As I sit down to write this with my cup of coffee, I have gone for a long walk, read a few chapters of my latest book, responded to emails, and am ready to tackle everything else the day throws at me. Oh, and it’s 6:30 am.
I bet it sounded good until the 6:30 am part, right?
I’m a morning person; always have been, always will be. I’m up before 5 pretty much every day (even when I’d love to sleep in after a late game night with friends). I guess you just can’t fight your chronotype.
What is a chronotype?
We’ve probably all heard of a circadian rhythm: the biological clock that regulates your 24-hr sleep-wake cycles. A chronotype takes this idea a step further, describing how your circadian rhythm influences your activity and productivity schedules and other aspects of your everyday life.
And if you thought there were just early birds and night-owls, think again. The idea of chronotypes has been made increasingly popular in recent years by Dr Michael Breus (aka The Sleep Doctor), one of the most prolific researchers in the field and author of ‘The Power of When’. Dr Breus explains how most people belong to one of four chronotypes:
- The lion: We’re used to hearing that it’s the early bird that gets the worm—but turns out, it’s the lion. While the lion is most productive in the morning (hi! That’s me), they can sometimes struggle with social activities late at night (also guilty of this: don’t ask me to do anything after 7pm)
- The bear: The world works on the bear’s schedule (aka 9 to 5). They tend to rise and set with the sun, so they do well with traditional office hours AND can socialise until an acceptable hour
- The wolf: You know the type. They are absolutely NOT morning people, and you probably avoid them before noon at all costs. The wolf is generally not productive in the morning but comes alive in the evening. Wolves also tend to be more creative; think about musicians who play late into the night, or artists who forget about sleep when inspiration strikes
- The dolphin: Dolphins are rare (less than 10% of the population). They tend to have trouble sticking to any consistent sleep schedule, and may be self-diagnosed insomniacs. It can be challenging for people with a dolphin chronotype to wake up early and stay active and alert during the normal 9 to 5
Why do we have chronotypes?
While one theory suggests that chronotypes may have evolved as a survival technique in hunter-gatherers,2 we do know that a person’s chronotype can be influenced by genetics,3 environment, age4 and other factors. In turn, a person’s chronotype can influence their appetite, what time of day they want to exercise, core body temperature, and of course, alertness. It can even influence personality traits, and whether someone performs better at school or is more of a creative thinker.5
This has a huge impact on a person’s productivity at work. According to Dr Breus, roughly 55% of the population are bears. This means almost half of us are trying to work out of sync with our natural body clocks, which can be a huge disadvantage by imposing limitations on our creativity and productivity. And people actually do have impaired mental performance when trying to conform to the typical workday against their chronotype.6
The fact is, our chronotype isn’t something we can fight in order to perform better during the traditional work hours; it is hardwired into our DNA.7
So, for the other half of us, does the 9 to 5 really work?
Challenging the 9 to 5
When COVID-19 disrupted the lives of people across the globe, many of us traded in our morning commute and office lunches for a new remote work life. And with this global social experiment to test the effect of workplace flexibility on productivity, many of us are learning we can be just as, if not more, productive when working at home. A huge part of this is the opportunity to work in alignment with our chronotype.
Want to sign on at 6am when your brain is at its peak, then finish early, take the dog for a walk, get the grocery shopping done and relax for the rest of the afternoon? Great! Keen on sleeping until noon and working late into the night, when you are motivated and alert? Also great!
No chronotype is inherently more or less productive than another; the more important thing is that people can harness their energy and focus when it is highest for them. If we can learn to leverage our chronotypes, we can lead more productive (and happier!) work lives.
In many towns and cities, offices are opening back up and morning traffic is returning to pre-pandemic levels. But what does this mean for the traditional working day?
While the 9 to 5 may work for half of the population, the other half deserves a change. Maybe the best and easiest way to improve productivity, quality of work and overall health is simply to allow people to work in alignment with their chronotype. Long days at the office do not necessarily promote efficiency and productivity, particularly when people struggle to focus for many of those hours. Instead of constantly fighting one’s innate body clock to fit into professional routines, why don’t we allow people to work when it is best for them? This will undoubtedly translate to better work and happier employees.
So, what does your ideal work day look like?
How Sleep Works – Chronotypes. Available at: https://thesleepdoctor.com/how-sleep-works/chronotypes/. Accessed October 2022.
Samson Dr, et al. Chronotype variation drives night-time sentinel-like behaviour in hunter-gatherers. Proc Biol Sci. 2017 Jul 12;284(1858):20170967.
Kalmbach DA, et al. Genetic basis of chronotype in humans: Insights from three landmark GWAS. Sleep. 2017 Feb 1;40(2):zsw048.
Fischer D, et al. Chronotypes in the US – Influence of age and sex. PLoS One. 2017 Jun 21;12(6):e0178782.
Giampietro M & Cavallera GM. Morning and evening types and creative thinkers. Personality and Individual Differences. 2007;42(3):453–463.
Facer-Childs ER, et al. Circadian phenotype impacts the brain’s resting-state functional connectivity, attentional performance, and sleepiness. Sleep. 2019;42(5):zsz033.
Jones SE, et al. Genome-wide association analyses of chronotype in 697,828 individuals provides insights into circadian rhythms. Nat Commun. 2019;10:343.