How Understanding Your Chronotype Will Transform Your Workday

Productivity is on the rise.

By Phoebe Neuman

We’re all are familiar with the early bird and night owl stereotypes, but if you’re like me, those two distinctions have never felt like the full picture. I’m definitely not one to jump out of bed in the morning…but I’m also not one who loves staying up past 11pm. (Yes, I am a grandma trapped in the body of a twentysomething!) That grey area is where sleep specialist Dr. Michael Breus’s concept of chronotypes steps in.

Chronotypes are the manifestation of each of our individual circadian rhythms – or the patterns by which our internal clocks operate — and determine much more than if we’re able to be the kind of person who happily hits the gym before heading to work each morning.

According to Dr. Breus, your individual chronotype (which we’ll get into in a minute) determines the times of day when you’re at your most productive, most creative, most loving, and much, much more. The key? Figuring out how to harness those rhythms to unleash your most tuned-in, productive self. Here, we break down a few ways to do just that.

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photo by ashley kane

Find Your Chronotype

The first step to figuring out how to structure your day around your body’s natural rhythms is to figure out what those rhythms are. You likely already have a solid understanding of when you’re at your most and least energetic, but taking a quiz like Dr. Breus’s The Power of When can help confirm that intuition. The quiz categorizes all of us into the following four buckets:

  • Lion: This is your typical morning person. Lions are often up before their alarm, and manage to do more in the mornings that most of us can fathom. They also tend to tap out earlier in the day and can struggle to focus in the evenings.
  • Bear: The majority of us (this writer included!) are bears. This means our biological clock tends to match the day/night cycle. We feel the most alert during daylight hours, tend not to have trouble sleeping or waking up.
  • Wolf: Wolves are Dr. Breus’s version of night owls. They feel their most energized and creative late into the night, and may struggle to wake up in the morning – making normal 9-to-5 work less than ideal.
  • Dolphin: If none of these categories sound like you, you’re most likely a dolphin. Dolphins often have trouble establishing lasting sleep schedules, making their peak energy times harder to pin down – though they do typically feel most productive in the middle of the day.

Once you figure out your chronotype, give yourself a couple of days to test it out. Do you really feel that lion energy first thing in the morning? Or are you a wolf attempting to be a morning person (and likely feeling exhausted because of it)? After you find your rhythm, you can start to adjust various parts of your life to match it.

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Ask to Work Flex Hours

Moving your work schedule up or pushing it back is one of the simplest ways to allow yourself to capture more of the most productive parts of your day. We understand there are certain jobs where this may not be possible (don’t worry – a few ideas for you are coming!), but more and more employers are becoming open to allowing employees to come in earlier or stay later than traditional office hours.

If you feel like you could benefit from working 7 to 3 or 11 to 7, try talking to your boss about it. The key here is to come to the meeting prepared to make your case. Ask to set up a trial period, figure out how to measure if you are actually being more productive and offer solutions for rescheduling meetings or tasks that now fall outside of your ideal office hours.

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Ride Your Peaks and Troughs

Even if you can’t adjust your workday to perfectly match your circadian rhythm, there are still ways you can harness the fluctuations in your energy to get the most out of your day.

Start by figuring out the hours of your work day where you feel the most focused and productive – or your peak energy time. For bears like me, this will likely be from 9 to noon, and will be earlier or later depending on your chronotype. Use these hours to get the tasks that require the most attention or analytical thinking out of the way. Do your best not to schedule meetings here, as this is the time when your brain is the most primed to plow through work.

Then, figure out your trough – or that time of day where you just can’t seem to stay focused or start to feel like you need another cup of coffee. Use that time to tackle the more creative parts of your job, where it actually pays to be a tiny bit distracted (because good ideas can come from anywhere!). You’ll likely also experience a “rebound” period where your energy starts to pick up again after its lowest point. These hours are great for meetings or tasks where you need to be tuned-in, but not ultra-focused.

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Finding the Flow Outside of Work

The benefits of knowing your chronotype extends far outside of your career. If you know you’re a lion, for example, you may want to devote those precious morning hours to working on your passion project or tackling that big organizational project you’ve been putting off. If you’re a wolf, burn off some of your extra energy at night by heading to the gym when most are turning in for the evening and don’t beat yourself up for having a slow morning. Once you start honoring your biology, you’ll be amazed at all you can manage to squeeze out of your day.