To do focused work, generate ideas, respond to inquiries, and make decisions, you need to consider that not all times of the day are created equal. Biologically speaking, your concentration, energy and mood levels vary by the hour. Thus, the question of when you will work on a specific project is just as important as what steps you will take and how you will execute them to produce the desired results.
It is counter-productive to use your peak hours to deal with busy work instead of matters that require high-cognitive abilities or creative thinking. Yet like many other overwhelmed professionals, lawyers often fall into this trap. Despite putting in more time and neglecting to take restorative breaks, they often end their day with minor tasks done, but with no significant progress toward reaching their critical goals. While they might have replied to many emails and attended multiple meetings, the time-sensitive client matter is left untouched and the brilliant marketing idea is stuck on the some-day list.
Working out of synch with your natural rhythm often leads to emotional overwhelm, mental depletion, physical exhaustion and increased distractibility. These factors impair your acquisition of knowledge and skills, fuel procrastination, and make it more difficult to convey bad news or timely communicate with clients. Ethical missteps are more likely to occur when you do not take your internal body clock into account.
What is Your Circadian Rhythm?
Your circadian rhythm is an internal timing device that controls when you are most alert and when you are most tired. It is your brain’s sleep-wake cycle in a 24-hour period that determines your natural wake up time and bedtime. A group of about 20,000 nerve cells (neurons) – referred to as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus part of the brain (behind your eyes) – affects the secretion of hormones, like cortisol (which triggers your body to wake up) and melatonin (which tells your body to go to sleep), as well as your body temperature and blood pressure.
What is Your Sleep Chronotype?
Your sleep chronotype is the behavioral manifestation of your circadian rhythm. It is genetically set and is linked to your Period 3 (PER3) or “clock” gene. In the field of chronobiology, Early Birds tend to have a longer version of the PER3 gene than Night Owls. They need more sleep and wake up and go to bed earlier.
4 Chronotype Classifications (Animals)
Dr. Michael J. Breus — a clinical psychologist with a specialty in sleep disorders – notes there are four chronotype categories of sleep patterns and circadian rhythms. In his book, The Power of When, he distinguishes the chronotypes based on morning and evening preferences, and classifies them according to different animals whose sleep habits best reflect the characteristics.
Chronotypes are general guidelines for large populations; there are individual variations within each chronotype. Although you are genetically predisposed to a certain chronotype in adulthood (age 21 to 65), this may change as you age, especially at 65 or older. In addition, workplace demands, social obligations, cultural norms and other external factors may require you to shift or reset your circadian rhythm.
The four chronotypes, as defined by Dr. Breus, are:
Lion (morning type, like the Early Bird)
- 15% to 20% of population
- Medium sleep drive (7 hours), naturally wake up before dawn
- Wake up with lots of energy, with their peak energy in the early morning and morning, and little energy to spare in the evening
- Adapt best to a 6 am wake up time & 10:10 pm bedtime for traditional office hours
- Tend to be optimists, overactive achievers and go-getters, and leaders, managers and CEOs
- Have leadership qualities with introversion preference
Wolf (nighttime type, like the Night Owl)
- 15% to 20% of population
- Medium sleep drive (7 hours), naturally wake up late after mid-morning
- Wake up with serious morning grogginess, with their peak energy in the middle of the day and evening
- Adapt best to 7 am wake up time and 12 am bedtime for traditional office hours
- Tend to be creative, pessimistic, risk-seeking and moody; often seen as lazy due to their being out of sych with society’s schedule
- Are comfortable being alone or often socially introverted, but love a good party
Bear (middle of the road type)
- 50% to 55% of population (often hybrids who lean toward being a Lion or a Wolf)
- High sleep drive (8 hours), often hit the snooze button and wish they could stay in bed longer
- Deep sleepers who like to rise with the sun and keep a solar schedule
- Wake up in a haze, with their peak energy in the morning to mid-morning
- Adapt best to a 7 am wake up time & 11:10 pm bedtime for traditional office hours
- Tend to be fun, friendly and easy to talk to and have good people skills
- Are team players and worker bees
Dolphin (difficult sleeper)
- 10% of the population
- Low sleep drive (6 hours), even though they often crave longer bouts of sleep
- Light sleepers (often diagnosed or self-diagnosed as insomniacs who keep erratic sleep schedules and have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep)
- Wake up feeling unrefreshed, with their peak energy in the mid-morning to early afternoon
- Adapt best to a 6:30 am wake up time & 11:50 pm bedtime for traditional office hours
- Tend to be anxious, irritable, and highly intelligent with Type A personality, including detail-oriented and perfectionistic
- Prefer to work solo than in groups
Three Chronotype Classifications (Birds)
In his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Daniel Pink points out there is a strong biological underpinning for whether you are sharpest in the morning or in the evening. He describes the three chronotypes as:
Lark (morning person)
- 15% to 20% of the population
- Naturally wake up very early and go to bed very early
- Wear out by the evening
- Peak energy in the early morning
Owl (evening person)
- 15% to 20% of the population
- Naturally wake up late and go to bed late
- Sluggish in the morning
- Peak energy in the late afternoon and early evening
Third Bird (intermediate person)
- 66% or 2/3 of population
- Naturally wake up early and go to bed early
- Peak in the early to mid-morning
Larks and owls are at two ends of the spectrum. Their melatonin and cortisol levels rise and fall at different times in the 24-hour cycle. For example, melatonin is still high for night owls if they wake at 6 to 7 am, while it dips for larks before that time.
How to Find Out Your Chronotype
Paying attention to your own natural rhythm is important to know when you are at your peak each day. The ideal time to wake up, go to bed, and perform certain activities depends on your chronotype, i.e. whether you are a morning person, an evening person, or in between.
Here are four ways to find out your chronotype:
Take Power of When Quiz, created by Dr. Breus. Currently available at powerofwhenquiz.com, this is a short questionnaire that takes about two minutes to complete and provides a personalized choronotype. By answering questions on your sleep drive, sleep timing and preference, you will learn whether you are a Lion, Dolphin, Bear or Wolf and how your chronotype impacts your daily life.
Calculate Midpoint of Sleep, as outlined in Pink’s book. On a free day, when you have no appointments, meetings or time-sensitive obligations (and are not sleep-deprived), when do you naturally go to sleep and wake up? What is the midpoint of your sleep cycle? For example, if you go to bed at 12 am and wake at 8 am, your midpoint is 4 am. If your midpoint is 3:30 am or earlier, you are a Lark. If it is 5:30 am or later, you are an Owl. If you midpoint is somewhere in the middle, you are a Third Bird.
Track your energy level every hour and note how you feel on a scale of 1 to 10. Also note the task or activity and the time of day. A 10 is when you are at your sharpest, fully present, and can more easily get into a flow state. The lower the score, the more you feel drained, scattered, and open to distractions. Chart your scores over time for a week or two. Look for patterns related to when you are hitting 10s, 1s and in between.
Complete scientifically verified survey, such as the Horne Östberg questionnaire, and Munich Chronotype questionnaire, which contains Likert-scale questions to assess your preferences in sleep and waking times, and the degree to which you are active and alert at certain times of the day.
Match Your Chronotype with the Task and Time of Day
The rises and dips in your circadian rhythm trigger changes in your mental alertness, emotional states and behaviors throughout the day. In addition to knowing your chronotype, you also need to sort your work into three types of categories: (1) analytic work that requires heads-down focus, (2) insight work that is open to possibilities, and (3) administrative work that is more routine.
You will produce the best results with the most ease if you do cognitively demanding tasks when you are at your peak (mornings for most people) and creative tasks when your mood boosts back up (early evening for most people). Save your busy work for when you are least productive, which is usually after lunch in the early afternoon, for most people.
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For more information on how to match your chronotype with the task and time of day for peak performance, read the related article, Finding Your Rhythm: When to Do What – Step 2 (Match Your Chronotype with the Task and Time of Day.
This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.
The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance.