It's curious that right after I underwent sleep testing, The New Yorker would have an article about it. I hope you can see the whole article at the link; it appears to be up on the open Web, but I'm a subscriber so I don't know what kind of special privileges are buried in my computer's protocols.
The article is by Elizabeth Kolbert, who I sometimes forget is a generalist reporter/writer and not just a brilliant writer about climate change. It contains a line that's as close to blatant humor as you'll find in David Remnick's incarnation of the magazine (humor being not Remnick's strong suit): "Of the many ways that things can go wrong in bed," Kolbert writes, deadpanning, "sleep troubles are probably the most prevalent."
The article doesn't end up delving into the subject in Kolbert's customary depth, but I'll quote a passage in case you can't access the whole article yourself:
Each of us has an internal clock, or, to use Roenneberg’s term, a 'chronotype.' Either we’re inclined to go to bed early and wake up at dawn, in which case we’re 'larks,' or we like to stay up late and get up later, which makes us 'owls.' (One’s chronotype seems to be largely inherited, although Roenneberg notes, not altogether helpfully, that the 'genetics are complex.') During the week, everyone is expected to get to the office more or less at the same time—let's say 9 A.M. This suits larks just fine. Owls know they ought to go to bed at a reasonable time, but they can't—they're owls. So they end up having to get up one, two, or, in extreme cases, three hours earlier than their internal clock would dictate. This is what Roenneberg refers to as 'social jet lag'—each workday, owls fall asleep in one time zone and, in effect, wake up in another. By the time the week is over, they’re exhausted. They 'fly back' to their internal time zone on weekends and sleep in on Saturday and Sunday. Then, on Monday, they start the process all over again.
For larks, the problem is reversed. Social life is arranged so that it's hard to have one unless you stay out late on Friday and Saturday nights. But, even when larks have partied till 3 a.m., they can't sleep in the following day—they're larks. So they stagger through until Monday, when they can finally get some rest.
This reminds me of one of the better progressive ideas I've read about. I know almost nothing about it (but then, I'm not writing in The New Yorker).
The idea is to have two workdays, running simultaneously. One would be a conventional, standard day that would begin at 8 a.m., break for lunch at noon, and conclude at 5 p.m. The "other" day would begin at 11 a.m., break for lunch at 3 p.m., and conclude at 8 p.m.
Not only would it accommodate "larks" and "owls" without discrimination, which would be accomplishment enough (as a longtime owl, I've never adjusted to the world's judgementally larkish schedule very well), but there would be all kinds of social and business advantages: restaurants could spread lunch and dinner hours over a longer period of time, schools and other institutions would be able to utilize their physical plants for more of the day, and the usage pressure on roads and other infrastructure would be relaxed. Assuming you live in a city that still has a defined "rush hour" (I do know that in some cities, rush hour begins at 6 a.m. and doesn't end until 9 p.m.), the periods of heaviest traffic would be split in two and everyone would get where they're going faster.
I would shorten the amount of time that "first shift" and "second shift" workers would have to do business with each other, but that overlap would still exist. And each "shift" would have hours in its day when only half of the rest of the world was working, which resumably would increase peace and quiet and reduce distractions, possibly increasing productivity.
Importantly, it would mean that high school students could start and end their days later. Human teenagers are programmed to be owls as part of nature's mating game, and forcing them to start their days at 8 a.m. or even earlier is simply a mild form of torture that impairs their academic performance. Elizabeth's article says, "A school district in Minnesota that switched to a later schedule found that the average S.A.T. scores for the top ten per cent of the class rose by more than two hundred points, a result that the head of the College Board called 'truly flabbergasting.'" But then she goes on to point out that "teachers and school administrators generally resist the change, preferring to believe that the problem is insoluble."
There are a few problems with the double-day idea, too. For instance, what if your day starts at 11 but your toddler's starts at 8? But parents of young children have to get dragged into the lark cohort anyway, so not much would really be changing there. And who knows? If society became normalized to two workdays, maybe larks could socialize earlier on weekends, and get to bed on time.
No later than
The problems don't really matter, though, because, like most good ideas, this one will never be implemented. We do things not because they make sense, but because we have always done them. Why is the entire world on a lark's schedule, when only some 25% of us are natural larks? Farmers, believe it or not. Farmers have to start their days bitterly early, when the proverbial cock crows. The rest of society went along with this schedule, back in the days when society was overwhelmingly agrarian and farmers were economically the most important players in most communities. And now that farmers amount to less than 1% of the population? Nothing's changed. And nothing ever will.
And before I leave the subject of sleep (like Elizabeth Kolbert, I'm going to content myself with a glancing pass at the subject that doesn't pretend to be thorough), I'll pass along something my doctor told me. He said the single, overriding factor in good "sleep hygiene" and the way you regulate your body's internal schedule is to set a deadline time for every morning, past which you will never sleep in. It doesn't matter when this is, but he said that the time you start your day, more than anything else, regulates the rest of the day; for everything else, the body and brain will adjust. All you have to do is to set that "latest awakening" time and never sleep past it.
For what that's worth.
I had a pretty good night's sleep last night, which is a good thing. It means I'll probably get some work done today.
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic essays that appear on some Sundays on TOP.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
I just got this—Freud's best book, in my opinion, and the only one of his books worth reading now for the layperson non-specialist. This illustrated edition is delightful. And you might be able to find it for just a few bucks at your local chain bookstore...it has recently been on closeout.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Phil: "That's an interesting notion—about the Larks and the Owls—and one I guess we're all familiar with on some level. Here's what's odd with me: I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool Owl, and getting up before 8 a.m. on any morning, no matter when I went to bed, was always a struggle. And it still is when I'm working my 'day job,' which I do only part of the year.
"When I'm off work and at home though, I am up every morning, pretty much seven days a week, at 4 a.m. The hours between 4 and 9 a.m. are spent in my darkroom. Whether I'm actually printing, processing, or doing anything at all productive makes no difference, I am up and at 'em and in there every morning. And this for like the last the or four years now.
"As it turns out, this particular time slot was the only one available where there were zero wifely demands or other domestic obligations or interruptions, and I am able to completely focus on my 'work.' I don't even need an alarm clock anymore, I'm wide awake and outta bed at 3:50 every morning and it doesn't matter if I went to bed at 9 or midnight.
"However genetically predisposed I am (or was) to the old Owl's 'chronotype,' my photography habit seems to have converted me to the Lark's. At least when I'm not working."
Mike replies: According to the lastest research when I was in college—which is not the latest research any more, n.b.—sleep is trainable. You can be trained to adapt to a longer or shorter day, longer or shorter nights, or (within limits) different schedules. The one thing people really do not do well is with constantly shifting schedules; people need regularity in order to stand a chance of adapting. And the influences appear to need to be exogenous, i.e., imposed on you from outside. Note that I am not an expert.
Paul Amyes: "I worked for a while at a place that had flexi-time. Core hours were 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. but when you started and finished were up to you. It was brilliant. I'd get in at 6 and could get heaps done without the phone ringing. You could also accrue extra hours which you could carry forward and take off so in effect if you could manage things right you could tack this onto your annual leave."