Old adages seem full of praise for morning people (“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” for example). But does being a morning person give you an advantage in the workplace? The answer is both yes and no.

We recently conducted a study on leaders’ sleep. In total, 384 leaders around the world shared their sleep habits, including an assessment of chronotype – whether they are a more of a “morning lark” or “night owl.” Our chronotype reflects natural differences in our internal clocks and circadian rhythms that translates into differences in the time of the day when we feel most awake and alert, as well as the kinds of sleep patterns we keep.

Findings and Implications

Here are some results from the survey that shed light on the differences — or lack thereof — between larks and owls:

  • 40% of leaders said they are night owls (60% said they are morning larks).
  • Both owls and larks exist across all leader levels.
  • Owls and larks work about the same amount per day (owls = 9.32 hours; larks = 9.29 hours).
  • Both sleep approximately the same amount each night (owls = 6.58 hours; larks = 6.67 hours).
  • Morning larks have more regular bedtimes and wake-times.
  • Night owls are more likely to say they would sleep more if it didn’t interfere with work.
  • Owls are more sleep deprived (owls report needing 72 more minutes of sleep each night; larks report only needing 42 more minutes), which is likely due to typical early work-day start times.

Our results show that both owls and larks are leaders, and both work long hours. However, owls seem to be struggling more with their sleep habits. This is not too surprising when you consider that the modern workplace is built for larks.

Getting up early and being done with work in the early evening is ideal for morning people. It allows them to work during the hours that they are most productive and rest when they are most tired. For owls, however, this schedule means getting up and working before they are fully alert, and then having to choose between trying to go to bed when their brains are still active, or staying up late and being exhausted the next morning. Indeed, other research has confirmed that night owls need more sleep in general and tend to sleep in more on weekends to try to recover (a habit that can make returning to work on Monday more painful). Thus, while being an early bird doesn’t predict success, it does make it easier to work the typical 9 to 5.

How Should Individuals and Organizations Account for these Differences?

Understanding these biological differences in sleep preferences is important for organizations because a large number of people might not be performing at their best due to working during their “off-peak” alertness times. To help leverage natural alertness and focus, we recommend:

At the individual level:

  • Pay attention to what times of day you feel most alert and plan to do the most difficult or challenging tasks during “on” times.
  • Make extra efforts to get enough sleep, limit exposure to artificial light, and stick to a regular sleep routine — even on weekends — and especially if you are a night owl stuck working morning hours. Or you can read more about establishing a sleep routine.

At the organizational level:

  • Offer “flex hours” and telecommuting when possible and practical, allowing employees to work when they are most likely to function at their best.
  • Be aware and mindful of different chronotypes in a team, especially when scheduling meetings and communal tasks.

Waking up early might have been important for success a long time ago (say, before electricity). In today’s high-tech world, being an early bird is not nearly as important as being a bird that understands when to work in order to function optimally. Honor your natural inclinations so you can put yourself in the best position to thrive.  

For more analysis, read Sleep Well, Lead Well.

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