Do you crow about waking up first-thing to take on your day? Or are you the kind of person who functions best at night, feeling energized after dinner?
Those proclivities are more than just a personal preference — they’re genetically pre-determined circadian rhythms called chronotypes. Knowing your sleep chronotype is an easy way to understand how your energy fluctuates throughout the day. Or even how others might react to your invite for a morning workout.
Some people are the morning larks who go to bed excited about the things they’ll accomplish first thing in the morning. Maybe they even whistle and warble their way through the whole crack-of-dawn experience. If not, they might be a night owl — who doesn’t want to be bothered in the morning unless the dang nest is on fire. Or you’re in the middle, more like a hummingbird, eagle, or heron.
While night owl and morning lark categories are amongst the most common descriptors for chronotypes, research suggests that up to 60% of folks don’t fit into one of these two nests. We’ll explain what those are in a bit, but big hint: They may provide a lot of relief about understanding how to hack your productivity, health habits, and sleep schedule.
And lest you think chronotypes are, ahem, for the birds, the concept is all science. Let’s dive into how chronotypes give insight into how you should spend your 24-hours.
What is a chronotype?
Strictly speaking, a chronotype is your natural tendency for when you want to sleep and wake. This represents when you organically feel the most energetic or focused throughout a 24-hour period.
Your chronotype, also called diurnal preference, impacts all sorts of things about your day, including:
- when you’re ready to exercise
- when you have your best focus for work or creative pursuits
- the time of day you might be hungry and what you might nosh on
- patterns for your energy slumps
Think about it this way. If you could be a free bird, as in free from all your responsibilities, obligations, and to-do lists for a week, when would you choose to go to sleep and wake up? And when would you really choose to get after that proverbial worm — as in the things you want to do?
What is your chronotype?
Though chronobiologists have named various chronotypes on the lark-owl continuum, there isn’t an official consensus. For the middle-ground chronotypes, we decided to stick with birds (because this gives a fairer comparison).
|Chronotype||Wake time||Sleep onset||Energy levels peak at|
|Lark||before 5 a.m.||9 to 10 p.m.||morning |
(energy decreases rest of the day)
|Hummingbird||5 to 7 a.m.||10 to 11 p.m.||mid-morning |
(early evening slump)
|Eagle||7 to 8 a.m.||about midnight||afternoon |
(slumps early morning and late evening)
|Heron||8 to 9 a.m.||after midnight||mid-morning & mid-evening |
|Owl||after 10 a.m.||after 1 a.m.||late evening |
(energy increases rest of the day)
As you might have guessed, knowing your chronotype can help you understand your own sleep-wake pattern, and your energy boosts and slumps, and how to work with those rather than against them. When it comes to the general population, you’re more likely to be one of the middle-ground chronotypes than a lark or an owl.
We also can’t ignore how society is built around the lark and hummingbird schedule, thanks to the typical workdays following a 9-to-5 format. Plus, we share our lives with other birds, not always of the same chronotype. These factors can make living fully into your chronotype challenging, but you can still find ways to capitalize on your chronotype energy waves.
So let’s dispense with the idea that the only way to be successful or productive is to rise early (unless you truly are a lark). Here’s how to make the best use of your chronotype:
Early-morning lark chronotype
When it comes to birds, larks are part of the dawn chorus, often before first light. That’s why the lark is a good symbol for the early risers among us.
If getting up before dawn is your jam, you might be an early-morning lark. Keep in mind your energy is likely to decrease steadily as the hours progress toward nightfall.
Productivity and scheduling tips for the early-morning lark:
- Pro: You often have lots of pre-work time to fill with personal pursuits.
- Pitfall: You lose energy throughout the day so deciding what to do first can be tricky and socializing late can be rough.
- Creativity: Crack-of-dawn quiet time is all yours for writing, painting, etc.
- Productivity: Tackle tough tasks first, saving mundane work for later.
- Exercise: Bust through intense workouts before clocking in.
- Social life: Meet up for morning workouts, lunch, or an early happy hour.
- Wind down: The evening is your time to chill because you hit the hay early.
- Hack: Use restorative activities like gentle yoga or walks to combat post-work energy slumps.
Mid-morning hummingbird chronotype
Hummingbirds are highly energetic and active during the day. You might fit the hummingbird chronotype if you like that extra hour of morning sleep but generally do well with early starts and a 9-to-5 schedule. You have relatively constant hummingbird energy and focus until about early evening when you like to wind down.
Productivity and scheduling tips for the mid-morning hummingbird:
- Pro: You maintain stable energy throughout the day.
- Pitfall: You sometimes try to be a lark and fit too much in before work.
- Creativity: If you have a creative pursuit, tackle it either first thing or early evening.
- Productivity: Alternate heavy tasks with lighter ones to balance your day.
- Exercise: A lunch-hour or post-work workout can help extend your energy into the eve.
- Social life: You’re highly adaptable, so just be careful to build alone time into your week.
- Wind down: Start your bedtime routine by 9 when possible.
- Hack: If possible, use a condensed workday schedule to fit in your workout and creative pursuits when you’re most energetic.
Afternoon eagle chronotype
Eagles soar in the afternoon. If you fit the eagle chronotype, you tend to have lower energy levels in the early morning and late evening. But you get the wind beneath your wings sometime between 12 and 5 p.m.
That doesn’t mean you sleep until then, although you might prefer to snooze a little later than those larks or hummingbirds. Your wake time often depends on when you hit the nest, which is typically earlier than your average night owl.
Productivity and scheduling tips for the afternoon eagle:
- Pro: You have an afternoon surge, often when others feel a slump.
- Pitfall: You’re low energy in the early morning and late evening.
- Creativity: Early eve is a good time to flip the switch to your personal passions.
- Productivity: Save your hardest tasks for between 12 to 5 p.m.
- Exercise: A mid-morning, lunch, or post-work sweat sesh can extend your energy peak.
- Social life: Gather for dinner rather than late-night adventures.
- Wind down: Allow for chill time by 10 p.m.
- Hack: You’ll feel less frustrated if you give up trying to cram stuff in before work — that is, unless you set your own hours.
Evening heron chronotype
If you fit the heron chronotype, you like long evening walks on the beach… Kidding! But you might indeed be more spirited at night because that’s when you’ll have a nice surge of energy.
That doesn’t mean you’ve just woken up though. Those in the heron chronotype are also active mid-morning, but then they often experience an afternoon slump before getting their second wind. Herons like to make some noise with those late-night owls for a bit before calling it a day.
Productivity and scheduling tips for the evening heron:
- Pro: You have two energy surges to play with: mid-morning and all evening.
- Pitfall: You have an afternoon energy plummet.
- Creativity: Mid-to-late evening is all yours.
- Productivity: Start your day with simple tasks. Then hit your heaviest mid-morning. The evening offers plenty of focus boosts, as well.
- Exercise: Save intense workouts for early evening at the height of your second wind.
- Social life: Herons have it good for any type of evening socializing, just don’t let it get in the way of your work or creative pursuits.
- Wind down: Like owls, herons feel lots of evening energy, so it’s important to allow chill time at least an hour or more before you want to sleep.
- Hack: A stint of easy-to-moderate activity can pull you out of your afternoon slump.
Night owl chronotype
When it comes to the actual birds, owls are active from dusk till dawn. The human night owl chronotype is characterized as someone whooose (sorry, just some owl humor for you) energy level increases throughout the day. Owls might get their best bursts of energy or creative focus when others around them are conking out. And they often sleep their best as the clock creeps toward dawn. That’s why owls love to “sleep in.”
Productivity and scheduling tips for a night owl:
- Pro: Your energy builds throughout the day, and the quiet late-night hours are yours.
- Pitfall: You have trouble falling asleep or getting up early when you have to.
- Creativity: Late night is your jam.
- Productivity: Stack your tasks in order from easiest to hardest. If you can set your own schedule, opt to work evenings, although you might prefer to reserve the night for creativity.
- Exercise: A post-dinner workout will be your best bet.
- Social life: You’re the last one to call it a night. Just don’t let it impede your personal goals if that energy might be better spent on a special project
- Wind down: You like to burn the proverbial midnight oil, but midnight is a good time to start the relaxation process.
- Hack: If you need to hit the hay earlier than your body wants, try a melatonin supplement around 10.
Is your chronotype nature or nurture?
It’s complicated. But chronotype is largely nature. Several factors are at play, including brain structure, genetics, and your natural circadian rhythm.
Research shows that brain structural differences exist among various chronotypes. For example, a 2021 study found that night owls have more volume in the left occipital lobe. That research expands on a 2018 study that found larks have less grey matter volumes in the lateral occipital cortex and the precuneus when compared to owls.
Researchers have also linked chronotype with genetics, although all around more research is needed for confirmation. One 2010 study on twins estimates that our chronotype could be 50% inherited. But the use of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have brought to light common genetic variants associated with chronotype, including so called “clock genes,” which are responsible for your circadian rhythm.
Your circadian rhythm — think of it as your inner cuckoo clock — keeps time for your sleep-wake cycle. All our cells have a circadian rhythm, but your master clock is located in your suprachiasmatic nucleus of your hypothalamus. And it uses cues from the environment, like darkness, to tell the pineal gland to release melatonin to help prep you for sleep. Melatonin production decreases throughout slumber, eventually causing you to rise and maybe shine.
But even though light plays a role for our internal clocks, we’re all a little different in terms of when melatonin production gets going. Night owls get their natural melatonin dose much later than larks, for example. Researchers say that chronotype then is our “behavioral manifestation” of our circadian rhythm.
That doesn’t mean that if you’re a lark now, that you’ll never be a bird of a different feather. Sometimes chronotypes can change as we age. And because we can train our circadian rhythm to a certain extent (more on this later), we can adapt to different schedules when necessary — even if it’s not necessarily like a duck to water.
Where can you take a chronotype quiz, test, or questionnaire?
In the late 1970s, researchers James A. Horne and Olov Östberg developed a 19-item Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ) to score people on a scale of 16 to 86. The MEQ asks questions about one’s sleep-wake pattern and energy shifts throughout the day. Anyone scoring 30 or below is on the “definite evening” end (later known as night owl), and anyone scoring 70 or higher is on the “definite morning” end (later known as morning lark). Scores falling 31 to 69 fit into three moderate categories.
The researchers used the questionnaire results and oral temperature readings to determine that a person’s peak alertness correlates with their peak body temperature. Based on this research, we know that larks have an earlier heat up than owls do, for example, helping to give larks all that chipper get-up-and go. The MEQ became the basis for most chronotype research.
Recently, chronobiologists at RUDN University in Russia, expanded on this research and found more variation in how people self-report energy shifts throughout the day. While larks tend to have declining energy and owls have increasing energy, chronotypes that fall in between, like the hummingbird and eagle, sometimes have an energy surge or dip.
In addition, psychologist Michael J. Breus, PhD, author of The Power of When, ties chronotype to personality traits. He uses four categories — bear, wolf, lion, dolphin — and links these chronotypes to introversion and extroversion as well as certain demeanors, such as whether you’re a creative type or a natural leader
Can you change your chronotype by shifting your circadian rhythm?
Your chronotype is essentially how you behave in response to your natural, unmodified circadian rhythm. While our internal clocks are somewhat malleable, that doesn’t really change how we’re built. Even in the absence of light cues, your internal clock keeps tick-tocking.
Researchers have found that the human circadian rhythm works on a 28-hour cycle rather than a 24-hour one when light isn’t part of the equation. This indicates that our circadian rhythms are trainable. But we’ve already experienced this: We modify them to follow our needs, like for school or work, and we also mess with them on accident, like when we’re doomscrolling and expose ourselves to too much blue light.
But this doesn't change your chronotype. In fact, one study found that chronotype shifted on average just 10 minutes earlier over seven years. Meaning, your instinctual preference for when you sleep and wake remains pretty stable.
Think of it this way: If you’re a night owl, you can certainly train yourself to get up for a sunrise boot camp class, but you’ll likely still hoot in protest when the alarm goes off or when it’s time for those burpees. Owls simply can’t train themselves to love that lark life. That’s chronotype for you.
What happens if you don’t follow your chronotype?
Because we do tend to tinker with our internal clocks to deal with work schedules or social needs, your sleep-wake schedule can become misaligned with your natural circadian rhythm and cause issues. Some studies show that not living according to your chronotype, or not being able to, can have negative consequences such as disease risk, depression, and other mood issues.
But this would be on a more constant and extreme level. A hummingbird who has to get up closer to the lark schedule can probably adjust where needed.
This isn’t a warning about going against nature though. Knowing your chronotype is also about understanding yourself — and maybe even being a bit easier on yourself. Maybe you’ve been giving your chronotype the bird for years without even realizing it, working against your natural sleep-wake cycle and energy shifts. Now that you know your chronotype, you can use the knowledge to enhance your life by learning which morning, afternoon, or evening flow is meant for you to go with.