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The Surprising Difference Between Early Birds & Night Owls

  • November 25, 2020

If you’ve been self-employed for any length of time, there’s been an instance when you’ve simply run out of time to finish a project. Therein lies one of the greatest conundrums of our profession: Do I banish my pillow and blanket, start a fresh pot of coffee and stay up late to finish my task? Or, do I hit the hay and invest in a little rejuvenation now, confident that I can bounce out of bed a few hours early and finish the work feeling refreshed?
It’s a debate as old as Hatfields vs. McCoys, Garfield vs. Heathcliff, or Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. The All-Nighters will tell you that the best thing is to sacrifice sleep for continuity and power through to the end of the project. The Risers disagree vehemently, reasoning that a lack of sleep is what’s keeping the project from getting done, and recharging the old batteries is the only way to reach the finish line.
So who’s right?
An intriguing study performed by The Higher School of Economics, Northumbria University and Oxford University, found that both groups have a reason to thump their chests, but it’s the All-Nighters who actually come out doing the best job.
Researchers had 26 sleepers complete an Attention Network Test (ANT) after being awake for 18 straight hours at 2 a.m. and then again at 8 a.m. after a good night’s sleep. The subjects were graded on three criteria: mean reaction time, error rate, and the efficiency of of alerting, orienting, and executive control/conflict.
While Risers had far better reaction times than their sleepy-headed counterparts, the All-Nighters made fewer errors, suggesting that their willingness to stay up all night is due to dedication to getting the project done right, not finishing it as quickly as possible.
Risers may be rejuvenated from their time in the sack, but they are far more aware of the ticking clock and the rising sun, which can cause them to rush to complete a project before its deadline, rather than taking the time to make sure everything is the very best it can be at the cost of one’s own growing fatigue.
Night Owls do it better: Research shows that All-Nighters are more accurate than Early Risers. Click To Tweet
As a writer and editor, I’ve been on both sides of this coin, and I suspect many of you have been as well. The real lynchpin in the battle between Risers and All-Nighters comes in what kind of project you’re working on and what kind of person you are.
Personally, if it’s a writing job where I’ve got to be creative, witty, and smart, I’m always going to bed now and getting up early to finish. My brain stopped being able to form creative thoughts past 10 p.m. about two weeks after my twin daughters came home from the hospital five years ago. If a client wants fresh and witty copy, it’s going to have to be done after I’ve reset the switch. However, for more formulaic jobs like technical editing, my late-night brain is perfectly capable of scanning page after page for typos, poor wording, and repetitive phrasing, and clearing it up.
There’s really no wrong way to go about finishing a project, and it gets back to the beauty of what freelancing is at its core: working where you want, when you want, how you want.
If midnight finds you bouncing in your office chair listening to the Bee Gees and developing code a mile a minute, then ride that disco ball straight to financial freedom. But if you’re a traditionalist who wears a button-down shirt, khakis, and dress shoes to your home office, and you’re at your desk promptly at 8 a.m. every morning listening to talk radio, sketching graphic designs, and taking pre-planned 15-minute breaks every two hours, keep enjoying those private sunrises and your glowing reviews from customers.

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