There are plenty of people known to have late night habits. Perhaps the most famous is Winston Churchill who often worked until 3AM. Others include several famous writers like Gustave Flaubert, Franz Kafka, W.H. Auden and James Joyce, as well as other political figures including President Obama. Most of these people all tend to follow similar patterns in how they go about using the evening and nighttime to achieve success.
The research, done at the London School of Economics, showed that people with higher IQs are more likely to stay up late and that they show higher ‘level of cognitive complexity.’ Other studies also show that people who wake early fade in terms of cognitive ability at a faster rate than those who don’t. This article summarizes the results of several scientific studies that suggest night people are more likely to be better thinkers.
So what is it that night owls do to make them successful?
1. Take a break in the afternoon or early evening.
Many of the most successful and well-known night owls take a break from their day in the afternoon or evening – presumably to recharge – before returning to work and continuing much later than most people work. Churchill famously went to bed for an hour and a half at 5PM, rose, went to dinner (often very formal in his position as Prime Minister) at 8PM. When dinner ended, usually very late, he returned to work, staying up until anywhere from 1AM to 3AM. President Obama takes a break from his schedule in the early evening to have dinner with his family and then returns to work for the rest of the evening. Franz Kafka did most of his writing after a lengthy afternoon and evening break and returned to work after dinner from 11PM to anywhere from 1AM to 5AM.
2. Finish the day by preparing for tomorrow - something anyone can do
One of the common themes with successful people of all kinds – not just night owls – is to end the working day by preparing for the next day. Anything from looking over the schedule, doing prepatory reading and research to planning and adjusting what will be done. For night owls this can be a very in-depth process so that the next day is set up for success. President Obama always includes a review of the material needed for the next day as part of his end-of-evening ritual.
This is a common piece of advice for success in work and life: Take time at the end of the work day to get ready for the next day. It can simply be five minutes at the end of the day to look at your calendar or plans for the next day and set yourself up for success. If tomorrow is an ordinary day there may be nothing much to do. But if there is anything unusual going on, now might be the time to send a prepatory email or call someone to talk over issues before the big meeting, or do some research to prepare yourself right for a project that is starting. The secret is to make it a habit. Do it EVERY day – even schedule the time for it onto your calendar to make it happen. This doesn’t have to be at 11PM – do it at 4:55PM or whenever is convenient at the end of the working day.
3. Reflect and Adjust
A common practice for night owls is to use part of that time to look back at the day and reflect on it and use that reflection to adjust the way they do things or to learn valuable lessons. This can be as simple as keeping a journal. People use journals from everything to personal reflection to analysis of their decision making to recording ideas they return to. Not everyone formally uses a journal, but it is very common with writers. This is another evening tactic that can apply to anyone – even those who are not night owls.
4. Finish Things
Evening work is great for grabbing uninterrupted, clear time to finish things off. During the crowded, busy, interrupted day it can be hard to check, go over and draw a final line under tasks and projects. Night owls often find this ability to focus and concentrate uninterrupted to be a great boon in finishing tasks properly – rather than almost completing them and saying 'that’s good enough.' The uninterrupted time is a key for many of the successful night owls, particularly artists.
5. Do NOT do the little, ordinary tasks
It turns out that everyone finds it hard to do the annoying tasks like returning calls and answering email that is important but not critical. And it also turns out that everyone just finds it easier to do this in the morning (or at least after they get going – which in some of the night owl cases, like Churchill’s is pretty late). The evening turns out to be a better time for creativity and longer, harder projects and is best saved for that.
One thing is clear – morning and evening people are very different in their approach but can be equally successful with different approaches.