The world seems to be divided into two parts of the day: those who see the sunrise, and those who see the sunset. The chirpy enthusiasm of the early morning workouts and #5amClub may fill some with fear, dread or even admiration and sheer wonder.
The two separate camps set their sights on a winged creature; the early bird ‘lark’ or the night ‘owl’. However within our bustling landscape of modern life, our sleep patterns are more than just a matter of routine (or birds); they are deeply rooted in our individual personalities.
The distinction between early birds and night owls goes beyond the hands of the clock and when we need to wake up for work or family life – it instead delves into the intricacies of our psychological makeup, influencing not only our productivity at work but also our overall mental health and well-being.
Understanding Chronotypes: Our Internal Clocks
To understand the psychology associated with early birds or night owls, it's essential to grasp the concept of our “chronotypes”. A chronotype is defined as an individual's natural ability or preference in being more alert, active, and productive during specific times of the day. It is essentially our internal biological clock that influences our sleep-wake patterns and peak periods of cognitive and physical performance.
You may then argue that you can be alert (or not) at both times of the day. This can in fact be true as approximately 70% of the population fall within the level of normality and 30% of either side of our feathered friends.
Nature vs. Nurture: The Ongoing Debate
So is our chronotype a choice, or are we born with it? It could be argued, as always in the world of Psychology, as both - the nature nurture argument as it were.
In nature, research has shown twin studies to have similar sleep wake patterns, and genetic associations with sleep timing regulation, further highlighting the role of genetics.
Nurture however must be noted as a prominent factor in our behaviours away from our genetics and predispositions. Our early life experiences shaped by our parents can impact our alertness at points of the day. Parental work schedules, school routines, and bedtime rituals at a young age may impact our internal body clock over time.
However in the constant seesaw of the nature nuture debate, it’s likely not a case of one or the other, but rather a complex interplay of both. Our genes provide the blueprint for our internal clock, but environmental factors act as sculptors, refining and shaping our chronotype as we grow and develop.
Personality Traits and the Early Bird vs. Night Owl Dichotomy
Our personality traits (these also affected by the nature vs nurture argument themselves) have a part to play in our behaviour around productivity and the alertness around the clock, especially when focusing on the big five personality traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neutrocism.
Larks for example, may exhibit a morning eagerness and structured routine, and have been shown to score higher on conscientiousness and agreeableness. They tend to thrive on order and planning, their minds naturally attuned to deadlines and early starts.
Owls, on the other hand, tend to exhibit increased openness and impulsivity, and flourish in the quiet solitude of the night, their minds buzzing with ideas unburdened by the day's distractions.
These characteristics extend beyond mere labels; they shape our approach to the world. Larks may excel in tasks demanding focus and discipline, leveraging early mornings as an optimal timeframe for profound concentration and methodical action. Conversely, the Owls harness late-night bursts of energy to cultivate creative flow, addressing challenges with late night bursts of concentration and focus.
Spreading the Wings of Chronotype Productivity
The societal pressure of productivity and your sleep wake preference may lead to challenges for some, feeling the standard traditional 9-5 work patterns benefit those with early bird lark traits.
Traditional school, university and work patterns may not work for all, and society and workplace patterns may need to address the productivity paradigm, to support those in their peak performance time and capability. Our sleep-wake patterns may have an influence on our emotional well-being, feeling out of sync with our natural rhythms may lead to negativity due to challenges around tiredness and fatigue.
Conversely, aligning with our chronotype to our own productivity can be a powerful tool for self-care. Larks can leverage their mornings for mindfulness practices and exercise, setting the tone for a positive day. Owls can carve out late-night hours for creative expression and social connection, nurturing their emotional well-being.
Whilst some timings cannot be changed for work, education, familial and societal commitments, one’s productivity can be nurtured to be at a time most beneficial to the individual. Think about the time that may work best for you, when you feel most alive. That would be the time to do something you enjoy, something that will benefit your development, whether it be in educational, creative or social.
Beyond the Binary Bird:
It's important to remember that the lark-owl dichotomy is not a strict one or the other. Most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum, with varying degrees of flexibility in our sleep-wake patterns. Understanding our individual tendencies and working with them, not against them, is the key to unlocking our full potential.
In a world designed for the middle ground and average chronotype, embracing our own bird, the lark or owl in your own nature can be a powerful act of self-acceptance. It's about listening to our your internal rhythm and sleep wake clock, creating routines that resonate with your rhythms, and carving out a space where we can thrive, regardless of the sun's position in the sky.
Dr Rachael Molitor