Are you a morning person, who leaps out of bed and gets on with work after the briefest sniff of coffee – only to find you slump and slow down come early afternoon? Or do you get all your tasks done while working from home (opens in new tab) in the wee small hours, then spend the next day blearily trying to recharge your batteries?
Whether you're a lark or an owl, you probably harbour a sneaking suspicion that a change in your waking and sleeping hours could make you better able to concentrate and create better work, and perhaps more experimental design (opens in new tab).
So if you want to maximise your creativity and productivity, what are the best working hours to choose? We looked at some research in the area, and some of the findings may surprise you...
Back in the mists of time, we were all morning people. Before electric light and gadgets came along to help us while away the dark hours, everyone went to bed when it went dark and got up at dawn.
In today's modern world, our body chemistry is controlled by the way we live, how we exercise, when we go to sleep and what we eat, but there are some primal things we can’t change. One of those is the melatonin cycle. When the evening draws in, our brains ramp up production of a hormone called melatonin. It’s what makes us feel sleepy and fogs up the thought processes.
Sunlight inhibits the production of melatonin, making us feel more awake. So in theory, humans should be at their most alert and productive after a decent night’s sleep and a light breakfast, just after the sun has risen. If you think of yourself as a morning person, you’ll probably recognise this state of total clarity.
Scientific studies support this too. Research conducted by Professor Christoph Randler at Heidelberg University (opens in new tab) showed that people who rise and begin work early in the day are, largely, more positive and productive than their lazier mates.
Significantly, it was also reported that early risers use the morning hours in specific ways; to organise and plan, to set goals hours or weeks ahead. Early risers are less chaotic in their approach to work than their sleepless friends.
Health issues(opens in new tab)
There’s also evidence that getting up early is better for your health. Tuning your sleep cycle as close as possible with the Earth’s circadian clock, the setting and rising of the sun, leads to deeper, more restorative sleep. So it seems that early risers are healthier, get a larger variety of work done and have more energy than the Duracell bunny.
But when it comes to designers specifically, that's not the end of the story. According to psychologists, there are some big advantages for those of us who like to burn the midnight oil, too...
The part of our mind that acts as 'gatekeeper' during the day (known in Freudian terms as the superego) is suppressed as we start to feel sleepy. The superego is the bit of your mind that pushes for perfection, which is great when you have detailed design work to do. But this part of your mind also dismisses frivolous or fanciful thinking – the root of your creativity.
A more biological account says more or less the same thing. As you grow tired, your brain chemistry changes. As well as making melatonin, you also produce less dopamine – the chemical that regulates much frontal cortex function. The frontal cortex is responsible for decision making. Crucially, it’s the bit of your brain that nitpicks all your ideas.
Essentially, this means you stop caring so much as you grow tired, and the wacky thoughts start coming through thick and fast.
Even though we get less picky when we’re tired, some studies show that our overall ability to concentrate actually increases. We don’t self-edit as much, so we’re able to stay on track and get more done on one thing.
The fact that night owls are able to concentrate for longer periods has been scientifically proven. Researchers from the University of Liege conducted controlled studies (opens in new tab) in which they allowed two groups the same amount of sleep. One group identified as early risers, the other as night owls. It turned out the night owls had better levels of focus when it came to tasks requiring sustained attention, and the early risers ran out of steam more quickly.
And science shows that creativity and late nights might be linked even more deeply. Research conducted at the London School of Economics (opens in new tab) suggests that people who choose to work late at night often have higher IQs – a measure of numerical, spatial and linguistic problem solving that requires a good deal of creativity.
The maker’s schedule
In his in-progress book Why Programmers Work at Night (opens in new tab), Swizec Teller points out another reason why the night-time is the right time for creative work: the lack of distractions.
Teller introduces the idea of 'the maker’s schedule'. For most people – managers, retailers, administrators and so on – work is just a set of tasks. The daytime schedule and its distractions are tolerable as most tasks are short, mechanistic and easy to resume.
But for creative people like designers, distraction is disaster. At the beginning of the creative process, we’re building things out of imagination. Distraction can cause you to lose your train of thought entirely. So, the evening, when others are asleep, is an ideal time to work on creative problems.
Lark or owl?
So which approach is best, lark or owl? Overall, evidence seems to say that early birds get more done, but that the morning is better suited to practical and organisational tasks. Night owls use the cover of darkness to complete more cerebral kinds of work, when distraction is at a minimum.
When it comes to the question of when you should you get out of bed, it seems design is kind of a special case. It’s one of a handful of vocations that requires long periods of very precise, repetitive work, good planning and the ability to project-manage. But there are also periods of chaos and creation; time spent blasting out ideas and puzzling through problems.
The late Alex Graham, creator of the Fred Basset cartoon strip, seemed to get the balance right. His daughter told the BBC that Graham would work on illustrating the strip in the morning, take the afternoon off, then do his creative thinking in the evening, filling in sheets full of doodles and ideas. He was both a morning person and a night owl.
Perhaps all designers should take a leaf out of his book: get up early to do the grunt work at your desk and use your evenings to brainstorm ideas.