Using Your Sleep Type to Improve Your Productivity at Work
By Dr. Marty Martin, Clinical Psychologist
Getting enough high-quality sleep is a challenge for far too many people.
In the quest for a good night’s rest, it’s important to understand that sleep follows a built-in rhythm tied to something called our circadian rhythm or biological clock. This is a natural, internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours.
Before the invention of artificial light, our sleep schedule was synced with the setting and rising of the sun. When most industrialized societies shifted from agriculture to industrial, the alignment between our internal clocks and the sun disappeared. People’s workday schedules became a hallmark of factory life where workers and managers would ‘punch the time clock’. Was the time clock synced with their biological clock? For some, yes. For others, it was not.
Today, with so many people working in office buildings and, more recently, at home, we are largely accountable to this modern-day version of the factory time clock. Again, this schedule works for some people but not others depending upon the degree to which their biological clock is aligned with the “office time clock.”
Since March 2020, the global pandemic has disrupted nearly every corner of our society and workplace. The vast majority of office workers or those who can work remotely found themselves wondering if they still had to “punch the office time clock” while working from home. Some workplaces kept the same schedule regimen in place and others loosened up the schedule focusing on performance and productivity. COVID-19 accelerated the implementation of flexible work practices (FWPs) across many organizations. FWPs enable workers to sync their work schedule for when they are at their biological best based upon their internal clock or chronotype which I will talk more about later.
OUR BIOLOGICAL CLOCK
Our biological or inner clock is determined by our genes. In fact, three scientists won the Nobel Prize in 2017 for discovering the clock gene. With exquisite exactness, our inner biological clock regulates vital functions such as behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature, and metabolism. When there is a temporary mismatch between our work schedule and our internal biological clock or chronotype, our performance, productivity, health, and wellbeing are negatively affected.
WHAT ARE CHRONOTYPES?
Chronotypes are simply genetically determined sleep/wake patterns that impact your energy levels throughout the day. Chronotypes are not preferences. You don’t choose your chronotype, your chronotype chooses you.
Chronobiologists (scientists who study time) tell us that there are three categories of chronotypes as shown below:
- Morning Types: Larks
- Evening Types: Night Owls
- Intermediate Types: Third Birds
Chronotypes actually fall along a continuum. This means that there are differences even among morning types (larks). For instance, one person may be a very early morning type and another a moderate morning type.
You will remember as an adolescent that you probably got sleepier after puberty and woke up later. This was not adolescent rebellion but normal changes in hormones. Sleep practitioners call this a delayed phase shift. As you enter adulthood, your genetically driven chronotype is pretty much set for life with some moderate shifts but not major shifts like going from a night owl to a morning lark.
There are several scientifically validated ways to find out your chronotype including the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire and the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire. Remember, your chronotype is largely governed by your clock gene. Similar to your natural eye color, there isn’t much you can do to change your natural eye color or your chronotype.
HOW CAN I SYNC MY CHRONOTYPE WITH MY WORK SCHEDULE?
Given that your chronotype “Is what it is,” this question is critical. The unfortunate reality is that traditional work schedules have favored early morning and intermediate types because work typically begins anywhere between 7 and 9 a.m. Night owls suffer with this traditional schedule because they may naturally get sleepy after midnight leaving them fewer hours to sleep and to get to work on time.
If after identifying your chronotype you have the freedom to modify your work schedule, adjust your start time to when you feel the most energetic and focused. If you’re a morning lark like me, you are up and ready to go between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.. If you’re a third bird, then you’re ready to go anywhere between 9 a.m. and 12 noon. And, if you’re a night owl, you’re ready to go sometime after lunch or around noon.
On the other end of the workday, morning larks are winding down earlier in the afternoon due to their chronotype and fatigue from working the whole day. Third birds are headed for the door a bit after the early morning workers. The night owls are still working even as the sun begins to set.
MISALIGNMENT BETWEEN CHRONOTYPE AND SCHEDULE
The key to optimizing your engagement, performance, health, and wellbeing is to prevent misalignment between your chronotype and your work schedule. There are three schedules you should avoid as much as possible to prevent misalignment:
- The Swing Shift: A work schedule in which you flip-flop your days and nights in short intervals in a given week, thereby not giving your body time to adjust to the new schedule. Employers may value worker flexibility, but your body craves consistency. Consistency is the fuel for high performance.
- Catch Up on Sleep on Your Days Off Schedule: Your internal clock is set by the rising and setting of the sun which falls roughly into a 24-hour cycle every single day, without exception. Your biological clock could care less whether it is a workday or an off day. You may want to sleep in or catch up on zzzs during off days but your body craves consistency. And as I mentioned earlier, consistency is crucial to achieve high-performance levels.
- Working Against Your Internal Clock: Your work schedule ought to be 100% synced with your chronotype (e.g., Morning Lark, Night Owl, Third Bird). You may wish that your genetically driven clock was different, but it’s not. Your body craves alignment of things according to your internal clock, not an external clock.
Adapting your work schedule to your chronotype, and thus working when you are at your “biological best” can greatly improve attention, focus, concentration, and overall productivity.
As a leader, there are things you could consider implementing to ensure your team is in the best possible conditions to be at their best:
- Offering the option for intermediate and evening types to start and finish their day later as these types are more active after 11 a.m. or noon.
- Similarly, consider offering the option for morning types to start and finish their day earlier when they are at their “biological best”.
- Consider allowing similarly situated employees to start and finish their day in alignment with their chronotype.
Implementing those changes will result in higher individual performance and perhaps longer coverage throughout the day.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The key message I would like to get across here is three-fold. First, organizations should recognize that individual, collective, and organizational engagement, performance, productivity, and health are significantly impacted (positively or negatively) by scheduling.
Second, leaders and managers should recognize that their internal clock or chronotype may be different from those that they lead and manage. As such, the goal should not be to have everybody work on your time but to have your team members engage in work aligned with their genetically determined internal clock or chronotype.
And finally, individual workers should know their chronotype and then engage in work-related tasks and duties based upon their chronotype to reduce stress, increase speed, promote efficiency, and accelerate productivity. They may also be a bit nicer to work with too!
DR. MARTY MARTIN, Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Marty Martin is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine. He is the author of several books including Conquer Needle Phobia: Simple Ways to Reduce Your Anxiety and Fear. Dr. Martin is also the owner of Zesty Sleep, LCC which offers sleep coaching for individuals as well as education & training for organizations seeking to optimize the performance, engagement, and health of their employees. Dr. Martin integrates his research with his clinical, coaching, and consulting practice. His perspective is unique as a psychologist because of his experience working at The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) and leadership roles in HR and DEI at organizations such as The Johns Hopkins Hospital.