As a long-time night owl, I’ve gotten a lot of creative work done at midnight or later. This led me to believe for years that it was my golden hour, and I began to look forward to staying up and seeing what I could create.

But what if the productivity bump we think we get from doing things like that is a lie?

Dr. Travis Bradberry, whom I’ve followed on Linkedin for awhile, wrote a piece recently that got me thinking. It was entitled “Poor Sleep Hygiene is Killing You and Your Career,” and cited some research that turns workaholic thinking on its head.

Let me describe a situation that I’m sure we can all identify with.

I feel time pressed. There’s a lot on my to-do list this week, and if I stay up tonight to knock out 3 of those things tomorrow will be so much easier. Then I can just focus on XYZ things and not even have to think about this other crap.

It’s so alluring, and it makes so much sense. But Dr. Bradberry says that the opposite happens:

“…short-term productivity gains from skipping sleep to work are quickly washed away by the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on your mood, ability to focus, and access to higher-level brain functions for days to come. The negative effects of sleep deprivation are so great that people who are drunk outperform those lacking sleep.”

For days to come. That’s big and I’ll tell you why.

We often gauge whether a late night was worth it by how we feel the next day. If we manage not to overtly feel like crap, we relish how much we got done and tell ourselves it was a good decision. Maybe we should even do it another night this week — imagine what we could get done!

But sleep deprivation affects our mood and focus for days with an ‘s’. That means that if we do it frequently, we’re actually working in a lull so often we don’t even know what being at 100% is anymore. Our 75% is mistaken for our 100% and we supplement it with caffeine to get a “boost”.

This leads to the second lie we tell ourselves, that catching up on sleep this weekend will fix it. Again, as Dr. Bradberry cites, research shows that it doesn’t.

One of the most important elements of proper sleep is consistency. We need to go to bed at basically the same time each day, and wake up around the same time. Our circadian rhythm depends on it.

The problem with oversleeping on the weekends is that it not only doesn’t “make up for” not properly sleeping all week the way we think it does, but it also messes up our sleep cycle.

“Wait,” your body says, “yesterday we went to bed at 2am and got up at 7am, but today we’re sleeping at 10pm and getting up at 9am? What is happening?”

We may feel better sleeping in because of the restorative benefits of proper rest that we haven’t felt all week, but we’re not like batteries; we’re not so charged up that now we can do another week long sprint with no drawbacks.

Here’s something else I find fascinating.

Combine this research with Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time available for completion.

What this means is that even if objectively a task will take 2 hours, if I have 5 hours to do nothing else but that task, we’ll make it take 5 hours. Even if we procrastinate throughout, change focus, kill time, or spend more time than is needed brainstorming and planning.

Getting into a habit of working long hours can do the same thing.

Now instead of 8 work hours we give ourselves 12 or more. Then we feel exasperated when even the longer hours barely feel like enough. But in knowing in advance we’d have the extra time, we subconsciously took more time to do things. It becomes a crutch.

Once we get used to working 12 hours and having that amount of time to complete our tasks, we forget how to be productive with only 8 hours. I know this is true for me.

This is why we feel like we “performed under pressure” all those times we stalled that college essay we had a month to do and cranked out 72 hours before due date. Maybe it was only ever going to take roughly 72 hours, and we made it happen because that’s all the time we gave ourselves. But we stalled for 648 hours before that.

We’re not performing feats of superhero-like proportions finishing one hour tasks in an hour.

Let’s go back to Dr. Bradberry’s piece for a moment.

In case you’re wondering, sleep deprivation hurts us more than just making us need a coffee the next day. Here are some of the effects:

  • Irritability and difficulty dealing with stressful situations
  • Inability to focus
  • Memory lapses
  • Impaired moral judgement
  • Decreased creativity
  • Weakened immune system
  • Decreased testosterone
  • Slower reaction time
  • Increased heart rate variance
  • Increased risk of stroke, diabetes, and heart disease

Any of these seem familiar? As researchers point out, no amount of caffeine can fix these.

You’ll feel more alert, but your reaction times will still be slower. You’ll feel more willing to do work, but your ability to solve problems or deal with stress will be hindered. You’ll have more energy, but still be less able to focus.

In conclusion…

This has made me rethink weekly work flow, and seems like it explains challenges in creativity I’ve felt on and off over the years.

Dr. Bradberry would probably say that the main reason my “golden hour” seemed to be late night was because busy days of go-go-go did not allow quiet reflection, time to think. Twilight was the only time my world shut up for awhile, the only time I gave myself for real introspection. But that says more about me than the world.

It falls in line with sayings about stopping to smell roses and of the importance of meditation, and how mental escapes are healthy and should not be relegated to “When I have time… later.”

What about you? Have you always been a morning person or have you been a twilight dweller perhaps ready for a change?