Are Larks Really More Successful Than Owls?


According to a number of the leadership coaches I follow, most executives get up super-early. They’re members of the ‘5am club’ with a major success strategy - go-getters who start the day before their peers and competitors, capable of working long hours, whilst still having enough time for their personal lives. Oh, and working out at the gym! This small, elite club gets up early to get ahead of their peers, colleagues and friends, to get a good start to their day and to complete their most important tasks before everybody else starts work at 9am.

Apple CEO, Tim Cook is well-known for getting up and sending out company emails at 4:30 in the morning. By 5am he’s in the gym. And he works late too, priding himself on being the first in the office and the last out. Disney’s Robert Iger is no slacker either. He rises at 4:30 every morning, using this quiet time to read the papers, exercise, listen to music, look at email and watch TV all - at once!

And it’s not just top executives who rise early. Throughout history powerful and influential figures from politicians to performers, inventors to artists have carried out incredible acts on very little sleep. Leonardo da Vinci created the Mona Lisa on two hours of sleep a day, broken up into 15-minute naps every four hours. Inventor Thomas Edison called sleep a waste of time (he slept just four or five hours a night) and his light bulb has been helping students and workers burn the midnight oil ever since.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama wakes at 3 am, starting the day with prayers, meditations and prostrations until 5 am. He retires to his room at 7pm. Pope Francis’ alarm clock goes off at 4:45 every morning. However such an early start to the day means Francis has to have a siesta after lunch, and rarely accepts evening engagements.

One of my favourite leadership coaches, Robin Sharma advocates membership of ‘the 5am club,’ incorporating exercise, journaling, reading or listening to an audio book, and then a great cup of coffee into his own daily routine. “Win The Battle of The Bed.” “Put Mind Over “Mattress.” Sharma believes that this is how you begin the process of self-mastery, developing of willpower and stamina. You get up whether you want to or not, and that is a victory over the self.

Thankfully for night owls, Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar had a different perspective, saying, “if you’re sacrificing sleep for your early morning meditation practice and then you’re miserable for your friends and family to be around, you should reconsider when you are waking up.” Phew! And by the way, Albert Einstein slept for 10 hours each night - and took daytime naps!

According to ‘The Body Clock Guide’ by Michael Smolensky and Lenne Lamberg, 10% of us are morning people or “larks,” meaning that our brain functions at its peak in the morning. 20% are “night owls” and operate better in the evening. Studies suggest that our body clocks are genetic. Just as a right-handed person can  learn to write with their left hand, we may be able to adapt our body clocks but not change them. So are you a lark or a night owl – and how can you schedule your required activities to coincide with your natural rhythm in order to make the most of work and life?

Tips For Early Birds If you’re a lark, you perform at your mental and physical peak first thing in the morning, making this the best time for you to exercise and work on complex, concentrated projects. Try to save less focused tasks such as catching up on emails for the afternoon when your energy dips and you are less alert.

If you have late night commitments, some light evening activity will help you stay awake better. Take a relaxing walk or do stretching exercises to get your metabolism going before sitting down to work into the night or meeting clients for a late dinner.

The advantage of being an early bird is that getting your to-do list ticked off before breakfast is inherently motivating. And since the mornings offer quiet, intensive focus time, you do have the competitive edge over the owls who tend to get going a bit later in the day.

Tips For Night Owls

In an ideal world, your workplace will allow for flexible hours and an environment where you can comfortably linger in the evening when your brain capacity is at its peak. This makes running your own business ideal for owls as you can control the hours when you work.

Night owls who have to follow a traditional corporate office rhythm are prone to feeling ‘a disconnect’ between internal biological time and social time. A consistent early start that is out of sync with your biological sleep pattern can lead to a lifetime of sleep deprivation and a struggle to keep up with life in general.

If you’re a night owl, you can train yourself to be more alert in the morning by reducing your evening commitments and winding down for bed a bit earlier. As circadian rhythms are driven by natural light, it may also help to sleep with the curtains open allowing sunlight to awaken you gently. Eating a healthy breakfast – including a protein, wholegrain and fruit or vegetable – will help to kick start your metabolism and get you warmed up for work earlier.

Use Your Energy Cycle to Your Advantage

Whether you’re more of a morning person or a night owl, it’s important to be aware of your body clock and use it to your advantage. By following some of the previous tips or other time management tricks, you can find ways to maximise your productivity and keep yourself healthy, wealthy and wise.

If you know you work best in the morning, be ruthless with your sleep schedule. You might have to sacrifice some late night social activities in the process - or schedule in mid-morning or lunchtime breaks when your focus dips or you need a break. That way you can maintain those relationships and your bedtime.

For night owls, remember that sleep deprivation can really hurt you in the long run. Make sure you give yourself an absolute cut-off time (maybe no later than 12pm), don’t work in the bedroom, keep well-hydrated and eat healthy food options to keep energy levels high.

Living by your natural rhythms can have a great impact on your life. As leaders we need to acknowledge that setting arbitrary hours (like the standard 9 to 5) may not make the best use of the talents of our teams. The more we understand our productivity and energy schedules, the better chance we have at getting more done.


Are you a lark or an owl? Have you changed from an owl to become a signed up member of 'the 5am club?' What are your favourite tips for using your energy cycle to your advantage? I'd love for you to share this in the comments box below.

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