Change Your Career, Not Your Sleep Habits

by Staff - Original publish date: May 27, 2013

How does a night owl who cannot shift her hours to “normal” navigate the work world? In the first story in this series, Peter Mansbach, Ph.D., president of the Circadian Sleep Disorders Network, shared the basics about a type of circadian rhythm disorder called delayed sleep phase syndrome (also DSPS, or delayed sleep), which half a million Americans suffer.

Unlike most night owls, who prefer to go to bed late, delayed sleep sufferers are hard-wired to do so—in fact, they’re responding to a physiological need. Unless they meet that need, they feel exhausted all the time, and conforming to “regular” hours can actually seriously impair their health. Now you’ll meet a night owl who flew the 9-to-5 coop to go solo as a freelance writer.

Medical condition or sign of laziness?
“I've been a night owl since birth, so I knew my hours were hardwired,” says a freelance writer who asked to be called Maya Kochav for this interview (many night owls don’t want to identify themselves because of the stigma around their sleep needs). Kochav continues, “For many years my case was mild: I'd sleep 1:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., work a day job, and feel okay. I didn't need much sleep back then.”

Then one day things changed for Kochav: “Suddenly, I began feeling like death. Using the Family and Medical Leave Act, I temporarily downshifted to part-time. Then I quit and went freelance. Sure enough, the later I went to bed and woke up, the less death-like I felt. I eventually read about delayed sleep phase syndrome online and instinctively knew I had it. Several sleep-medicine physicians confirmed this.”

How a night owl manages her career
Kochav says that she balances her sleep needs with her career by freelancing from home, on her own schedule. “Turns out I love the flexibility and the diversity of clients,” she says. “But there are downsides.” Kochav says that she’s had to turn down on-site, 9-to-5 assignments, and miss networking breakfasts, morning seminars, and full-day workshops. She adds, “I miss the company of colleagues; I miss employer-paid benefits. When a client suggests a morning meeting, or an interview subject suggests a morning interview, I have to pretend I'm busy and ask, ‘Can we find a time in the afternoon?’”

Career advice for other night owls with delayed sleep
“If your sleep is more than mildly delayed and you have a burning desire to pursue a daytime career, see a sleep specialist—one who knows about delayed sleep (some don’t)," says Kochav. "Try the recommended treatments: light therapy, darkness therapy, and/or melatonin. If they work, great!” she adds.

If the therapies don’t work, Kochav suggests asking yourself whether you can you manage on fewer hours of sleep. “Be honest with yourself,” she says, “and know that as you get older, you'll be less able to abuse your body. Consider a career that permits later shifts, flexible scheduling, or freelancing. Yes, it stinks that delayed sleep can be a career changer.”

Your internal clock
“Contrary to what some people think, your sleep-wake schedule is not determined by your alarm clock or by your will,” says Kochav. “It's determined by your body clock—and yes, scientists have actually found a tiny region of the brain that acts like the body's master clock. This group of nerve cells is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, and it regulates your internal time via a cascade of neurological and hormonal processes. So please don't beat yourself up if you can't conform to the 9-to-5 world, and don't make yourself sick trying to live against your grain.”

The last ones left in the “closet”
“In our driven, early-bird-catches-the-worm, I'll-sleep-when-I-die society, there's a monumental prejudice against people with delayed sleep,” says Kochav. “Sometimes I feel we're the last ones left in the ‘closet.’ This is my rallying cry for employer and societal accommodation.”

But what about sleeping pills? “Sleeping pills are not the answer,” says Kochav. “They may knock you out so you fall asleep earlier, but they won't reset your body clock. You'll likely still feel tired in the morning. Plus, you risk side effects.”

To read the rest of this series:
Click here for Part I
Click here for Part III
Click here for Part IV

Here are some reading recommendations for those interested in learning more about delayed sleep phase syndrome:

Sleep: A Very Short Introduction

Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired

The Insomnia Answer: A Personal Program for Identifying & Overcoming the 3 Types of Insomnia