Night Owls By Birth

A chronotype is the scientific term used to describe people who are night owls and early morning people (or larks as they are sometimes called). Most people fall into these two categories, with a small segment of the population who are somewhere outside of either lark or night owl. Between morning people and night owls, the majority of people are generally in the morning person category (even if most people are not waking up at 4 a.m. to write blog posts every day).


In the book When, Dan Pink discusses research which suggest that our chronotypes are often determined before we are even born. He suggests that being a night owl or a lark is beyond our individual control, and not something we can flip like a light switch. He writes, “Genetics explains at least half the variability in chronotype, suggesting that larks and owls are born, not made. In fact, the when of one’s birth plays a surprisingly powerful role. People born in the fall and winter are more likely to be larks; people born in the spring and summer are more likely to be owls.”


To me it seems really strange that we would find a genetic component to whether we like to wake up early or go to bed late. What is even more strange is that there would be an epigenetic factor that shapes whether we are a morning person or night owl based on the time of year of our birth. I can understand why early human civilizations would benefit by having some people who were morning people and some people who were night owls, but it is still surprising to me that it is baked in at a genetic level.


We often look at behaviors like waking up early or staying up late and apply some type of moral lens which does not make sense given this research. Our society generally praises the early risers and is critical of night owls, but for many people, according to the research Pink presents in his book, being an owl or lark is not a choice. We don’t need to be so critical of people with a different chronotype than ourselves, and we don’t have to praise people who have the same chronotype as ourselves either. We can simply accept that some people are going to be up early and others will stay up late, and we can adjust our own schedules according to our chonotype so that we are engaging in appropriate activities at the appropriate time for ourselves based on our chronotypes.


Ultimately, for me, this brings me back to my personal belief that we need to shorten the work day and find more flexibility in how we work. Forcing everyone into the same work schedule doesn’t make much sense if many of us are not built on a genetic level for that work schedule. Also, if our work is knowledge work, where the important thing is what our brains produce and not how many times we swing a hammer, then there is no reason to force that work to be done at a particular time of day, at least not if it can be done at a different time of day with better output that doesn’t slow down and impact other people’s productivity. Respecting chronotypes in this way will likely make us  more productive, if we can find a reasonable way to blend chronotypes and work schedules. This is something I think we should work toward, especially since our chronotypes are more or less set before we are born, and not something we explicitly chose for ourselves.

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