Chronotypes: Is it better to be a night owl or an early bird?

Our preferred sleeping patterns affect both our mental health and our productivity. To make the most of your time and your energy, it is therefore essential to understand your chronotype. Human chronotypes roughly fall into two broad categories: the early risers and the late risers.

As someone who has always been a morning lark, I fall strongly into the early riser category. I enjoy waking up when the day is young and am at my most productive during the early morning hours. Night owls, on the other hand, tend to wake up later in the morning (or afternoon), and are much more energetic during the latter hours of the day.

Common wisdom tells us that “the early bird catches the worm” — that people who wake up early are more likely to get what they want. Is it true? Is one really better than the other? Let’s have a look at the science of chronotypes.

Chronotypes - Early Bird vs Night Owl

Our internal biological clock

Chronotypes are studied in the field of chronobiology, the study of biological rhythms. Chronobiology examines both the effect of time on biological events, and our internal biological clocks. Franz Halberg of the University of Minnesota, who has coined the term circadian, is widely considered to be the father of American chronobiology.

One of the key topics of study in chronobiology is how our chronotype is related to the circadian rhythm, a process that keeps our sleep-wake cycle roughly the same so that it can repeat every 24 hours. Put simply, the circadian rhythm helps us to stay awake during the day so that we sleep at night.

While the circadian rhythm occurs naturally in health, external factors such as light and temperature can interrupt it. For example, those who live close to the north pole are known to be at risk of sleep disturbances including “midwinter insomnia” during dark periods of the year. Circadian rhythm disturbances have also been identified in some mood disorders including depression and seasonal affective disorder.

Why we have different chronotypes

“Morningness” and “eveningness” are alternative terms used to describe an individual’s chronotype and preferences for when one chooses to sleep. Those who lean towards morningness prefer to go to bed and wake earlier than those who lean towards eveningness.

There is emerging evidence suggesting that our chronotype has a strong genetic component. Using chromosome information available in the UK Biobank cohort, researchers identified new genetic loci that could be related to core circadian rhythm and light-sensing pathways. 

The variation between individuals could have evolved as a survival technique in hunter-gatherers, as it may have offered groups greater collective safety. While some people were sleeping, others could stay awake and protect the tribe.

While your chronotype might be affected by genetics, there are other factors that can impact your preferred sleep pattern. Chronotype has been shown to vary with age. Kindergarten aged children are morning oriented, but by the teenage years, there has often been a shift to eveningness. Aged 17 to 20, the return to morningness may mark the end of adolescence.

With increasing age in adulthood, one is likely to become even more morning oriented. Differences in sex are also present, with women tending to wake earlier and generally preferring morning activities when compared to men.

The impact of sleep patterns

Your sleep patterns can impact important areas of your life. Tristan Enright and Roberto Refinetti demonstrated that chronotype can impact academic achievement. Studying 207 university students, the researchers found some evidence that early birds may attain better grades than night owls, probably due to evening chronotypes “being more sleep deprived (…) as a result of the early schedule of most schools.”

Christoph Randler and colleagues reviewed the evidence of multiple studies, and noted that morningness was related to greater extraversion, conscientiousness and agreeableness when compared to eveningness.

However, there are plenty of positives associated with being a night owl. While morning types might have a slight academic advantage, eveningness correlates with an aptitude for creative thinking, including fluidity, flexibility and originality. Eveningness was also associated with being more open to new experiences.

In addition, researchers Marina Giampietro and Guido Cavallera noted that those with an evening disposition had greater ability to apply divergent thinking strategies to visual content. This may make it easier to generate a variety of ideas or alternative solutions to problems. However, Giampietro and Cavallera found a higher risk of behavioral troubles, greater stress rates and more difficulties in social adaptation for night owls.

Both chronotypes have advantages and limitations. The key is to understand your sleep patterns so you can use them to your advantage.

How to make the most of your chronotype

Determining your natural chronotype will allow you to make the most of it. Unlike students who are constrained by class times, many employers support flexible work hours which could empower you to work earlier or later to harness the benefits of your chronotype. 

The easiest way to determine your chronotype is to put your alarm clock away and experiment with when you naturally want to go to bed and wake up. One’s chronotype is more of a spectrum than a binary measure, so you may find you fall somewhere between the early bird and the night owl.

Once you have hidden your alarm clock, use a sleep tracking device on your watch or download an app to monitor your sleep patterns. This can help you understand how many hours you sleep for, how long it takes you to fall asleep, and during which part of the night you are getting restorative deep sleep. You may notice that your sleep quality or quantity is better following an early night, or when you go to bed later but have a lie in.

Once you have a better idea of your chronotype, you will have a better idea of which sleep routine suits you. Adhering to this sleep schedule means you should be sleeping when your body is naturally ready to rest.

For morning larks, this knowledge may help you avoid persevering with a task long after you should have gone to bed. For night owls, the pressure to wake up and work before you are ready should be eased.

Once your sleep routine is in place, think about how best to manage your work demands. Schedule your creative work for when you are most alert

 As an early bird, I know I am at my most creative before 11am. Where possible, this is therefore the time that I set aside for work that demands imagination, resourcefulness and innovation. In the afternoons, I know I can get the more straightforward admin work completed. Night owls can flip this schedule, first completing simple tasks, before creativity blossoms in the afternoon or evening.

Chronotypes can impact important areas of your life, including academic achievement, creativity and thinking strategies. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that you can change your chronotype, as it is mostly determined by your age, sex and genetics.

Recognizing your chronotype, and working out how to make the most of your biological rhythm, can help you work with your body’s needs, rather than against them. Maximizing your creativity and efficiency by working at times that suit your sleep pattern could help you feel better rested and able to work more productively.

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