Exploring the difference between night owls and early birds

March 25, 2020 — by Rohan Kumar and Viraaj Reddi

It was 1:30 a.m.on Friday, Feb. 21, and junior Aaron Wong was still furiously scribbling. After working on his National History Day project throughout the afternoon and reading 50 pages of “The Grapes of Wrath” for his English 11 Honors class, he still had to finish 20 textbook problems for AP Chemistry by the next day. He managed to finally go to bed by 2 a.m.

Oftentimes, night owls like Wong opt to stay up late to finish work rather than doing them during normal working hours. Other students are early birds, employing a different strategy: sleeping and waking up early to increase their productivity. Several studies have found that this difference in preference is  tied to genetics, although it is also influenced by factors such as gender and age.

Said Wong: “While now I feel tired in both the morning and the evening, I would still say that I’m more productive at night.”

Whether a person is a night owl or early bird depends on their internal biological clock, known as their circadian rhythm, according to WebMD. This clock calibrates itself using light receptors in the eyes to align with the 24-hour day, but everyone’s clock has a different natural cycle length. Night owls tend to have a longer circadian rhythm while early birds tend to have a shorter one.

Differences in circadian rhythms length are especially influential given that for many modern people — and especially during the coronavirus crisis — everyday life is now spent mainly indoors, meaning that the body is no longer exposed to the natural variations in light and temperature that it needs to maintain its circadian rhythm. Longer circadian rhythms often lead people to be more productive at night, especially after they have had time to adjust to being awake.

“I think it’s just really difficult to wake up in the first place,” Wong said. “Also, of course, being closer to the deadline in the night helps me stay focused.”

Geneticists from the University of Leicester discovered nearly 80 genes that control circadian rhythms through a study of fruit flies, whose genetic clocks are similar to those of humans. This implies that a tendency to be a night owl or early bird is heritable. 

In addition, the cyclic expression of these genes controls circadian rhythms and explains why older people are more likely to be early birds than younger people. According to a study by the University of Zurich comparing the gene expression of 60-year-olds and 20-year-olds, the elderly’s circadian genes generally have an earlier peak expression, suggesting that age is another factor in the development of circadian rhythms.

Wellness Center coordinator Marina Barnes said she finds that most students she sees sleep far too late rather than wake up extremely early. Occasionally, students sleep in the Wellness Center because they’re so sleeping deprived from staying up late. 

In general, Barnes noted that those who stay up incredibly late tend to be depleted of energy and unable to function. Though she’s not sure what factors cause this, she believes that both device usage and schoolwork are playing a role. 

Barnes herself tries to stick to a routine of getting ready for bed at 10 p.m. and getting to sleep by 10:30 p.m. Though she realizes students have various commitments, she encourages them to take a breath and abstain from staying up unreasonably. 

“There’s always that one more thing that I have to do,” Barnes said. “And whatever it is, I remind myself it can wait until tomorrow.”

Those who get the worm

If, as the saying goes, the early birds get the worm, sophomore Ishaan Bhandari has been stuffing himself. He awakes at 5:30 a.m. every day. Though he previously used the time to complete pending homework, he now chooses to work out at the gym. 

“I like to go to the gym early in the morning because it starts me off fresh and gives me energy for the rest of the day,” Bhandari said. “No one’s there, so it’s nice and peaceful to have everything to myself.”

Engineering and AP Physics teacher Matthew Welander also calls himself an early riser. Waking up at around 5:15 a.m., Welander tries to take the time to get ready for the day rather than to get more work done.

“I don’t use that time in the morning to be productive,” Welander said. “Since high school, I have liked to get up, take my time getting ready, have breakfast and read the newspaper and be fully awake by the time I leave for school or work.”

In order to compensate for waking up early, Welander said that he goes to sleep around 10 p.m. to get around seven hours of sleep. He said that although students sometimes feel that it is necessary to sleep later, setting an earlier deadline also makes him more productive.

“I feel very productive right before I go to bed and when I wake up,” Welander said. “In the afternoon, you feel like you have so much time and there’s no end point, so it’s easy to procrastinate.”

Although Welander said he has been an early bird since high school, his habits changed over time, especially in college. Since his classes started later in the day and many of his peers preferred staying up late to work, he slept at 1 a.m. and woke up around 9 a.m.

Welander said that he is not especially concerned with when he wakes up, but rather with having a consistent routine to follow.

“When you’re younger, it’s a lot easier to not get the regular eight hours of sleep. When you’re older, you feel it more,” Welander said.

Although it’s difficult for some to maintain a regular sleep schedule during high school, many students try to match their daily routines with their natural preferences. Wong tries to adjust his schedule to match his body’s daily rhythm and increase his productivity.

“I’m not very focused after school, so I’ll do stuff while relaxing,” Wong said. “For example, I watch YouTube videos while I set up my homework or do other homework that doesn’t require a lot of brain power.”

When he feels satisfied and ready to work, he  begins homework from tough classes like AP Calculus BC and AP Physics.

Night owl Aaron Wong’s preferences have also changed over time. Before high school, he would naturally wake up at 7 a.m. on weekends, but now wakes up at 9 a.m. at the earliest unless he has an activity before then.

“Although it’s generally hard for me to just sit and focus on one thing, I do my best to work when I’m most productive,” Wong said.

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.

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