Does the early bird actually catch the worm?

Are you an early bird or a night owl? How do you equate your most productive or effective hours with the time of day? For many people, waking up early has a direct correlation with being ‘successful’. It gives you the ‘time of day’ to get to things that you wouldn’t normally during the rest of the day – such as getting in a work out, meditating, having that sacred cup of tea or coffee in your own company, or, if you’re like Apple CEO Tim Cook it means waking up at 3:45am to get ahead of your emails before your East Coast colleagues. From a more local perspective, it could just be a daily necessity in order to ensure that you get to school or work on time. Whatever the reason for waking up with the birds, it inevitably is the first step towards doing what needs to be done – which during a worldwide pandemic can almost be considered a success in itself right, but is there any actual science to back this up?

There is a well known saying that speaks about ‘eating the frog’ and as bizarre as this may sound, what it actually refers to is doing the toughest or hardest task first which ties in well to waking up earlier and using the most productive hours to dedicate to such tasks. Outside of potentially giving yourself ‘more hours in the day’ to get what needs to be done out the way – psychologists have taken the notion of the ‘early bird catches the worm’ even further. Maryam Kouchaki and Isaac Smith of Psychological Science fame have theorized that the “morning morality effect” as they term it, which purports the idea that “people behave better earlier in the day.” However, understandably, not everyone agrees.

Behavioral scientist Sunita Sah who has a focus on ethical behavior that is situationally influenced, was fascinated by Kouchaki and Smith’s assertions, but as “a former physician, she found it plausible that something with such profound health consequences as time of day might also have a moral dimension.” As we know however, sleep is a largely biological function and certainly one that is necessary for not only feeding our functionality but also sustaining our survival. As Sah noted, our bodies are “governed by circadian rhythms” which is essentially our ‘internal’ body clock’s process that determines our waking and sleeping pattern but not everyone is the same in this regard either, this is known as our chronotype.

Chronotypes generally don’t change dramatically over our life span; however they can fluctuate given our age and stage of life. As adults we generally make peace with the fact that getting up earlier is the better life choice, but as an adolescent on the other hand, mornings amongst other things can be the enemy.  The equalizer in all of this, no matter what chronotype you are, is the ‘homeostatic sleep drive’ which makes us feel ‘tired’. The reason so many people would classify themselves as ‘morning people’ irrespective of the morality aspect of it, is due to the fact that in the morning “people, sleep drive and chronotype tend to be aligned.” Only about 40% of the population fall outside of this specter and identify as night owls.

At the end of the day, Sah concluded that “There’s very little evidence that anything really works,” so it is most beneficial to identify and understand your chronotype and work with it, not against it.

The good news is that there are certainly ways to address that languishing feeling and they are simple, everyday things that you can incorporate into your routine. The Pomodoro technique (see previous article) is a great way to bring focus back to specific tasks for set periods of time ensuring concentration and completion. In addition – other recommendations include setting clear boundaries both with you and others, and acknowledging a daily win, no matter how big or small these may be.