There are four basic chronotypes—bears, lions, wolves, and dolphins. By understanding your chronotype, you can plan your day around your peak periods of productivity. To find your most productive hours, you’ll also need to factor in changing stress levels and external communication demands.
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You can think of your energy, focus, and productivity rising and falling on a graph with time on the x-axis (your circadian rhythm) with shorter cycles of around ninety minutes rising and falling within that (ultradian rhythms). But at the same time, there are other things going on—your actual work schedule fixed by your workplace, incoming calls, and meetings and messages, as well as high-stress moments that demand a reaction from you.
When you can visualize all of these curves interacting, it becomes clear where your sweet spots are. Somewhat counterintuitively, the Yerkes-Dodson Law tells us that just the right amount of stress at the right time can actually increase our productivity. For difficult tasks, performance increases with increased arousal (stress) but only up to a point, after which it impairs it. The same is not true for simple tasks, which don’t show the same impairment. Therefore, it’s not a question of reducing stress across the board, but being more conscious and deliberate about how to plan, manage, and prepare for stress, in the right quantities.
One final factor is the “communication curve.” Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, suggests a variation to the Yerkes-Dodson law that shows how engaging with emails and messages also increases productivity and performance—but again, only up to a point, beyond which they start to decrease performance. Again, it’s not about banishing instant messaging or emails entirely, but finding that sweet spot.
Let’s put it all together. Our energy curve is innate, and our energy finite. Stress and distractions (for example, from communication) are beneficial, but only up to a point. When planning our days, we can consider all these parameters and then make informed, intelligent decisions about how to schedule our time. Rather than it being black or white, juggling these variables gives us ranges to work with. For example, you might decide to schedule in ninety minutes to do deep work on a challenging problem, but you also know that this coincides with the time you tend to get a lot of emails and when stressful demands start to be made on you. Knowing this, you shift the work a little earlier in the day. In this way, you can see time management is not the full story—you need to also manage your energy, your stress levels, and your incoming communications.
Practicing this kind of “energy management” doesn’t mean that you get it right every single day—but armed with this knowledge, you are always prepared to respond in the moment in a way that optimizes your output no matter the constraints.
Understanding Your Unique Chronotype
In the last section, we looked at how the body’s inbuilt rhythms affect our wakefulness and energy throughout a twenty-four-hour period, and how we can work around those. Humans have observable and predictable patterns, but there are also individual variations between people. Not everyone is built the same, so the advice to “follow your inbuilt rhythms” only really works when you have a good grasp on your unique chronotype.
Your chronotype is simply your unique “circadian personality” and describes your individual inner clock. The concept was outlined in detail in Daniel H. Pink's book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. The idea is that if you understand your chronotype, you can adjust your life schedule to better support and flow with your natural peaks and troughs of energy. It’s not exactly a way to give yourself more energy, but a way to optimize and work with the energy you already have when you have it.
So what’s your chronotype?
The first type is THE BEAR. This type closely follows the solar cycle, meaning they usually wake up naturally at around seven or eight in the morning. They hit their productivity peak in the morning and early afternoon, where they’re able to focus on deep work, plan, strategize, problem solve, and create. This peak can last from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
After this period (usually after lunch!) bear types can then have a dip in energy and focus levels, which can deepen at around 4 p.m. If you’re the kind of person who feels tempted by an afternoon nap, you might be a bear type. From around 4 p.m. onward, bears do best when they relax, have dinner, unwind, and socialize rather than work. They tend to feel drowsy and ready for bed by around 11 p.m. at the latest.
If this schedule sounds familiar, it’ll probably be because most people are bears—around fifty-five percent of the population. You can tell you’re a bear if you tend to gravitate to this cycle naturally. If you find you’re grumpy and lethargic having to go to bed too late or wake up too early, you might be a bear, too.
Finally, some research suggests that there are personality types associated with each chronotype. Bears are said to be extroverted, happy, and pretty mellow, and work fairly well in conventional office setups where they don’t clash too heavily with the standard workday. Bears are happiest when they maintain a steady, even flow of energy by maintaining the same waking and sleeping time every day, and scheduling most of their work for before lunch. Avoid work in the evenings—you won’t be as effective and it’ll just make you crabby!
The WOLF TYPE is completely different, and this chronotype is shared by just fifteen percent of the population. Wolves get most of their productive and creative work done at night, not in the morning. In fact, they have two peaks: one brief one at around noon (they’re really just waking up!), and another wave starting from 6 p.m. onward. While everyone else is starting their engines in the mornings, the wolf is still groggy and hitting the snooze button. But while their fellow bears are fading after dinnertime, the wolves are hitting their stride. If you happily go to bed at midnight or well after and find yourself happily stuck in work and creative pursuits, you might be a wolf type.
Wolves are happiest when they wake later, at around 8 or 9 a.m., and then spend the morning doing lighter, less intense tasks. Around lunchtime, they can manage a burst of energy and deep work, but from around 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., it’s best to get less important and less demanding tasks done again. From around 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. is your golden period, and it’s best to plan the day’s most challenging tasks for this time. Sleeping at around midnight is common.
Personality-wise, wolves are said to be more introverted, introspective, and, yes, a little unusual! If they work around their uncommon rhythms, wolves can be astoundingly creative and independent thinkers. They’re the ones who will be plotting outlandish schemes and plans while the rest of the world sleeps!
The LION chronotype has a lot in common with the bear and also feels most alive and productive in the morning before lunch. Lion types can easily wake up early and accomplish astonishing amounts of work before lunchtime hits. But where bears are steady and even over the day, lions tend to lose their energy peak as quickly as it comes on.
A lion type may be knocked over by an energy slump in the afternoon and can often feel drained after a big bout of energetic work in the morning. They wake up earlier than most types—around 6 or 7 a.m. is comfortable for them—and their best work starts pretty soon after, with an optimal zone around 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Lions do best when they wake up and go and get things done before the slog of the day catches up with them—well before lunch, if possible. If you’re a lion type, it’s a little like getting the main hunt of the day in the bag first thing in the morning and then winding down for the rest of the day.
Focus on less important tasks from around noon till 4 p.m., and if you need a power nap, take one. Make sure you’re spending the hours from 4 to 9 p.m. unwinding—lions can get strung out of they don’t relax properly in the afternoons. Your best bedtime is around 10 p.m. Lions who don’t respect this early bedtime will find themselves still waking up at 6 a.m. the next morning, but they won’t have the energy to sustain their peak period. A bad night’s sleep for a lion could mean a long, groggy next day where they miss their productivity period and feel burnt out all afternoon.
Lions comprise around fifteen percent of the population and can be classified as those overachieving, go-getting types. Have you ever read about those famous leaders and achievers in history who woke at 5 a.m. and crammed a day’s work in before breakfast? They were probably lion types! Understandably, these people can be charismatic, inspirational leader types who are full of energy—when you catch them at the right time, that is.
Finally, we have the DOLPHIN TYPE. If you read the previous three descriptions and thought that none applied (or else, that all of them applied!), then you might be a dolphin. In the wild, dolphins sleep with half of their brain active. Dolphin chronotypes are a bit like this—highly intelligent and alert, but with a tendency to insomnia and being a little scatterbrained or chaotic. Dolphins don’t wake up easily, but once they do, they’re most productive in the mid-morning. They can find it difficult to turn their brains off again at night.
Dolphins have the most difficulty with anxiety and disturbed sleep, but on the other hand, they can be more flexible and creative than the other types. The dolphin type is most likely to have sporadic, uneven sleep schedules—care should be taken to avoid burnout and physical exhaustion. Dolphins sleep best from around midnight to 6 a.m., which is a lot less sleep than the other types need. Plan the most demanding tasks for 10 a.m. to noon, and build in plenty of time for soothing frazzled nerves and resting. Only around ten percent of people are said to be dolphin types. These are the intelligent, “nutty professor” types who can struggle with anxiety but who are creative and can get a lot done in short sprints.
So, which type are you? There are plenty of quizzes and checklists available online for you to identify your most likely type. But it’s fairly easy to identify your type by looking closely at your strengths and weaknesses. When considering your own rhythms, try to ask what you naturally tend to do. If you stay up late at night because you’re caring for a newborn baby or cramming for exams, this isn’t your natural rhythm. Similarly, struggling to wake up in the morning can be down to depression, seasonal changes, or medical conditions. Instead, try to identify your long-term, natural, and lasting sleep tendencies.
Having a steady rise and fall of energy during the day, which peaks in the morning and early afternoon, means you’re likely a bear. Having the same but with more pronounced energy shifts earlier in the day may mean you’re a lion. Doing your best work at night is a sure sign you’re a wolf (note, just because you’re up late doesn’t mean that this is your most productive time. Wolves are not just awake at night, they’re alert and fresh). Finally, if you’re an anxious type who sleeps lightly and needs to regularly recharge their batteries, you’re probably a dolphin.
Once you’ve identified your tendency, the next step is clear: schedule your difficult tasks for your natural peak and make sure you’re only doing lighter, less important work at other times. Everyone should keep a regular sleep and wake time, but yours may be different from the next person’s. When it comes to energy and productivity, so many of us mistakenly think that we’re lazy people or underachievers or unmotivated. It can be illuminating to learn your chronotype because you realize that everyone has an optimal rhythm, and by understanding yours, you learn that you do indeed have energy, motivation, and drive—it’s just a question of when.
You might have wondered how these sleep rhythms interact with mealtimes. Timing is important for everything in life, not just waking up and sleeping, but eating, exercising, working, and more. When it comes to food and energy levels, though, the most significant factor is your blood sugar level—yet another physiological flow and rhythm that needs to be optimally maintained. Before we dive into the importance of blood sugar, we’ll address one more issue when it comes to sleep: naps.