When I first met Chris and Mirona at a nearby coffee shop they asked me three questions: one was about an impressive object, one I don't remember any more, and one was whether I was a lark or an owl. The answer to the first was my partner's degree show project, the second I don't remember, and the last one was "owl".
a lifetime of owling
Yes, I'm aware owling was a thing people did. Not that kind of owling this time.
Ever since I remember myself I've been staying up late and sleeping in. Since I was around 13 or 14 I used to just skip the first one or two hours of school and show up late because I couldn't be bothered. The exceptions would be math or some other fun subjects, but if it was something like literature, or worse — nope, I'd rather have an hour more in my bed, thank you very much, even if it technically meant some degree of trouble. I'm not even gonna speak about uni, I'm sure you can extrapolate.
This trend has gone on, I've never had a job where I'd show up earlier than around 10:30. I've never been one to go to sleep before midnight either. I'm lucky that I'm a software engineer, and yet again I'm speaking from a privileged position — it's fairly common in the industry to have flexible working hours, because mostly everyone cares about the job getting done, and a sleepy engineer doesn't get the job done, or worse, gets the wrong job done.
All of this changed, however, when I decided that I want to do strength training. In my typical "shoot for the Moon" fashion, I found the most hardcore gym in the area and joined. Many of the fun classes are in the early morning hours though, so that only really leaves me with one choice — getting out of bed early. To say I was unsure if this would work would be an understatement, but I enjoy pushing myself past my comfort, so I had to try.
There's plenty of research around circadian rhythms that suggests that they are genetic, but much of it is on the vague side, using questionnaires or similar. The more scientific approach is, to quote Wikipedia,
For temperature studies, subjects must remain awake but calm and semi-reclined in near darkness while their rectal temperatures are taken continuously.
which doesn't sound quite like a fun night out to me. The more scientific end of research has found genes that play a role in regulating your body clock, determined that it's mostly done by your hypothalamus, etc.
But, all that said, can it be changed? This is the bit where scientists start to disagree with each other. Some say that you absolutely can't, and fire and brimstone (or severe depression, heart disease and psychosis) await those who dare try. Others say that you can, but you can't completely shed the genetic influence — an owl will still feel more energetic in the afternoon, even if the owl in question adopts an earlier sleep time.
It's been almost three months now, and I've shifted my sleep from around 02:30 – 09:30 previously to around 23:00 – 06:00 or 00:00 – 07:30, depending on whether I have to go to the gym. So far, no adverse effects, as far as I can tell. I feel just as energetic and generally fine, if a bit stronger because of the gym.
I think this works, at least for me, for a number of reasons.
First, the researchers on the believing side of the argument say that this should be possible because most people aren't on the extreme ends of chronotypes. Only about 10% of people are true larks, and about 20% are true owls, and even those are all on a scale. The remaining 70% of the population are in the middle, with a preference, usually, but genetically in the middle.
Secondly, the amount of sleep you need is genetic. Forget about the 8 hours myth, that's basically in the "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" and "you have to drink 2 litres of water a day" category. 8 hours is the average, but there are people who feel perfect with as few as 6 hours of sleep, and people who need as many as 10. This is also known as one of the absolutely most unfair advantages someone can have in life. Over the years, I've realised that I'm on the lucky end of this scale, as I'm naturally somewhere around 6.5 – 7.5 hours, which makes it somewhat easier for me to shift those hours around.
Thirdly, I've started fixing my sleep this year: using f.lux, sticking to a schedule much more rigidly, you name it. All this combined likely alleviates any particularly nasty side effects that would come with it.
And lastly, it's likely not that hard on me because my shift hasn't been that dramatic. It's 2 hours, not 5 or 6 like it would be for a "proper" owl.
As I said, it's been nearly 3 months now. Whether I can keep this up is still in question. I don't feel any adverse effects right now, and I'm only really doing this because I'm pretty good at realising when I start feeling burnt out or just generally worse in any other way. For now, I'm continuing with my early morning training sessions. Come join me! 👊
If you enjoyed the read, drop us a comment below or share the article, follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our #MetaBeers newsletter. Before you go, grab a PDF of the article, and let us know if it's time we worked together.