Larks, Night Owls, and In-betweeners – Your Chronotype Explained


“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

Benjamin Franklin

“Night is certainly more novel and less profane than day.”

Henry David Thoreau

Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau, both important figures in American history and known for their contributions to our society . . . But one is obviously an “early bird” while the other could be considered a “night owl.” So which one is better? Why do most people either fall into one camp or the other?

Recent studies have identified something called a chronotype, an individual disposition toward the timing of daily periods of activity and rest. Some people are clearly “larks” and others are “night owls”, while most of us fall into a healthy in-between area. One third of the population are genetically driven to be early risers, while about 16% are night owls. You can be influenced by outside factors like light exposure, caffeine, etc., but your genetic sleep-wake tendency will always be the underline cause of your urge to go to bed early or late.

A person’s chronotype is determined by your genes and environment. But these studies have shown that bedtime habits are not the only thing effected by a person’s sleep-wake tendency. A person’s lifestyle and mood can be shaped by his or her chronotype as well as their health. Unfortunately for the night owl, the study showed that they are more likely to experience poor health conditions: like sleep disorders, depression, and unhealthy eating. This might be because our society runs on a 8-5pm schedule for a typical job and work day. This schedule usually isn’t conducive to a night owl’s sleeping pattern, causing a permanent “social jet lag” feeling. Instead of altering their sleep time, most night owls still stay up late and get up early resulting in an inadequate amount of sleep. Countless studies on sleep in general tie illnesses and diseases with lack of sleep.

As part of the study, scientists did brain scans of people with a tendency towards early-rising, night owls, and in-betweeners. They discovered structural differences in the brains of people with different sleep-wake tendencies. Take a few seconds to let that sink in. . . Now, run into the other room and let your significant other know it’s not your fault you wake up at the crack of dawn while they like to sleep in or that you feel more creative and productive once the sun goes down while they just want to sleep. Now, when they look at you like you’re crazy, just say “It’s not my fault, it’s my chronotype.”

Again, the night owls drew the short straw on this study — it showed that the white matter of the brain was lower quality than their counterparts. But it’s not all bad news for the night owl, other studies have shown that night owls are more out-going and social than early birds. As well as have a higher tendency to be successful with higher paying jobs — this might be due to the higher intelligence, greater reasoning and analytical abilities the studies found.

So what does all this mean? What should you do with this info? Try to follow your inner clock if possible. We all have obligations in life (family, work, pets) that hinder that, but if you recognize your chronotype than you might be able to make slight adjustments that can make a world of difference. With more and more employers recognizing the benefit of allowing a flexible work schedule, you may be able to ask your boss if you can work 7-4pm or 9-6pm instead of 8-5pm like tradition dictates. Or, if you are always sleepy once 10pm hits, don’t fight it. Just record that late-night show and watch on your own time.

Curious where you fall in the Early Bird vs. Night Owl spectrum? This questionnaire from the Institute of Medical Psychology at the University of Munich will tell you. (I am a “Lark”, slight early type.)

Famous night owls include Elvis Presley, President Obama, Charles Darwin, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, and Keith Richards.

Churchill would go to bed for an hour and a half at 5PM, get up, go to dinner (usually very formal as Prime Minister) at 8PM. Then when dinner ended very late he would return to work, staying up until 1 -3am. 

Famous early birds include Apple CEO Tim Cook, former Presidents George Bush and George W. Bush, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rachel Ray, and Napoleon.

Frank Lloyd Wright would wake at 4am and work from then until 7am at his drafting table, then go back to bed for a quick nap. After that, it was all phone calls, meetings, and teaching. His most creative work was done before most people were awake.

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by Angela Chism