Sleep specialist Dr. Michael Breus PhD recently published a new book, The Power of When, which discusses new ways to look at one’s chronotype.
What are chronotypes?
Chronotype is the way we define the way we access and spend our energy over the course of the day. In the old days, we used to thing of ourselves as “night owls” or “early birds” and that was the extent of our options. Either we were “normal,” or we thrived at night or in the wee hours of the morning.
Human beings aren’t consistent to a particular circadian rhythm, after all. Some of us are more inclined to enjoy something called “morningness,” while others among us prefer “eveningness.” Most of us prefer something in between.
Researchers think these preferences are largely determined by a combination of genetics and personal circadian “wiring.” That is to say, by the time we become adults, we are sufficiently wired to perform best on our own unique set of circadian rhythms.
This may be why it is difficult for a morning person to become a late-night person, or vice versa.
Chronotypes for the 21st century
Dr. Breus’s efforts to update how we understand chronotypes (dolphin, bear, lion, wolf) takes into account the reality: that while we have, for so long, lived in a 9-to-5 world, many people do not have rhythms that synchronize to that calendar.
Given the major shifts in lifestyle in the 21st century that have been inspired by globalism, media saturation, the Internet, and unimpeded access to electricity, there seems to be more interest in honoring the chronotypes we are wired for.
Flexible job hours, online classrooms for college students, and 24-7 teleconferencing are just some of the ways that the workplace has changed to accommodate people for whom the 9-to-5 schedule of the last century is no longer applicable or even practical.
Awareness about circadian rhythm sleep disorders like non24 sleep-wake disorder, delayed sleep phase disorder, advanced sleep phase disorder, and the temporary problem of jet lag have made it clear that not everyone should be expected to cleave to the same work schedule because they are simply not wired for it.
There is no “best” chronotype, just a best practice for living with it
Thankfully, changes in the way we think about chronotypes can liberate many people who had to work within the tyranny of someone else’s clock. It also means fewer people may be driving drowsy or working while sleep deprived, which is a public health gain for everybody.
People who are more awake in the early morning do not necessarily get to define what it means to be successful anymore, though for decades this was the socially accepted default ideal (based on the old and not-so-useful “early to bed, early to rise” saying).
Nor should it be considered an indicator of weakness or laziness if someone is more energetic at night and less able to make an early morning meeting or class.
Learning what your chronotype is and how you can build a sustainable lifestyle based on it is the subject of a lot of chatter these days; here’s a nice article from Mental Floss discussing ways to use your self-knowledge of chronotypes to your benefit.