It’s 7am. For early birds, this is prime productivity time. Brains are fresh, energy reserves are up, and you can’t wait to get stuck in the day. For night owls, this is the start of hell. With another 3 hours (or more) of sleep still required before your brains are anywhere near functional, you haul yourselves out of bed and trudge through the morning like grumpy zombies.
Most of the working world is built around early birds, making the most of daylight hours and resting in the evenings as our ancestors have done for generations. But science is increasingly acknowledging that this system isn’t ideal for everyone. A significant portion of the population would prefer a much later start to the workday, or in fact, work night. In this article, we discuss how you can identify your chronotype (which sleep category you belong to),* what the main differences between early birds and night owls are, and tips to help you find your personal productivity period.
Which type of bird are you?
Humans live their lives based on two types of clocks: the social clock and the biological clock. The social clock is dictated by the outside world – the time employers want their employees at the office, the time public transport starts, the time restaurants open, basically the time other people are awake and functioning. The biological clock is innate and tells your body when it should go to sleep, and when it should be awake.
Most people’s biological clock is synced to sunlight. During daylight hours, you feel awake and active. After the sun sets, your body produces melatonin, and winds down to rest. This is the typical early bird pattern. Early birds will generally be in bed by 8pm-10pm. They’ll also typically wake up refreshed between 5am-7am, when the sun rises. These hours are slightly later than our early ancestors, who would have tucked themselves in soon after sunset and risen before dawn, but is probably explained by the abundance of artificial light in our lives.
In contrast, night owls’ biological clocks aren’t perfectly synced to daylight. Scientists postulate that night owls can consciously or subconsciously alter their own circadian rhythm to be out of sync with sunlight due to a combination of genes and habit. Sleeping late has been found to run in families, for example. And pushing bedtime later and later each night trains your body to shift its internal clock to an extent.
Most people will intuitively know whether they’re more morning or evening people, but this quiz also helps to settle the answer more scientifically. When you’re taking the quiz, remember to answer with your typical routines and preferences in mind. So, series binges and project crunch times aside. Also be aware that you might be a sleep procrastinator rather than a true night owl. As the name suggests, sleep procrastinators actually do need to sleep earlier, they just choose not to.
The main differences between early birds and night owls
Good news and bad news: Each chronotype has distinct advantages and disadvantages. In short, early birds may be healthier and live longer. But night owls may be smarter and wealthier.
It seems that getting up early is also conducive to healthy practices such as exercising more, drinking less alcohol, and getting proper amounts of sleep. In contrast, staying up through the night encourages more drinking and partying (which leads to increased risk of heart and liver disease), and binge eating. But night owls have consistently tested as brighter and more creative than early birds, which may explain their slight edge in the money stakes too.
So, regardless of chronotype, you can live a good, productive life. The trick is to find your personal productivity period.
When is each type more productive?
Spoiler: Not when you’d expect. In addition to the circadian rhythm, humans also have what scientists call the ultradian rhythm – your productivity cycle. Your brain and energy levels also work in a cycle. Peak freshness and productivity are followed by decreasing levels of both, followed by a necessary rest period to reboot before rinsing and repeating. So, it would make sense to get the creative, conceptual, or strategic tasks done when you’re most fresh. As your energy levels become depleted, you then move onto more mundane or administrative tasks.
But here’s the interesting thing: problem-solving skills for both early birds and night owls are actually better in their non-optimal times. In other words, early birds are better at problem-solving at night, whereas the opposite is true for night owls. So, how do you simultaneously take advantage of your peak energy levels which occur at one time, and your peak cognitive levels which occur at another?
The trick is to categorise tasks in terms of Thinking and Doing. For Doing tasks, get to these when you’re feeling fresh (and use a To Do list, as we discussed in this blog to help you get through everything). But for complex problems, let your brain stew over it, especially in your ‘off peak’ hours. This takes some of the pressure off your work day (or night), as you’ll be completing other tasks. It also gives your brain the space it needs to play. This breathing space is crucial for your brain to make unexpected connections and come up with creative solutions. So, Do during your peak time, Think during off-peak. And always remember to take frequent breaks and get enough rest.
Now that you’ve identified your chronotype, and learnt a bit more about your type’s preferred productivity patterns, take a couple of days to experiment with different work schedules. Most people can slightly alter their natural preferences, but wholesale change is hard. Work out the ideal schedule for you, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at both how productive you can be, and how well you feel.
*Dr Michael Breus’ 2016 book ‘The Power of When’ postulated 4 sleep patterns, but for the sake of simplicity, this blog divides sleepers into a simple binary system of early birds and night owls.