How to Balance Work and Sleep as a Night Owl

Transitioning from the frequent all-nighters and wonky sleep schedules of college to a regular nine-to-five day job can feel unnatural. Depending on your personality and habits, when the structure of your life was so loose before, the rigidity of a the workplace can feel stifling and, sometimes, even counterproductive.

A person's hand is tangled in the sheets after a restless night. Rewire PBS Living Sleep
If you’re a night owl, it can feel downright impossible to get synced up to a 9-to-5 work schedule.

Many chock up some people’s tendency to stay up late during school years to poor studying habits, but it may actually be something less controllable. A person’s internal body clock is only 50 percent determined by behavior—the other 50 percent is genetic, said Kristen Knutson, an associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. According to Knutson’s new study, those who consider themselves night owls and must rise early for work are at a higher risk of dying early. In other words, that uncomfy structure might actually be bad for your health.

The study surveyed approximately 500,000 people between ages 38 and 73 on whether they considered themselves to be a morning or night person. Then, researchers recorded how many of the sample died over the next six and a half years. The results proved that night owls have a 10 percent higher risk of dying earlier and developing more diseases.

This doesn’t mean that everyone who stays up late will die earlier, but it does mean that those who are trying to be productive during hours when their body would rather them be resting may run into some long-term consequences.

“On average we have a morning world,” Knutson said. “Nine-to-5 or even earlier, a morning person is going to fair better on average. Any time you are up and eating when your internal clock thinks you shouldn’t be up and awake and eating, that could to lead to some problems.”

Balancing work and sleep habits

This can be especially tough for night people who want to make a good impression at a new job. Although the proliferation of flexible work schedules gives the illusion that millennials have a better work-life balance than generations before, this isn’t actually the case.

According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, 43 percent of “work martyrs,”a person who prides themselves on how many hours they spend working, often seeing their lack of work-life balance as a badge of honor, are millennials, as compared to the 29 percent of overall survey respondents, and millennials are less likely to use all their vacation days. Millennials also reported that it was important to them that they looked like work martyrs, something that wasn’t as important to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.

So if you’re trying to get ahead at work, but your internal clock doesn’t align with traditional work hours, what can you do to stay healthy and change your habits? Because, unfortunately, telling your boss that your working hours just don’t jive with your internal body clock probably won’t work.

How to reset your clock

Everyone has a clock gene, a component of their internal, or circadian, clock. Depending on who you are, this gene can affect your sleep hygiene. According to the Journal of Thoracic Disease, delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, when a person’s circadian clock does not align with the natural sunrise and sunset rhythm of the day, is the most common of the circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders

Three people sleep in hammocks in a forest. Rewire PBS Living Sleep
Sleeping outside for a weekend is an easy way to help reset your circadian rhythm.

Rajkumar Dasgupta, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, said there are a few methods you can try to reset your internal clock, although he clarified that if your circadian clock is more influenced by your genes than your behavior, many methods may not work.

One tactic to reset your internal clock is sleep restriction therapy, a process where you move back your bedtime in increments of 15 to 20 minutes over a time period of two weeks. It is logical and seems doable, even for those working late hours. But like with any attempt to form a new habit, consistency is key.

“All it takes is one day to screw things up and it doesn’t work, so it’s tough,” Dasgupta said.

Another method Dasgupta said is only used in severe cases of delayed sleep syndrome is chronotherapy. This is when you continue to move your sleep time forward until you circle back around and hit your target bedtime. Dasgupta said that this should only be attempted with the help of a physician. This method is trickier as it would require sleeping through regular working hours for a period of time.  

There are a few other ways to reset your clock without systematically altering your sleep time. One way is by exposing yourself to light, which also affects your circadian rhythm. Whether it’s sunlight or something like a light box which mimics outdoor light, spending time in light during hours when the sun is up could help reset your internal clock. So, if you’re in a darker office or tend not to take breaks during the day, making time to do so could help you sleep better at night.

And, of course, you could take melatonin, which is already a popular sleep catalyst. Dasgupta said that in order to get the best results, take the appropriate dose about two hours before your target bedtime.

Don’t be a martyr

But, perhaps, the most important thing to remember when retraining your body is that sleep is good for you. As a young, working professional who is worried about carving out a successful future for themselves, our need for sleep can feel like a nuisance that makes us look like a second-rate employee.

“In the olden days, people thought of sleep deprivation as a badge of courage you can wear on your chest,” Dasgupta said.

Even today, Dasgupta said, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who said he sleeps on the Tesla factory floor to save time, promote the idea that in order to be successful, sleep comes last.

But in actuality, quality sleep more frequently leads to quality work, less accidents and clearer decision making.

“Nothing good happens when you are sleep deprived,” Dasgupta said. “And even when you think you’re doing the most, remember the effect of sleep deprivation is throughout your entire body.”

Even if you’re trying to get ahead, it’s worth it to slow down and prioritize and good night’s sleep.

Aditi Shrikant

Aditi Shrikant is a Brooklyn-based writer whose goals are to eliminate mansplainers along with the top sheet. You can follow her on Twitter @Aditi_Shrikant and Instagram @aditishrikant.