Early birds can have their worms

I was on my way to the supermarket to get ingredients for breakfast late one Saturday morning when I saw the familiar, smug smiling face of an early-riser.

They asked me what I'd gotten up to so far today and when I sheepishly replied "nothing" they began a monologue on their own trajectory so far: an hour at the gym, a breakfast involving chia seeds, and volunteer time at a food bank.

In our culture the myth that waking up early is the key to a moral, productive life runs deep. Benjamin Franklin coined the irritating rhyme: "Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."

By contrast, the archetype of "not-a-morning-person" is someone who wanders around dazed and zombie-like, sporting messy hair, and unable to talk until after they've reached for the instant coffee.

As a night owl, I feel vindicated by recent research that shows that waking up earlier won't make you a better person. We all have a genetic "chronotype" - there's a time of day we prefer to go to sleep and wake up.

A quarter of people are the kind for whom morning TV doesn't seem like a hellish assault on the senses and soul at a time that shouldn't exist. These are morning people.

Another quarter of people skew their schedules late. We find it naturally easy to work into the night but very difficult to make it to appointments on time the following morning. And sure, while Korean research from earlier this year shows that early birds are more persistent, self-directed, and co-operative, the numbers you set on your alarm clock won't change your natural temperament.

As chronobiologist and sleep expert Katharina Wulff told the BBC last month: "If people are left to their naturally preferred times, they feel much better."

In fact, the BBC cites a host of research that shows night owls who try to be morning people fail miserably - "miserably" being the operative word. Waking up early didn't make late-risers more dynamic. It made them sadly conscious at a time when their body was still secreting sleep hormones.

Yet, society is scheduled for morning people. We're expected to be at school or work by 9am.

In such a context, early-risers are bound to thrive, not because they're so moral and wise, but because their chronotype makes their mornings like easy mode of a video game.

  • Erin Stewart is a Fairfax columnist.