Becoming a Productivity Lark: Six Ways to Effectively Deal with Night Owl Tendencies

“Night is purer than day; it is better for thinking and loving and dreaming. At night everything is more intense, more true. The echo of words that have been spoken during the day takes on a new and deeper meaning.” – Elie Wiesel, American political activist and writer.

To the great regret of those who love the night, who come alive late in the day and whose productivity skyrockets in the afternoon, the modern world is built around morning people. Most people do seem to function better in the morning, feeling liveliest before noon and producing more, and more easily than at any other time of day. Hence the standard advice to “eat that frog” first thing in the morning, put your highest priorities at the chronological top of your to-do list, and avoid email just after sitting down, so you can use that time to make progress on your top tasks.

This advice can work wonders for workers who wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But a significant percentage of us don’t have our daily energy peaks in the morning, leaving us running mostly on ritual and autopilot until our biology catches up. Night owls really do exist, and science has proven it; true larks and night owls have different brain structures. Despite all the “helpful” advice night owls receive, it’s not just a matter of going to bed earlier to retrain your circadian rhythms, or not drinking caffeine after 3pm; that doesn’t always work and can leave you feeling jet-lagged.

Some people really are more productive later in the day; by some estimates, up to 40% of workers have night owl tendencies. But because early birds rule the world (they do, after all, get the worm), workers who do best on later schedules can be perceived as sluggish, or even lazy, to those in charge. It doesn’t matter if you stay every day until 10pm if your manager isn’t there to see it. This simply isn’t fair.

Night owls, unite! There are a few tactics you can use tactics to thrive. Some involve adapting slightly to the early-bird mold; some are a bit slyer, but effective nonetheless. Try these:

  1. Follow through. No matter your tendencies, always complete your work one time and support your team to the best of your ability. Hit your deadlines, make your teammates aware of your work schedule, and let them know how and when they can be in touch with you. Then no one can complain because your patterns are different—hey, you bring home the bacon.

  2. Invert your to-do list. Go ahead and work the standard work day, but schedule your easiest tasks for the morning. Clear your email, compile lists, make simple calls, schedule meetings, and run through your automatic routines. Later, when your coffee kicks in and your natural energy peaks, tackle your higher-priority tasks requiring deeper thought and concentration.

  3. Take advantage of timestamps. If you want to make it clear you really are working at 10pm, then when you turn in that report by email, don’t wait to send it in the morning for fear of being judged. Hit send! Ditto for voicemail—send them in real time when you’re working. This proves, without being too obvious about it, that you’re working when you claim to be.

  4. Shorten your commute. One way to keep from having to get up so early is to significantly cut your commute. This may prove difficult, but try to move much closer to your job or find a job nearer home. Better yet, don’t waste it in traffic. Get on the road at 9:00 instead of 8:00. Even better, commuting or otherwise working from home makes it easier to function during your most productive hours.

  5. Take advantage of flexible scheduling. Many corporations now understand that some people work more productively later in the day, so they’re willing to let you set your own hours within certain constraints, as long as you hit your minimum workweek and maintain high productivity. Push for a 10:00 to 6:00 work day and decline morning meetings. People will get used to it and work around your new work hours if you continually state your availability and expectations.

  6. Get tested for a sleep disorder. Maybe you’re not really a night owl. Many people suffer from undiagnosed sleep apnea, for example, causing them to sleep poorly, so they don’t get energetic until later in the date—say, after a nice rest or nap at lunch. An initial oximetry test can measure your oxygen saturation at night and tell you whether a more in-depth sleep study is needed. If you have a sleep disorder and receive the right treatment, you may find out you’re a lark after all.

Night and Day

If you don’t have a sleep disorder and you’ve proven to your satisfaction that you work best later in the day, don’t just give up and force yourself into the early-bird schedule. If you do, you may never achieve peak performance. Take the other tips I’ve outlined here into account and work within the system to maximize your performance, despite of the tyranny of 9 to 5. Good luck!

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on productivity and performance. Funny, engaging, and full of real life strategies that work, Laura will change mindsets and attitudes so your people can maximize productivity, strengthen performance, and get the job done right. Her presentations at corporate events, sales kick-off meetings, and association conferences help audiences improve output, increase speed in execution, and save time in the office. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401, email, or CONTACT US.

Here’s what others are saying:

“Laura Stack’s session with a group of our seasoned operations managers was eye-opening. We all learned new ways to be more productive with the tools we already have. I’ve never seen each of our seasoned, experienced operations managers so engaged in a session. Many of our senior and mid-level leaders were wowed by what they learned and have already begun using the new techniques with their teams.”
—Mary Pawlowski, Learning Design, Piedmont Natural Gas

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland