mileszs

I am a lot quieter on the Internet

Stop Working Late at Night

I roll back the covers while glancing at the clock on the night stand. 7:37AM. Not bad, I think to myself. I stretch and amble toward the toilet to a soundtrack of the plaintive wailing of my 15-month-old son, Zane.

The next 60 to 90 minutes are going to go fast: feed Zane, feed me, caffeinate me (but definitely not Zane), shower me, dress Zane, take Zane to daycare.

Alright. Time to work!

Another hour passes, while I try to get in a flow. I might even succeed. I might get a lot of work done, in an hour, maybe. You know, if the coffee kicked in quickly today.

Alright. Time to work out!

Off to the gym for an hour or so, shower, lunch.

Alright. Time to work, again!

Assuming I don’t have a meeting, and that I didn’t go get lunch with friends (which can add another hour easy), I’ve probably got five hours before anything else has to happen – pick up Zane, make dinner, etc. Now I can really work. I can get upwards of 6 hours of work done today, total. Maybe. That’s okay, I’ll make up for it after my wife, Melissa, goes to bed around 10PM.

Okay! Ten is here.

Sit down on the couch. Open up the laptop. Open Vim. Either immediately fall asleep, or essentially sleep-walk through some code.


That was my daily schedule four months ago.

This is the story of how I changed my sleeping pattern to better accommodate my life and work. There is one thing I want you to take away from it, though: you should stop working late at night. It’s bad for you, and it’s bad for your work.

I know what you’re thinking:

"Aw, poor Miles, only gives himself 6 hours of work time while doing whatever the hell he wants because he works independently. Screw you, Miles. Screw you, buddy."

I know. I am lucky, but hear me out. You like what you do quite a bit. (If not, quit reading this, find something you like quite a bit, and get someone to pay you for it. This will still be here when you’re there.) You always want to get better, and learn more. It is probably wrapped up amidst the other parts of your identity. You probably take great pride in it. Don’t you want to do it, effectively, for as many hours as you can each day? I do. If you’re like me, and you are running a business, you need to.

So, four months ago, I set out to do the impossible: add more hours to the day. To be less dramatic about it, I spent some time thinking about my schedule, and researching, in order to discover what changes could be made to make me more productive and effective. You know who came to mind during the course of this thinking and researching? That smug jerk Ben Franklin:

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Aristotle:

It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom.

Of course, some of you are dying to quote Ender’s Game at me, I’m guessing. Orson Scott Card (via Mazer Rackham):

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man stupid and blind in the eyes.

Right. Moving on.

Making a Change

There are a few constraints for me personally:

  • I sometimes must take Zane to daycare, typically between 8 and 9 AM.
  • I work out in one-to two-hour sessions, at least three days a week.
  • I have dinner with my family around 6PM most days, and the rest of the night is family time.

I chose a course of action, and then futily fought to find a less painful alternative. That didn’t work, so I proceeded to do the following:

  • Wake up at 5AM
  • Start working immediately
  • Go to bed at 10PM

This has been great for me, and after a short adjustment period, not painful at all. I now have at least a couple hours every morning where the whole world is seemingly asleep, meaning I can work uninterrupted. In that regard, it is very similar to those late nights we programmers traditionally value so highly. More importantly, I’m working fresh.

I probably won’t be able to prove to you that you’ll be healthier, wealthier, and wiser, but I can make a reasonable case for "more productive and/or effective".

Even Science Thinks You Should Try Something

We could all benefit from analyzing our own sleep pattern, as well as when we tend to be most effective. Let me give you some research to help guide you.

Programmers will discuss getting in to a state of flow often, but sleep habits are more likely to be a joke, or a badge of honor.

"I’ve been working on 3 hours a night all week, man. Who needs sleep? Just ship it, amirite!?"

However, we should be respecting how lack of sleep negatively impacts our mental abilities, ultimately making us less effective at our jobs. As the journal article Rhythms of Mental Performance shows, sleep deprivation has a negative effect on many aspects of our mental capacity, including alertness, attention, and "working memory" (how much code you can keep in your head while programming). That said, we all mostly understand that sleep deprivation is usually a negative. Right? That is fairly intuitive.

What about when we are effective, relative to our sleeping pattern? Rhythms of Mental Performance covers that, as well:

Because mental performance deteriorates with time awake, it is, in principle, best in the morning and first part of the day; from the late afternoon onward, increasing time awake will compromise performance.

In other words, if you regularly wake up at 7:30AM, you’re effective from, say, 8AM to 2PM. If you regularly wake up at 11:30AM, you are still pretty effective in the late afternoon, because it’s essentially your early afternoon. The point is you are not effective if you’re working up until the minute you go to sleep.

In addition, fatigue has been shown to affect mood (for instance, in police officers). Your mood has a direct effect on your ability to reach a state of flow). You want to be in a flow, but that’s hard to do when you’re tired. Perhaps worse, being in front of your computer late at night, just before bed, can lower melatonin levels, causing sleep disturbances, among other risks.

Experiment

My alarm sounded at 5AM one day about three months ago, and has continued to do so every day since. You know what? It’s been great. I get quiet hours in which I can focus and get work done. Compared to my previous schedule, they’re essentially bonus hours. I added more than two effective hours to every day – working from 10PM to midnight wasn’t doing it. (I am still working with how best to deal with sleep inertia, but that’s another topic.)

Am I saying you should try this exact thing? Yes. (Just don’t bug me before 8 or so, please.) Am I saying it will work for you? No, not necessarily. People differ in when they are most effective. I do think you should try something, especially if you find yourself trying to get work done at the tail end of your day. This started as just an experiment, but I fell in love with it. Of course, Mark Sandman of the band Morphine thinks I’m missing out. (… or ‘thought’. RIP, dude.)

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man or woman miss out on the night life.

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