Are You a Lark or an Owl? Finding Your Optimum Time to be Creative
Photo courtesy of Sarah Beth Maney.

Are You a Lark or an Owl? Finding Your Optimum Time to be Creative

Written by Bev Webb

Topics: Creativity, Productivity

I’ve never been a morning person, no matter how hard I tried or however many early rising habits I tried to adopt.

Yes, I can get out of bed while the sun is still below its apex, but no, I’m not at my most alert or productive. My full-firing mind often doesn’t kick in until the evening, no matter how early I get up. This has been a major source of frustration for many years. The idea of rising with the sun and enjoying the best of the early morning has always sounded so idyllic.

Friends frequently invite me to go with them for an early morning walk or swim. I’ve even been known to accept their offers occasionally, but experience has shown that it impacts negatively on the rest of my day.

After an early morning dip in the lap pool I feel lethargic, rather than energised and ready for the day ahead, and tempted to crawl back into bed. Ask me, however, to join you for a swim in the evening, when most other folk are just beginning to wind down from their day, and it’s a whole different story.

I knew this wasn’t just down to a lack of willpower, or even slovenliness. Trying to become an early riser is as hard for me as it is to ask my multipotentialite self to choose to specialise in just one thing.

I decided it was time to find out if there was a scientific explanation behind my love-hate relationship with mornings, and was surprised and vindicated by what I found.

Are you a lark or an owl?

Scientific research has shown that on average each of us has a cycle lasting 24 hours and 11 minutes. The thing I find the most intriguing though, is that whilst almost everyone has a cycle length of around 24 hours (like the rotation of the earth), not all of our circadian rhythms follow the same pattern of when we’re active and when we’re restful.

At the two extremes are the early risers (who get up with the larks) and the late night folk (who stay up with the owls), with most people having a preference towards one or other end of the scale to a greater or lesser extent.

If you love to get up early and are at your most alert in the first part of the day, then it’s likely you’re a lark. You may well think of yourself as being a morning person and enjoy scheduling the bulk of your productive tasks early in the day.

Owls on the other hand are evening (or night) people. If you’re an owl, you probably like to rise later and are at your best in the late afternoon or evening.

There’s a even a scientific term for these time preferences – they’re called chronotypes. Your chronotype is not about whether you CAN get up early or stay up late, it’s more about which you naturally PREFER to do.

The Morning/Eveningness Questionnaire

What time of day would you choose to be creative (or productive) if you had no other commitments and were left completely to your own devices?

The self-assessment Morningness/Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ) was developed by Drs Horne and Ostberg. It’s been regularly used by a wide range of professionals: from clinicians conducting research into sleep patterns, through to the military determining optimum shift-work patterns.

It’s just 19 multiple choice questions long and can help you to see where you fall on the lark/owl scale. If you’d like to take the test, you can download it here.

Got your result? Was it what you expected?

It can be a bit of a surprise for some people. Many owls, for example, have gotten into the routine of getting up early through necessities like work or looking after young children. It’s an example of how circumstances and need can overshadow your natural pattern.

There are some really practical take-aways you can gain from this test too:

1) No more time-based guilt

If you happen to be an owl, you’ve probably become tired of being labelled as lazy or slovenly for sleeping late. Similarly if you’re a lark, you may well be bored of being told you have no stamina as you headed home early from a night out. If that sounds like you, it’s time to abandon the guilt.

We now know it’s all down to our circadian rhythms running on different timetables, with varying peaks of alertness during the day. We’re not lazy, nor without stamina, we’re just running to our own cycles.

2) Make your schedule more you-friendly

I’ve found having this information provides a really good reference point when you’re looking at scheduling time to do your creative work.

If you’re definitely a morning person, there may not be much point trying to free up time in the evenings after work if it’s not going to be ‘quality’ time for you.

The exact opposite of course goes for the owls. Although the idea of getting up an hour earlier seems a practical way to fit more into your day, it’ll be pretty fruitless if it’s going to take you that long just to feel like you’re awake.

More coffee anyone?

Over to you!

Have you struggled with trying to adapt to early or late activities or work patterns? What changes have you made to embrace your optimum creative time period?

bevBev is an artist, creativity coach and founder of Kickass Creatives, a website offering practical support to frustrated creatives. She’s over 20 years of working in the arts: experimenting with everything from performing in a fire circus and managing a hiphop dance company, through to web consultancy and jewellery design. Bev is passionate about using her experience to enable others to fully develop (rather than hide) their multitude of talents too. Connect with her on Twitter @creativekickass.

19 Comments

  1. Oh no! I took the test and got “neither type”. I thought I’ve always been kind of a morning person, but sometimes I feel like I’m either most productive before everyone else wakes up or after everyone else goes to sleep. What do I do with this dichotomy?

    • Bev Webb says:

      Hi Jenn. Please don’t worry! The vast majority of people (up to 70% I’ve read) can fall into the ‘neither’ category. It often means that you’re at your best during the main part of the day, rather than the extremes of very early morning or very late night.

      That said, the test is only there as a indicator. I like it as a tool to start people thinking about their own optimum times. We so often get into the routine of using rhythms from outside (school, college, work, family) rather than experimenting with what actually works best for us.

      I also like the test as it raises the idea that those of us at the extreme ends of the scale, are neither lazy nor lacking in stamina. It can be hard to be a night person in a world which promotes the ideal of rising at dawn!

      The very best guide is to listen to your body and feel which times work well for you. :)

  2. Josh says:

    Can’t tell you how often I’ve been convinced that if I’m not waking up an hour or two before everyone else I’m lazy / not trying / never gonna see the fruits of my labor, then I remember that every night I’m up later than everyone else I know working like a fiend (with pleasure).

    Thanks for reminding me that you can be on your grind when everyone else is sleeping, even when the rest of the world doesn’t follow our rhythm.

    • Bev Webb says:

      Yey Josh! Hello fellow night-owler :)

      I totally agree that it’s so easy to get caught up in that whole ‘laziness’ thing when you struggle with mornings. There’s massive benefit in remembering that whilst everyone else has headed for bed, we’re only just getting into our stride.

      As you say, it can be hard when the rest of the world doesn’t share your rhythm!

  3. janet says:

    i’m definitely an owl and I don’t even have to take the test!! I do tend to start my projects later in the afternoon or evening, and can be working up in the late night too!

    When I was in the Philippines, because of the sun and roosters, I tend to wake up around 6-8am… But early over there is 4-5am!!

    In the westcoast though, I always tend to wake up around 7-10am… and no matter how late I stay up (3am or even 4am) it’s very hard for me to sleep in until noon like I used to do ALL the time when I was a kid! Wonder why that is…

    I liked being a night owl in the Philippines because I naturally tended towards US/North America timezones when everyone there is at work… So most my clients calls would be late night and that suited me perfectly.

    I love the luxury of being able to have my own rhythm since I work at home and on my own terms!!

    • Bev Webb says:

      Hey Janet!

      Wow, early mornings in the Philippines are really early. Think I’d struggle big time with those! :)

      I love that your night owl-ness means you can do work in multiple time zones, and that it fits perfectly with both you and your clients. Win win!

  4. Marc says:

    Bev, this totally resonates with me. I’m an owl all the way, but I do dream of one day being more of an early morning guy.

    I tend to get up between 11am and 1pm, and I’m totally sluggish until late in the evening. It’s horrible, but I absolutely hate the idea of going to bed early.

    Every time I wake up early though, I feel great. I grab breakfast, then sit at the table for an hour or so sifting through Feedly, checking emails, and getting important tasks done before hopping in a shower. The most important thing I’ve found is that I’m much more productive when I’m sitting at my kitchen table than being at my desk.

    I love setting challenges for myself, and I think I’m overdue for an early mornings challenge. I love my late nights, but my focus and productivity in the mornings makes it hard to resist.

    • Bev Webb says:

      Hi Marc

      I’m really intrigued by your early morning experiment! It sounds like you’ve found a way to make it work for you & the intensity of focus you gained in the mornings is amazing.

      I firmly believe in experimenting and finding what works for each of us as individuals. It’s all too easy to get caught up in what you think you ‘should’ be doing, rather than what works best. Like how the kitchen table makes for a far better work place than your desk.

      If you do decide to do an early morning challenge, please come back and post an update – I’d be fascinated to hear how it works out. :)

  5. Jessica says:

    Am definitely a lark! My brain needs to relax and start unwinding after 6…
    Great post =) Thank you!

    • Bev Webb says:

      Hey Jessica.

      I reckon when you’re at one or other of the extreme ends of the scale, it does have a major impact on how you schedule your day. Many thanks for the great feedback! :)

  6. Angie says:

    I got “moderately evening person” but I suspect if I didn’t have to adapt to other responsibilities (my 5-yr-old son, who is a lark) I’d probably go back into full vampire bat mode! The world doesn’t really work well for us night people.

  7. Bev Webb says:

    Hi Angie.

    Yey for vampire mode! You’re right, the world isn’t yet ready for us night people. :)

  8. Sharron McKenzie says:

    One year when I was mostly unemployed I was working an evening shift in a factory (6-10 pm). This left me wide awake when I got home, so I’d stay up til 2-3 am happily working on creative projects, and sleep til noon if necessary. For the last 15 years I’ve been working 8 am- 4 pm, up at 6 am for the commute, and I spend what often seems like half the day in a semi-comatose state, and am not capable of staying up late. I’ve often wondered if I am actually an owl by nature and if there was some way I could get back to that sort of sleep cycle. I certainly seem to start drifting into it pretty fast after a few days of vacation. I suspect it would have to involve self-employment. And I’d have to train my pets to expect meals to arrive later in the morning ;-)

    • Bev Webb says:

      Hi Sharron!

      I think the fact that you drift back into an owl pattern whilst on vacation says a lot!

      Oh, and by the way, I did successfully manage to train our cats not to expect me to get up to feed them in the morning. Might have had something to do with them getting fed at 3am as I was off to bed I guess ….

  9. Heather says:

    I got neither! But closer points-wise to moderate morning person, which I would agree with. I’m not a fan of being up before the sun rises, but don’t have a problem getting up with the sun, so 6 is hard, but 7-7:30, not so bad. And I definitely get more done in the mornings and then ready for a nap at about 2-3pm! And then a second wind in the early evening.

  10. Sarah says:

    The fact that I’m just turning the computer on now would suggest that I’m more than moderately evening person..?!:D Have more trouble deciding which part of the day is working, as I’m a self employed artist with the luxury of planning my working “day” to suit my productive times, I find that there are always the creative thoughts there while performing the more mundane tasks like listening to recorded messages from banks… also need to remind friends and relatives that although my working hours are flexible, I am still at work. My ideal working time is 5-9pm, but then I did 9-5 in an office for too many years…
    Thanks for the questionnaire, as for the exercise timings, I’ve found an hour of listening to some tunes on Kisstory at 11am (with dancing if I’m alone in the house:D) gets the mind and body moving.
    Cheers
    Sarah

  11. Valentino says:

    aAm a moderately Lark-like but am very confused after taking the MEQ because i can stay awake till 4am in the morning and still get up at 5am, do all my day activities without any problem.Why is that?

  12. E young says:

    I came out as a morning person, not surprised I worked hardest in the mornings after a proper nights sleep (which I don’t always get cause I’m often at classical concerts in the evening, and will be performing a lot hopefully when I get my degree) I used to be a night owl as a teen, cause would stay up very late and not wake till afternoon, but I didn’t used to feel very well when I did that, and I always missed my most brainy time of day (6am- 10 am) I am the only one on my course who likes 9am lessons, and loves having choir at 11am and another singing ensemble at 9am in fact my worst lessons are the ones at 4 or 5 in the afternoon

  13. tommy says:

    Bev, yet again I identify highly, I’ve read plenty on this and recognise my own owl-ness, despite also recognising me and my rhythms are incompatible with your average workplaces or relationships. But the attention and detailed lived-in posts on this site, and the community you’re bringing out of the woodwork that concur and also share is brilliant.
    I wonder how well us types that are so similar in some ways would get along or collaborate day-to-day in real life? I’m beginning to setup a physical collaborative working space, and figure it’ll be really helpful for motivation

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