Why am I most productive late at night and how do I change that?
December 1, 2014 1:39 AM   Subscribe

I seem to get all my best work done between 8 pm and 2 am. Does anyone else have this problem? Have you ever successfully shifted your productive period to more convenient hours? How did you do it?

It's really annoying. I'll spend all day trying and failing to concentrate on a task, having to drag myself back from distraction after distraction. Then, suddenly, I'll click into a groove and everything will be easy--right about the same time I want to go home and eat dinner.

I've thought about and eliminated a lot of possible explanations for this personal quirk--am I just better at working when everyone's left the office? No, it still happens when I'm there by myself on weekends, or working from home. Does coffee make me too jittery to work in the mornings? No, it still happens when I'm abstaining from caffeine. Is it just that I can't start work until I've exhausted every possible distraction? ...I still haven't ruled that one out.

As a grad student I have the luxury of being able to do some of my work at odd times, but working evenings all the time would be incompatible with having a social life, going to morning meetings, eating a healthy diet, and any number of other things that I'd rather keep in my life.
posted by cortisol to Work & Money (19 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Are answers from introspection ok?

Is it just that I can't start work until I've exhausted every possible distraction

I think this is a big part of it, for me, anyway. It's at night, really, that it's easiest for me to feel I can let go of the expectation (or maybe need) to respond to others, or the suggestion of others (implied even by the fact of 'business hours'), or my expectations of others' expectations. And there's a load of environmental impositions, noise and movement and hustle - just too much going on for me to really hear myself. I'm also physically calmer and more settled at night, too - during the day, I want to move around and do things. I definitely have a harder time doing thoughtful work in the hours immediately after working out; I'm likely to feel too jittery and impatient, too aware of interoceptive stimuli, maybe.

Nighttime is quiet and calm, and I feel I can release all of that and simply engage, in a very direct (or even intimate, I want to say) way, with whatever it is I'm working on. And, I'm used to it, because I'm a lifelong night owl/insomniac. Basically, I think (for me) it's about nighttime affording an opportunity (for a number of reasons) for an optimal level of stimulation for creative work, which I think demands a certain looseness.

So far, I've been unable to replicate these conditions during the day. When I worked 9 to 5, I'd work in bursts between distractions, but I'd always wind up staying late for anything involved.

But if any of that makes sense to you, maybe you can find or structure a environment that allows you to let go more easily. (Libraries are too silent and heavy with expectation for me, and the white noise of coffee shops is too unreliable, but it's probable there's a good-enough coffee shop yet to be found.) If you have access to a workspace that you could trust to ding you into the right frame of mind, that might help.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:51 AM on December 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also have this pattern.

It has taken me many years to see it as a pattern instead of a problem.

It's remarkably common among the other programmers I know. Much of it, I think, has to do with access to a mental zone free of the possibility that the fucking telephone is about to ring again.
posted by flabdablet at 3:34 AM on December 1, 2014 [10 favorites]

but working evenings all the time would be incompatible with having a social life, going to morning meetings, eating a healthy diet, and any number of other things that I'd rather keep in my life

There are things you can do to mitigate the negative effects of this. Work after socializing, still eat well, go shopping at the beginning of the day instead of the end. Meetings can be tricky, but I've found places to work that simply will schedule meetings in the late afternoon to accommodate 'erratic' sleep schedules.

(off to go to sleep after a productive night in the home office).
posted by el io at 3:51 AM on December 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was planning to link to delayed sleep phase disorder, but I see flabdablet has beaten me to it. Some people are just night owls, and have a different wake/sleep pattern from most. I sleep the best between 6am and 2pm, so I have arranged my work so that I start at 5pm and finish at 1am. I get more done than anyone else, sleep like a rock, get the office to myself, have a few hours before work in the afternoon to get stuff done if need be. I usually use that time to make myself a nice fresh dinner to take to work so I make sure I eat well.

Realizing that I have times where I am more productive and being able to adapt my schedule to that was a huge turning point in my life, it's been a huge improvement.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:34 AM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I posted this relevant thread a while back; maybe you'd find it helpful?
posted by gemutlichkeit at 5:07 AM on December 1, 2014

I was like this, too.
Nighttime is quiet and calm
Turns out, so is early morning. If this part of cotton dress sock's comment resonated with you:
It's at night, really, that it's easiest for me to feel I can let go of the expectation (or maybe need) to respond to others, or the suggestion of others (implied even by the fact of 'business hours'), or my expectations of others' expectations.
Or, like flabdablet said, knowing that you are free from the possibility of interruption--not only do you not get phone calls then, you probably don't get many emails then either, social media & websites are slow or dormant, etc.

Then maybe consider a trial of walking up early and doing that work then. Like 5am at the latest early. When being sleepy isn't an issue anymore (which takes some getting used to, granted), it "feels" the same as working at 1am, especially when it's still dark & quiet out. It feels "alone" in a way that is conducive to getting shit done much like late night is.

It can open up your evening for social life stuff without feeling like you ought to be at home working. Add naps as needed if you're heading out for something that lasts past midnight.
posted by neda at 5:15 AM on December 1, 2014

Oh man, story of my life. :( Waking up at 4 or 5 tends to be an effective alternative -- when I can get my body to cooperate, that is.
posted by Hermione Granger at 5:38 AM on December 1, 2014

Nthing the people who suggest early morning as alternative time with limited distractions. That is unless you work in a global cooperation and have people in different timezones pounce on you as soon as they see you online on the IM system...I combat this by using 'do not disturb' at all times when i need to be able to focus.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:48 AM on December 1, 2014

For me personally, a lot of it is procrastination and guilt. My perception that there's only about an hour till dinner helps me subdue distractions for an hour; the mild shame that I've managed to spend a whole day being distracted helps me focus; the hope that I'll accomplish enough in the next hour to "buy my way out", to be productive enough in one hour that the day isn't a total loss, helps me figure out a priority task that will make me feel better when I've done it. Once I'm actually doing useful tasks, that feeds on itself. The shame of not working and the fear of failure is replaced by the power of "hey look, I'm genuinely pretty good at this sometimes", and it's much much easier to keep going.

As to what to do about it? People are going to give you excellent time-management suggestions here. Those will work. I'm going to also suggest that you consider seeing a therapist, if your school offers it. [And if you feel like it. I'm talking from my personal experience which seemed to match some grad students, but definitely not all - you are not me.] I'm assuming you're in the writing/finishing stage, more than the first couple of years of study/classes/investigation. I had a lot of fear of what was going to happen next, and even though I wasn't thinking of that on a daily basis, it was related. It would be incredibly naive to try to say I was so afraid of looking for a job that I couldn't make a decent graph of my data (and if you think that's what a therapist would say, fire that imaginary therapist!) but fairly accurate to say that I liked farting around on the internet and shopping for my cousin's christmas presents more, because those were positive feelings (feeling of accomplishment! I am a creative loving person who buys good presents! and meets social deadlines!) as opposed to trying to re-read an article and see if that's the reference I'm looking for because they inevitably name-dropped people I hadn't heard of, used long convoluted academic sentences that I had to read 3 times to understand, and generally seemed to be trying to tell me that I wasn't any good at reading their article, and I just couldn't get any traction when my brain filled with tiny messages that this was really difficult and I wasn't doing it very well and this is going to take forever and Jeff read this article last week so what's my problem and how am I supposed to publish research if I can't even tell if an article is any good or not and... sheesh. Even for somebody who isn't as big of a mess as I was, small negative feelings can be a huge distraction. In the big picture, building confidence in your own abilities, and creating good feelings around your professional self, will become its own positive feedback loop, and you will train yourself to be able to concentrate better. Right now, one of the things that's happening is a lack of positive brain chemicals, and talking it out might help with that.

See, the people of AskMe can answer any question with "see a therapist!"
posted by aimedwander at 5:55 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's because:
1. You wake up too late and go to bed too late.
2. You think you have infinite time because you stay up as late as you want.
3. You can't concentrate with stuff happening and don't feel the urge to fix it because of #2.

1. Go to bed earlier and wake up earlier (adjustment could be rough, so maybe wait for winter break.)
2. Over time (weeks, most likely), begin to really understand you have a finite amount of time in the day that you can't change, and realize your morning hours are just as good as your evening hours.
3. Because of these changes, feel more able and willing to ignore lesser interruptions, and to arrange your schedule and location so it's easier to concentrate if you're truly interrupted.
posted by michaelh at 7:13 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

realize your morning hours are just as good as your evening hours

That's the thing, though. They're not.

There are certain kinds of work - computer programming among them - that require long periods of sustained concentration, and the juggling of many simultaneous mental balls. One phone ringing for five seconds - even if it's not one that needs to be answered! - can drop half of those on the floor, and easily cost fifteen minutes for mental resync and regroup. At that rate, four interruptions in an hour causes productivity to drop to zero.

Working while everybody else is asleep is just better.
posted by flabdablet at 7:39 AM on December 1, 2014 [10 favorites]

Another thought on distractions - you are actively limiting these when you're trying to work, right? There is no law that says you have to be accessible by phone, sms, email, IM all the time.

You can unplug yourself for a few hours at a time without ill effects to your personal or professional relationships. Personally I refuse to answer the phone unless I am in a position to have a meaningful conversation with the caller. I respond to my emails by the end of the day etc.

So I trust your phone is on silent, you've even disabled vibrating. You're not logged into random things on your computer that you don't need, so emails don't pop up and messages don't blink at you and divert your attention.

If you like some background noise your noise of choice is conducive to focusing on your work? When I was doing my masters I found that listening to the radio or any music with lyrics was not conducive to focusing on my reading. This was a while ago so I had no TV in my room and the network connection was very poor so I wasn't streaming any videos either. My noise of choice for studying and technical reading in particular became purely instrumental music without a strong beat.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:04 AM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I should add that I used to think I benefitted from programming or writing at night (10pm on.) I did - but I also benefit from doing those things earlier and getting to bed. I'm very sympathetic to the need for quiet and I wear earbuds with no music playing so it's not rude when I ignore people in my open plan office. There is a path to being stuck working at night to not being stuck working at night, if someone wants to follow it, and I'm happy to provide it since I've benefitted from it.

You can focus in times you think you can't. There are people in prisons and net cafes who work on their code. Ignoring people is quite possible. Anyway, a grad student is perfectly able to arrange quiet time during the day. It sounds like the asker's issues are internal jitters and Internet access, not ringing phones.

Even if the asker ends up committed to nocturnal work, steps 1 and 2 (getting sleep and learning to view available time definitely) are valuable because they will give the clarity and resolve to sleep during daylight hours and not try to use them.
posted by michaelh at 11:27 AM on December 1, 2014

It is usually one of three things:
1) You are a procrastinator and get a rush from doing things last minute.
2) You are plagued by self doubt and you have to push yourself to believe that you can do anything well.
3) You are easily distracted and you wait until you are sure that you are quiet before you settle into work.

Identify which one you are and then:
1) Exercise in the morning to get your adrenaline level up. Give yourself rewards for small goals like finishing a page in less than 2 minutes.
2) Tell the voice in your head that sounds like your mom to shut the hell up, your thighs are not too big and you will someday find someone who will love you.
3) Get one of those crazy expensive sound cancelling headphones for Christmas.
posted by myselfasme at 2:04 PM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I kind of agree with the notion upthread of making a concerted effort to schedule your life around it as much as is feasible. Yeah, the general social viewpoint is businesses are only open so long, socializing happens at certain hours, etc., but with some brainstorming maybe you can figure out something that works more with not against you, at least more than what you're doing now. I said recently in another sleep cycle thread my husband used to have to be up and ready to work at 5am and that meant so did I, and I kept hoping for YEARS I would get used to it eventually and I never did (4 years of foggy misery)--I was exhausted and felt inefficient at everything all the damn time (seriously, all day every damn day), no matter how much I slept or how much I tried to change my life in big and small ways to make it work. He recently changed jobs and works the night shift, coming home at midnight, and it's INSANE how much better I feel and how much ass I've been kicking productivity-wise. The weird thing is, I don't actually wake up that late--what changed was rehauling my entire approach to what happens when during the day, like I do all the less stressful domestic and socializing nebulous non-worky stuff while he's home, which means from around 9am to 2pm (that's when I cook "dinner" for us which is actually lunch before he leaves for work, do whatever household chores and planning and errands need to be done, see friends for lunch out, etc.). When he leaves for work around 2:30pm, I buckle down and get to work, and that's all I focus on in the evenings. When he gets home at midnight, we hang just a little until maybe 1am, then we're straighaway sleeping. I was always a night owl but something about switching when my "down time" is to before instead of after focused work time has made everything more efficient AND I actually am all ready to hit the hay around 1am, I think because I end my "day" with work instead of the loose ends of "everything but work" concerns. I have a ton of energy that lasts my entire waking time for the first time in years, and I don't have to obsess over a million little hacks to try to force myself into it, it just happens naturally. So I think there is something to be said for considering taking the time and effort to rearrange your schedule and see what works naturally with you best. For me anyway, it's definitely been a lot easier and worth giving up, I dunno, evening happy hour with friends and trading that for lunchtime visits. Bonus, maybe it's just me but doing errands times of day most people don't (I realize this is a huge luxury, yes) means fewer crowds and stress. It takes more advance notice or I have to save "normal" party socializing time for days off, but the tradeoff to how vibrantly awake and capable I am compared to before is definitely worth it. If you can swing adjusting when you do what with the time you have to be awake, I recommend trying it.
posted by ifjuly at 4:17 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm best between midnight & 4. I've been trying really hard to change this for the last two years since my son was born. You can see from the post time how well that has gone. Even when I do manage to get to bed by 1 for several nights in a row I still feel jet-lagged all morning. Apparently some people who have this issue are helped by taking modafinil in the morning, I'm hoping to try that soon.
posted by lastobelus at 3:08 AM on December 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, given the chance to free sleep I have a 25-26 hour cycle, but with a tendency to get stuck for a while in the sleep from 5am-11am slot. Have you ever free-slept long enough to see if you have a natural cycle longer than 24h?
posted by lastobelus at 3:12 AM on December 2, 2014

Yes I have, and I do. It's about 25 hours. Daylight synchronizes me to a 24 hour rhythm in summer, though (down at 5am, up at 2pm if left to my own devices).
posted by flabdablet at 8:32 AM on December 2, 2014

Response by poster: Just to clarify, I don't usually have problems with insomnia--if I'm not working on a project, I go to sleep at a semi-reasonable hour (usually eleven or midnight-ish.) So it's not delayed sleep phase disorder, just delayed work phase disorder.

cotton dress sock's answer resonated with me; it does seem like it could be about the evening being free of expectations as well as free of distractions. aimedwander's point about negative thought patterns is also well taken. (Since I've been on Ask Metafilter for a while, I am already seeing a therapist, but I appreciate the suggestion!)

I am surprised how many people argue that it's best to just accept the pattern and arrange life around it as much as is feasible. I can probably do more toward that end--pack a dinner instead of packing a lunch, re-schedule some social engagements, take afternoon naps. Worth a try for big projects, anyway. Working in the early morning sounds less pleasant, but also worth a shot (at least getting up that early would probably make me feel virtuous.)

[I thought I had replied here last night, but apparently I hit "preview" and then forgot to hit "post". Another reason to shift my productive hours earlier--I do get sleepy and start making mistakes after a while.]
posted by cortisol at 2:16 AM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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