When do freelancers sleep? When should they sleep? For a lot of us, the answer is whenever we choose. Without the fixed schedule of an office job to keep us in line, we tend to fall into our own sleep schedules, like generations of writers before us.
Charles Dickens, for example, enjoyed waking up later than many of his characters, falling asleep around midnight and getting up at 7 a.m.
Thomas Mann didn’t have to strike a Faustian bargain to keep a midnight-to-8-a.m. schedule.
Leo Tolstoy found snores and peace from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m.
And it should come as no surprise that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a night owl, reportedly going to sleep at 3:30 a.m. and waking at 11 a.m.
These sleep habits were cataloged in a fascinating infographic, “When Genius Slept,” developed for New York magazine.
When you check out the infographic, the first thing you’ll probably do is find the writer whose sleep habits most match yours. (For me, it’s Kingsley Amis, who slept from 12:30 a.m. to 8 a.m.) The second thing you’ll do is ask yourself: With such a variety of sleep habits, is there actually an ideal time for writers to sleep?
What you need to know about sleep
Why is sleep so important? Believe it or not, we don’t completely know. As David K. Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, wrote: “Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science.”
We know that sleep has five distinct stages, including the all-important REM sleep (during which we dream), and there are theories that sleep helps us remember things more clearly and helps our subconscious make connections between various ideas. As Randall noted, Paul McCartney famously composed the melody to “Yesterday” while he slept. Sleep may even act as a “garbage removal system” to flush out toxins.
But you don’t need to know why sleep is important to know that you need it. Go even a night or two without sleep and you’ll probably make extra typos in your writing or lose some skill at crafting effective sentences. Get plenty of good sleep, on the other hand, and you might find yourself making connections that lead to inspired articles.
So when—and how much—should you sleep? As the examples of famous writers suggest, it depends on who you are and what your body needs.
Dr. W. Christopher Winter is the director of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. I asked him why people seem to prefer different sleep and wake times and what freelancers can do to uncover their optimum sleep schedule.
Why do different people seem to gravitate toward falling asleep and waking up at different times?
The short answer is that it’s genetic. People tend to be either night owls or morning types. It’s really a matter of what their chronotype is. These are tendencies you’re kind of born with, and they can run in families. If your mother was a night owl, there’s a chance you will be too. It’s really no different than eye color or height. It’s something you’re predisposed to.
Young people tend to be more night-oriented, and older people more evening-oriented, but there’s a pretty broad spectrum there in between.
Does every individual have an optimum sleep schedule that their body secretly wants to follow?
Yes. There’s a great quotation from Jürgen Aschoff: “Whatever physiological variables we measure, we usually find that there is a maximum value at one time of day and a minimum value at another.”
Nothing is random. I work a lot with athletes; they have a peak time. If you’re a swimmer, you may do your best swimming at 4 p.m. vs. 8 a.m.
It’s all about your body wanting to predict what’s expected of it.
If you’re a freelancer who sets his or her own hours, and you can choose to start work at 6:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., or 10 a.m. as long as you get your assignments turned in, how can you figure out what your optimum sleep and wake time should be?
You could try them all out. Give yourself two weeks at 6:30 and two weeks at 8:30, or you could say “I’m going to go to bed when I feel like it and wake up when I feel like it” and do that for a period of a month. Do it without clocks and watches and figure out what naturally feels best.
The key is to pick some sort of schedule, primarily a set wake-up time, and live with that for a couple of weeks. If it doesn’t work, then alter it.
You also have to figure out what you’re measuring. Is it how you feel, or the quality of your work?
Okay, so what does being truly well-rested feel like?
You have to differentiate between sleepiness and fatigue. Fatigue can come from many things. Sleepiness only comes from not sleeping enough or having poor quality sleep.
For me, it’s waking up, and within 30 minutes of waking up, feeling pretty good. It’s also about navigating your day without forcing yourself to stay awake. You can sit through a boring staff meeting and not struggle to stay awake. It’s the absence of sleepiness or the absence of the drive to sleep.