Stories | August 19, 2015

Sleep-o-nomics: Do night owls or early risers earn more?

Are you typically up with the larks in the morning, or wide awake with the full moon?

Early risers are often assumed to be hard working, responsible types – while late-night lovers were once thought simply to be moonstruck, or perhaps even mad. In reality, it might not be that simple. But if we are deprived of sleep, we may make worse decisions than usual about personal finances, and everything else.

Rise and shine
If you’re awake later at night, perhaps due to bright moonlight, you may lose hours of sleep . Artificial lighting can make things worse, regularly tempting us to stay up past our bed times. Lack of sleep is proven to cause irritability, depression and poor performance, among a host of other ill effects.

Earn more with less?
Research has suggested higher-income earners often get less sleep, as discussed in this New York Times article. Perhaps fitting more into their day helps them fly higher in their career. But maybe we shouldn’t lose too much sleep over that finding.

Higher income earners might well sleep less – but that doesn’t mean there’s a cause and effect relationship, or that people can manage on four hours a night, like former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly once claimed. In fact, the US Sleep Foundation says most adults need a good seven hours at least to feel refreshed and ready to cope with the day.

Saving the day
An intriguing Freakonomics podcast looks at evidence that over time people may actually earn more money if they sleep the optimum number of hours. Perhaps health benefits can help individuals do better over the full length of their careers, taking on more opportunities over time while avoiding burnout.

Freakonomics looked at a study by economists Matthew Gibson and Jeffrey Schrader at the University of California at San Diego. Their research found that people living on the western edge of a time zone which gets an hour more daylight get less sleep on average than those on the eastern edge. Interestingly, this correlated with higher wages.

“And we find that permanently increasing sleep by an hour per week for everybody in a city increases the wages in that location by about 4.5%,” Gibson told Freakonomics.

Sleep on it
Popular advice often given for a difficult problem is to “sleep on it” to find the answer. Sleep is said to stimulate creativity – and in fact there’s plenty of scientific support for this idea. As UK neuroscientist Russell Foster explains in his fascinating 2013 TED Talk on sleep: “Our ability to come up with novel solutions to complex problems is hugely enhanced by a night of sleep.” 

Sleep helps us “make sense” of what happened during the day – but Foster says many of us only get 6.5 hours a night, compared with eight hours back in the 1950s. “Huge sectors of society are sleep-deprived,” he says.
And when tired, mental resources can be scarce. The mind can be a bit like a suitcase, with limited “space” available for making different decisions.

It might be worth sleeping on particularly difficult or complex money problems – freeing up some of that “space” for making a better decision. Sometimes, with personal finance, it can be better to take your time – doing nothing while a situation is unclear. Night owls, take note.

Dream a better future
Morning-ready larks and late-rising owls can and do change their sleep patterns to fit in with each other – perhaps by establishing a different routine, as this article suggests. We may well have less time to do things if we sleep more. But, also, we might be able to complete those tasks to a higher standard. Are you an early-rising lark or more of a night owl? Send us your views or questions.

Online, there are quizzes you can try, just for fun.

eZonomics team
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