Chronobiology: How I moved from a Night Owl to a Lark

Spoiler Alert: I was never a Night Owl

The above image was the art of my life for a decade. The low hum of an HD TV rang deep into the night before I finally fell asleep. Though the least worrisome of my previous vices, I had become addicted to falling asleep to late-night television. Which, on a side note, only seems to exist to numb the mind or motivate it enough to pull out your credit card and buy that slow-rolling chicken cooker.

It wasn't until I started looking for opportunities for improvement a decade ago did I realize that my sleeping habits might be a linchpin for other degrading habits. What was I doing so late at night and why was I spending so much time doing it?

This is when I learned about the circadian rhythm and the habits I had which, if rid of, could help me claim back 4 hours of productivity each day.

Anatomy of the Circadian Timing System

The circadian timing system is a complex and finely tuned biological phenomenon that regulates the sleep-wake cycle.

The circadian timing system is composed of two major components: The first, a central pacemaker, which generates 24-hour rhythms in behavioural states, and the second, peripheral clocks found throughout various tissues in the body.

It has been known for some time that the timing of sleep is regulated by an endogenous circadian pacemaker located in the brain's suprachiasmatic nucleus, and this is because of its close connection to the body's natural light-dark cycle. As a result, there are two main aspects to getting quality sleep - getting enough hours and going to bed at the right time.

This results in what calls "The Rythym of Life" pictured above. However, the trouble comes when certain habits and personal differences create shifts in the standard. These are called chronotypes.

Chronotypes and their importance

There is a great write up from the Sleep Institute explaining chronotypes. It was much in line with what I understood but references different variations of the chronotypes.

Chronotype is the natural inclination of your body to sleep at a certain time, or what most people understand as being an early bird versus a night owl. In addition to regulating sleep and wake times, chronotype has an influence on appetite, exercise, and core body temperature. It is responsible for the fact that you feel more alert at certain periods of the day and sleepier at others. - Sleep Institute

The two core chronotypes are the night owls and larks. Daniel Pinks book When stipulates a "Third Bird" which falls between the two core ones as well. Night owls prefer night and often fall asleep when the clock reads AM for the 2nd time. Larks, on the other hand, usually fall asleep early, before 11 PM. When looking at the below picture, these two chronotypes shift the circle and the body's reaction based on the sleep start, stop, and duration.

Regardless of which chronotype you are, breaking the cycle can cause lots of issues. For example, I, as a lark, find it extremely difficult to sleep in beyond 6:30 AM. Even if we go out to a social engagement, however late we stay out, I will be up by 6:30 AM. This means a 2 AM night out only gives me 4-5 hours of sleep. That basically trashes the whole next day with fatigue. I might be able to muster the strength for a workout or 3 hours of work, but not both.

The next problem with not identifying and utilizing your chronotype is that you miss out on the opportunity to identify when your body is best suited to do certain activities. Dan Pink’s latest book ‘When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing’ sets up a great extrapolation of the circadian rhythm as it pertains to different chronotypes, I definitely recommend reading the book. In principle, it lays out how early risers may their best decisions in the early morning, while a night owl should reserve decision making to late afternoon. A larks sociability and impression making will peak in the morning and night owls would be best served to do data analysis for the evening.

Knowing this, you can start framing your daily routine to target activities when your body is in the readiest state for them. This is the first step I took was properly understanding my chronotype.

My Chronotype History

I was a self-identified night owl for a decade. I even went under several sleep studies which I largely did not sleep during, leading doctors to diagnose me with insomnia. However, I think it was just hard to sleep with all those wires attached to me.

sleep study
What my sleep study looked like -Unsplash

College was the first era that solidified my cycle of staying up late. Social life and classes not starting until noon reduced the need to wake up early. After college, I stuck with the lifestyle even with a job, mindlessly scrolling or gaming until all hours late. My first corporate job also furthered this schedule when I had to be on the phone with colleagues from China from Chicago. Many 4 AM nights.

Because I was always up so late, I figured that it was simply the way that my body was wired. The main issue with these types of changes is that you don't know what you don't know. With sleep, not utilizing your correct chronotype will not kill you or make you physically sick, it might just put you in a suboptimal mode. However, if you do not know what optimal looks like, it is hard to identify what suboptimal looks like. When I started enhancing my productivity long ago, I decided that I needed to look closely at what I was doing before and after bed to see if I was optimizing my energy and time.

Things I noticed:

  1. After about 8 pm, I never really did any value-adding work. 90% of the time between 8 pm and 12 am was spent on my phone in front of the TV. So while I thought my body was more owl-like, it seemed that it was just my circadian rhythm adjusting to late-night stimulus.

  2. When I woke up, I was drowsy, but that was because I was not sleeping a full nights sleep. So after 5 hours of sleep, I was drowsy in the morning and thought that it was because I just didn't work well with mornings. However, I came to find out that when I slept a full nights sleep, I was extremely alert in the morning.

These were the two most important things I noticed. I was wasting time I could be sleeping zoning out on useless media after 8 pm and I was missing out on valuable focus time when I woke up because I did not get a full nights sleep.

How I changed my sleep cycle

As referenced above, after I started getting a full 8 hours of sleep, I realized how alert I was in the morning. I started going to work earlier and saw my productivity skyrocket by just switching late-afternoon tasks to 8 am. After 6 months I was convinced I had misidentified as a night-owl all those years ago. No matter, it was fixed now. I was a morning person!

There were many supporting steps to actually lock in such a dramatic change which I think are important to highlight. Reversing a decade-old habit takes more than a few good nights of sleep. The first step is to change your physical sleep cycle. This will be a shorter section as these practices are commodities at this point in the sleep world, but I think it's best to highlight the ones that worked for me.

  1. Sleep a full nights rest! I moved from 5 hours to 8 hours and haven't looked back. I have averaged 8 hours of sleep for over 4 years per my sleep monitor.

  2. Get rid of the electronics! I took the TV out of the bedroom for starters. Next, I picked up a reading habit that replaced Yewtube when the sun went down.

  3. Get up at the same time every day! This was the hardest part at the beginning but after a month, it was easy. Just stick with it!

  4. Eat healthy foods! No added sugar after early afternoon.

  5. Exercise regularly! Even if it's just a 20-minute stretch.

The second element, done in parallel, is to change your sleep mindset. This is much harder but possibly more important.

  1. Define why you want to change your sleep habits. Whether that is a desire to change your rhythm, or just get better sleep. Write down a sleep goal. I had several, but one of my original was as simple as, "I want to be ready for work at 9 AM, fully alert and all of my hardest personal tasks done for the day so that I can exceed expectations at my new role."

  2. Link your goals to your sleep patterns. Write down a sentence or two about why your goals are harder to achieve if you do not change your sleep habits. For me, I want to write consistently, but know that my creative peak is in the early hours of the morning, so in order to get in that writing time before work, I need to be at the computer ready to write at 8 am. In parallel, I have a fitness goal to drop 10% body fat. However, I enjoy working out right after waking up. So in order for me to have an hour for a workout and be ready to write at 8 am, I have to get up before 5:30 am. Using my goals to structure my day helped me define what sleep habits I should look to enable.

Practical Tip:

Create a simple 1-pager with your goal schedule and put it on the front and back of your bedroom door. I am a visual person so you will see 1-pagers like below pinned all over our apartment.

daily routine poster
My 2022 Daily Routine Poster

Conclusion: The Importance of Chronobiology in Human Life

The human body is a complex organism that functions best when it has a regular sleep pattern. This is because the body needs to work on repairing itself and restoring energy levels during the night.

During the day, our bodies are busy with social interactions, work, and other responsibilities. This can lead to an irregular sleep cycle which can have negative consequences.

Understanding chronobiology and your own chronotype is the starting point to making changes in your sleep habits. If you feel like your goals could benefit from a different or better sleep pattern, you can start making changes in your routine today that will unlock the optimal time for your body to work towards your goals.

Note: I strongly suggest consulting with a doctor if you cannot achieve the first step of getting a good full nights sleep. That is a prerequisite to finding your true chronotype.