harder work for later.

Of course, you can’t eliminate all the thinking from your days, so try taking a short nap or exercising in the afternoon or early evening hours to restart your brain before getting down to business.

3. Don’t Waste Your “Off” Time

While you want to get your most important tasks done while you’re mentally sharp, there is value to doing some work when your energy is lower—specifically, creative work. A 2011 study showed that, while people performed better on analytical questions during their optimal time, they performed better on questions requiring creative thinking at the opposite time.

Think how you can tap into this with your own routine. For early birds, this might mean doing some free writing right before you go to bed or carving out some time for big creative thinking after dinner. For night owls, try “morning pages” to get your creativity out right after you wake up. Or, if you have to be in the office first thing, do the tasks requiring innovative thinking then, saving the more analytical work for later.

4. Work With Birds of a Different Feather

Of course, this would all be well and good if you lived in your own world and could control every minute of your day. But we all have work schedules, bosses, clients, significant others, and families to work around, too. So, it’s important to communicate to the people around you what you need (and, of course, try and cater to their needs as well).

Are you a night owl who’s expected to show up at 9 AM sharp? Talk to your boss about shifting back your work schedule an hour or two, explaining how it would be better for your productivity and offering to do it as a test for a few weeks. Early bird who feels pressure to stay late with the rest of your colleagues—even though they started working two hours after you did? Head out on the earlier side, but make sure to be “visible” in your early morning hours so people understand you’re not slacking.

Don’t be afraid to let your colleagues know about your needs as well. Meetings, for example, should ideally be scheduled around everyone’s energy levels, so chat among your immediate team about what times of day are best for them. Getting together with networking contacts is another good example—night owls might prefer to get together at lunch to save their evening hours for focused work, whereas happy hour is the perfect excuse for early birds to head out of the office when their energy is starting to dip.

None of us can be operating at our peak all the time—and we shouldn’t be trying to! Instead, we should all go into each day making sure we’re fully rested and then do our best to work with our natural energy levels, working at 100% when we know we’re at our best, and then allowing ourselves breaks throughout the day when our energy starts to drop. Fighting your natural energy patterns will only hurt you in the long run, so use these tips to develop habits that help you make the most of them.

Photo of woman working in bed courtesy of Shutterstock.