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Chronotype: What It Is and How to Make It Work for You

Your chronotype — being an early bird, night owl, or in between — is based on genetics, but you can optimize your day to make your chronotype work for you.
19 MINS

You may have heard that your chronotype determines your ideal sleep-wake cycle. It's why some of us are self-professed early birds while others only go to bed after the clock strikes midnight.

Be that as it may, your chronotype covers so much more than your preferred sleep patterns. It dictates when every biological process takes place inside you, from body temperature changes to cortisol production. On top of that, it directs your daily rest-activity cycle. It’s why you’re on your mettle at certain times of day but feel the need to slow down during other periods.

So, how does your chronotype relate to your circadian rhythm? Can night owls transform into early birds? And what should you do if you and your partner's chronotypes clash? Keep reading to find out how you can make the most of your chronotype to start living your best life.

Chronotype vs. Circadian Rhythm: Connecting the Dots

Your circadian rhythm is your internal clock that influences all biological processes. From sleeping to waking, eating to exercising, your circadian rhythm orchestrates them all. That said, individual differences exist in terms of when these processes occur. This is where chronotype (also known as circadian typology and diurnal preference) factors into the equation.

A 2018 study defined chronotype as the “expression of individual circadian rhythmicity, which is related to sleep, diet, and physical activity patterns, including exercise.” It may also interest you to know that chronotype self-assessments take your personality traits into account when determining your circadian phase preferences. For example, research shows that morning people are strongly and positively associated with agreeableness.

While your circadian rhythm is responsible for what happens during the day and night, your chronotype dictates when they occur. For that same reason, the RISE app doesn’t provide a generic timeline for your daily energy peaks and dips. It incorporates your chronotype and tells you the exact times these peaks and dips happen for you.

Another important difference between your circadian rhythm and chronotype lies in how malleable they are. Because internal and external cues (like light and caffeine) can keep your circadian clock on track or throw it off course, your circadian rhythm is pliable to a certain degree.

On the other hand, your chronotype is largely immune to changes due to the genetic dice. In fact, a large-scale study involving 697,828 participants found 351 genetic variants associated with the morning chronotype alone.

Morning types also possess the longer allele of the PER3 gene (a circadian clock gene), while evening types are linked to its shorter allele. It's why night owls find it so difficult to switch to an early bird schedule. With that said, it’s still possible given some time and effort, but it would be a continuously active process — more on that later.

The Types of Chronotypes

Chronotype: top-view of people walking

Chronotypes are distributed over a wide spectrum, ranging from extreme morningness to extreme eveningness. This continuous scale of differences is the primary reason why all of us don’t wake up, go to bed, and perform tasks at the same time.

Yet, why are we wired this way? Scientists hypothesize that there is an evolutionary reason behind it. Our ancestors were awake and active at different times of day and night to maintain around-the-clock vigilance. This was crucial in protecting tribes from external dangers while ensuring every individual got enough sleep. 

To distinguish between the different chronotypes, the field of chronobiology initially grouped us into

  • Morning type (also called the early chronotype, early bird, or lark) 
  • Evening type (also known as the late chronotype or night owl) 
  • Intermediate type (also referred to as the neither chronotype or hummingbird)

While the societal clock is around 24 hours, the biological clock of early chronotypes runs slightly shorter, while that of late chronotypes is a little longer.

Roughly 40% of us identify either as an early bird or a night owl, while the remaining 60% are classified as intermediates. If you're wondering how the bird-inspired names for chronotypes came about, you can credit Heinrich Lampert, who introduced a new classification system for morningness (A types) and eveningness (B types).

Larks and owls typically emphasize extreme cases of morningness and eveningness, respectively. To better cover the wide variation of chronotypes, two more were added: swifts (those who are alert all the time) and woodcocks (those who are perpetually tired).

  • Larks: Your energy peaks during the early morning and early evening, coupled with an early sleep-wake schedule.
  • Owls: Your energy peaks during the late morning and late evening, coupled with a late sleep-wake schedule.
  • Swifts: Your energy peaks during the early morning and late evening, coupled with an early wake time and late bedtime.
  • Woodcocks: Your energy peaks during the late morning and early evening, coupled with a late wake time and an early bedtime.

Morning people wake up and go to bed early, with their energy levels usually plunging in the early afternoon. On average, they also have a longer sleep duration than owls. In contrast, evening chronotypes have a later sleep schedule and generally feel their energy dip around the late afternoon. 

In recent years, another chronotype called the bimodal type has emerged within the intermediates. People who fall into this category exhibit morningness for specific activities and eveningness for others. A 2017 population-based study in the Journal of Chronobiology International discovered that 16% of its participants are bimodal. The largely youthful demographic of this subset suggests it may be due to a blend of social and environmental factors.

As you can see, despite more than 40 years of research, scientists still have much to discover about chronotypes and how they relate to our everyday life.

How to Find Your Chronotype

Most of us probably have an inkling or know by now the chronotype we are. But in case you don’t, here’s a chronotype quiz to find out the answer.

The earliest chronotype assessment was developed by Öquist in his Ph.D. thesis. From there, Horne and Ostberg modified the scale to create the Horne-Ostberg Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ), which is now the most popular chronotype self-assessment. It uses parameters like sleep timing as well as subjective alertness and daytime sleepiness to find your chronotype.

You can also take the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire (MCTQ), which was developed by the preeminent chronobiologist, Dr. Roenneberg and colleagues to understand the epidemiology of the human circadian clock.

But, knowing your chronotype is one thing. You have to learn how to work with it (and your circadian rhythm) to feel and function at your best. This is where RISE can help. As you’ll see later, it’s the only app you’ll ever need to optimize your life around your personal chronotype and circadian rhythm. (Bonus: You don’t have to play 20 questions to determine whether you’re a lark, owl, or somewhere in between — the RISE app will figure that out for you.)

The Short End of the Stick for Night Owls

Chronotype: guy with a cup of coffee, working on his laptop

Knowing your chronotype is fundamental to identifying the times of day when you are most productive and when you are not. It can also help evening types understand why they constantly feel tired and "out of sorts," even when they get enough sleep.

The reason being, most night owls are subjected to an early bird schedule due to work and social obligations, even though their chronotype predisposes them to a later sleep schedule. On a biological level, melatonin production (a sleep-promoting hormone) for late chronotypes is roughly 2-3 hours later than early risers', potentially inciting delayed sleep phase disorder.

As a result, late chronotypes are often burdened with social jetlag, a common form of circadian misalignment. Eveningness is also commonly associated with sleep disorders, sleep disturbances, and poor “sleep quality” (even though there is no scientific consensus on the definition of “quality” yet).

As you can imagine, this sets owls up for acute sleep debt during the workweek, the amount of sleep they've missed out on in the past 14 days relative to their sleep need. Imagine having to bring your A-game to a 9 a.m. meeting when all your body wants to do is go back to bed.

For that reason, late risers may find their performance paling in comparison to morning people in the earlier part of the day. The former also usually takes longer to get over sleep inertia (we call it your Grogginess Zone in the RISE app) and reach peak daytime functioning.

Night owls who struggle with social jetlag spanning months to decades quickly find themselves at the mercy of chronic sleep deprivation. Chronic sleep insufficiency is a public health epidemic linked to various health problems, such as metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, heart diseases, stroke, anxiety, and depression. Furthermore, one meta-analysis and systematic review highlighted that women who perform night-shift work "show an increased breast cancer risk.”

Embrace Your Chronotype as Much as Possible

Our mantra at Rise is to embrace your chronotype to meet your sleep need for better energy during the day and optimal functioning in all aspects of your life. Figuring out whether you're a lark, owl, or somewhere in between is the first step to aligning your sleep schedule with your biological inclinations.

RISE Can Help

RISE can help you center your day-to-day schedule around your chronotype and circadian rhythm to sleep better so that your best self can shine through during your waking life.

First up, the app shows your Melatonin Window on the Energy Schedule tab, the period your body's melatonin production is at its zenith. Going to bed within this window of time gives you the best chance of falling and staying asleep to get enough hours of sleep to meet your sleep need.

The RISE app also shows your ideal wake times (i.e., Wake Zone) on the Energy Schedule. Setting your alarm within this window of time lets you take advantage of your body's morning cortisol surge. This makes it easier to shrug off the wake-up grogginess and get started on your day.

In between your rise and sleep times lie your energy peaks and dips that reflect the daily rest-activity cycle of your circadian rhythm. Take advantage of these energy fluctuations to structure your day for maximal productivity. For example, reserve your morning peak for the most challenging tasks and your afternoon dip for activities that require less brainpower.

Shift Your Sleep Schedule to Fit Life’s Demands

Alarm clock on a bedside table, sleeping man in the background

As much as we advocate for working with your chronotype and circadian rhythm, we recognize that may not always be possible. This is where shifting your sleep schedule comes into play. Keep in mind that this will always be an active, ongoing process. If not, your genetic programming will triumph, and you will likely revert back to square one.

To make your new schedule work for you, be consistent and patient. The greater the shift, the more time you will need to get there. The strength of your chronotype also plays a part in how much time and effort it will take for you to reach and maintain your new sleep and wake goals. For instance, an extreme night owl may take a longer timespan than an intermediate chronotype.

Here are a few guidelines to get the ball rolling:

  • Gradually shift your wake and sleep times by 15-30 minutes every few days. Make sure your new schedule accounts for your sleep need to minimize sleep debt.
  • Light is the most influential circadian cue in advancing or delaying your sleep-wake cycle. Bask in sunlight the moment you wake up. If that's not possible, opt for a light lamp that mimics natural light.
  • Exercise increases your core body temperature, making it easier for you to transition out of your Grogginess Zone. It can also help you sleep better that night. Combine morning exercise with sunlight for a potent duo.

For more details on shifting your sleep schedule, check out our in-depth guide on "How to become a morning person."

Living With Different Chronotypes

Differing chronotypes in the same bed (or room) can spell trouble for your romantic relationship (or friendship). Perhaps you're a light sleeper who has been woken up by your partner or roommate more than once in the early morning as they bustle around the room getting ready for the day.

Instead of letting your chronotypes clash and incite sleep debt and circadian misalignment, think about how you can tweak your routines to accommodate each other.

Using the same scenario above, perhaps the early riser could lay out what they need the night before to minimize any disruptions come morning. Couples with kids could also use the differences in their sleep schedules to their advantage, with each partner taking child care duties either in the morning or evening.

That being said, you don't have to cut down on spending time together just to meet your individual sleep need. Prioritize "together time" at other hours of the day. If you're sleeping in different rooms during the workweek for a good night's sleep, make it a point to sleep in the same room on your days off if that works for your relationship.

Through the Societal Lens

Happy team working together

Even though chronotype awareness and acceptance is largely an individual responsibility, there is much to be done on a societal level, too. While it's not realistic for companies and organizations to do an about-face from an early bird schedule to a night owl one, there are other steps we can take to accommodate the variances in chronotypes.

For starters, flexible work schedules make more sense than ever, especially as remote working becomes the norm. Matt Walker, the widely acclaimed author of "Why We Sleep," advocates for a middle chunk of the day, say, 12 p.m. to 3 p.m., when everyone is present for key interactions. The flexible tail ends on either side of this period can then accommodate all individual chronotypes.

Human resources managers may also want to introduce a later work time for employees who identify as evening chronotypes. A 2010 review highlights that flexible working times afford benefits like reduced sick leave and stress-related illnesses, coupled with improved work-life balance.

Work With Your Chronotype to Make It Work for You

Scheduling your daily activities based on your chronotype and circadian rhythm is the key to living your best life. That's where RISE can help. It takes the guesswork out of when you should make a sales pitch, attempt a personal record in the gym, and most importantly, meet your sleep need.

If work and social obligations hold you back from living your life according to your chronotype, take the necessary steps to shift your sleep schedule. You may also wish to talk to your partner or housemate about possible tweaks to your everyday routines. Just remember, you have to work with your chronotype to make it work for you for better energy during the day.

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About Rise
Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

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