What’s your chronotype?
Most likely, it’s a question you haven’t been asked at the bar.
However, our chronotype—sometimes called our internal or biological clock, sometimes our circadian rhythm—affects us deeply, determining when and how well we sleep, as well as the peaks and valleys of energy we experience throughout the day. Waking up more tired than when you went to bed? Always reaching for a 3pm espresso? Better check your chronotype.
Your chronotype is in your genes—your PER3 gene, to be exact. The length of your PER3 gene controls when and how much melatonin is released in the body (a key component of chronotype), but it’s responsible for more than just setting your unique sleep-wake cycle. It also influences your hormone levels, metabolic function, and body temperature, all of which work together to keep you regulated.
And, while there are ways to adjust and simulate our body’s responses to daily factors—like using a phototherapy “happy” light, taking melatonin supplements, and yes, drinking copious amounts of caffeine—there’s no overwriting biology.
A surefire sign that you’re working against the clock? If you feel hyped and addled when you try to hit the hay, and fatigued and glum when it’s time to make it, you’re probably not properly synced. Also, waking up five times in between means you’re a dolphin. But more on that later.
Resetting the clock
Many of us live at odds with our chronotype, and not by choice. In fact, what neuroscientist Till Roenneberg (who started studying the biological clock at age 17, when most of us were sleeping in) calls “circadian desynchrony” is so widespread it’s become the norm.
How did we wind up so out of whack? Lightbulbs. The advent of artificial lighting created a world where people could be made to rise and shine at any time. Unlike in agrarian societies—where workdays were determined by the sun, moon, and season—modern industrial life now runs on a time clock that doesn’t take much consideration of diurnal and seasonal shifts, let alone personal nuances within them. So, a night owl for whom it may feel perfectly natural to stay up with the darkening sky (thanks to a later release of melatonin) is nonetheless expected at their desk by 8am.
While a New York Times article from 2018 reported employers and educators were beginning to look more closely at how individualized, chrono-synchronous schedules benefit productivity and performance, as well as enhance their subjects’ sleep, it took nothing short of a global pandemic to push the mainstream adoption of flexible office hours (time will tell if it sticks).
“When you don’t sleep at the time your body wants to sleep—your so-called biological night—you don’t sleep as well or as long,” writes Times reporter Emily Laber-Warren, “setting the stage not only for fatigue, poor work performance and errors but also health problems ranging from heart disease and obesity to anxiety and depression.” The cited statistic of workers estimated to be operating with a mismatch? 80%.
Before you remedy this misalignment, you have to know who you are. Popular typology systems you likely know a little something about might include your astrological sign, Enneagram number, Myers-Briggs type, maybe even your Hogwarts house. While those are all useful and provocative ways of knowing yourself and others, isn’t it time to show your chronotype a little love? It could really change your day.
Lions, dolphins, bears, oh my!
You can find several quizzes on the internet that will help determine your chronotype, or at least help you learn about the main types in broad strokes. These quizzes ask questions about what time of day you feel most or least mentally alert, physically energized, hungry, productive, and, of course, sleepy.
Many scientists refer to this range as the morningness–eveningness scale, with the proverbial early bird and night owl perched at either end.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, aka “The Sleep Doctor,” identifies four main chronotypes and also likens them to animals, albeit none that are feathered. Bears are the most even-keeled of the bunch, getting a regularly scheduled 7–8 hours of nightly slumber; Lions are optimistic and analytical with up-and-at-em sensibilities; Wolves prowl and snack ravenously in solitude by moonlight; and Dolphins can’t stop swimming through self-inflicted mental hoops long enough to establish a stable REM cycle.
Once you’ve self-selected into the animal kingdom, you can start making lifestyle shifts that are simpatico with your sleep needs (though that dolphin stuff is admittedly a really hard nut to crack). While chronotypes are genetically determined, they can and probably will change with age—unsurprisingly, you can’t rush this process so it’s better to adapt your schedule to your body than vice versa.
To the best of your ability, rework your day so that you’re able to rest not only when you need it, but when it comes easiest. If you have the luxury of choice, work in industries and for employers that understand, respect, and allow alternatives to the typical 9–5. If your schedule is locked-in, make sure you tackle to-dos when your energy is at its highest. And when you’re dragging, look to get a boost from natural stimulants that won’t mess with your melatonin cycle too much—like taking a walk or doing a ten-minute meditation.
The end of alarms
Many chronotype experts say that if you need to rely on an alarm clock to get up, you’re in trouble. It’s a funny thing, then, for us clock makers to encourage a way of living—one with better sleep, better waking, and a lot more health—that would bring about our own obsolescence. But that’s just who we are.