Have you ever stopped to consider why your best mate’s up and at ‘em at 5:00am but you consider waking up any time before 8:00am as violence? Introducing: Chronotypes.
You’re probably familiar with the terms ‘night owl’, referring to people who habitually stay up late and remain active past midnight, and the contrasting ‘early bird’ or ‘morning lark’, known for rising with the roosters and feeling well-rested upon waking up.
Margaret Thatcher was a notorious (and extreme) early bird, with a morning routine as iron-fisted as her leadership. She would rise at 4am and go to bed at 1am, *treating* herself to the occasional lie-in at the weekend after a particularly tense game of Ibbile Dibble at Balmoral.
But what if the way we’re wired to sleep and wake isn’t as binary as owl vs lark? For any outliers who don’t seem to fit into this two-bird system – neither catching the early worm nor burning the midnight oil – fear not. As good ol’ science would have it, there are two other categories that represent us hybrid types.
What Is A Chronotype?
Based on work by clinical psychologist and author of The Power of When, Dr. Michael Breus (aka The Sleep Doctor), a chronotype is, “your body’s natural disposition to be awake or asleep at certain times. Your chronotype is closely related to your body’s circadian rhythm, which controls your body’s sleep-wake cycle and melatonin production.
“Our circadian rhythm is primarily influenced by light exposure, and tends to rise and set with the sun. This means less melatonin is produced in the morning to help you wake up, and more is produced during the evenings to help you fall asleep. Unlike our circadian rhythm, our specific chronotype isn’t influenced by any outside force, except for genetics. This is why it’s so important to work with your chronotype rather than against it if you want to be as rested and productive as possible”
Chronotypes fall on a spectrum of morningness and eveningness and are genetically predetermined based on your biological clock. If you have a long PER3 gene, you’re an early riser, if you have a short PER3 gene, you’re a late riser and get by without a solid 8 hours kip. Unlike your circadian rhythm which can be trained, you cannot actively change your chronotype (more’s the pity). However, it can shift on its own throughout your life due to age, as seen in the transition from children to adults.
The Four Chronotypes & Their Characteristics
Your chronotype doesn’t just affect sleep. It’s closely linked to appetite, productivity windows, your core body temperature and more. The more you understand your chronotype, the more you can use it to your advantage, from scheduling meetings at certain times, eating lunch and sinking that last cup of coffee for the day.
People typically fall into one of four categories: the dolphin, the lion, the bear and the wolf, all loosely based on the respective mammal’s habits and sleep behaviours.
The Dolphin Chronotype (10% of the population)
Dolphins are sensitive sleepers and tend to wake up at the slightest noise or light. They may experience insomnia or anxious sleeping behaviours and have difficulty following a routine.
A day in the life of a dolphin:
Wake up at: 6:30am
Window of productivity: 3:00pm – 9:00pm
The Lion Chronotype (15% of the population)
The lion is your textbook morning person, alert first thing and most productive before noon. Sooner rather than later is the lion’s daily mantra because that afternoon slump hits them hard. Lions benefit from a zen evening routine that sets them up for a sound night’s sleep at a sensible hour.
A day in the life of a lion:
Wake up at: 6:00am
Window of productivity: 8:00am – 12:00pm
The Bear Chronotype (55% of the population)
The majority of individuals fall into the bear chronotype category, meaning your energy levels are aligned with the sun and traditional office hours / society’s schedule.
People with the bear chronotype are most likely to be part of a hybrid type, sharing traits with the morning-centric lion, the night-centric wolf and even the dolphin. These people can be categorised as early bears or late bears. A true bear tends to hit the ground running in the late morning and decline in the afternoon slump.
A day in the life of a bear:
Wake up at: 7:00am
Window of productivity: 10:00am – 2:00pm
The Wolf Chronotype: 15% of the population
*Creative types everywhere let out an almighty howl* Wolves do their best work at night, staying up late and going to bed just as the morning-lovin’ lions are getting up. Due to that restless nocturnal energy, mornings are especially savage for wolves often with multiple snooze buttons. If they had it their way, all meetings would take place from 4pm onwards.
A day in the life of a wolf:
Wake up at: 8:00am / as late as they can get away with
Window of productivity: 5:00pm – 12:00am
As with the Early Bird vs Night Owl system, one size does not fit all, and this is especially true for bears. Each chronotype comprises many attributes, sleep/wake preferences and behaviours, all with biological differences within them. If you don’t feel particularly aligned with one chronotype, don’t worry you’re not broken. This isn’t about fitting into neat little bio boxes. Embrace every trait and get to know all of the bio profiles that resonate with you so you can live in sync with your individual rhythm and maximise your creativity, productivity and sleep.
There’s no such thing as a superior chronotype, every bear, dolphin, lion and wolf has its challenges as Dr. Beus explains: “Chronotypes are the expression of our individual genetic and biological identity […]. There are advantages and disadvantages that come with every bio type. And chronotypes are just that: a biological reality, not a statement about character, or potential.”
What’s My Chronotype?
Ready to discover your chronotype? Take the quiz to find out and start adapting your life to suit your body’s natural energy cycles.
- The Power of When quiz based on Dr. Michael Breus’ book of the same name. This takes into account personality, sleep timing and preference, and sleep drive.
- The Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ) is one of the most popular chronotype quizzes developed to determine your sleep type.
- Munich Chronotype Questionnaire, developed by Till Roenneberg. Currently unavailable online but you can download a copy to print here.