A fair number of my students each semester take on their poor sleep habits for their Semester Project.° They tend to commit to a goal of being in bed by 10 and up by 6—the way good students are supposed to do school, they assume. Everyone knows the early birds are running the world, right?
My Personal Experience
Let me stop right here and share a personal anecdote. All four years of high school, I was involved in a before-school program that meant I had to be out the door by 6AM five days a week. After graduating high school, I spent two years in a service program overseas where the expectation was that I would be in bed by 10:30PM and up by 6:30AM to study.
Thus, for six years I lived this early-bird schedule—and for every day of those six years, I waited for the habit to form, for the waking up to get easier, for the sunrise studying to be less groggy.
I never changed, not one bit. Getting up never felt natural; going to sleep always felt too early; morning study was always inefficient.
When I came back from overseas I got a job waiting tables in a steakhouse. I opened the restaurant every morning—which meant I rolled in at the grand old time of 10:30AM, turned the chairs over, cut up some lemons, and welcomed the first lunch customers. I often did a double shift, closing out my last table at 11PM before going home to eat leftover pizza my brother brought home from his shift at Papa John’s.
That’s when I finally felt really awake, at 11PM. We would stay up till 2 or 3 having fun, watching shows, reading books, making music—just feeling awake and alive.
What’s the moral of this story? I’m a night owl—by biological fact. Six years of pretending to be an early bird couldn’t change what my genes had already determined. Not only am I sluggish to awake; I am unintelligent (and often unintelligible) in the morning. But come talk to me after hours and I’m a flippin’ genius.
My Students’ Experiences
Back to my students. Some of them succeed in getting more sleep by reducing distractions and prioritizing their sleep over other concerns (like binging The Office on Netflix). Some of them get better sleep by reducing screen use in the hour before bed, managing the temperature of their bedroom better, and swapping out pillows and such.
No one, however, changes from a night owl to an early bird, or vice versa.
A very few of my students figure this out and, instead of continuing to work against their biology, they just accept it and work with it, refusing anymore to feel guilt about being a night owl (it’s always night owls, for some reason). They change their schedule to accommodate their bodies—no more 8AM classes, no more doing difficult homework before noon.
Take it from me. Years after my adventures overseas and waiting tables, I found myself married with three kids under 6, working toward a doctorate. Raising young kids means a lot of early mornings and interrupted nights, and less physical and mental energy than ever to devote to things like school. But I’d learned my lesson, and I wrote my entire dissertation between the hours of 10PM and 2AM, when I am at my most awake and most intelligent.