Updated March 2, 2015

Why Do Smart People Stay Up Late, and How to Make it Work for You

Read more about Sleep Statistics

We've all heard Ben Franklin's famous saying, "Early to bed, early to rise. Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." It may be true that the go-getters among us tend to get up early, but it's also true that more intelligent people tend to stay up later. This is actually a scientifically studied phenomenon.

So if you want to exhibit your intelligence by keeping a late night, late morning schedule, here’s what you need to know:

Night Owls May Be More Intelligent

Recently, scientists have been studying the differences between our ancestral humans and modern-day humans, and what they’ve been finding is interesting. Smarter humans tended to adapt more quickly to changing conditions, and they’re more likely to adapt habits that don’t really make sense, at least on an ancestral level.

One thing that didn’t make sense for early humans was staying up late. With very few options for artificial lighting – just fire, really – they would get up just before sunrise and go to bed after sunset. Perhaps a few individuals would stay up talking later into the evening. But chances are likely that most people knocked out at least shortly after dark, so that they would get adequate sleep before they got up again at the crack of dawn.

Intelligent people, though, may have begun to override those instincts and to stay up later than their peers. It seems that this has carried over into today’s world, and today’s most intelligent individuals are also likely to go to bed late and sleep in later than their peers.

A study from Satoshi Kanazawa, psychologist at The London School of Economics and Political Science, shows that intelligence and night-owl tendencies are correlated. In a survey of Americans in their twenties, Kanazawa showed that those with an IQ of over 125 tended to go to bed around 12:30 a.m. and wake up around 8:00 a.m. on weekdays, and to go to bed around 1:45 a.m. and wake up around 11:00 a.m. on weekends.

Those of normal intelligence tended to sleep from 12:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on weekdays and from 1:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. on weekends. Those of below normal intelligence tended to sleep from 11:45 p.m. to 7:20 a.m. on weekdays and from 12:35 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. on weekends. As you can see, that’s a pretty big difference.

Now, the study doesn’t exactly prove that being a night owl makes you more intelligent or that all intelligent people stay up late and sleep in late. There are plenty of factors here, studies show that more intelligent people, women particularly, tend to have children later and have fewer children, which allows them to sleep in later than their peers. Another factor could be the types of jobs people tend to hold because of their intelligence level.

Still, you can’t argue with numbers and averages. And it certainly seems that more intelligent people do stay up later.

Why Staying Up Late Works

While the correlation between staying up late and intelligence may simply be because those of higher intelligence tend to seek out novel situations, staying up late does have several practical benefits. Some of the benefits of staying up late include:

  • Getting a second wind. After you’ve wound down some in the evening, you’re likely to get a second wave of energy if you stay up later, which, for some people, is particularly creative. There’s a reason that bright college students tend to write their papers in the middle of the night, and it doesn’t just have to do with the partying college lifestyle.

  • Enjoying the peace and quiet. Staying up late can be a great time to rest, meditate, and think about life without interruptions but also without going to sleep. Many people use the late night hours for reading and journaling or for religious activities that are refreshing and renewing.

  • More time to yourself. If you have a family or young children, this may be particularly true. Chances are that you’re the only one staying up late, so you can snag a few more moments or hours all to yourself, which can be invaluable.

  • Getting things done. Late night is often a great time to work for many people, particularly those who are natural night owls. Since you won’t have to worry about emails, phone calls, and other interruptions, you may be able to get more done in the hour or two before midnight than you did the entire rest of the day.

  • Adding more to your plate. If you want to launch an online business, grow a freelance career, or write a novel, the middle of the night might be a great time to get it going. Again, you have fewer distractions to worry about, and your employer won’t be expecting you to be doing x, y, or z for your regular job, giving you more time for your other pursuits.

How to Make it Work for You

Staying up late comes naturally for some people and less so for others. But if you want to cultivate a night owl lifestyle, there are certain steps you can take to do it. Here are a few:

  • Don’t sit or lie in bed. It may be tempting to read your book in bed, but it’s not a good idea. You’re conditioned to associate your bed with sleep, so being in bed may turn on that need to sleep. On the other hand, staying up while you’re in bed can break that bed/sleep association, causing later problems with insomnia.

  • Add some stimulation. Drinking a ton of caffeinated stuff when you stay up late isn’t a great idea, since it will stay in your system for hours, possibly causing you to stay up much later than you want to. But you can stay stimulated by moving around when you get sleepy, working on a project that’s exciting for you, or listening to music.

  • Get enough sleep. Staying up and sleeping in is one thing, but you still need to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night to stay healthy and alert during your waking hours. If you can’t sleep in for whatever reason, consider trying a polyphasic sleep schedule, where you break up your sleep into chunks throughout a 24-hour period. Some people can run on much less sleep if they opt for a polyphasic schedule.

  • Rearrange your schedule. One thing to note is that if you don’t have a flexible work schedule, or if you have kids that get up at a certain early hour every day, you might need to rearrange your own schedule to suit your later wake time. Take a shower the night before and pre-make your breakfast so you can get out the door in under half an hour. Push your child’s bedtime back a bit to see if they’ll wake up a little later. This may be the worst part of staying up late for some people who want to try it.

Staying up late and getting up late can be a good way to get more done, but it can also be a difficult habit to get started. So try these suggestions to see if you can become one of the smart people who stay up late.

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