I Went Nocturnal for a Week and I Loved It

I've been reading a lot lately about how some people are just hardwired to be productive into the night. I'm coming around that my insomnia is just the way I am.
Publish date:
April 21, 2015
insomnia, anxiety, experiments, getting enough sleep, sleep patterns, Work At Home

One of the drawbacks of living in Japan, while working for companies in the US, is the time difference.

For the most part, while my day is winding down, my co-worker's, boss's, and clients' days are just beginning. Most of the time I can keep up with the various time zones in the US since Japan is a day ahead of most places (BEHOLD! I'M WRITING FROM THE FUTURE!), and because I'm lucky to have a lot of control over my calendar.

But once in a while, getting six hours of sleep while the rest of America works doesn't cut it. When a deadline looms, I can't always ignore my iPad blooping with emails and updates at 2 am. When I'm particularly anxious, nothing temporarily soothes my nerves like checking up on one more thing.

Of course this doesn't help my already fragile "sleep pattern."

My entire life, sleep has been a battle.

Since childhood, I have memories of panicking when sleep just wouldn't come. I'd watch the minutes tick by on the clock, the lights in the neighborhood turn off one by one, hear my parents' TV go silent, and I'd freak out.

It was the feeling of being the only one. The one different from everyone else. The one who was so not-normal that they couldn't do something as natural as sleep.

I'd cry, my heart and mind would race, and I'd tear at my fingers or lips.

Low-level panic became synonymous with sleep. Even now, I catch myself dreading the moment when my friends start to look drowsy during a night out, or my husband dozes off during The Americans.

There has certainly been some shame associated with my sleep patterns. "Early to bed, early to rise" people are generally associated with being go-getters, more productive, harder workers. "Late to bed, late to rise" folks are more often viewed as lazy, unmotivated, or aimless.

But in the past few years I've learned to somewhat deal with, even embrace my sleeplessness.

Sometimes there is even a bit a "magic" creativity that happens while my husband snores, and the neighborhood is silent. I write, I problem solve, and I devise plans that just don't always evolve in the daylight.

I've been accused of making my insomnia precious — that I'm protective of it, like my therapist once said I was protective of my compulsive tendencies. I have to admit, there's some truth to that. It's not so much that I have a love/hate relationship with sleep, it's that I have a love/hate relationship with insomnia.

But back to work.

Last week I had a deadline for a huge job looming. Of course, nothing happens in a timely manner, and I found myself forced to make phone calls and be accessible on the interweb at all hours of the night — the day time in the US.

I needed to be smart, quick, and innovative, not some scratchy-voiced night-walker.

I'd also been reading a lot lately about how some people are just hardwired to be productive later in the day and into the night. More and more, I'm coming around that my insomnia is not an embarrassment, it's just the way I am.

So I decided to "embrace the night" and try being basically "nocturnal" for a week.

Now I know, not everybody can do this, as most people don't work exclusively from home like me, and don't have the luxury of living in a late night culture like Yokohama and Tokyo (many stores open late, 24 hour eateries/convenience stores, it's safe walking around late at night).

And, yeah, to many people it sounds like HELL.

But in order to get my work done AND see if my best self was my night self, I decided to go all in. These were the parameters of my experiment:

1. My work day began at 3 pm. I'd typically wake up around noon. (I just turned off my alarm, and wake up on my own at a "decent" hour.)

2. My work day ended between 3 am and 4 am. I'd typically be asleep between 5 am and 6 am.

3. I endeavored to conduct all my "day time business" as usual. Take showers, change my clothes, go for my "lunch time" walk, eat meals, clean the cat box, etc. And most of all, GET MY SHIT DONE.

I want to say that it was hard. That I missed the long hours of sunlight, that I felt weird and solitary, that it was hard to write coherent emails at 2 am. The little kid in me who just wants to be "normal" really wants to commiserate with you on how difficult night life was.

But I loved it.

It was easy. I felt like I was keeping hours that I didn't have to work at. I woke up, and felt ready to work. At the end of the "day" I felt tired and ready for bed.

Whereas I usually have to jolt myself awake in the morning, I felt a pretty steady level of energy in my nocturnal hours. My husband called me downright "chipper" at midnight.

Best of all I felt like I my work was coinciding with the height of my creativity. I'm naturally a methodical (slow) writer — from emails to articles — but I felt like I was crossing mental bridges faster in the evening and night.

Now I realize that some of this may have been attributed to the way my brain sort of races at night, and I don't dispute that this way of working may not be the best for me on a regular basis, but for the task at hand, it worked beautifully.

Some stray observations I jotted down during my "Dark Week":

  • Breakfast is lunch. Lunch is dinner. Dinner is breakfast for people who like to jog at dawn. I want to eat dinner for every meal. So I do.
  • I feel weird making coffee late in the day. I'm so used to gauging my caffeine so I can sleep.
  • My cat is so confused. She has taken to sleeping with me, and waking with me. She seems happy.
  • Sunset walks are better. I am that gleefully smiling goon walking around the neighborhood.
  • I forgot how AWESOME it is to email or call someone and get an immediate response.
  • My favorite lady at the convenience store works the night shift a couple days a week. We sort of looked at each other in horror, then recognition, then acceptance. I love her.
  • I miss my end-of-day 90s dance jam parties (with myself)
  • Going to sleep when the sun is rising still sucks even when you know it's going to happen. This is how vampires feel.

Of course there were a few drawbacks to nocturnal life.

I was so lucky to have my husband. He fed our cat in the morning when I was just barely asleep, and as something of an erratic sleeper himself, was really cool with me upending my day, and to some extent his.

Plus, the man can sleep through ANYTHING. I'd be cackling on the phone at 3 am and be competing with his snoring. (I should note that "quiet" has become a relative thing, since Japan is such a soft-talking country.)

But on the Saturday that I kept up my nocturnal life, I felt like I missed a big chunk of time I'd usually get to spend with him. Sure, I was awake by noon, but not really "up and at 'em" until one or two o'clock. We really only have one day a week to hang out and just enjoy each other's company, so it was a bummer to take that away.

Not to mention, my life revolved around work. If a friend wanted to hang out "after work," I was just starting my day. After-work cocktails are just sort of depressing at 5 am.

As good as it felt to "embrace the night" and use the nervous energy I usually have to tamp down to fall asleep, I suspect my glee had something to do with the non-reality of it all.

I wasn't really participating in My Life in Japan. I was essentially living in another time zone, in a bubble. It was the thrill of escapism. Since I was conducting an experiment, normal rules didn't apply. I was essentially on vacation — and you can't live on vacation.

So I've gone back to my "day walker" life. While regular day light hours continue to be a challenge, I feel rejuvenated by my week of nocturnal living.

It's not a practical way for me to live, but I've made some changes in my life that seem to be helping me tap into the energy and creativity I enjoyed during Dark Week.

I start my work day a little later now, and work a little later into the evening. It's only a couple hours difference, but I find that I'm more enthusiastic to get to work.

But more than anything, I'm grateful to have experienced my "normal." With my sleep and anxiety struggles, I've often wondered if being steadily creative, calm, and capable is possible for me, or if that was just the domain of everyone else.

It is possible for me.

During my week of nocturnal life, I woke up a part of myself I wasn't even sure existed. And now I just have to shine some light on it.