Monday, August 4, 2008

Who is Brave Enough to Work the Night Shift?

Photo by: josef.stuefer

I’m sick of working during the day. I’m sick of email, I’m sick of dealing with “productive” people that haven’t eaten or slept in a year. I’m sick of running into friends when I should be working and I’m really sick of instruments being booked when I need to use them. I’ve been sick about these things for a while now. I seriously feel I spend way too much time at work trying to be productive instead of simply getting things done. I want to spend less time working, so I figure I should cut out the crap.

A Recent Story

Recently, I was forced to use an instrument from 9pm-2pm to do the measurements I needed and was amazed at the results. That afternoon I went home early, ate dinner, went to the gym, watched a couple episodes of the office, packed some food for the night and went to the lab. Then I took my measurements. When data was being collected, I opened up my email as I often do, no new email. I checked some websites, no new stories. I checked my Facebook profile, no new activity. When it was time to eat my food I heated it and ate it by myself. No one to talk to, which kind of sucked, but I was also back to my work in 20 minutes. When I was done, I went home, went to bed, and slept in until 10 or 11am. No sleep loss, and sleeping-in guilt-free was oh so wonderful.

The next day when I was processing the data I realized how much stuff I had gotten done the previous night: The measurements were taken very systematically, and I took meticulous notes on what was going on. I spent 5 hours in the lab doing this work, and I thought to myself, how long would this have taken if I did it during the day? Clearly the whole day. Lunch would have taken at least an hour. Other grad students coming in and out of that busy room would have added more down time. Responding to the constant stream of daytime emails would add more. Pretty soon, the 5 hours of lab time at night would have summed up to a whole day of measurements. That’s another 3 or more hours, more than 50% more time I would have spent “working” or “in the lab” instead of sleeping, eating, cooking, at the gym, watching a movie, staring at the ceiling, what have you.

This got me thinking, what if I worked at night most of the time? Why aren’t I doing it? What are the pros and cons? I’ve been thinking about this and blowing it off as crazy talk for months now; something a “productive” person would do, “I worked all night last night!”. But the idea keeps coming back. I wouldn’t work more, I would in fact work less. I wouldn’t sleep, I’d merely shift my hours. I could be more creative if I had longer blocks of uninterrupted time. I wouldn’t be interrupted by stupid email as often. But there are still cons that keep preventing me from doing it. It seems horribly anti-social. It would cut back on random collaborative opportunities. What happens on the weekends when it’s time to hang out with friends on a normal schedule? When would I go to places that are only open during the day? Isn’t this something a weird person would do?

A (Partially) Nocturnal Schedule

So I thought of a possible sleep schedule and tried to answer some of these concerns. I’ve settled on sleeping from 5am-1pm as a good option. Below are some of the obvious concerns listed above and my answers based on this possible schedule.

1. What about my social life? Get ready to be the life of the party. 9pm-2am will be like midday for you, so no more of that yawning followed by the “Only 11? Wow, I’m getting old!” joke that is so overused it makes me want to throw up in my mouth.
2. What about research or work collaboration? This should be just fine with the above schedule, you’ll consistently be meeting with people in the afternoon.
3. But the library is closed for much of my “day”. That’s correct, and at that time, everywhere else is quiet.
4. I need to go to the gym, the store, the Laundromat, mechanic, etc. And now you can go in your “morning”, which is smack in the middle of the day, so you can miss both the regular morning and evening crowds. Oh I’m getting jealous of this one just thinking about it.
5. But I work best in the morning. If that’s really the case (and not just that the morning is the only uninterrupted time you get) you may want to think about how the answers to these questions would change if you used a noon-8pm sleep time. Questions 2-4 seem to be fine, with most need-to-do-during-the-day tasks being shifted to the morning (your evening). The only problem I see is if you are also a party animal, then, in regards to question one, you would have to drink in your morning often.


Now, let’s crank a few more numbers just to see the pay off. It’s unrealistic to think you would be a whole 50% more efficient just because you worked at a time when most distractions were non-existent. Let’s be more conservative. For most people, it’s also unrealistic to think that you are wasting less than 10% of your time on distractions or pseudo-work like answering email. So let’s, on average, put the efficiency gains at around 20%. How many hours does that give you for more important things like reading obscure blogs, sleeping, or learning Mandarin? For a 50 hour work week, that’s 10 hours saved. Ten hours! You might as well throw in Cantonese while you’re at it. If you even cut back our efficiency estimation to 15%, that’s still 7.5 hours a week you didn’t previously have. And, the kicker for me is that is 7.5 hours that is normally spent on crap, busy work, acting productive. In fact, if you’re think you’re one of those productive people that is working 60 hours a week, a 20% efficiency improvement translates to 12 hours - basically a day. This doesn’t take into account other immeasurable advantages that include increased focus, less stress and thus the opportunity for more creativity. You may even start loving your work again.

Who is Brave Enough?

Now, the obvious question is, why don’t I put my money where my mouth is and do it and report on how it went? Well, I’m kind of scared. Of what? I don’t know. Perhaps of my non-tenured advisor freaking out that I’m not around all the time. Or of being scared of the night (I’m not joking, I seriously have had this fear since I was a kid). But the more I think about it the more I am inclined to try it out for a week or more. In the meantime, I want to ask you if you have either done something similar before, and if so, how it went, or if you want to try it out and report on your findings on Grad Hacker. It would be wonderfully exciting for me and the rest of the readers.


Finja said...

I've been doing something similar for quite a while now. I just have my most productive and creative time between 10pm and 4am, and then again between 7am to 11am. I tried so many times to work against it, but it just turned me into a grumpy zombie.

And I also realised how much more I get done if I work night shifts just because of lack of distraction (although, reading US blogs is a little bumper, the time difference means you people are blogging while I'm supposed to work ;) ).
If I could design my perfect sleep schedule, it would be from 4 am to 7 am, and then the big chunk from 11am to 5pm.
But you are right, it cuts down on my social life a bit, especially on spontaneous nights out during the week.

And it also does interfere with my lecture schedule and my working times (I have a part time job to make a living), which basically sucks. Usually I do "my times" about three or four days a week, and have to live on a normal schedule the rest of the week (which, again, turns me into a zombie).
Another downside: During the times that I also want to do stuff like going for a run or a swim or for groceries, it's just noch possible, because nothing's open. I guess, in a country like the US, where you also have 24/7 shops, it should be easier.

I hope, I answered some of your questions... feel free to ask, if you have any questions :)

Bdizzy said...

Thanks finja, that's really cool. That's interesting that you would actually prefer to break up your sleep into two sections. I definitely would need one.

You certainly hit on a key downside that I've been thinking of, though, which is switching back to a normal schedule for certain events, appointments, or whatever. And definitely if you have classes that are scheduled in your ideal time, forget it, it's over.

Anyways, it's good to hear of people preferring alternative schedules like this!

Finja said...

I forgot to mention one downside of this schedule: Sleeping during the day will never be as relaxing as during the nights, due to the possibilty to shut out light etc.
So you definitely have to be a person who doesn't need much sleep anyways.

Teaching Nazi said...

Also, while you're sleeping during the day, despite the light issues you have to contend with more noise that could potentially interrupt your sleep as well!