In an article from The Guardian that interviewed CEOs of corporations such as AOL and Ericsson about their morning habits, every single person said they wake up early. Their daily schedule involves getting up (sans alarm clock) around 5 or 6 am, and at the end of the day, usually going to bed before midnight. The point is that if you want to succeed, you need to be an early riser — especially when it comes to business.
We conventionally think of early risers as disciplined and motivated. They eagerly get out of bed before the sun rises to make the most of each day. Late risers, on the other hand, are perceived differently. Lazy, directionless, and disorganized are some common terms used.
When it comes to entrepreneurship, “lazy” and “directionless” aren’t qualities that will help you turn an idea into a full-fledged business. And if you look at business role models such as CEOs of large corporations and startup founders, being unable to emulate their morning habits seems like another good way to dissuade yourself from following in their footsteps.
So what if you’re in the latter camp? What if, like me, you tend to get your best ideas at night and burn the midnight oil whittling away at your work? If you have a tendency to do your work late into the night and wake up late as a result, there’s good news.
The relationship between sleeping habits and intelligence
In a London School of Economics study, psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa set out to determine whether children’s sleeping habits correlated with intelligence by recruiting 20,745 adolescents from 80 high schools and 52 middle schools.
The first meeting took place in their homes, where the students were asked to take an intelligence test. Five years later, he interviewed 15,197 of the original respondents again. This time, they reported when they went to bed and when they woke up on both the weekdays and weekends.
He found that people with high intelligence are likelier to be night owls. This applied across a wide span of demographic variables, such as ethnicity, education, and religion. As Kanazawa explains it, sleeping late at night was rare back in our ancestors’ day, making it “evolutionarily novel.”
Evolutionarily novel is a good thing, as his research suggests that intelligent people are more likely to adapt to new behaviors (such as trying different things and pursuing interesting ideas).
Night owls and mental alertness
Another interesting finding is that night owls are mentally alert for a longer part of the day than early birds. People tend to think night owls are unproductive creatures since they sleep in while the early birds are already sitting at their desks, yet Newsweek reports that a study at the University of Liege shows the opposite.
Researchers monitored 15 extreme night owls and 16 extreme early birds in a lab. The volunteers had their brain activity measured an hour and a half after waking up, and again 10.5 hours after waking up.
In the morning test, the early birds and the night owls performed nearly the same in their responsiveness. But there was a gap 10.5 hours later: the night owls later showed faster reaction times and were more awake than the early birds.
The key takeaway from these studies
The key takeaway from all this is: Work according to your energy levels.
As a night owl, it’s easy to feel pressured into working “normal” hours. That is, according to the standard workday of 9 am to 5 pm. But some of us aren’t built like that.
Some people work better at midnight, while others do their best work early in the morning. And, of course, there are those who lie somewhere in between. So if you tend to get your best ideas at a certain time of the day, take advantage of it and use that period to perform your most important tasks.
You shouldn’t feel like you have to work or sleep according to a preconceived notion of working hours. As a business owner, you often get the benefit of choosing your own work hours. Whether you’re a morning person like Xerox CEO Ursula Burns or a night owl like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, pay attention to your energy levels during the day and work with, rather than against it.
The next time someone criticizes you for waking up late, remind that person that you’re not lazy, you’re evolutionarily progressive. As a night owl, you benefit from a greater adaptation ability and longer mental alertness, two important components to succeeding in entrepreneurship.
By Melissa Chu for Inc.