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It’s not just about what you do — it’s when you do it. Learn how understanding your sleep chronotype can help you optimize your life.
Let’s talk about the early bird for a minute. Those people (you know who you are) that wake up with the sun, practice a round of yoga, exercise, and knock out a project or two, and get the kids off to school — all before most of us have hit the snooze button for the second time. These people, we think to ourselves, are the models of productivity. If only we could be early birds too, right? Wrong. And here’s why.
The idea that waking up early is the best and only model for productivity perfection is just a myth. That 2:00 pm slump you hit every day isn’t just a lack of caffeine. Burning the midnight oil on a project isn’t just because you like to procrastinate.
The truth is we’re all wired uniquely. And the time of day when our energy levels are the highest depends largely on our sleep chronotypes. Chronotypes determine whether you’re an early bird, a night owl, or whatever the afternoon-types call themselves (FYI, in medical literature they are historically known as “hummingbirds”). It’s all comes down to your genes and how they determine your propensity for sleep. A longer PER3 gene probably means you’re an early riser who needs a lot of sleep to feel good. People with a shorter PER3 gene prefer to stay up late and get by on less sleep.
Why does this matter? Your unique chronotype determines the best time of day to make important decisions, tackle that next big project, or exercise. Sure, you can try shifting your sleep-wake times to fit your schedule better but you probably won’t perform as well because it’s hard to fight against your genes. So if you’re hitting that afternoon slump or the snooze button a few more times than you’d like, that’s ok. The key is determining what your sleep chronotype is — and then optimizing your life and routines around it.
Unleash the animal within.
So how can you determine your chronotype? According to sleep expert and author of The Power of When (we highly recommend it), Michael Breus, PhD, there are four different types of chronotypes that he categorizes as animals. You’re either a Dolphin, Lion, Bear, or Wolf. Take this short quiz to discover your chronotype and then keep reading to find out how you can optimize your daily routines around it.
If you wake up ready to go at the crack of dawn, find it easy to exercise, respond to emails, or jump into a project before the majority of the world is awake, you’re a Lion. Lions represent around 15-20% of the population, and they’re generally labeled as Type-A personalities. They sometimes have trouble socially (partly because evening gatherings are when they would rather be at home, in bed). For Lions, it’s important to tackle critical tasks early and save less mentally-intensive tasks for the end of the day. The optimal time to exercise for a Lion is early – 5:30 am.
Bears tend to wake up at regular hours and hit their stride in the middle of the morning with a slight dip in productivity during the middle of the afternoon. Sound familiar? If it does, you’re not alone — most people fall under the Bear category. These people are, more often than not, people-people and extremely friendly. Their schedules tend to fit societal norms best. Bears will want to exercise around 7:30 am, or on their lunch break around 12:30 pm.
Wolves, like their namesake, are nocturnal. They’re productive while the rest of the world is sleeping and hit their energy upswings from noon to 2:00 pm and then again in the evening. These people tend to prefer alone time, lean towards introversion, and work in creative fields. They are extremely intelligent, and interestingly, tend to be very loyal friends. Unlike Lions, they typically don’t work systematically through to-do lists, but bounce around between tasks. It may not be orderly, but they get things done. If you’re a wolf, try scheduling later meetings and save the bulk of your work toward the end of the day or the middle of the afternoon. If you are a wolf, exercising early is most likely not an option, which is ok, as your optimal time for exercise is 6:30 pm.
Dolphins are few and far between. Just like their namesake animal that sleeps with half their brain awake and half asleep, these people are light sleepers, often highly intelligent, and sometimes struggle with insomnia. They also tend towards anxiety. If you don’t have a regular sleep routine, lie awake thinking about the day’s failures, or lean towards perfectionism, you might be a Dolphin. If so, try structuring your schedule so you can do your best work from the mid-morning through early afternoon. Dolphins are similar to Lions. They should exercise in the morning. For a dolphin, around 7:30 is ideal for your body.
Using your natural sleep rhythm to get more out of your day.
Now that you (hopefully) have a better idea of your chronotype, it’s time to structure your day and schedule so you’re doing the most meaningful work at the right time. While traditional 9-5 schedules only benefit a handful of people, companies are starting to adapt — and technology is making it easier than ever to work on your own schedule.
As you begin to structure your day, pay attention to your energy levels, focus, and mood. It’s your body — you just need to follow its lead. The key is to work with your natural rhythms, not against them. If you’re not an early bird, that’s ok. The middle of the afternoon or late at night might work better. Talk to your boss or your co-workers, fine tune your schedule, and learn when you should optimize. As you respond to your feelings and tweak your schedule, you’ll begin to optimize your day — and upgrade your productivity and happiness.