Tiger Thoughts: The Lament of a Night Owl

There is a lot of us out there. We identify with each other with little effort. We feel passionate and wronged about our plight. Yet, we do little to challenge the status quo which caters to the majority who are exactly like us but for this inevitable dichotomy. Ideally, we would like the world to accommodate us as fellow human beings but things are so set in stone that most of us are resigned to the inconvenient reality.

The above platitudes are applicable to any silently-oppressed people who belong to the unfortunate side of certain dichotomies: heterosexuals and homosexuals, religious and atheists, able and disabled. It goes without saying that some countries are more sensitive to these dichotomies than other. For example, the UK mandates all workplace to maintain a disabled-friendly toilet through its Equality Act while in Malaysia where I reside, a wheelchair user would struggle with the toilets in most commercial buildings throughout the tropical nation- I digress. As I contemplate how often everyone hears the sighs of the nocturnal and offer little more than a blink in return, it occured to me that perhaps the most silently-oppressed people in the world are night-owls.

The idea of working from 9 to 5 seems rather primitive- you work while the sun is up. Yet puzzlingly, in a post-electricity, post-globalisation era, mankind acquiesce, if not accept, such an anachronism. Granted, there are an increasing number of employers who do recognise the utility of flexible working hours, but that still appears to be a niche rather than a trend.

These days, sleep is trendy (for example, check out this Guardian article) and there is a correspondingly large volume of accessible research on any wh- questions one can think of on “sleep”. Seasonal articles on sleep (this was the big one in spring: The Purpose of Sleep? To Forget, Scientists Say) are as ubiquitous as articles on sex and diet. But what about features on the curse and struggles of being a night owl? Well, one cannot run article that could potentially rock the boat. It has to catch the attention of night owl readers without offering any radical ideas (Night Owls are smarter than those who go to bed and wake up early). “How dare you suggest something as unthinkable as flexible ideas! Stick to journalism!”

As a child, I was a lark. I can recall sleeping at 10 every night and waking up … some time in the morning. However, I did not become a night-owl immediately upon reaching adulthood. The transition from lark to owl took place between age 11 and 14. By 15, I was part of this significant minority (or are we in fact the silent majority).

At eleven, I realised that I was more productive/willing to work at night than in the morning. In the afternoon, I would not be interested in doing schoolwork having just returned from school. Instead, I would play computer games or play in the park. The seeds were truly planted when our schoolteachers started giving us an insurmountable amount of homework. This is a regular and banal occurrence as I went to school in Malaysia, not Finland (Why do Finnish pupils succeed with less homework?). I can still remember doing my Mandarin homework- which required us to look up the Dictionary on the thousands of alien characters and idioms- up until 2 am in the morning. I didn’t mind doing that as much as I do now. There are two reasons: One, Lite FM used to play more Elton John (whom I like) and not Taylor Swift (whom I like less). Two, I had an infinite amount of energy at 11, which seemed to vanish the second I entered high school.

In high school, I encountered two new problems that would irreversibly condemn me to owlhood:

Firstly, as mentioned earlier, I lost the boundless energy I had at eleven and could no longer live on 4 hours of sleep every day. This meant that I had to sleep at the earliest opportunity, which would be every afternoon after school. Daily naps were like heroin addiction. Falling asleep on a hot afternoon was a daily euphoria. Sleeping for 3 to 5 hours without any care in the world was utter bliss. And then comes the withdrawal syndrome when I wake up. I would be an empty shell. Languid and destroyed by sleep inertia. I would be unproductive for the rest of the afternoon. And this acedia would persist until late in the night or early in the morning. And the entire cycle would repeat.

Secondly, I have difficulty with sleeping early. And I mean this literally. If I managed to fall asleep at 9 or 10 pm, I would almost certainly wake up at 1 am. I have attempted this countless times throughout the past decade of my life in attempting to have a normal sleep cycle, and as sure as the sun would rise, I would wake up again at 1, or if I am lucky, 3. After years of experimenting with different sleep times, I have concluded that my body is not meant to rest before 11 pm and attempting to do so only results in waking up far too early.

Being a night owl is a manageable condition for a university student. Because the traditional method of assessment is through final examinations, I can get away with scoring a respectable grade even though my attendance at lectures and seminars are appalling. I also get around the typical morning examination schedules by not sleeping the night before. If I were to sleep, and that would be a very late time given my difficulties sleeping early, I would wake up tired and disorientated. It is easier to not sleep at all and rely on caffeine and internal adrenaline. Consequently, I got through college and university having not slept the night before for every single paper. Even the evening papers. And yes, evening papers were hell.

Work is less forgiving for the night owl. 9 to 5 (or in my experience, 9 to 11) is incredibly punishing for the night owl. I have adapted unsuccessfully to the rigorous working hours by catching power naps during lunch hour, but that requires immense mental effort and discipline. And I have learned that I am far more productive at 11 pm when it is all calm and quiet than at 3 pm. Unfortunately, because of the need to wake up early the next morning, I have rarely been able to utilise the 11 pm runner’s high.

Personally, I am most productive between 5 to 7 in the morning. Unfortunately, it is not practical to harness the potential from this time slot because of my difficulty with sleeping before 10 the night before. So, even if I do wake up at 5 on the back of 3 hours of sleep, I would almost certainly collapse in the afternoon.

Would I rather be a lark than a night owl? I would without missing a heartbeat. But sleep is one of the greatest challenges I have struggled with. I have overcome the difficulties of falling asleep numerous times in my life and I consider this a personal triumph, but the  greater issue of staying asleep remains. Is it possible to reconvert into a lark? There were a few times over the last year where I succeeded in sleeping at 11 and waking up at 7 over a few consecutive days, but the subsequent ease in which I relapsed to sleeping late due to not being able to sleep at 11 suggested that being an owl is by default. Also, I felt that the quality of sleep I was getting from 11 to 7 was not great. I woke up feeling somehow more tired than sleeping later. However, I cannot sustain 5 hours of sleep for more than a week as I will fall asleep.

This post is simply a lament of a hopeless night owl. There may be foolproof sleeping methods or plans out there for those who struggle with sleep that are reminiscent to diet plans for those who struggle with weight, but it is a tedious task to research into the science and to filter out the quacks. And Dr. Oz’s advice probably does not take into account the hot and humid nights in Kuala Lumpur. In my opinion, the best way to learn and improve one’s sleep is by a combination of knowledge and empiricism. It takes time, mental resolve and for one not to lose sleep over it.

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