Sunday, September 5, 2010

Larks Attack Owls

I could not pass by this beautiful Facebook comment exchange yesterday. Two of my classmates were clearly expressing their circadian cycle preferences using the modern social media platform.

There are mountains of research on phychophysiological differences in those who prefer to wake up early in the morning opposed to the lazy bags opening their eyes in time for brunch (by the way, I am pretty sure that the idea of "brunch" is attributed to an "owl"). Most often, in scientific and popular literature those types are referred to as "larks" and "owls", which quite accurately pins down the major characteristics of those who enjoy their 7 am breakfast with orange juice and croissants and those who can sleep through a nuclear explosion until it's time to wake up somewhere around lunch. If we try to summarize such differences, Harvard Business Review published a nice comparison table in their latest issue:

  • Morning People: agreeable, optimistic, stable, proactive, conscientious, satisfied with life
  • Evening People: creative, intelligent, humorous, extroverted, pessimistic, neurotic, depressed
I am not sure how much I am willing to believe that, after all, I am a very much an evening person, but anyone who tells me that I am pessimistic and depressed is getting spat at. One thing we cannot deny though, and it is that our bodily functions are to a large extent governed by the circadian rhythms, which are illustrated in the following picture:
It basically tells us what our body should (supposedly) do at different times of the day. There is a reason for siestas, believe me. That reason is a circadian cycle! Your body wants to rest after lunch, as your heart rate and blood pressure go down while sugar levels rise. Spaniards are wise people!

Now, what do you do if you like to sleep in, but your work requires you to come in early? Tough. Most likely you will have to shift your daily pattern. Good news - it is possible. Not optimal though. Optimal body functioning is following your circadian rhythm and it is highly individual. When I first arrived in South Africa, my boss informed me that the starting time at the office was 8 am and most people actually arrived at 7 am (in South Africa it is customary to get up with the sun, which is around 4.30-5 am in summer). The look of utter bewilderment on my face somewhat took him aback, so we were able to negotiate the 9.30 am starting time just for me.

Now, an intriguing part of the HBR article: morning people get promoted, while evening people are now the minority of the business world and as they put it "the next diversity frontier". That is indeed an interesting way to look at it, but to be fair, in the recent years it has become extremely popular to introduce flexible schedules and be more understanding towards those who hate the smell of morning latte. Thus, the issue of chronotypes is open and I am keen to find out what will come out of the studies next.

And while we are still on the topic, I would like to share a poem I learnt at school, which provides an alternative perspective on the entire subject:

If you are a bird, be an early bird,
And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.
If you are a bird, be and early, early bird,
But if you are a worm, sleep late!

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