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.

Afternoon Creativity – The Inspiration Paradox

“The Inspiration Paradox – the idea that innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms,” is an idea that Daniel Pink writes about in his book When. Time is important for us human beings. We all have experienced first hand how frustrating it is to have someone energetically talk to you either first thing in the morning, or late at night after your typical bed time. We all know there are times when we like to work out, and times of the day when all we feel that we are able to do is sink into a comfy chair and absorb a TV show. The fact that we all have cycles and time preferences for certain activities is largely ignored, however, by most of us and by the schedules we have to adopt for life, work, school, and family.


Pink thinks this is a huge problem and provides insight from the studies of time and timing to help us design new schedules and better consider the times at which we engage with specific activities. One area that I found fascinating was Pink’s recommendations for when we should do our analytic work versus when we should do our innovative and creative work. He writes,


“Our moods and performance oscillate during the day. For most of us, mood follows a common pattern: a peak, a trough, and a rebound. And that helps shape a dual pattern of performance. In the mornings, during the peak, most of us excel at … analytic work that requires sharpness, vigilance, and focus. Later in the day, during the recovery, most of us do better on … insight work that requires less inhibition and resolve.”


Things like daily writing (focus work that requires deep thought on a given topic) and mathy tasks are good things to work on in the morning. The majority of people are roughly morning-ish people, and their brains are the most attentive and best able to focus to complete analytic work in the first several hours after waking up. Things that require focus and attention are best when done earlier.


Contrasting analytic work is creative work, which requires some focus, but also works best when our brains are not too narrowly focused on a single area. Brains that can pull from various sources and different fields are more creative than brains that are dialed into one specific channel. In the afternoon, after we have recovered from our daily trough, our brains are more engaged, but still a bit distracted. According to Pink this sets our brains up for creativity and innovation, taking existing ideas and combining them in new and novel ways. We actually do our best creative work when our brains are not quite firing on all cylinders. The paradox in the first quote of this piece is referring to our brains being the most creative when they are not exactly the most efficient and effective – at least in terms of how we would analytically measure our brains.


Keeping this in mind can help us organize our days in ways that work better with the mental capacities we will have at a given time. We shouldn’t fill our mornings with administrative low value add tasks. The mornings should be the times when we tackle the big items that require analytic focus and resolve. Our trough should be the time that we pack in the emails that don’t take much brain power and just need to get sent out today. Finally, our creative brainstorming should take place in the afternoon, when we no longer have to fight off an afternoon nap, but are not too focused on a specific area and can use our brain’s flexibility to pull together new thoughts.

Timing Impacts Test Scores and Life Outcomes

“Indeed, for every hour later in the day the test were administered, scores fell a little more. The effects of later-in-the-day testing were similar to having parents with slightly lower incomes or less education – or missing two weeks of school a year.”


The quote above is from Dan Pink’s book When in a section where he wrote about researchers who studied test scores for children in relation to the time of day that tests were administered. School children performed better on tests when they took place early in the day, and worse on tests when they came later. The difference was not enormous to the point where students were passing with flying colors in the morning and failing in the afternoon, but it was meaningful.


I find this incredibly interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that I think 8 hour work-days are horrible, and the second is that I think we ascribe our success or failure in life to our own efforts far more than what we should.


Starting with the first point, if I were suddenly named king in the United States, my first act would be reduce the standard workday to 6 hours instead of 8. Most American’s no longer work at a factory where they need to be active on a line pushing a button or hammering a nail in order for widgets to be produced. When that was the case, 8 hour workdays may have been necessary, but in a knowledge economy where our main output comes from our mind and not our hands, 8 hour workdays likely harm our work more than they allow us to produce meaningful outputs. My big fear is that increased time outside of work will lead to more urban sprawl and longer commutes for people rather than to more valuable time spent in communities or with family.


Ultimately, however, I think giving us more time for sleep, for exercise, and for family will help us be better people. I believe that many people claim to be more busy than they actually are at work, and often spend a lot of time focusing on low value tasks that keep them busy but don’t provide much benefit for anyone. Shortening the work day would force people to be better schedulers and to use their time more wisely, and would hopefully create a happier workforce and nation.


Second, it is important to recognize that simply the time at which students took a test impacted the score they got. The test in some ways is measuring their knowledge, but it clearly is also measuring endogenous factors unrelated to their learning. We are grading and scoring our students in ways that can be influenced by meaningless factors beyond the students’ control.


I think this example is revealing of a basic fact of our lives. We feel like we are in control and as if the outcomes that people experience are directly related to their own effort and skill. However simply the time of day can have a big impact on our achievements, regardless of our skill or effort. Beyond test scores, perhaps you had a job interview in the afternoon, and both you and the interviewer were a little less sharp than you would have both been at 10 a.m. for an interview. You might not come across as the best candidate, and the time of day may be the biggest factor that prevented you from getting the job. In many ways small factors like timing can shape our lives in ways that we can’t even imagine. Sometimes luck is just as important as our skill and effort, and we should recognize that when we think about where we are and how we got to the point we are at.