As the old saying goes, you can’t outrun yourself. Despite how much you fight against it, there are certain inescapable traits, like your innate love for the melodies of Bruce Hornsby or tendency to close one eye just as your father does when the bright sun washes over your face. Same goes for your tendency to be a morning person or night owl. You are who you are.
Chronotype refers to one’s biological predisposition toward being alert and active at a certain time of day. “Larks” tend to rise early and function best in the morning, while “owls” lurch out of bed later, peaking well after dark. Chronotype is not learned but engrained, a confluence of our internal circadian rhythms and homeostatic processes. That’s a mouthful of jargon for something that affects everything from our ability to make ethical decisions to our daily emotional ups and downs.
Since we can’t choose it and can do little to change it, many of us, especially owls, are victims of our own biology, condemned to trudge through each day in a drowsy fog. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as social jet lag — a disconnect between one’s sleep and work schedules that can affect health as well as cognitive function. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that proves it’s possible to condition oneself into more favorable sleep habits; for those who can’t, though, the alternative might be tailoring schedule to chronotype.
“You cannot necessarily convert someone from their biology,” said Joseph Ojile, a sleep doctor and CEO of the Clayton Sleep Institute. “If you’re an owl, it’s not likely you’re gonna be converted to a lark. The bigger push in our society today is, if you can, try to identify [a patient’s] biology… we live in this 24/7 society with all these different opportunities, and more and more people are adapting their work lives to their underlying biology.”
On a macro level, these “adaptations” may encompass one’s job itself. “If you're a doctor and an owl,” said Ojile, “you might want to be an ICU doctor who works nights. If you're a lark, then surgical speciality may be a good choice for you.”
Of course, not everyone is a doctor, and not everyone has the freedom to choose a career aligned with their chronotype. But Ojile notes, as have other experts, that our broader cultural awareness of chronotype is still nascent — depending on the individual, microscopic adjustments might prove just as powerful. This could be as simple as knowing when you are most awake and alert, and performing your most cognitively strenuous tasks (writing a brief, studying for a test) at that time of day. Though we all have our own peculiar rhythms, larks and owls can usually expect to peak either very early or very late.
“Owls tend to be most effective around 11 p.m. and midnight on,” said Ojile. “They tend to really start to rev up while most of us are winding down. Larks are really jamming from six to ten in the morning.”
Self-awareness is only half the battle: It may seem obvious, but both larks and owls should be careful to follow good sleep habits, albeit attuned to their particular rhythms. Dr. Robert S. Rosenberg, a board-certified sleep medicine physician and author of “The Doctor's Guide to Sleep Solutions for Stress & Anxiety,” cautions that this is especially important for night owls.
“Night owls should go to bed when they are sleepy,” Rosenberg said. “Advising a night owl to go to bed at a certain time that conflicts with their inherent circadian rhythms will not work.” Rosenberg reccomends shutting electronics 90 minutes before bedtime and avoiding caffeine within eight hours of bedtime. He also says to establish a set sleep-wake schedule. “If you don’t,” he warns, “You’ll throw your circadian rhythms off and make it more difficult to go to sleep and wake up at a set time.”
What about larks? Well, life is unfair — surprise, surprise — and Rosenberg observes that larks tend to have fewer problems than their nocturnal counterparts. “Night owls tend to drift to ever later and later bedtimes — so once it’s established, stick to a set sleep wake schedule. The same applies to larks, however, larks find it much easier to accomplish.”
Both Ojile and Rosenberg note that there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to chronotype. The best we can do is pay attention to our particular rhythms, go to bed when we’re tired, get up when we’re awake and sleep with whomever we like — chronotype be damned.