High achievers have lots of play time

The world is full of advice about how to become a morning person, because in the work world most high achievers are morning people. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why this is. In the morning, of course.

In college I lived with the crew team. I didn’t row, but I got up when they got up and I loved the quiet time in the dorm when they were all away.

After college I played professional beach volleyball. I got to the sand courts before everyone else and did two hours of drills. People wondered how someone who didn’t play at a Division 1 school got to the top of the heap. I knew it was the drills, which always felt like a meditation to me.

When I started homeschooling I realized the only way to have time for myself was to stay up really late or wake up really early. I stayed up late and got fat. (No surprise there—staying up late makes most people fat.) I got up early and started getting a lot done.  Now I’m thinking I want to get up at 3:30 AM. Because I love having time to do just whatever I want. I feel so much less pressure early in the morning. I read. I write. I go outside in the dark and look at the stars – even after four years of living on the farm, the number of stars still blows me away.

My star-gazing will not surprise the early-risers among you: The truth about high achievers who are early risers is that they don’t use the early morning for work-related activities. Waking up early gives you time to express yourself with no repercussions because who can fault you with doing what you love at 4am?  For adults, waking up early is play time.

So often people tell me that I need to force my kids to learn stuff they hate and I need to force my kids to sit still for long periods because this is what adult life requires. But I think it’s the opposite. You need to make sure your kids have enough play time so they grow up and are early risers because they know the importance of having time for self-expression.

Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College, states this so clearly in his recent manifesto in Aeon Magazine: “Play deprivation is bad for children. Among other things, it promotes anxiety, depression, suicide, narcissism, and loss of creativity. It’s time to end the experiment.”

Watch how carefully parents guard their free time. Watch how parents feel they are losing themselves and not being fully human when they have no time for themselves. And then ask yourself why we don’t worry more about how much time kids get to play when we send them to school for eight hours a day.

Next time I tell someone I homeschool and they say, “How do your kids learn math?” I am going to say to them, “You send your kids to school? How do they learn to play?”

27 replies
  1. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    It would be interesting to see if the increase in childhood obsesity is linked to the stress associated with more school stress, not just the lack of physical activity. I love seeing children lost in play but I don’t see it too often any more.

  2. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    Thanks very much for this, Penelope.
    Although I don’t know how to home school my children, I will start going to bed early and get up early. Right now I’m doing late nights :)
    Starting Now. Off to bed!

  3. Amy
    Amy says:

    I am so tired of being told that high achievers are morning people!

    Actually, I’m just plain tired. I got to bed at a reasonable hour last night and slept fine and ended up being late to work (as usual) because I couldn’t wake myself up. And I still feel exhausted. Waking up is actually kind of painful, whether I go to bed early or not. This doesn’t happen when I go to bed later and wake up later.

    I have a lot of career goals but I’m not sure it’s worth being a high achiever if it means I have to be miserable most of the week.

    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      Amy you are not alone! Over the years I have learned to accept myself. I still try to get up early if I can (which is rare), but I do not beat myself up about it if I don’t.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        It is correlation not causation. While there might be more morning people high achievers, being a morning person does not make you a high achiever. And, the trend is certainly not a 100% – that would mean that only morning people can be high achievers which we all know is not true. There is often this assumption that in order to be a scientist, stay at home mum, good parent, well dressed person you have behave in exactly this or that way – and often this just stifles creativity.

    • Derek Scruggs
      Derek Scruggs says:

      You may have adrenal fatigue or a thyroid issue. Look into it. I went through a bad bout of adrenal fatigue a couple years ago and again this past summer. I manage it with supplements.

      • Amy
        Amy says:

        I feel fine if I sleep in, even if I stayed up late. The same number of hours of sleep feels better when I sleep in rather than waking up early. That doesn’t sound like a medical issue to me.

        • Shari
          Shari says:

          I just started a book that deals with this: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008XOG2N4/?tag=ptrunk-20. Basically learning there is a genetic component to our “chronotype” (whether you are a morning person or night owl). It’s making me consider if I can shift my life to be more evening oriented, as I’ve spent much of my adult (working & mothering) life just assuming I was a bit “lazy”, as I struggle to get things done. But back in school when there was more time-freedom, and I could sleep past 6 or 7, I was very productive, happy & energetic at night.

        • VegGal
          VegGal says:

          It doesn’t matter what time I go to bed I can’t function before 8am. I equate these studies to the idea that I am a night owl forced to live in an early riser society. Similar to how introverts tend to be depressed, and they are finding that is because we live in an extraverted society. one of my desires to homeschool is because I can’t adhere to getting my kids off to school so early.

  4. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    This is why I don’t believe in homework.

    Give the kids time during the day to work independently, either at school or somewhere else, but don’t cut into their only free time to do more repetitive drudge work.

  5. petits homeschoolers
    petits homeschoolers says:

    staying up late makes people fat?! Wow, I had never thought about that. I have never thought that I could wake up far earlier to get more time “for me”.
    I will try: why not after all, it’s a good idea!

  6. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    I’m reading Peter Gray’s “Free to Learn” all about his play research and it’s a good read. He’s preaching to the choir, but I’m still interested enough to finish the book.

    I feel like I’ve found the proverbial gold pot at the end of the rainbow every morning when I wake up at 6AM. My kids don’t wake up until 8 or after, and my husband leaves right after he wakes me up. I’ve got two hours to read, write, listen, and just do whatever I want. I am always *amazed* how that 2 hours just flies by. I also make room for my own time during our days. Our kids are young still so I get 2.5 hours –mandatory– in the afternoon, and then since they’re young to go to bed around 8, I get 2 hours there, too. I feel like I get to play all the time! I’ve always been a morning person, though, even since I was young.
    Sarah M

  7. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    The study you are listing for late sleep/weight gain correlation is an association study of only over 50 people, or the worst kind of study that doesn’t prove anything. It’s like saying that people who owned 4 or more pair of running shoes were more fit and they were more fit thanks to shoes, not thanks to running.
    I definitely agree with the importance of play time for both kids and adults. Even being a night owl myself (and a skinny one, go figure), I have to admit that if I get up early, after I get over the initial feeling of tiredness, I have more energy and focus than I have late at night, when I’m not sleepy.
    Thanks for the post. Being a Mom of two still preschool kids, and with no strong opinion on school vs homeschooling, I enjoy getting the information from both sides and appreciate your perspective on this.

  8. Julien
    Julien says:

    Hello Penelope, I don’t agree with you.

    I think I’m a hard worker. I work on my blog and my business, but I get up really late. Somewhere between 11 and 12 am. I love working at night, and during afternoon.

    But somestimes I don’t work at night, I read, or whatever I want. Sometimes I make fitness during afternoon, and work at night. So I think I have moments of self-expression.

    Anyway. Getting up late and going late to bed works for me. :)

    Thanks I love your blog.

  9. karelys
    karelys says:

    Ok everyone that’s getting itchy because of the post. Yes, you’re a special snowflake very different in your own way. It has been said before and I think it’s worth remembering, humans share like 99.999999% of similar DNA so we’re more alike than different.

    Out of the 7 billion people in the world it’s very likely that the whole “early bird” thing applies correctly.

    Also, when you have kids running around and constantly needing emotional as well as physical energy then it’s very likely that quiet mornings are an amazing time to invest in yourself.

    I get fat too if I sleep late. And I am not 50. I am 26.

    It’s hard to tell if it’s sad or cool that, indeed, I am more similar to most of the population so the rules do apply. That said, it’s my fault if I am shooting myself in the foot by not following the steps that will positively benefit me.

    People listing how the post has no merits because they are different make me chuckle.

  10. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    I’ve seen many articles about how one should try to become a morning person but this is, by far, the most convincing. The others are focused on ‘getting things done’ but what a person really needs is to have some space to ‘just be’. This could not have come at a better time, thanks for posting this.

  11. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    My mom was a teacher, and was always up by 4:30am, often earlier. It was her only time without the demands of 5 kids. She corrected papers, read a bit, made coffee, and just had time to be.

    I enjoy getting up early though am not naturally a morning person, and have found it’s made a huge difference in my quality of life. Also, I have a much healthier metabolism – and attitude – when up early than when staying up late. It’s been part of lifestyle changes that have nearly eliminated the depression I once struggled with.

  12. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    So many studies have been released lately that one simply only needs to google “why is play time so important for kids” to find a bunch of them. But somehow schools take more of it away during the regular school hours and yet increase the time at school for specific subjects and they keep increasing the school year too! Why parents keep going along with it blows me away because I hear their complaints that they want more playtime but they keep sending their kids anyway. Another locus of control thing I would imagine.

  13. Lola
    Lola says:

    I strongly believe that there are dispositions for each of us, and if you’re true to your own disposition, then you are healthier.

    Being an early bird is so glorified in our culture. Being a night owl is unhealthy, lazy and fat promoting…. And I don’t buy it. I am a true night owl. Naturally at night my mind, my creativity, my energy comes alive. The way you feel about your morning, is how I feel in the night. And I wake up refreshed by 9 am.

    Awhile ago I was wanting to work on my writing career and aimed to wake up earlier than the kids instead of staying up later. I tried for a few months and it was a disaster. My writing was uninspired. Flat. I was miserable and always tired – even though I was going to bed early. And I was gaining weight.

    By giving up and embracing my night owl nature – staying up late – I lost weight and felt better and more refreshed throughout my days. I wrote better. I was happier.

    I am not an anomaly. I am a night owl. And there’s nothing ‘less than’ about that. Out of my children I can see how two are true natural night owls while another is a natural early bird, like my husband.

    Listening to our individual bodies is more important in our ability to be high achievers and to be healthy then listening to anyone who has found their own answer and says it is should be everyone’s. :/

    (Love the post though and I agree with everything else. ;) ).

  14. tz
    tz says:

    got to this blog for very first time while doing some research on my infp, and i am curious which type you are if you don’t mind. :)

  15. Christine Field
    Christine Field says:

    I love the fact that you’re a stargazer! Follow your writing and your life and I had you pegged for a 24/7 workaholic. Hoot! Good for you! My balance in recent years has been with art journaling. From an objective standard, I’m a horrible artist. But it uses a different side of my brain and makes me more creative – or at least I think it does.
    Here’s to well-rounded professional women who have surprising sides to their lives!

  16. karelys
    karelys says:

    Today I read a very interesting piece on the perspective of a poor person. She talks about how there are lots of articles and studies from an academic stance that talk about the whys of poverty and the string of decision that make and keep people poor.

    One of the things she said that struck me hard was “we (poor people) won’t ever not be tired.”

    And with that in mind I went to bed a few minutes earlier to get up earlier with this “let’s get shit done” mentality. Because I am tired of getting off work (at 6) and feeling like I am more than DONE for the day.

    I want to get off work and start getting things done to be able to work for myself. At the least to spend good hours with my family and give them my best.

    So my motivation and focus are in place. Now I am more than excited to form new habits that help me get up earlier. I don’t have to work 2 jobs and still be broke like the author of the piece. I am in a privileged position to shape my body into being an early riser and a high achiever. Most of the time it’s just a string of LITTLE poor decisions (time management, diet, wealth management) that keep me stuck.

    Cheers to the less stressed out me *clink*!

  17. Robin Hallett
    Robin Hallett says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Me too! I was up at 4 outside with tea watching the moon and listening to the birds. Then an hour of drawing. Feeling so happy and blessed and content. And I still have so much time before I begin my “work day.” Woot!

    Glad I found your site today, loving your take on things.

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