Hacking Sleep: Follow Your Body’s Chronotype and Increase Your Productivity

No Comments

What’s the most productive part of your day?

It turns out that your regular sleeping patterns dictate your energy levels for the day. When you hear a friend or a colleague say “I’m not a morning person,” he’s not lazy or difficult. People would often say that they hate waking up early because they “feel sluggish” in the morning. Others will say the complete opposite, saying they’re more energized when the sun is about to rise.

There’s a legit, scientific explanation for all this, and it has to do with your body’s natural sleep/wake cycle.

Your Body is On the Clock.

Your body follows a natural, roughly 24-hour cycle called the circadian rhythm. It’s more of a clock that controls everything, from hormone production to alertness levels. Your internal “clock” dictates your sleep/wake cycle, or when you fall asleep and when you wake up.

Following the body’s natural circadian rhythm is a lot like weightlifting. Old training advice advocates always listening to your body and never forcing a rep with lousy form. Pain is the body’s natural warning sign, and going against this often leads to injuries. The same is true for following your body’s natural sleep cycle because there’s a direct correlation between your most productive hours and your circadian rhythm.

Are You an Early Lark or a Night Owl?

When it comes to sleeping and waking up, the world only knows two categories: larks and owls.

You’re either an early riser (lark) or someone who starts the day at noon and sleeps late (owl). The scientific term for this is “chronotype.” In zoology, chronotype means the time (Chrono) an animal sleeps and does regular activities.

For instance, “diurnal” animals are active in the day and sleep at night, while “nocturnal” animals are active at night and sleep during the day. However, it’s important to note that your body’s unique chronotype is more than sleeping patterns. It’s your body’s natural primal activity scheduler.

Your body clock determines when the best time is for sleeping, eating, and having sex. For instance, the unique wiring of your sleep chronotype dictates when you’re most energetic. If you’re a night owl, you now have an explanation to why you’re so sluggish in the morning and amped up during the evening.

The key to increased productivity is knowing your exact chronotype and working with it, not against it.

The Chronotype Theory.

Genetics play a significant role in what your unique chronotype is. It’s based on your “period circadian regulator 3” (PER3) gene, meaning it’s tied to your internal body clock. Early larks have longer PER3 genes compared to night owls. Other than the sleep/wake cycle, the length of your PER3 determines how much sleep you need. In short, larks need more rest and owls need less.

However, larks and owls aren’t the only names when it comes to chronotypes. In 2015, Russian researchers published a study on four distinct chronotypes. Dr Michael Breus followed suit in 2016 when he released his book “The Power of When” which took the four chronotype theory mainstream.

What’s My Chronotype?

The theory states that there are four distinct chronotypes unique to each person, not two. These are:

  1. Lions.
    Lions take the place of the early birds and constitute around 15-20% of the population. They have no problem waking up at the crack of dawn and are at their most productive in the morning. Activities that demand productivity gets done before noon. Because of this hectic pace, lions are naturally tired by the evening and sleep early.
  2. Bears.
    Bears consist of about 50% of the population and follow a sleep/wake cycle that follows the sun. They’re more energetic during the day and have no issues falling asleep at night. A bear enjoys peak productivity at around mid-morning but experiences a dip during mid-afternoon.
  3. Wolves.
    Wolves take the place of night owls and constitute 15-20% of the population. They experience peak productivity in the middle of the day and the evenings, usually after the regular work shift. Wolves sleep and wake up later than everyone else.
  4. Dolphins.
    Dolphins represent around 10% of the population, and they’re light sleepers who have a hard time following a regular sleep schedule. Dolphins are at their most productive during mid-morning to early afternoon.

To determine what your sleep chronotype is, you can go to Dr Breus’ website and take the chronotype quiz. You’ll know what your chronotype is after answering a few questions and entering your email address. There’s also an explainer video about your chronotype afterwards, which is cool.

Working With Your Chronotype.

Being your body’s natural sleep/wake cycle, you have to learn how to work with your chronotype, not against it. You’ll have a hard time trying to fall asleep or being productive during the day. Your sleep quality will also suffer, big time. You can make your chronotype work for you by ding the following:

  • Go to sleep only when you feel tired.
  • Don’t force yourself to sleep or stay up late.
  • Schedule important activities during your most productive times of the day, when your energy levels are at their peak.
  • Try to schedule family activities or social gatherings during the hours that work best for your chronotype.
  • Keep a log and track how you feel after re-structuring your work and social commitments.
  • Pay close attention to your energy levels, fatigue, and productivity.
  • Tweak and organize your day until you get it right.

Is it Possible to Change Chronotypes?

If times and schedules bind a chronotype, can we change ours at will? Can an early bird become a night owl or vice versa?

Unfortunately, you can’t change your biology by choosing a new schedule. Given enough time to evolve, perhaps human physiology might accept the change. Many people either become night owls or morning larks as they grow older. Some are even stuck in-between.

However, you can’t force or speed up the process. If you must shift to a new schedule, you can try doing the following:

  • Reset your circadian clock by exposing yourself to bright light.
  • If your schedule drags on late in the evening, you can use red lighting in your office and wear blue light filtering eyewear.
  • Melatonin supplements may help you sleep faster, but it’s not a long term solution.

We all undergo a shift in our circadian rhythm as teenagers, going from Lion or Bear to Wolf. Unfortunately, the change happens at precisely the same time school starts, and schools start way too early. This shift tends to mess up a teenagers’ wiring. No wonder they’re full of angst!

Chronotype Synchronization Problems.

Lions and Wolves are at the extreme ends of the spectrum when it comes to chronotypes. However, some people fall outside of the standard chronotype classification. For instance, some individuals can be early risers but suffer from brain fog and aren’t productive until mid-morning.

When these tendencies manifest and interfere with a person’s daily life, it becomes a condition known as “circadian rhythm sleep disorder”. Two of the most common types of this disorder include:

  • Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS).
    DSPS happens to some night owls who operate at the very end of the circadian spectrum. They wake up much later than the others because they get tired further along in the cycle.
  • Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome (ASPS).
    ASPS happens when a person’s circadian rhythm shifts much earlier than usual. We’re talking about extreme early birds who start their day at 2 AM and tire by 7 PM.

Social Jet Lag.

In both these conditions, troubled sleep isn’t the leading cause for concern. People who have circadian sleep disorders sleep fine when they get to nod off. The problem is that their sleeping schedules often interfere with daily life and take a toll on their well-being. Work, errands, social functions and school often cut their sleep short.

They also often worry about having insomnia due to anxieties of not being able to sleep like other people. The disconnect happening here is what we call social jet lag. This type of jet lag is actually much worse than regular jet lag because it happens all the time (chronic). The tension of having to work, study and adjust to other people’s schedules, whether it fits your peak energy times or not, brings about this type of jet lag.

How to Live with Your Chronotype.

Your chronotype doesn’t only determine your sleep/wake cycle. It also has a say in your activity level during the period when you’re awake. Your chronotype affects cortisol levels, blood pressure, and even your core body temperature.

Stop being too hard on yourself about your specific chronotype because your schedule doesn’t define you as a person. Think of it as a tool that classifies how your internal sleep cycle works, and when you’re predetermined to be more productive.