Jacky Sherman

The Consultant's Consultant

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Larks vs Owls: Who Are The Most Virtuous?

Early to bed and early to rise ...



I was speaking at a networking breakfast last week which was some distance form my home and over coffee, I joined a conversation where people were having a moan about the time they had to get up to arrive on time ...

Are you a Lark or an Owl? Do you feel virtuous if you get up early or just tired?

Are you a Lark or an Owl? Do you feel virtuous if you get up early or just tired?

copyright: anton_petrus / 123rf stock photo

Feeling a bit cocky, I commented that I had had to get up at 5am to join them and how nice that the roads were clear and at that for once it wasn't raining. Observers of English culture will notice that I covered the three top ice-breakers we English use when socialising in this way.

"Have a little moan then talk about the weather and traffic!"

Moaning is how we find a common point of agreement or sympathy and I thought I was fairly safe to get the sympathy vote on my early rise. So I was a bit put out to be knocked off my perch by two of the other people who said they always got up at about 4 am. 4am! Surely that's above and beyond the call of duty?

Now a few weeks ago I had had the opposite when someone who came on one of my workshops had admitted that she had been up most of the night so may not be able to concentrate.

It's fair to say that there was less sympathy in the room than if she had got up at the crack of dawn to get there. Once she explained she had been working most of the night the sympathy kicked in.

"This got me thinking about why somehow it is perceived to be more virtuous to get up early than to stay up late!"

The first site on my Google search into the subject confirmed to me that this is so embedded in our culture that we don't even notice that there is a judgement here that could be challenged.

The author was setting the scene by defining the two types of people. I quote: "Larks are up and at it early in the morning and tend to hit the sack at a respectable evening hour; Owls are most alert at night and typically turn in long after dark." Notice the use of the word 'respectable'?

Now the research does support that we are naturally either Larks or Owls, but that we can - and do - change with age and circumstances. A lovely example of that was brought home to me last Christmas Day when my husband and I had to make several increasingly strident attempts to get my teenage son out of bed for Christmas lunch. For us, it was payback for all the years when he bounced on our bed at about 5am shouting Happy Christmas!

So if the world is made up of both morning and night people, why does getting up early seem more respectable and better for us as summed up by Benjamin Franklin's famous saying "early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise".

"There is no evidence to support that we are either healthier, wealthier or wiser because we naturally get up and get going earlier!"

Interestingly though there is evidence that the Larks amongst us are more persistent, co-operative, conscientious and proactive. The evidence also suggests that those of us who are Owls seek out novelty, experiment more with substance abuse and find it harder to give up smoking and drinking. Owls also have more lovers and are more likely to be unfaithful.

Ahh, now we start to see why our religious and social leaders want us to get up early and go to bed alone and earlier! But before I hand the victory completely to the Larks, studies also demonstrate that Owls have a slight edge in being smarter and being better at sports.

So what happens if you constantly have to get up earlier or stay up later than your inclination? It may be that you suffer from what is called social jet lag and perform at less than your best.

When your work is mainly problem-solving then your performance is highest if you work at the times to suit you the best. On the other hand, you are likely to be more intuitive or creative when working outside your preferred time zone i.e. when you're tired and you switch off your rational brain.

Maybe then, for social harmony, we should carry on letting the Larks set the moral tone for when we get up, but encourage them to come down the pub in the evening when we need them to be a bit less predictable and more innovative?

"How about you? When do you perform at your best or get the best result from the people you know?"

For me personally, I've kind of made that transition from Owl to Lark, though on a cold winter's morning, the pull of a toasty duvet can make me less than virtuous about going to breakfast in a hotel far from home.

Now I'll sign off before I get back to moaning about the weather.

Until next time ...


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