You probably already know what the saying is that you’ll hear just from the title above, and you’re on the right track. We all know the famous adage that has been told to us by our parents weekday and even weekend mornings. This same phrase gets touted by productivity gurus around the world:

“The early bird gets the worm”

The earliest version in print appeared in 1605 in a book of proverbs by English author and historian, William Camden. It sure has a good shelf life judging by the amount of times in our lives that we hear it said.

The real questions we are going to uncover are what exactly does the phrase mean, and why is this a fundamentally wrong statement for a bulk of the population. Time to do some myth busting!

45 Second Origin Story

It’s not difficult to unpack what “the early bird gets the work” means. Worms tend to roam around at night because it is cooler and darker. Cooler is good because they need to feed (and survive) on moisture which they gather from the ground surface. Darker is especially good because there are a lot less worm-eating enemies at night.

As night turns into day, the worms burrow back underground to stay cool, moist and safe. There’s a rather simple Darwinian approach to it all.

Birds that are lucky (and instinctive) enough to rise early will get a chance to grab up some tasty breakfast for themselves and their babies as the locate some delectable worm goodness which has not been fast enough at getting below the surface.

The Human Origin Story

If you get up early, you can get to a task earlier. Earlier task completion means better productivity and goal achievement. Quite simply, you will get more done by the end of the day by getting up early. It’s simple math for the most part.

Our parents used to bang on the bedroom door at 6:45 AM to make sure we were up for school, and then at 7 AM on the weekend because “we need to get some stuff done”, right? And as your 15 year old self who rather adored extra hours of sleep tried to muscle through the noise, you were inevitably told “hey, the early bird gets the worm…if you want to make something of yourself, you have to start early”.

What isn’t covered in the math and the noisy parental wakeup lessons about task management ideals is the different patterns of productivity which have now been studied and proven out among many people both formally and informally.

Rising Early – Good for Birds, Not for Worms

If you follow Jocko Willink on Instagram you will recognize his daily post at around 4:30 AM which is marked by a photo of his watch as he gets up. Jocko made a life out of surviving and thriving in the military using structure, regimented procedures, and being task and productivity oriented with a goal of being done much of his work before most people even hear their alarm.

For Jocko, that translated to how he led himself and his platoon in and out of combat. There is no doubt that for Jocko Willink, he’s a well-fed early bird. Earned and deserved.

His tasks are the early worms. The productive goals that are checked off with fervor and passion so that his own mind and path to productivity is fed by those poor unsuspecting worms…I mean tasks.

So, if you’re like Jocko Willink, you thrive on getting $h*t done, and he proves that it leads to good outcomes.

Late Worms Who Outdo the Birds

What doesn’t get told in the famous saying is that once you have a few early worms snapped up by hungry birds you have the perfect opportunity for the productive and resilient worm. Don’t read that you’re a worm because you start later and work later. It’s unfortunate that we have a worm as the example, so let’s just keep that in mind as we think of a worm as the “later is greater” worker.

Every species as a circadian rhythm which defines their sleep and wake patterns. Many (if not most) humans follow a work pattern that also aligns with the daylight cycle. Our financial markets run a strict daytime schedule, as do most “traditional businesses” which is where we got the “9 to 5” mentality from.

Stepping outside of the 9 to 5 work schedule lets us see that a lot of people may be able to let those early birds get their first feeding done and then a productive worm can work diligently through the day and into the evening or even well into the night if desired. Those tired birds are in bed already and then the real worm work can begin!

What Jocko Willink does not tell you is that he’s probably in bed by 9:30 PM on a regular basis in order to recover and fuel his 4:30 AM wakeup the following day.

Productive Hours and Personal Rhythm

There are parts of the day which are often referred to as golden hours. There are also personal patterns and work rhythms for quick tasks and deeper tasks that require specific attention and types of focus. As I’m writing this, I have to fight my inner desire to whip over to social media to see what’s happening in the world, but by spending 9-10 AM today writing this article I will prove out my mildly late worm productivity pattern is good for my personal rhythm.

Taking stock of your productivity style and personal sleep and waking rhythm is definitely going to have some variations. You may find that carving out the end of your day for deep work is better where I tend to use my early to mid-day periods for that. Your sleep pattern may look something like Jocko’s or it may be more like that graphic artist friend you have where they find they start gently and a little later but enter into an incredibly creative mind state late in the day or evening.

Having a family will certainly influence your productivity and schedule. This is the reason that a lot of people with young children have split routines for productivity. In other words, you put your much-needed attention to your kids after work and up to their bedtime 100% towards them, and then do a few things after they go to bed to knock off some productive tasks before you wind down for the night.

A Personal Lesson of Fantastic Late Worm Productivity

My roommate for many years would get up later than me and arrive at his work well into mid-morning. For some reason, my myth-filled mind of early bird wisdom used to always struggle with that because I took it as a weird personal insult that I was “up and at it” every day in a business environment and I wondered whether his work style would allow him to succeed.

The funny thing is that I really wanted him to succeed. He is a fantastic person who deserved by his own ability and effort he put towards things to be successful. What I struggled with was that we had very different productivity patterns. I was in IT operations and he was an application developer. We had different job focus, and in looking back, I realize that there were personality traits that create successful outcomes in different ways using alternate productivity schedules.

Years later I finally came to terms with how wrapped around the axle I had been on the idea of mapping to a “standard business schedule” and I only wish that I has been much more forgiving and supportive of a different work style back then. I’m happy to say that he went on to found a company which employs many people and has earned a well-deserved success as a result.

Now It’s Your Turn to Find Your Inner Bird or Worm!

Take a week or more to map out what your daily patterns are. It’s helpful to understand where you are spending your time today and then deciding if changing your sleep/wake schedule will help you to unlock additional productivity among your natural waking hours.

Take note of when you feel the greatest ability to tackle larger tasks. When do you find you are “in the zone” and able to concentrate on deep work that needs attention and focus? For some people this may be at 11 PM or even later. For some people that may be 5 AM or 10 AM.

The point of the exercise for you is to measure how you work in general today and then we can experiment with modifying that rhythm a bit using some science and peer coaching to help you unlock the right schedule for your personality, and then open up better use of that schedule to get more out of your day.