Getty Images; Gabe Conte
Have you ever been frustrated that you just can’t seem to jump out of bed at 5 a.m. to get a workout in before sunrise when your friend or partner does it so easily? Same. I’ve spent most of my life trying to force a schedule that didn’t align with my natural rhythm. But luckily, it’s not just a lack of willpower and discipline; there’s a scientific excuse.
This tendency is related to your chronotype, your “physical and behavioral preference for earlier or later sleep timing,” according to Nature, and it's influenced by factors like age and genetics. (You may have seen quizzes across the internet that assign you an animal based on your sleep habits. If you wake up early, you’re a lion, while if you stay up all night, you’re a wolf, etc.) But knowing whether you’re a lion, bear, wolf, or dolphin isn’t necessary—and quite honestly, a little gimmicky.
“It’s been a bit twisted from the scientific explanation,” says Michael Gradisar, PhD, sleep researcher and head of sleep science at Sleep Cycle. “If we have to use any animals, it would really be a night owl and a morning lark. But the simplest way to think about it is: are you an early type of person or a late type of person?” (Or neither, if you’re solidly in the middle.) Most people naturally know what category they fall in, Gradisar says. "If you’re not sure, simply measure your sleep when you are free to fall asleep and wake up when you want to, like on the weekends,” he says when you’re not going out to a late-night party or waking up with an alarm for work. If you’re data-driven, a sleep-tracking app like Sleep Cycle can help you identify your sleep patterns, too.
Knowing your chronotype does more than just ease your guilt; you can use it to your advantage. According to sleep researchers, aligning your day with your chronotype can improve your cognitive function and athletic performance. If you’re performing the wrong activity at a non-optimal time for your circadian rhythm, you could be missing out on benefits to your motor learning, attention, and working memory, too.
When we start to lean into our chronotype—instead of fighting against it—we thrive. No matter what your chronotype is, circadian rhythms follow a similar 24-hour pattern. You reach the lowest point in your energy during your sleep—this may fall around 4 or 5 a.m. for those with an average chronotype (not early or late). From there, “our alertness increases across the day with our underlying circadian rhythm,” Gradisar explains. It continues to grow until the direction changes again—our second dip, the dreaded afternoon slump. For normal chronotypes, this generally happens in the afternoon, like 2 or 3 p.m. For early risers, this dip may come around midday (say, 1 p.m.), and for night owls, around 4 or 5 p.m. “It can be really noticeable when people don’t get enough sleep,” says Gradisar, “or maybe when the coffee has worn off, and people are sitting down, and they have to pay attention.”
If you have the luxury to tailor your work schedule, you can try to structure it according to these peaks and troughs. A morning lark might tackle their focused tasks in the morning, a couple of hours after rising and before their midday decline in function. You can sprinkle in lighter tasks when you’re not quite as sharp. Creativity follows a similar pattern as alertness and focus. According to a 2022 study, late chronotypes are generally more creative in the late afternoon, and early chronotypes tend to be more creative in the morning. But you may do more than get the creative juices flowing a bit easier; you may also have more fun with it. Aligning your chronotype to the best time of day “gave rise to positive mood and creative self-efficacy,” according to the researchers.
The reality is that people have strict work schedules and other time-sensitive tasks, so we can’t all hack our schedules for maximum productivity. There are also ways to change your chronotype over time, says Gradisar. Morning exercise or bright light therapy, which is exposure to morning light as soon as possible after waking, can really help late chronotypes who need to change their sleep pattern. Over time, this practice can help them shift their circadian rhythm to follow a more normal sleep-wake pattern, although other chronotypes won’t necessarily benefit from it.
Another tip is if you’re overly sensitive to mid-day fatigue, avoid napping. During recent research, Gradisar noticed that when people started to nap regularly in the afternoon, it made the dip much stronger, making it even harder not to nap in the future. Instead, move your body, get bright light exposure, or even reach for a caffeinated beverage. “Those are ways to signal our brain to become more alert,” he says. But ultimately, structuring your day should come down to individualization: Pay attention to when you function well and don’t force yourself to stick with a certain routine because your favorite podcast told you it will change your life. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for every chronotype,” Gradisar says, so don’t be afraid to get curious and experiment with what feels right for you.
Originally Appeared on GQ