Hardly a week goes by without yet another article appearing on the Web promising massive career and personal benefits if you simply get up earlier. The implication is that all hard-working winners are "early birds," so if you don't pop out of bed before sunrise, you're a slacker and a loser--despite the fact that many "winners" (e.g. Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, Linux-creator Linus Torvalds) are late risers.

Why can't everyone become early risers? Because the human brain and body don't work that way. Just as some people are born left-handed, some people are born with a late-hour chronotype. Unlike right/left-handedness, which is binary, chronotypes are on a bell-curved continuum with extreme ends as much as 18 hours apart.

Biologists suspect the huge variation in chronotype evolved because human tribes needed at least one person who'd be constantly "on watch" in a danger-filled world. That's why some people naturally rise at 2 a.m. which is when others (like myself) naturally become sleepy. These are the extremes; most chronotypes cluster between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Again, unlike right/left handedness, you can adapt your chronotype so that you can healthfully rise as much as an hour earlier (or later). More than that, though, and your health will suffer. For example, if your chronotype wants you to rise at 9 a.m., you can adapt to rising at 8 a.m. but not at 6 a.m.

The constant need for an alarm clock is a sure sign that your chronotype is out of kilter with your schedule. This is a huge long-term health risk and over time can result in neurological disorders (i.e. brain damage), weight gain, heart disease, and an early death. Put another way, your alarm clock is slowly killing you.

That's the long-term risk. Neuroscientists have now discovered an additional significant short-term risk. According to The National Institute of Health (NIH):

"Fast compressed sequential firing of neurons during rest and early sleep have been found to replay patterns first observed in active awake experience.... Sequence replay is now considered to play a critical role in the long-term stabilization and storage of mnemonically important information."

In other words, if you're not getting enough sleep (i.e. using alarm clock to subvert your natural chronotype), you are literally scrambling your brain, making it unable to make sense of what happened the day before, remember what's important, and forget what's not important.

This is why, when you're drowsy, everything seems "weird" and out-of-joint, even if you jolt yourself awake with some caffeine. This feeling of disorientation makes most people "cranky" and disinhibits all sorts of negative behavior. A scrambled brain has trouble maintaining perspective, so that minor irritations cause major meltdowns.

And that explains a lot about why so many workplaces are full of difficult people. It turns out that six out of seven workers need an alarm clock, which means that 85 percent of workers are literally being driven a little crazy every day due to the unreasonable demand that they get to work earlier than is natural for them.

If managers and business owners want ALL their workers to be at peak performance, they should:

  1. Allow workers to come into work (and leave) whenever they want, within reason.
  2. State explicitly that being "first in and last out" won't win them any brownie points.
  3. Let extreme night owl chronotypes work primarily from home, where they can better manage their own sleep schedules.