How To Increase Productivity Without Relinquishing Your 'Night Owl' Status

The corporate world — and just about everything else as a result — tends to work around a nine to five model. If a person wants to be more productive, they're encouraged to wake up earlier and tackle tasks in the time they have before they head into the office, sometimes even waking as the sun is rising to get in an early-morning jog or workout class and still have time to shower and prepare for the rest of the day.

For some, this is a great system. They wake feeling refreshed and ready to hit the ground running early in the morning, so why not maximize the time they have available? For others, however, this approach is far from ideal. If you wake up as late as physically possible to get to work on time and still find yourself on the verge of dozing off during your early morning meetings, setting an alarm for 5:30 a.m. is likely the last thing that will help you increase your productivity. Luckily, there are other approaches that allow you to organize your life around your individual circadian rhythm, giving you the chance to make the most of your peak hours of productivity and utilize how sleep quality affects your mental health.

Monitor how your energy fluctuates

Before you develop your ideal schedule — or at least the closest to it you can reach while still getting into the office on time — you're going to want to monitor your energy throughout the day. Most night owls are naturally groggy in the morning, then begin to perk up towards the end of the work day, but this is different for each person. Note how you feel, how productive you are, and when you're most social to get a fuller picture of the impacts of your circadian rhythm.

After a few days of tracking, you'll begin to notice some patterns. Of course, different things can impact your energy levels throughout the day and give you slightly skewed results, especially if you got a bad night of sleep or are tackling some seriously-draining spreadsheets, so make a note if you think there might be any external causes. A small note or rating out of five in your notes app about every two hours should be enough to start showcasing when you feel your most awake and productive.

Determine your chronotype

With tangible evidence of your energy levels throughout the day, you can find what sleep schedule is best for you. According to the Sleep Foundation, most people fall into one of four chronotypes, each characterized by an animal: the lion, the bear, the wolf, and the dolphin.

The lion is essentially the early bird. These people wake up early and have their largest burst of energy first thing in the morning, but their focus tends to wane as the day comes to an end. Next is the bear — the most common chronotype amongst the population. Bears' energy rises and falls with the sun, so they're the best equipped to fit their lives into a traditional nine to five schedule while still having the energy for dinner or happy hour after work. Next is the wolf, which is a stand-in term for a night owl. These people prefer to wake up late and go to sleep late, often reaching their most productive hours after they're already home from work. Finally, there's the dolphin — dolphins in nature never quite reach a state of deep sleep, so this category refers to people with insomnia that may have a hard time nailing down their perfect schedule, per WDC.

Delegate tasks around your natural rhythm

Now that you know when your energy naturally peaks and dips, you can use those times to your advantage. If it's possible, try to schedule your day around these times. If you're still groggy and tired in the morning, leave this time for simple, basic tasks like clearing out your inbox and preparing a plan for the rest of your day. Once your energy increases, get to the important tasks, even if it means saving them for later in your work day.

The same goes for tasks in your personal life. Going to the gym first thing in the morning is one of the more common approaches, especially for the bears and lions of the world, but if you're yawning through your workout or ready to fall asleep on the yoga mat, you won't make the most of your time. Instead, head to the gym after work, or even later in the night. Working out at midnight might seem a little strange at first, but, if it's when your burst of energy naturally hits, embrace it and use it to your advantage. The same goes for tasks around the house. It doesn't matter when you clean or meal prep your lunches for the week, just that it gets done.

Share your struggle

When you know for a fact that your mind is going to move a bit slower in the morning, don't be afraid to share this information with your co-workers. By telling those around you that you're a night owl and it takes some time for you to get to 100%, you'll be able to avoid the impression that you're coming off as rude or otherwise disinterested in your position. From an outside perspective, it might seem like you're incredibly unhappy to be at your desk because of the work, not the hours, so clearing this up will help your day run much more smoothly.

Additionally, vocalizing to your co-workers that you're working with a bit of lag in the morning can give you the time you need to wake up before you get to your important tasks for the day. Hopefully, hearing this, they will respect your space as soon as you come into the office, and come to you with questions or new ideas a bit later in the day.

Don't skip your morning routine

It can be tempting to snooze your alarm clock until the last possible minute to maximize the amount of rest your get in the morning, but it's important to honor yourself with a stress-free wake-up. You may still be tired and a bit groggy first thing in the morning, but the simple act of giving yourself the space to do your skincare, cook a healthy breakfast, and savor your coffee can help set your attitude for the day and clear away a bit of that haze.

To maximize the impacts of your time — whether you give yourself 15 minutes or two hours before work — you should start by cutting out a few morning habits that may be killing your daily productivity. Resist the urge to scroll through your feed the second you wake up, make the effort to quickly change out of your pajamas, and incorporate a bit of movement, even if it's just a quick stretch to get your blood flowing.

Consider looking for a position with flexible hours

If, even after you implement changes in your routine, you're still not feeling your best following a typical nine to five schedule at work, it might be time to seek out alternative options. Many companies, especially after the pandemic, are more comfortable with the idea of their employees working at home or developing their own hours that work for them. This, of course, isn't possible in every industry, but it's worth mentioning to a boss or manager, especially if you're already utilizing a hybrid or work-from-home schedule.

The primary worry with most higher-ups is that their employees are meeting their maximum productivity and completing their tasks on time. If you pitch a change in hours as a way to better utilize the time you spend on the clock, a fair number of employers would be willing to allow those changes, even if it's just for a temporary trial period. If you're currently on the hunt for a different position, this is also a great opportunity to seek out roles that allow you more flexibility — think freelancing, remote work, and companies with employees in a variety of different time zones.

Realize that an early wake-up time isn't the only path to success

People that wake up and knock out their tasks first thing in the morning are often seen as more productive or go-getters, but it's important to realize that this isn't necessarily true. The only difference between a night owl and an early riser is a shift in the schedule. Both groups sleep the same amount — early risers just hit the hay earlier in the night. Because of this misconception and the typical nine to five schedule, however, it can feel a bit strange or wrong to do the bulk of your work when the sun is already down, leaving many night owls to get stuck in a cycle of scrolling social media or binge watching television instead of using those hours to their advantage.

By shifting your schedule to what works the best for you, you'll be able to feel more comfortable and productive throughout the day, regardless of which hours you choose to be awake. It's necessary to remember that there's no such thing as an incorrect way to go about your day — as long as it works for you, it's a positive approach.