How to Maximize Your Productivity Through Your Chronotype

Productivity is key to success and the saying “The early bird gets the worm” rings true. 

It’s a well-known saying and the idea behind it is true. Those who are first to take action typically reap the rewards through productivity. However, people also refer to early birds as those who are “morning people.”

This saying has given rise to an internet meme: “The early bird can have the worm, because worms are gross and mornings are stupid.”

Obviously, whoever came up with this saying was a “night owl,” or someone who does not function well in the mornings, but who operates very well at night.

We all have optimal hours when we function at our best, but those hours aren’t the same as everyone else’s. That’s why some people are incredibly productive in the mornings, while others are highly alert at night.

In his book, When, one of the aspects Daniel Pink explores is the impact that our chronotypes have on productivity and creativity. What are chronotypes? Pink defines chronotypes as “a personal pattern of circadian rhythms that influences our physiology and psychology.”

Once we understand our chronotypes, we then can structure our schedule in a way that allows us to function optimally and use our time wisely. In this article, we will relay Daniel Pink’s ideas, provide an overview of the various chronotypes, and share how recognizing your own chronotype can help you be a better leader.

The Chronotypes: Larks, Owls, and Third Birds

In his book, Daniel Pink describes the three types of chronotypes that people fall into: Larks, Owls, and Third Birds.

Larks are what we call “early birds.” They are morning people. They are peppy in the morning, can get lots of work done before lunch, and are ready to unwind by the evening.

Owls are, of course, “night owls.” These people find waking up early difficult and must usually force themselves to be functional in the mornings (often with the assistance of a highly caffeinated beverage). However, come nightfall, they are alert and productive.

Third Birds are a little different. They fall in the middle. They are neither Larks nor Owls. In fact, according to studies, approximately two-thirds of us are Third Birds.

Now, definitions are great, but they don’t matter without understanding the why behind them.

Knowing your chronotype is important because everyone experiences a day in three stages: a peak, a trough, and a rebound.

The peak is the period when you are at your best. Your mind is primed and ready to tackle the most important, detailed tasks of the day. If you need to make tough decisions, you should do so during your peak.

The trough is when your emotional, intellectual, and physical energy wane. You’re more prone to making mistakes, and will likely find yourself feeling tired or unfocused. This period is what is often referred to as the “3pm slump.”

The rebound is when your brain is functional, but more relaxed and malleable. You’re actually more creative and this is the best time to complete the “simpler” items on your to-do list.

Depending on your chronotype, you experience the three stages in a different order.

Larks: peak-trough-rebound

Owls: rebound-trough-peak

Third Birds experience the stages in the order of either a Lark or an Owl (depending on which way they lean), but their pattern is less extreme. Their peak-trough-rebound or rebound-trough-peak periods occur more toward the middle of the day.

How to Determine Your Chronotype:

In his book, Pink provides three questions that can help you recognize your chronotype. You should answer these questions as if you are on your day off, rather than a workday. The questions are:

  1. What time do you usually go to sleep?
  2. What time do you usually wake up?
  3. What is the middle of those two times—that is, what is your mid-point of sleep?

If you want a more in-depth questionnaire, you can take a test here.

How Understanding Chronotypes Benefits You & Your Team

Your chronotype has a profound effect on your productivity, your health, and your abilities as a leader. It’s very important to guard your peak period, so that you maximize its effectiveness. There’s a reason why many people advise not to waste your initial energy on answering emails first thing in the morning (of course, if you’re an Owl, or an Owl-leaning Third Bird, then answering emails in the morning may be a good strategy, because they are typically a more routine task).

Regardless, to function optimally, you need to have an understanding of your natural rhythm so that you can take advantage of it. You can also lead your team to do the same. You can create strategies so that they can structure their day according to their chronotype, so that they are taking care of their most important work during their peak hours, and completing their more routine responsibilities during their rebound.

We all have 24 hours in a day, but when we operate with our chronotypes instead of against them, those 24 hours increase productivity, are more satisfying, and creative.