Night vs. day

Night owls: Why developers avoid daylight

Dominik Mohilo
Nighttime image via Shutterstock

They say distractions are bad for productive, creative work. That’s maybe the reason so many developers prefer to work at night. But is the need for a distraction-free working environment really the reason for the strange sleeping and working habits of software programmers?

Let’s begin with a riddle: what do Elvis Presley, Winston Churchill and Barack Obama all have in common? Well, they all have somewhat strange sounding names. And they’re all known for singing under the shower. But more importantly, all three of them are famous night owls, as The Independent claims in an article discussing a Spanish study that investigates the productivity and the inductive reasoning skills of young adults in connection with their sleeping habits.

Granted, sleeping habits have done little to contribute to the fame of people like Elvis, Churchill and Obama, but it may yet have something to do with their success. Professor Jim Horne from the University of Loughborough, says the study showed people who are staying up at night tend to be more extroverted – poets, artists and entrepreneurs come to mind.

The nocturnal habits of programmers

Developers too tend to work the nightshift, at least that’s what Swizec Teller wants to prove in his book Why Programmers Work at Night. In this biographical work, Teller tries to come to terms with the problems associated with his profession and explains how to stay in the “flow”.

SEE ALSO: Early birds vs. night owls – which is more productive?

But why is it that the most complex, creative and ambitious work so often takes place outside of the common daily rhythm? First of all: nobody really knows for sure why programmers work best at night, says Josh Anderson at DZone.

Distractions are deadly…

One argument is that distraction is everywhere during the day – whether it’s an e-mail from a colleague in desperate need of help, jokes and conversations in and around the office, news on Facebook and Twitter or just another stand-up meeting.

Working in this environment can be extremely unproductive because it prevents developers from focusing their mental resources on being creative and constructive – in other words, the kind of state of mind which is essential for building an app or parts of software. Developers constantly need a clear picture of the finished product in their head, otherwise how can they remember what it is they are developing?

All the little distractions in your daily routine can not only make you lose focus, but can also blur this mental image time and time again. At nighttime, however, there are of course far less distractions, so you may even have the chance to delve into the abstract needs of a project without the mental interruption.

… or are they maybe not?

As credible as this distraction theory sounds, the Scientific American magazine recently published an article stating the complete opposite. A study conducted by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks found that people have a bigger chance of reaching a breakthrough on their projects when they are not in their best shape themselves.

What may sound strange at first is actually pretty logical if you think about it: if we’re well rested, we approach problems with greater determination. This leaves little space for creative thinking, which in turn can prevent us from coming up with more inventive solutions to our problems. Being less concentrated gives different ideas the chance to make an impression and be a source of inspiration.

To open up to new ideas and perspectives on existing problems can prove useful for programmers too, for example when facing a difficult algorithm or dealing with user-level problems.

Successful development: really a 9 to 5 job?

The biggest problem as a programmer is that this type of work cannot simply be forced into a predetermined, fixed structure. At its core, programming is a very creative activity, comparable to painting or making music. As project managers and administrators have several quite specific tasks that can be processed in sequence, the 9 to 5 model is much more fitting for them.

The work of programmers however requires them to dive deep into the specifics, zoom out to into the abstract, and sometimes invest several hours for even the tiniest details. Especially when it comes to deadlines, this doesn’t really fit with regular corporate office hours.

SEE ALSO: Can working around other developers be counterproductive?

In an article written in 2010, Robert Alison quotes a study by Satoshi Kanazawa from the London School of Economics and Political Science that found people with higher IQ more likely to prefer working at night. People with lower IQ on the other hand seem to limit their activities to daylight hours.

Since programming not only requires a high level of mathematical skills, lateral thinking und logic, but also the ability to write code with precision and in different languages, it is safe to assume that developers are indeed intelligent people. And it seems that intelligent people tend, for whatever reason, to go to bed late in the night.

What do you think? Which explanation do you think is correct? Let us know in the comments section below or on twitter!

Dominik Mohilo
Dominik Mohilo studied German and sociology at the Frankfurt University, and works at S&S Media since 2015.

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