Here’s a pop quiz. What do Elvis Presley, Winston Churchill and Barack Obama have in common?
- They have kinda funny names.
- They are or were known for being "night owls."
- They all like singing in the shower.
That’s right — 2. — they were all known to be night owls — according to this article anyway. Now, their sleeping patterns might not be the thing they’re most famous for, but the fact they tended to stay up all night working on their ideas might explain some of their success (whether it was for good or related to hound dogs).
And programmers have more in common with Mr. Presley, Mr. Churchill and Mr. Obama than you might think. Just like these famous figures, developers are also known for working late into the night — someone’s even written a book about it. So, what’s the explanation behind this? Why do some people seem to do their most complex, creative and challenging work out of time with the circadian rhythm?
Distraction, IQ, Workflows
No one quite understands why certain types of people — programmers included — do their most creative work late at night. So, we decided to go out and see what the different perspectives are on late night working in order to get to grips with the debates. Which do you think is right?
1. There Are Fewer Distractions At Night
An email asking for your urgent help, office jokes and conversations, news on Facebook and Twitter, and meetings. Endless meetings.
Working during the day is full of endless distractions. And this is extremely unproductive for developers. Building an app or a piece of software means you need to focus a large amount of brain power thinking creatively and constructively. You need to be able to "see" the final product in its entirety and develop tools which will do that. The distractions of the daytime constantly shatter the delicate tool you’re building in your mind’s eye. At night, by contrast, there are far fewer distractions, meaning you can work for hours at a time without anyone interrupting your work.
2. You’re More Easily Distracted When You’re Tired
We never promised these theories would follow the same logic. In total contrast to the previous argument, a Scientific American article recently argued that our most creative behavior happens when we’re not at our best. The argument goes like this:
In the morning, you’re laser-focused on the task at hand. Your mind is clear, your thinking is lucid and you power through your task list in no time at all.
However, this kind of focused, concentrated behavior, is actually quite unproductive for creativity. Running against our basic presumptions, the argument goes we’re actually more creative when we’re tired and easily distracted.
When you’re tired, your decision making is on a par to being a little drunk (we wouldn’t recommend asking your boss for a beer at 9AM though). Because you’re less focused, different ideas come into your head more easily, you’re able to combine different sources of inspiration and think more laterally.
And this is useful for developers. When dealing with a particularly complex algorithm or user experience problem, being open to new thoughts, and seeing the problem in a different way is actually really helpful.
3. Successful Programming Needs Long, Uninterrupted Work Periods
Another explanation of a developer’s need to stay up late is that the kind of work we do is simply not suited to the regulated (and arbitrary) structure of a 9-5 job. Programming is, by its nature, a highly creative job — not dissimilar to painting or creating music. Trying to force such a creative job into a specific rhythm just doesn’t really work.
Project managers and admin people are focused on completing a series of specific tasks, making a 9-5 perfectly suitable for them. But the job of a developer is very different; it’s about diving deep into your subject, spending hours on minute details. Basically, it doesn’t fit well with the work of regular office jobs.
4. Programmers Have a Higher IQ
According to a study with a large sample of American children, those who had a tendency to go to bed very late at night, tended to have higher IQs than those who preferred getting up at the crack of dawn. Long derided as a sign of laziness, it might just be that smart people like going to bed and waking up later than others.
Programming requires a high level of math knowledge, lateral thinking, logic and the ability to write precisely in a variety of languages. For whatever reason, smart people go to bed later, and programmers tend to be smart people.
What About You?
The jury’s still out on which of these explanations is the right one — although perhaps they all have a little truth in them. Let us know about your current or previous sleeping patterns and why you think programmers seem to sleep so late in the comments section below.