Life Reimagined

Is 3 a.m. the Best Time to Rethink Your Life?

Keith Richards keeps a guitar by his bed, for creative rushes in the wee hours. Should you burn the midnight oil too?

There’s no denying that society has it in for night owls: Corporate America lauds those at their desks by 8 a.m., business travel blasts people out of bed at zero-dark-thirty, and creatures of the night are often portrayed as either moody vampires or fretful insomniacs.

But a growing body of research on sleep and circadian rhythms show that for some people, 3 a.m. is the perfect time to write a resume or take up the cello. Midlife—with its shifting work priorities and liberation from the routines of having kids in school--offers a chance to rethink your optimal time clock.

For some people, there’s not much flexibility: About one in ten of us is a genuine early bird, and one in five is a set-in-stone night owl; these patterns are embedded deep within our DNA. But that leaves 70 percent of us who are somewhere in between, based on natural preferences for falling asleep and waking. (Want to know where you land on the scale? Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, which has chronotyped more than 25,000 sleepers as either early, intermediate or late, offers this quiz.)

Rewinding the Creative Time Clock

“I want to be awake late at night because that’s what suits my temperament best,” says Phil Cousineau, author of Burning the Midnight Oil: Illuminating Words for the Long Night’s Journey Into Day, a new book of inspired writing by some of history’s most famous night owls, from Galileo to James Joyce. “It’s when my creative juices are really flowing. I’m a kind of moody, melancholy writer, and it’s what suits me best.”

Cousineau, 61, who teaches classes in how to jumpstart the creative process, spent his childhood evenings listening to the whistle of the Wabash Cannonball and Detroit Tigers’ sportscaster Ernie Harwell. He says the quest to find your most creative time starts with two basic questions:

When are you most inspired? “Most people know when they are most alert,” he says. “But the other big question—and one that is usually ignored--is when are you most creative?” If you’re not sure, take a month to experiment, picking up your favorite creative project (whether it’s knitting or the screenplay of the century) for an hour or so in the morning, afternoon, evening and late at night (that includes moments of insomnia). While most people suffer from at least occasional sleeplessness, Cousineau suspects many of them are higher on the night owl spectrum, and forcing themselves to sleep through their best times in order to get enough ZZZs.

Pay attention to when creativity seems most natural. “If it feels like work, it isn’t the right time,” he says.

How do you honor that inspiration? Cousineau has dozens of examples of people who have found ways to build successful routines around their most creative hours while still managing to function in the worlds of work and family. Poet William Stafford wrote a poem every morning before his kids got up. Novelist Ann Beattie has said her best writing happens from midnight to 3 a.m. And Gertrude Stein was famous for her “floating half hour,” which she was able to move throughout the day, depending on her other commitments. (“It takes a long time to write for a half hour,” she once joked.)

Experts say that it is possible to nudge your circadian clock in one direction or another. German researchers have demonstrated that getting more natural sunlight late in the day will help you function better (and stay awake longer) in the evenings. Conversely, getting more sunlight in the morning will make you more likely to turn in early at night. (Of course, it’s critical to get enough sleep, so that you feel revived and refreshed when you wake up.)

If it turns out you are at your finest when it’s dark out, quit apologizing. Recent research from the London School of Economics has found that midnight types have some real advantages over the rest of the world: They tend to be smarter, and make more money (although larks tend to get better grades at school).

“Many people flourish at night,” Cousineau says. “Most people find that to be creative, they need quiet, isolation, and most importantly, focus. I don’t think it’s an accident that word comes from the Latin for fireplace, a cozy, nighttime word. Focus is when you can go into the kind of reverie most of us need to be creative.”

Seizing your special moments—even if they’re at odds with the schedules of others in your family—isn’t selfish. “Because we have touched that place in us that is deeply soulful and creative,” he says, “we become better parents, partners, and do better in the workplace.”

Famous Night Owls

Vincent Van Gogh “It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day,” he wrote to his brother.

Thomas Edison The inventor was famous for saying he regarded sleep as a waste of time, and often worked through the night, powered by frequent catnaps.

Dorothy Parker “If the number of imaginary sheep in this world remains a matter of guesswork, who is richer or poorer for it? No, sir; I'm not their scorekeeper,” she wrote in an essay about insomnia called “The Little Hours.” “I hate sheep.”

Winston Churchill Famed for his highly structured days, he would work late and then wake at 7 a.m., but would spend all morning writing and answering correspondence in bed. Staff knew not to expect to see him up and dressed before noon.

Keith Richards The Rolling Stones guitarist sometimes sleeps with his guitar so if he wakes up inspired, it’s there. That’s how he wrote “Satisfaction.”

Michael Chabon, whose novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Claywon the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, typically writes from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m.

President Barack Obama While George W. Bush was a definite early bird, Obama has said he does some of his best reading, writing and thinking after 9 p.m., and prefers to stay up until 1.

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