Say no to Zeitgebers

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 16, 2013 in Economics, Non-chess |

I’m writing this at 3am, not because I can’t sleep, but because I’ve just finished breakfast.

It’s crunch time for the thesis and, in order to maximise efficiency, I’ve adopted a new philosophy. It goes something like this:

  1. Work until you can’t work any more.
  2. Sleep until you can’t sleep any more.
  3. Repeat.


Brilliant, huh? Well, perhaps a little unorthodox, but desperate times call for desperate measures. As a couple of posts have highlighted (such as this one and this one – boy, I really need to start tagging my posts), I’m a regular insomniac. It’s incredibly annoying, and the most inconvenient feature is that it’s most likely to strike when you need it least. For example, I got a good one hour’s sleep before the final round in the Politiken Cup last month, due to nerves. And, after a long day of economic equations and formulas in the office, my brain refuses to switch off, occasionally leaving me with algebraic dreams if I can sleep at all. Yes, you heard it right. My mind does maths in my dreams.

Of course, productivity levels plummet under such conditions. Hours of dead time abound while I stare at the ceiling at night, wishing myself to sleep, and then of course the subsequent extreme fatigue during the daylight hours makes everything slower again. Sleeping pills don’t help. Alcohol doesn’t help. Yoga – well, yoga might help, but that would mean I’d have to do yoga.

My new approach, however, is remarkably successful. Productivity levels are high as I work myself to exhaustion, after which my mind and body gives way and I collapse into a deep, dreamless slumber, regardless of the hour. It’s great for my thesis, but absolute hell for my circadian rhythm. Research suggests that most humans have a natural body clock somewhere between 24 and 25 hours – I wouldn’t be surprised if mine’s in the upper extreme of that distribution.

The first night I put my philosophy into action, I fell asleep at 2am. The next night it was 4am, then: 5.30am, 6.30am, 8am, and yesterday (but what is yesterday?), 10am. I woke up in the evening, followed the chess world cup matches, cooked some food, had a nap (yes, my body wanted more!), and now I’m working in the office. At this rate, with a bit of luck, I’ll be back in a ‘normal’ cycle by the time Sabina comes back from Germany. But then what?

Given the success of the strategy to date, particularly in cutting back the insomnia, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve had circadian rhythm sleep disorder all along.  According to Wikipedia, suffers:

“…are unable to sleep and wake at the times required for normal work, school, and social needs. They are generally able to get enough sleep if allowed to sleep and wake at the times dictated by their body clocks.”

So far, so good. Apparently one type is very clumsily named “Non-24-hour sleep-wake syndrome”. Fascinating, though probably irrelevant. But one thing I’ve noticed from this last week is how inconvenient it is to be a night owl. For example:

  • It’s really difficult to buy a morning coffee at 2am (unless you can settle for McDonald’s)
  • My housemates have to be quiet during the day in their own home
  • I have to be quiet during my waking hours in my own home
  • Vitamin D is in scarce supply
  • I have to race to the supermarket as soon as I wake up to get groceries before it closes
  • I’m never awake for organised touch football or cricket games
  • Going out for drinks = Having beer for breakfast
  • Public transport stops for huge chunks of my waking hours (but where would I go anyway?)


Apparently there are even more disadvantages for nightwalkers, as this amazing article on Sleep Discrimination details.

But of course, in thesis week most of these things don’t matter. The pros seem to outweigh the cons. In particular, additional and surprising advantages besides those already mentioned include:

  • Not getting bitten by nocturnal mosquitoes in my sleep
  • Finally getting to hear the good shifts of Triple J (an Australian radio station)
  • Talking to my Aussie friends in real time
  • Getting to talk to my elusive friend who’s a night-shift hospital worker
  • Sunrise inspiration (I solved a month long mathematical roadblock after watching the sun wake yesterday)


The last point shows that my body doesn’t seem to have a problem ignoring normal Zeitgebers. (Actually, I just wanted to use the word Zeitgeber. I even just like saying it. Zeitgeber, zeitgeber, zeitgeber. Gotta love the German language.) It means any external cue from the environment that helps us regulate our body clocks, the mos obvious being sunrise and sunset. These are apparently supposed to help us (and birds, mammals etc) reset our irregular body clocks back to a 24 hour cycle every day. Ha! I scoff at such conformism. Ha, I say again, ha!

I once filled out a personality questionnaire in which one of the questions was, “Are you a sunrise or sunset person?” Besides being a ridiculous question on which to base one’s personality, it’s not even clearly defined. Does it mean which is aesthetically preferred? Or which is more often viewed? The latter, of course, basically asks where one sits on the circadian rhythm chronometer (yes, that’s a thing). In order of early-morningness (not really a thing), you are one of:

  • a lark
  • a morning person
  • a hummingbird
  • an owl
  • a night person


A fowl list, if ever I saw one. Why does one have to it snugly into one of these artificial categories? Why must one be dubbed ‘nocturnal’ or ‘diurnal’ just because Latin-sounding words are cool? Boo that, I say! In these glorious times of modern freedom and individualism, I’ll sleep when I want, eat when I want and wake when I want. I’ll be both a sunrise and a sunset person – let’s see what their personality tests make of that!

Now, if only I could get a cup of coffee…

A strip from my favourite webcomic,

PS: xkcd also has a strip making fun of the 28 hour day, a sleeping philosophy as incommodious as mine. May offend some readers.

1 Comment

[…] Say no to Zeitgebers I’m writing this at 3am, not because I can’t sleep, but because I’ve just finished breakfast. It’s crunch time for the thesis and, in order to maximise efficiency … […]



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