What happens when a night owl works the early shift?

Barbara Nitke / NBC / Today

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By Mara Schiavocampo, NBC News Correspondent

All my life, I’ve been the definition of a night owl. I might as well be a vampire. I don’t start to really feel awake until about 2 p.m. I get a surge of energy around 11 p.m. If I had it my way, I would stay up until 4 a.m. and sleep until noon each day.

I’ve always considered this to be a problem, desperately wishing I could wake up early to go to the gym, send some emails, make breakfast. I mean, I’d be happy if I could just get up early enough to not run out of the door like my hair is on fire. But that never happened, and instead of getting a jump on the day, I’ve always felt like I was chasing it. Until now.

Six weeks ago I started anchoring our early morning newscasts “Early Today” and “First Look,” which air at 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., respectively. I’m off at 6 a.m., free to do other work or handle personal business. Suddenly, I’ve been forced to become a morning person. Because of my sleep schedule, I’m even waking early on weekends, naturally, with no alarm clock. From one day to the next I’ve gone from a night owl to an early bird. I’ve immediately noticed a few things:

  • Early risers do have an advantage. It pains me to admit it, because for years I told myself that I was compensating in productivity by working late at night while everyone else was asleep. But the day really does begin with the rising of the sun. People wake up, the workday starts, businesses open, newspapers publish their stories. It all happens early.
  • A lot of successful people are early risers. How do I know? Because they’re e-mailing me! From my bosses at work, to colleagues, to viewers who send me messages, I’ve been amazed at the number of high-performing people who are up at that hour. It’s like there’s been an ongoing party I was never invited to.
  • Early morning hours are ridiculously productive. I get more done between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. than I used to on some other days entirely. Early mornings are quiet, with few disturbances, and for some reason the dawning of a new day inspires and energizes me. Plus, it feels really good to accomplish a lot, early. The rest of the day I feel less stressed and more relaxed, because I’ve already scratched so much off my to-do list.

Whether we’re natural night owls or morning larks depends on our circadian clocks. “This is a clock that tries to keep us on schedule with the outside world. [It] keeps us in line with the external light and dark—[and tells us to be] asleep at night and awake during the day,” explains Brant Hasler, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and member of the Sleep and Chronobiology Center.

Night owls’ clocks are simply set later than early risers, he says. Another reason night owls tend to sleep later and perform poorly in a 9-to-5 world is because they suffer more from social jet lag, which happens when our internal rhythms are out of whack with our work and social lives. On weekends, night owls often allow themselves the luxury of late nights and epic sleep-in sessions, confusing their bodies and making it tougher to wake up during the week.

The good news for my fellow night owls? It is possible to retrain your inner clock. Waking up early allows people who are normally late risers exposure to morning light, and this tells the circadian clock that it is time to be awake. As the day winds down, night owls should avoid too much light—dimming room lights and avoiding phones, computers, and TVs as much as possible. Less light helps train the body to recognize that it is night and time to sleep. Also, forget about those late nights and long lie-ins on the weekends. 

I know I never could have made the switch if work didn’t demand it. But getting up early, day after day, seems to be the key. I do wonder if I’ll be able to keep this going when I go back to a regular schedule. But for now, I’m really enjoying the view from this side of the day.


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