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3 Key Insights for Leveraging Your Chronotype at Work

Knowing your chronotype can optimize your and your team’s energy.

Key points

  • People vary on whether their circadian rhythm naturally gravitates towards being an early bird or a night owl or something in-between.
  • Your natural sleep-wake cycle (i.e., your chronotype) will dictate your energy levels throughout your day.
  • Understanding your chronotype can help you optimize your productivity through alignment of energy level and task type.

When it comes to our sleep-wake cycle, some of us are “early birds,” and some of us are “night owls.” Others are somewhere in between on this morningness-eveningness continuum. This is called our chronotype. Like it or not, chronobiologists suggest that we are predestined to our unique circadian rhythm.

Research has made great strides in understanding how certain chronotypes have unique biological and psychological markers. But we’re just scratching the surface on understanding how these chronotypes play out in the workplace.

This is particularly important given that work hours are traditionally relatively stable (e.g., somewhere between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.), which might not align with some chronotypes' energy rhythms. Additionally, remote work and hybrid work are going mainstream, which creates more leeway and variability in how different employees with unique chronotypes might choose to work.

Approximately 15-20 percent of the population is categorized as early birds (i.e., advance sleep period), another 15-20 percent are categorized as night owls (i.e., delayed sleep period), and the remaining 60-70 percent are hummingbirds that fall somewhere in the middle.

Each of the chronotypes cycles through three different levels of alertness throughout the day. The peak is the highest point, the trough is the lowest point, and recovery is in the middle (see bullets below). As discussed below, there are several ways you and your team members can optimize productivity and collaboration given your different chronotypes.

  • Early Birds: Peak = Early Morning; Trough = Early Afternoon; Recovery = Early Evening
  • Hummingbirds: Peak = Mid-Morning; Trough = Late Afternoon; Recovery = Evening
  • Night Owls: Peak = Evening; Trough = Early Morning; Recovery = Late Morning

Recommendation 1: Align your energy with the type of work you’re doing.

When you’re at your peak, this is when you should be doing challenging, deep-thinking tasks. Save your easier, maintenance-oriented tasks (e.g., email, organization, administration) for when you’re in your trough. Recovery is an ideal period for investigating something new or generating creative ideas.

If you’ve ever heard the saying, “Do your hardest work first,” ignore it—this advice is misguided. The better suggestion is that you do your hardest work during your chronotype peak. You might have also have heard time management experts suggesting that you should save your administrative tasks for the last hour or so before you sign off for the day. This is also incomplete. These tasks are ideal during your trough, which for many chronotypes is not in the late afternoon or early evening.

Recommendation 2: Recognize and respect the chronotypes of team members.

It’s important for team members to understand the ebb and flow of energy trends for each of the chronotypes and then be respectful of team members with different chronotypes.

Hummingbirds, for example, should be careful not to engage in chatty brainstorming sessions with night owls in the p.m., given that this is the night owls’ most productive window. Similarly, early birds should be careful not to finish their early a.m. moments of productivity and then immediately begin attempting to collaborate with hummingbirds, who are just getting into their peak.

This recommendation is also important at the team level. When setting team meetings—especially reoccurring team meetings—leaders should evaluate the overall chronotype diversity of their team and then find the ideal time block. These decisions will inevitably alter the team dynamics during those sessions. Those in their peak might be better suited for taking charge of the meeting, those in their recovery will be in the ideal energy zone for brainstorming, and those in their trough will need a nudge (but at least the meeting doesn’t intrude on their peak or recovery time).

Recommendation 3: Be careful of chronotype bias.

We’ve all heard the old adage—“The early bird gets the worm.” This is only partly true. Those that are first awake do have an advantage. They have the highest likelihood of not being distracted during their energy peak. The remaining chronotypes don’t have that luxury.

This idea that early-risers are more productive than other chronotypes is overgeneralized and, in turn, problematic. Research illustrates that individuals perceive night owls as less dependable, rational, realistic, responsible, and disciplined, and more impulsive, unpredictable, and rebellious. Research also illustrates that supervisors are more likely to rate night owls as less conscientious and lower performing than their early bird counterparts, even though this isn’t objectively accurate.

Performance is performance, regardless of when employees’ circadian rhythms dictate that they sleep. And if we really want to encourage maximal productivity for all employees, we should encourage everyone to embrace their chronotype and proactively create systems that optimize their energy throughout their day.

Final Thoughts on Chronotypes in the Workplace

Given the shift towards remote and hybrid work, the time in which we work is becoming more flexible. This is an ideal opportunity to figure out your chronotype. Making good decisions on your work-life schedule might ensure that you are maximizing your productivity by leveraging your natural sleep-wake cycle.

LinkedIn image: Nattakorn_Maneerat/Shutterstock

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