By WARREN ST. JOHN and ALEX WILLIAMS
Iger, who is married to the television journalist Willow Bay, with whom he has four children, is up at 4:30 in the morning, works out and arrives in the office by 6:30.
The New York Times, March 14, profile of Robert A. Iger, the new president of the Walt Disney Company
Most days before work, Ward, 53, wakes up at 4:30 a.m. at her South Anchorage condo, grabs her mandatory morning coffee and heads to the gym. Part of her success rides on the fact that she exudes energy and sleeps only six hours a night.
The Anchorage Daily News, Jan. 3, profile of Robin Ward, a real estate deal maker
After Singer’s call, Wirtschafter couldn’t get back to sleep. He usually drops off for only about three hours a night, anyway, rising at around 1 a.m. to read scripts and scribble diagrams in a blue notebook, plotting the decision tree of the following day’s phone calls.
The New Yorker, March 21, profile of Dave Wirtschafter, the president of the William Morris Agency
THERE was a time when to project an image of industriousness and responsibility, all a person had to do was wake at the crack of dawn. But in a culture obsessed with status-in which every conceivable personal detail stands as a marker of one’s ambition or lack thereof-waking at dawn means simply running with the pack. To really get ahead in the world, to obtain the sacred stuff of C.E.O.’s and overachievers, one must get up before the other guy, when the roosters themselves are still deep in REM sleep. And of course since so few people are awake at such an ungodly hour, the early risers of the world take special pains to let everyone else know of their impressive circadian discipline.
“I’m an early riser, I’m achievement driven, and oh, my, has it served me well in the business world,” said Otto Kroeger, a motivational speaker and business consultant in Fairfax, Va. Mr. Kroeger, who says he routinely rises at 4 a.m., preaches about the advantage of getting up before dawn to audiences and clients. “For 13 years,” Mr. Kroeger said, “I never allowed myself more than 4 hours in any 24-hour period. It was all ego driven. My psyche was saying, ‘I can do it, I can outlast.’ It’s a version of the old Broadway song from ‘Annie Get Your Gun’: ‘Anything you can do, I can do better.’ ”
For late risers, the crack of dawn was a formidable enough benchmark. In today’s age of competitive waking, they’re made to feel even worse. The writer Cynthia Ozick, who goes to bed after 3 a.m. and wakes up sometime after noon, said she lives with constant disapproval. “I’m a creature of bad habits in the eyes of the world,” she said. When Ms. Ozick answers the telephone in the early afternoon, she said, “you’re approached in the most accusing voice-’Did I wake you?’ ”
At least since Benjamin Franklin included the proverb “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, Americans have looked at sleeping habits as a measure of a person’s character. Perhaps because in the agrarian past people had to wake at dawn to get in a full day’s work outside, late sleepers have been viewed as a drag on the collective good.
Even today, said Edward J. Stepanski, the director of the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, “it’s a uniformly negative characteristic to be asleep while everyone else is going about their business.”
But before slinking back under the covers in shame, slugabeds of the world should consider: Sleep researchers are casting doubt on the presumed virtue and benefits of waking early, with research showing that the time one wakes up has little bearing on income or success, and that people’s sleep cycles are not entirely under their control. Buoyed by the reassessment of their bedtime habits, a few outspoken and well-rested night owls are speaking out against the creep of sleepism.
“There are night owls who have just had their fill of people making them feel guilty and of other people who rag on them,” said Carolyn Schur, a late sleeper from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who advocates for night owls in speeches and in her book “Birds of a Different Feather.” “A lot of people are just saying, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’ ”
Whatever the negative associations with sleeping late, scientists say there’s good reason to doubt the boasts of the early risers. Dr. Daniel F. Kripke, a sleep researcher at the University of California, San Diego, said that in one study he attached motion sensors to subjects’ wrists to determine when they were up and about. While 5 percent of the subjects claimed they were awake before 4 a.m., Dr. Kripke said, the motion sensors suggested none of them were. And while 10 percent reported they were up and at ‘em by 5 a.m., only 5 percent were out of bed.
Dr. Stepanski said the same is true of people who boast they need little sleep. In a study in which subjects claimed they could get by on just five hours’ sleep, he said, researchers found the subjects were sneaking in long naps and sleeping in on weekends to make up for lost z’s.
“There’s a tendency to generalize and to do it in a self-serving way,” Dr. Stepanski said. “If your view is that you can get by on less sleep than the average person, then you’re going to play that up.”
Scientists call early risers larks, and late sleepers owls, and speak of morningness and eveningness to describe their differing circadian rhythms. Researchers believe that about 10 percent of the population are extreme larks, 10 percent are extreme owls and the remaining 80 percent are somewhere in between. And they say the most important factor in determining to which group a person belongs is not ambition, but DNA.
“Timing of sleep is genetically determined, whether you’re an owl or lark,” said Dr. Mark Mahowald, the medical director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center. While most people are a little bit owl or a little bit lark, for others, Dr. Mahowald said, altering sleep habits is “like changing your height or eye color.”
Dr. Christopher R. Jones, the medical director of the Sleep-Wake Center at the University of Utah, said that just as there are morning people, scientists have found morning flies and morning mice. Variations in sleep patterns among the population, he added, may have benefited the species.
“The whole tribe is better off if someone is up all the night, listening for a lion walking through the grass,” he said.
The rhythms of modern times are determined not by fanged predators, of course, but by the 9-to-5 schedule of the workaday world. While those hours would seem to benefit larks, there is little evidence that night owls are any less successful than early risers. Dr. Kripke said that a 2001 study of adults in San Diego showed no correlation between waking time and income. There’s even anecdotal evidence of parity on the world stage; President Bush is said to wake each day at 5 a.m., to be at his desk by 7 and to go to sleep at 10 p.m., while no less an achiever than Russian President Vladimir V. Putin reportedly wakes at 11 a.m. and works until 2 a.m.
Night owls thrive, it seems, by strategizing around the expectations of the early crowd. Bella M. DePaulo, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who goes to sleep around 3 a.m. and wakes about 11 a.m., said that before she answers the phone in the late morning, she practices saying “Hello” out loud until she sounds awake. Ms. DePaulo said she has been a night person since childhood, and that she gravitated toward academia in part of because of her sleep habits.
“Academia is a good place to be if you’re out of the mainstream,” she said. “If you’re doing 80 hours of work a week, what does it matter what 80 hours you work?”
Dr. Meir H. Kryger, a professor of medicine and a sleep researcher at the University of Manitoba, said that many people choose professions in line with their circadian rhythms.
“There are whole professions that tend to be larks,” he said, like bankers and surgeons. “Very often people self-select themselves into that kind of career.” Owls, he said, tend toward the entertainment or hospitality industries and the arts. But not everyone manages to find a perfect fit.
Drue Miller, a design and marketing consultant in San Francisco and the creator of a satirical late sleepers’ bill of rights online bulletin board, said that when she worked as a Web designer, she was able to indulge her night owl tendencies by coming in late in the morning and working into the evening. That changed when she became the boss and found herself adjusting her schedule to fit the perception that people who run things are at their desks early. “I felt like I was being a ‘bad boss’ by showing up so much later,” she said.
Perhaps the biggest boon to night owls in keeping up with the larks has been the Internet. Ms. Schur, the night owl advocate, said she spends the wee hours shopping, paying her bills and doing her banking online.
“It’s a vehicle for maintaining a night owl lifestyle,” she said of the Web. Ms. Schur added that if she is expected to get some bit of work to clients or colleagues by the early morning, she typically does it late at night.
“People will call me and say, ‘Hey, your e-mail said 2 or 3 in the morning-did you really send it at that time?’” Ms. Schur said. “I say, ‘Yes.’ ”
For people desperate to change their circadian rhythms, doctors say, there are some options. Dr. Kripke said that light therapy, melatonin and large doses of vitamin B12 can be used to adjust the body’s natural clock. (Dr. Kripke outlines these treatments in a free e-book on his Web site www.BrightenYourLife.info .) But because sleep rhythms are so ingrained, the treatments must be practiced continually and so for many are impractical.
“People come to my clinic and want to change,” said Dr. Jones of the University of Utah, “and I tell them I can’t, I don’t have a genetic screwdriver to get in there and tweak the gene.”
Of course for hardened members of the early-to-rise crowd, any talk of being a slave to a notion as wispy as circadian rhythms is a sure sign of weakness. Their message to the drowsy is more or less: Get an alarm clock.
“If you work two extra hours a day,” said Brian Tracy, the motivational guru, “you will outstrip everyone else in your field. The question is, where do you get those two hours? Early morning time is the most productive. It does no good to do work later in the day, because by then your batteries are burned out. Most successful people try to get up by 5 or 5:30 in the morning.”
He added: “Getting up late, having fun at work, these are all for losers.”