My Time of Day

I’ve always been a night owl.

black and white futon

Somewhat mystically, I tend to credit this to having grown up as a theater kid. On nights after attending local musical theater productions with my dad, he’d hang out backstage chatting with the actors and musicians and directors, laughing and sharing compliments and general show talk. I have a distinct memory of being about seven years old, tagging along with him after a closing night performance, and being aware of the clock ticking over to midnight and then making the connection—oh yeah, this is where tomorrow starts.

(Not for nothing is this one of my favorite passages from Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night:

Later she was homeward bound at last in broad daylight, with the pigeons already breaking over Saint-Sulpice. All of them began to laugh spontaneously because they knew it was still last night while the people in the streets had the delusion that it was bright hot morning.)

Well over a decade later, while attending Indiana University as an undergraduate, I took this preference to its logical extreme, claiming that my brain didn’t really start working properly until the sun went down. I have a similarly distinct memory of a winter weekend afternoon spent torturing myself in the library over a paper that was due imminently that I only finally cracked open once twilight descended. Looking down at my notebook suddenly alive with scribbles, I looked up again to notice the blackness outside and felt like it couldn’t possibly be that simple, that the time of day could make such a huge difference to my productivity. I always joked about my penchant for late nights, but there really was seemingly something to it.

a late night in december

My good pal Brendon, also prone to pulling all-nighters, had a car in Bloomington, and he’d often pick me up at my dorm to run off on errands together in the wee hours, buying blank CDs and notebooks and Pilot pens in the middle of the night at the 24-hour Office Max. “I really respect that this store honors the preferred schedules of people like us,” we’d nod sagely to each other.

Even after college graduation, if I happened to have a few extra days off work, over the holidays or somesuch, my body clock would start to naturally revert to its nocturnal rhythms, writing and reading and watching movies until all hours, then sleeping as late as was socially acceptable as an adult human.

(Although, my friend Casey learned to double-check the time of day that I watched any movie that I gave a bad review to. “I dunno, I just didn’t care for it,” I’d shrug. “The acting all seemed wooden and disjointed.” “Wait a minute,” he’d interrupt me. “When did you put it in the DVD player?” “Um, about 2:30 in the morning,” I’d have to sheepishly admit. “You always think anything you watch after 2 am is wooden and disjointed!” he’d remind me. He . . . wasn’t wrong about that. There was a point of diminishing returns with my late-night endeavors.)

dark windows

Otherwise, I was always fairly unbothered by my habit of staying up late, figuring that the world was pretty evenly split between morning people and night people, and that someone’s natural inclinations just were what they were. After a while, though, I started reading more and more interviews with successful writers and other highly motivated people, mostly on mid-2000s productivity blogs, where they chalked a good portion of their accomplishments up to early mornings spent at their chosen tasks. “The world is quiet and peaceful,” they all seemed to universally agree. “No one is clamoring after my attention yet, so I can devote myself to transcribing what remains of the dreams still rolling around in my head before getting a jump on the work day. I could never be productive late at night! I’m too exhausted and my brain is too cluttered with detritus of the day!”

And, typical of my general insecurities, I started wondering if I was somehow bad at being a creative person because I liked staying up late. It started to feel like night owls were characterized as hopelessly irresponsible procrastinators, avoiding their tasks until the last minute, putting the burden of their creativity on their less-than-fresh selves. I felt like I must be steps away from developing a debilitating drug addiction or otherwise descending into a hellscape of wasted potential.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like being up early. When properly rested (or, still wired from the night before), the dawn hours are lovely and invigorating. It’s just that I don’t feel like my truest, most lucid self until I’ve had a nice long stretch of time to rev myself into coherence. Even now, in a reversal of what pretty much any given time management theory will advise, I don’t start my work day off with my most important tasks—I leisurely check e-mail and do other somewhat mindless gruntwork for the first few hours at my desk, knowing that it’s only toward lunchtime or after when I’ll feel truly alert enough to tackle bigger tasks that require more genuine brain power.

As a studious, curious person who loves learning about how other people do what they do (cf, my penchant for looking in other people’s medicine cabinets!), the idea of the wisdom of crowds is extremely seductive to me. Not because I want to be a sheep or because I’m necessarily afraid of standing up for myself or standing out from the pack, but because I have such a lust for life that I don’t want to myopically miss out on something that might actually be awesome just because I was so committed to doing things my own way. And hey, just because something’s popular doesn’t inherently mean that it’s bad, right? But, try as I might, being a morning person, in the way that the world typically defines it, just won’t stick.

black and white sunset near navy pier chicago

Funny enough, I get up plenty early these days. I find it truly is the best way to sneak a bit of extra time into my day. But I know enough now not to force myself to try to be “on” in any meaningful way. I use the time to meditate and cuddle with the cats and maybe drink an extra cup of coffee on the weekends. But if something really exciting and important needs my attention, it’s best to come track me down after nightfall.

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