If you regularly down three cups of coffee each morning just to get you out of bed and into the office, I have some good news for you: new research out of Indiana University suggests that night people are as productive as morning people. The study found that people were more likely self-sabotage when operating at peak capacity. This means that morning larks may in fact be more likely to undermine their performance at work, since that 9 a.m. meeting is when they are cognitively at their best.
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, examined a person’s likelihood to self-sabotage through the lens of circadian rhythms. “Self-handicapping” behavior is defined as when an “individual seeks to protect their ego against potential failure in advance by creating circumstances — real or imagined — that harm their ability to carry out a stressful task.” (If you have ever “forgot” to study for a test, had a little too much to drink at a business dinner, or stayed up streaming the entire last season of GoT the night before an important presentation, you know what I’m talking about).
For the study, researchers administered a survey to 237 college students to divide them into groups of “night people” and “morning people.” Whether or not the subjects were likely to use self-sabotaging behavior was also assessed (though participants were unaware that either of these factors were being examined). Participants were then randomly assigned either an 8 a.m. or 8 p.m. time slot in which to take an intelligence test. Half the participants were informed prior to the test that stress could affect their overall performance, while the other half was told that their stress levels would have no affect on the results.
Researchers predicted that participants would be more likely to self-sabotage when performing a stressful task during their “off-peak” times, however, the results revealed the opposite to be true.
Those who were found to have a greater tendency to self-sabotage were more likely to make excuses for their performance when taking the test during their peak time. In other words, morning people reported higher levels of stress during the morning, and night owls who self-handicapped on the reg reported similar increased stress while performing the task in the evening. However, as the press release for the study points out "only at peak hours did these individuals report higher levels of stress as an excuse for poor performance." During the "off-peak" hours, all participants (self-sabotaging and not) reported the same levels of stress.
"What this study tells us is that self-handicapping requires thought and planning," said co-author of the study Dr. Ed Hirt said in a press statement. "People who are feeling uncertain about themselves and start to fear that they might fail are more likely to identify potential excuses and self-handicap when they're at their peak than when they're not."
So does that mean we should do stressful things when we are too tired to make excuses? Not necessarily, says lead author Julie Eyink, as you may lack the "cognitive tools" to succeed. "Ultimately, I would advise that working to avoid self-handicapping — through actions such as healthful practices, seeking help or counseling — is the best strategy."
I guess this means that I can no longer say that I'm "too tired" to do something, huh?