a blog by J.M. Cottle
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7 tips for the professional night owl

When I was in college, I stayed awake all night through sheer willpower and orneriness. Now that I work the night shift and I’m actually supposed to stay up all night, it’s not quite that simple. Here some tips I have learned for staying awake when it’s your job, not your rebellion.

  1. Sleep during the day. It’s tempting to think that because you’re not working during the day, you’re free to get things done. (Your housemates/family may believe this too.) This is not true. You still need to sleep the same number of hours you would if you were sleeping at night. It can be difficult because society is not designed for us night owls, and sometimes you have to stay up late to get to a 10am doctor’s appointment or something, but on the whole it’s best to keep a regular schedule. Put in earplugs and tell your housemates to leave you alone. You wouldn’t wake them up at 3am – they should extend you the same courtesy at noon.
  2. Sleep during the day on your weekend, too. I can sometimes offset it a bit and go to bed as early as 4am instead of my normal 8am, allowing me to wake up at 12pm instead of 4pm and see a bit of real San Diego sunlight, but if I change it any more than that I end up getting tired at work and that’s no good. If you are a professional night owl, you must accept it! Embrace it! It’s a whole lifestyle, seven days a week.
  3. Eat food and drink water. Since mealtimes are sort of culturally embedded in us as being morning, midday, and evening, it’s sometimes hard to remember to eat regularly during the night. But while daytime people can get away with not eating because they are too distracted to be hungry, many nighttime people have less to distract us, and if we don’t have any fuel we fall asleep.
  4. Move around. At my job, I can basically do whatever I want that doesn’t disturb the sleeping kids, and I am lazy, which results in me sitting down a lot. Alone. In a quiet house. It’s pretty easy to get sleepy. So I frequently get up and walk around in circles in the living room, or do some squats or pushups or boxing, or stand on the porch for a few minutes and breathe some fresh air. Aside from helping me stay awake, it helps keep me from becoming a stiff lump, which is a problem all sedentary people have.
  5. Keep your brain engaged. When I was reading one book of Dresden Files every night, I didn’t get sleepy. When I was plotting for the novel I wrote with my partner, I didn’t get sleepy. When I marathoned Orphan Black, I didn’t get sleepy. Boring books, boring shows, and other boring activities leave me with no will to stay awake, so it’s really important to find something that keeps me excited. Doing something with my hands like knotting bracelets and drawing is often better than looking at a screen when I’m really tired.
  6. Make friends who stay up late or who live in a radically different time zone. There’s nothing like chatting all night with someone to keep you awake! This only helps if you have access to internet at work, which is sporadic for me, and if you don’t have a lot of things you have to do. If your friends are local, you can also hang out with them on your nights off instead of sitting alone in your house trying not to wake up your housemates. (I do not have any night owl San Diego friends, so if you are a San Diegan night owl I’d love to talk.)
  7. Fine, caffeine. It’s better not to become dependent on caffeine, I think, since that results in headaches and really bad exhaustion when you have to go without, but now and then when I’m having trouble making it through the night, a cup of tea is just the thing.

I find that my life as a night owl is slower and calmer than it was as a daytime person. Some people have told me that it’s unnatural and that they could never do it, but I believe that it’s a mindset thing. Being nocturnal feels more natural to me now. I sometimes have to turn on a light to go to bed before the sun has risen, because sleeping in the dark doesn’t feel right. Driving is easiest with headlights and lunchtime is 3am. It’s not always convenient and sometimes I have to leave the party early to go to work, but if I ever switch back to normal people time, I’ll miss my peaceful nights.

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