What’s Your Chronotype?
Have you always known that you hit your stride in the evening? Or that, despite early morning attempts, you tend to solve creative problems around 5 p.m.?
According to Daniel H. Pink, the author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, there’s research to show that your productivity patterns not unusual. In fact, how you feel throughout the day can be somewhat predictable, if you pay attention to the right details.
“The field of chronobiology is an attempt to understand biological rhythms of life and how they relate to psychology and economics. What these fields have together shown us is that our brain power doesn’t remain static over the course of the day,” Pink says. “It changes in a significant way between daily peak brain function and lowest brain function. Using this information, we can infer that the best time to do a certain activity depends on what that activity is—as well as your chronotype.”
Pink explains what a chronotype is and how to determine yours and shares advice for the times you’re most likely to be productive, creative, focused, and engaged.
A Q&A with Daniel H. Pink
A chronotype is the label for people’s innate biological rhythms—whether they naturally go to sleep early and wake up early (a lark) or go to sleep late and wake up late (owls). Larks make up about 15 percent of the population, and owls make up about 20 percent of the population. The rest of us are somewhere in middle but lean in the lark direction.
There is a psychological instrument called the morning-eveningness questionnaire (MEQ) that you can take.
There’s also a simple back-of-the-envelope method. First, think of what chronobiologists call a free day: a day when you don’t have to wake up at a certain time and you can go to sleep whenever you want. It’s not the day after you just worked for three weeks and finally got a day off and are sleep-deprived. Instead, you can control your schedule. What time would you wake up? What time would you go to sleep?
Next, determine the midpoint of sleep. Let’s say on a free day you’d go to sleep at midnight and wake up at 8 a.m. Your midpoint of sleep would be 4 a.m. The general rule is that if your midpoint of sleep is before 3:30 a.m., you’re probably a lark. If it’s after 5:30 a.m., you’re probably an owl. If it’s between 3:30 and 5:30, you’re in the middle. So in this example, you’d be lark-y but not a full-fledged lark.
We generally move through the day in three stages: a peak, a trough, and a recovery. For about 80 percent of us, the peak comes early in the day, the trough in the middle of the day, and the recovery in the late afternoon or early evening. But owls are different: They hit their peak much later in the day, early evening, midevening, or sometimes even later.
During the peak, we’re highest in vigilance. We’re hard to distract and have a generally positive mood. That makes the peak the ideal time for analytical work that requires head-down focus and attention: going over data, reviewing steps of a strategy, or writing a report. People perform this type of work better during their peak.
The research isn’t granular enough to give us specific times that are best. But for larks, this means trying to do analytical work in the morning. Owls are better off doing this type in the evening. Larks and owls perform very differently at 8 a.m. than they do at 8 p.m. There’s also some interesting evidence that for many people, therapy sessions can be more effective in the morning than they are later in the day because they can see problems more analytically.
“You can experiment with specific times for certain activities, but the general rule is to do your analytic work during the peak, your administrative work during the trough, and your insight work during the recovery.”
Early to midafternoon, during the trough, most people show big declines in mood and performance. For example, kids who take a standardized test in the afternoon score worse than students who take the same test in the morning. There are a disproportionate number of car accidents in the afternoon. Hospitals see huge drops in handwashing and significant increases in medical errors. During the trough, we should do things that don’t require a lot of attention or creativity. It’s a good time to send emails or tackle other administrative work.
For most of us, the late afternoon and early evening is the recovery stage. Our mood goes back up, but our vigilance does not. This makes it a good time to solve what psychologists call insight problems. Insight problems don’t bend to mathematical logic. They require greater mental looseness, creativity, and divergent thinking. Research has shown that if you give people who aren’t night owls an insight problem, they are more likely to solve it around 5 p.m. than they are at 9 a.m.
You can experiment with specific times for certain activities, but the general rule is to do your analytic work during the peak, your administrative work during the trough, and your insight work during the recovery.
So if you’re a writer, write during your peak, when you’re hardest to distract. If you’re learning to play the piano or a new skill that requires attention, the peak is also the ideal time. But if you want to do a brainstorming session with your team, don’t do it at 9 in the morning because most people will be more narrowly focused. Later in the day, when people loosen up mentally, is generally better. The key is to play around with timing and learn what works best for you.
The best time to work out depends on your goals. Morning exercise seems to be best for forming a habit—probably because you’re less likely to be interrupted at 7 a.m. than you are at 4 p.m. Another strong argument for morning exercise is that aerobic exercise and weight training can give you a significant boost in your mood that can last eight or so hours. If you exercise late in the day, you’ll sleep through some of that mood boost.
But late afternoon or early evening exercise is better for other goals. For example, you’re less likely to get injured later in the day, possibly because body temperature tends to peak then, and so people are more warmed up. People also report enjoying exercise most at this time of day. There is really interesting evidence on performance and time of day: A disproportionate number of world records in speed events, such as speed skating, sprinting, and swimming, have been set between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. local time.
If you’re a caffeine drinker, it’s not a good idea to have caffeine first thing in the morning. When we wake up, our cortisol levels are still rising, and coffee can inhibit their climb. You’re better off waiting until an hour and a half after waking, when your cortisol levels start to fall, to have your cup of coffee or tea and give yourself an extra boost.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.
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