Bob Dylan, Leonardo da Vinci, Keith Richards, and James Joyce have several things in common: talent, ingenuity, everlasting fame. But there’s one more thread connecting these creative legends, and it’s arguably the most interesting of all.

Every one of them is, or was, a night owl.

It’s hard not to be fascinated by people who come alive at the end of the day, right when so many others are happily snuggling down in bed. What determines our preference for either the owl or the “lark” daytime life? Is one lifestyle more effective than the other? Can we control the need to burn the midnight oil, or is it baked into our DNA?

barn owl night
<a href="" target="_blank">Paolo Gallo</a>

Scientists have been struggling to answer these questions for years, and they’ve unearthed some interesting facts. A recent study found that genetics do indeed influence whether people naturally get up early or stay up late.

Researchers have also established that there are some cognitive differences between morning people and their late-night counterparts. About a decade ago, a Belgian study identified a link between night owls and the ability to stay focused. After about 10 hours of being awake, larks grew tired while night owls were just hitting their stride, demonstrating increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with paying attention.

That isn’t to say morning people don’t have their strengths. Larks can be agreeable, cooperative, and proactive. They aren’t as likely to procrastinate, and they may even be happier on the whole. But another study, this time conducted at a university in Milan, discovered that night owls tend to be better creative thinkers. Going against the norm by working late into the night might actually allow them to develop a “non-conventional spirit” and “the ability to find alternative and original solutions.”

Sure enough, when scientists analyzed their subjects for originality, elaboration, fluidity, and flexibility, it was the night owls who came out on top. All of this begs the question: Should creative types endeavor to do more of their work after dark?

<a href="">Image by Dragon Images</a>
<a href="">Image by LOFTFLOW</a>

Pictured: [1] Image by Dragon Images [2] Image by LOFTFLOW

The Importance of Ditching Distractions

Swizec Teller, author of the book Why Programmers Work at Night, knows the benefits of being a night owl first-hand. A few years ago, Teller noticed the people he worked with had a hard time accepting his unorthodox schedule. They called him lazy for sleeping late. In response, he wrote an essay — and later, a book — explaining the purpose and appeal of working at night.

“There’s a crucial moment in the creative process where you sit down and wait for the emptiness to set in, for there to be enough space in your mind so that ideas can rush in and form,” says Teller. But there’s another advantage, and it’s a big one. When our colleagues, clients, and friends settle down for the night, our social media feeds follow suit.

“At night and (in the) early morning, there are fewer distractions to find,” Teller says. “Everyone’s asleep, the internet is quiet, and you’ve already refreshed all your social networks so many times that there’s nothing new. So there’s nothing left to do but get to work.”

The attitude that nighttime holds endless potential for productivity is shared by marketing manager Evelyn Frison and fashion designer Yehua Yang. Long-time friends, Frison and Yang are the founders of Pivotte, a fashion line for women on-the-go that was largely built at night.

Both Frison and Yang live busy lives. In addition to holding down a day job, Frison writes articles on marketing and business. Yang functions as Pivotte’s CEO, toggling between accounting duties and sketching. “During the day, I get sucked into interacting with people easily,” Yang says, “but at night, there are no text chains going on. There’s a different energy, an anticipation of knowing you’re alone and not going to be bothered. I need that feeling of now is the time to work.”

Both Yang and Frison reserve most of their creative projects for the wee hours. This is when Yang works on her designs and searches for images online, and also when Frison does her writing.

Frison has found that there’s something liberating, and maybe even a little romantic, about toiling away while the world is asleep. “Not holding myself to a structure does allow me to be more creative,” she admits. “During the day I basically have the same schedule. I even eat the same lunch. But at night, I feel like a very different person.”

<a href="">KieferPix</a>
<a href="[sstk-mosaic]">Image by ALMAGAMI</a>

Pictured: [1] KieferPix [2] Image by ALMAGAMI

Should Morning People Make the Switch?

While genetics do play a part, Teller believes that the tendency to work at night is also a product of how you live. “It often happens on its own,” he says. “When I live with a girlfriend, friends, or family, I tend to do creative stuff at night, so the next morning I get up late. That night, I go to bed even later. Eventually I come to an equilibrium.”

Teller’s night-owl routine dates back many years, to when he was learning to code and “running a freelancing side-hustle” in college. And both Frison and Yang remember routinely staying up late in boarding school, working on projects until two or three o’clock in the morning. Years later, when Yang was in art school, students had 24-hour access to studios. Working at night was expected.

In his book, Teller references well-known British author and programmer Paul Graham. Graham’s own habit of working at night, when he was guaranteed not to be interrupted, inspired the concept of the “maker’s schedule.” During the day, he operated on a “manager’s schedule,” attending to the business details of his startup, which was eventually acquired by Yahoo. After that, he stayed up late building the product itself.

It stands to reason that programmers, designers, and writers would gravitate toward a maker’s schedule, and the hours of uninterrupted creativity (and productivity) that they afford. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all creatives should — or can — work at night.

“I always wished I was a morning person,” Yang says. “I read all these articles about people waking up early and being very productive.” On the days when Yang did manage to get a head start, though, she felt she had the whole day ahead of her, and there was far less pressure to get things done. For her, that sometimes led to procrastination. In other words, you have to know what kind of routine works best for you.

“Don’t fight what comes naturally,” Teller says. “Arrange your life around what works for your mind and body, instead of forcing your mind and body to conform to your life.”

Take a look at the checklist below to see which schedule suits you best and how to make it fit your work life.

<a href="">Image by Doremi</a>
<a href="">Image by Mangsaab</a>

Pictured: [1] Image by Doremi [2] Image by Mangsaab

  • Do you find you always get the best workout when you hit the gym late in the day? This is a night-owl trait. Do you wake up without needing an alarm clock? You’re likely a lark. Look for trends like these in your everyday life to help you assess when you’re likely to be at your best.
  • If you routinely have troubling falling asleep because you can’t seem to shut off your brain, you’re a night owl. Use this time to get some creative work done. Need to get up early the next day to abide by that “manager’s schedule?” Taking a morning walk can help to wake you up.
  • Do you bound out of bed in the a.m. ready for action, your mind abuzz with new ideas? You’re a lark. Try getting up extra early, as you might find that’s the best time to do your most creative projects. When you need to stay up late for a social or work event, getting some exercise late in the day can boost your energy.
  • If you’re frequently in a good mood in the morning, consider yourself a lark and use this time for work calls. Night owls, on the other hand, should try to push social activities to later in the day when they’re likely to be more alert.
  • If you don’t fall squarely into the night owl or lark category, you may be what’s known as a “hummingbird.” Even though you might find yourself leaning toward morning or evening work, you’re flexible and can be productive almost anytime.

Top image by polygraphus