Are Chronotypes Real And Can They Be Hacked To Work Smarter??

Would you describe yourself more as a ‘morning lark’ or a ‘night owl’? 

Myself and my family have always been ones to burn the midnight oil, and think nothing of making a fresh pot of coffee at 23:00 and sharpening the pencils to begin working.

When the morning comes round however it’s a starkly different story. We’ll walk around the house silently bereft of energy, almost on the cusp of anger that the morning commute to work requires catching the 06:30 bus. The rest of the day is spent actively trying to avoid feeling tired.

Why is it that some of us relish the chance to get up early and tackle the to-do list head on, whilst others are at their most productive after many have burned out and gone to bed?

The answer lies in something called our ‘Chronotype’.

What does ‘chronotype’ mean?

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Breus, your genetics influence when it is the perfect time to do just about anything, and that extends to eating, exercising and working. 

Our internal biological clock, known as the circadian rhythm governs the sleep-wake cycle and so controls when we feel tired and at our most energised throughout the day.

This clock controls thousands of genes that are switched on and off in sequence through the course of the day and influences how the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus controls many physiological functions. 

Ever noticed that post lunch your energy dips and you begin to feel tired at work? You’re not alone.

Solar Eclipse Image by Lee_seonghak from Pixabay

Our circadian rhythm is just a fraction longer than 24hrs and so has evolved to aligned with the solar cycle. 

When our daily routine is drastically altered, such as when flying into a different time zone, all of a sudden you’re feeding your body meals at times when your normal circadian rhythm would have you fast asleep. This shunt out of a regular rhythm is better known as jetlag.

On a less drastic scale, light emitted by the screens of our smartphones and computers can have an effect on our bodies by presenting the appearance that it is still bright outside, conflicting with our internal clocks and keeping us awake

Similarly total light blindness can also lead to a modified circadian clock

Our chronotype (chronos, coming from the Greek Kronous, meaning ‘time’) is a way of describing how our individual internal biological clock operates based upon traits and habits.

In its most simple form the ‘morning lark’ and ‘night owl’ analogy separates two camps. Those who wake from sleep and feel instantly ready to seize the day, and those who feel like they switch into top gear only much later in the day. 

In some studies the difference between daily peak energy and productivity can be up to 3 hours between different chronotypes, so understanding where we respectively lie on the spectrum of morningness or eveningness allows us each to plan the day better.

If you’re working from home for example and have flexibility over what hours you work, or when to take meetings, you might find that adjusting your 9-5 could allow you to hack home working and prevent ever feeling tired at work.

It all starts by listening to your body and being aware of what to look out for, so below we break down how chronotypes can be identified and how you can leverage your natural body clock to your advantage straight away. 

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

What are the different types of chronotype?

Other than an affinity to either morningness or eveningness (or neither), there is great variation between how chronotypes are measured and designated in scientific studies.

Where one study might favour using the Munich ChronoType Questionnaire that considers solely sleep behaviour, another might also include energy levels as reported by participants.

Most studies investigating chronotypes and sleep patterns will however assign chronotypes based on the following factors:

  • Sleep behaviour (Are you a light or deep sleeper? How easy do you find falling asleep?)
  • At what point of the day is your energy at its highest? (physical peak)
  • Which period of the day do you hit peak productivity? (cognitive peak)
  • Are there any differences to the above between work days vs work free days?

To capture variations frequently seen between morning and evening chronotypes, author Dr. Michael Breuss has sub-divided chronotypes into 4 distinct camps and assigned each an animal figure to make them easier to remember. 

Bear Chronotype​

  • Sleeps to the solar cycle
  • Productivity peak = Mid morning
  • Energy peak = Afternoon
  • Less than 8hrs sleep brings a feeling of lethargy through the day
  • Post lunch dip in productivity

Wolf Chronotype

  • Nocturnal
  • Late risers and struggle to fully wake up in the morning
  • Productivity peak = Afternoon
  • Energy peak = Afternoon

Lion Chronotype

  • Early risers and work well in the morning
  • Productivity peak = Mid morning
  • Energy peak = Morning
  • Come the late afternoon lions have used up all energy and are ready to rest up 

Dolphin Chronotype

  • Insomniac that never manages to fully switch off at night
  • Light sleepers
  • Always a little tired
  • Productivity peak = Mid morning
  • Energy peak = Afternoon

What is my chronotype?​

Do you relish getting up ahead of the crowd by putting in work early? Or have you always despised mornings and need several cups of coffee to get going? 

To find out your chronotype you can take a quick chronotype quiz to help determine which of Dr. Breuss’s animal chronotypes you most align with. 

Whilst assigning a title to your chronotype is somewhat useful, it is being aware of the factors that influence how we feel that will bring us the most benefit. 

In fact the influence of chronotypes can extend into many aspects of life including sleeping behavior, personality, mental health, smoking and dietary habits, school achievements.

When it comes to home working, accepting we might be hard wired to operate best outside of a traditional 9-5 schedule will allow us to explore a work from home routine that is best for ourselves and our projects. 

How can I use my chronotype to my advantage?

We’re all about making working from home work for you, and that might just mean adjusting your daily routine to better fit with the peaks and troughs of focus your chronotype brings. 

Morning chronotypes will typically benefit from following traditional working hours whilst an evening chronotype would gain from starting later in the day.

Regardless of your chronotype, being able to identify windows for peak productivity will allow us to  maximise cognitive abilities and prevent ever feeling too tired to work.

For example, if you operate best working late into the evenings then maybe you should save your most challenging tasks until later in the day.

Actionable steps

Become familiar with your existing sleep habits is the first step to assigning your chronotype and you can do this by tracking your daily patterns using a free smartphone app.

There are large number of free apps that help track sleep habits using non-contact means such as ultrasonic waves detected by your phone. A couple of the highest rated free apps on Android are:

  1. Sleep as Android 💤 Sleep cycle 
  2. Sleep Cycle: Sleep analysis & Smart alarm clock

Whilst the best reviewed free apps on Apple include:

  1. Pillow Automatic Sleep Tracker
  2. Sleep Cycle: Sleep analysis & Smart alarm clock

Once known, sleep behaviour can begin to build up a picture that can be pieced together with other good working practices to help you hack home working.

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